Theology’s Task: Making the Familiar Strange

In a paper from last year, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on how to write a theological sentence, riffing on Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. Hauerwas writes, “a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” This is a truth worth exploring. I will riff on Hauerwas’s riff on Fish.

So often we think we must make the good news more respectable. We try to make the story of God palatable both for people who have not yet come to the Christian faith and those who are already the Church. In doing so, we run the risk of removing the shocking and radical nature of the gospel itself. Christian commitments to forgiveness, for example, often run counter to our common sense. Rather, our task is to talk about God (i.e., do theology) in such a way that the familiar becomes strange. That is not to say our talk about God must be unintelligible, intentionally obscure, or unnecessarily offensive.

Hauerwas’s paper offers several solid examples of proper theological sentences making the familiar strange. I appreciate the essay greatly because Hauerwas refuses the temptations to turn Christianity into only a set of ethical practices or philosophical ideas. Our lives must reflect our beliefs and the Christian story must mean something true. One sentence from that essay has haunted me since reading it. Hauerwas recasts the common challenge, what difference does believing in God make in the lives of Christians? He crafts a sentence that cuts deeper: “We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist.” This sentence stops us in our tracks. It immediately requires reflection. If the God I worship did not exist would my life make sense? Do my values and actions correspond more to the dominant culture around me or to the values of Jesus Christ? Are my commitments to my socioeconomic class more important to me than my commitment to God? Hopefully reflecting on Hauerwas’s sentence will lead to our repentance.

My church is currently looking at the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans for our sermon series. As we have read and reread this very famous work, I am once again struck by how Paul is an excellent theologian. So much of what he writes makes the familiar strange. Take his descriptions of the Christian life in Romans 6. In this chapter he describes being united with Christ as joining in Jesus’ death and being enslaved to righteousness. Even stranger, Paul sees such death and slavery as good things. This kind of God-talk shakes us from our stupor and makes us reconsider our commitments. In contrast to much contemporary Christian talk that turns Jesus into a motivational speaker helping us improve our marriages or deal with stress at work, Paul’s shocking images make the familiar strange. A familiar idea would be Jesus wants to make us better versions of ourselves. But Paul makes that familiar idea strange when he writes Jesus wants to kill our old natures and bring about altogether new lives. When contrasted to the truth of the gospel, the idea that Jesus is a self-help guru is certainly strange. Jesus has no interest in making us more comfortable. He wants to give us real life, which requires our death and resurrection.

Or consider Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (NRSV) This verse has been repeated so much its strangeness can be lost on us. Let us stop and appreciate the twists Paul writes. Living sacrifices? That image alone could make us stop us in our tracks. How does a sacrifice continue to live? If Paul’s statement is true, if real life can only be found in offering our lives in worship to God, the idea of a living sacrifice makes our pursuit for self-fulfillment strange. Paul does the work of a real theologian. He takes what we assume to be given and brings it under the light of God’s love, revealing our givens for what they truly are: strange assumptions.

In the tension between the world and the Church, something has to give. It depends on where we stand. If we accept the world as normal we will see the Church with its commitments to God and sacrificial love as incomprehensible. If we agree with Paul that true life can only be found in giving our lives to God and others we will reject the familiar selfish demands — self-fulfillment, self-protection, self-satisfaction — as strange.