In the midst of an election year it seems our allegiances are being torn between the Left and the Right—the left deciding between Clinton and Obama, and the right wondering if McCain is the right man for the job.

With every election year comes the promise of hope and the apparently inevitable disappointment that follows in the first 100 days of a new presidency.  Somehow it seems we always end up complaining for the next four years. In reaction to this thought, I joined an online group titled: “Write in Stanley Hauerwas for President of the United States.” Shortly thereafter, I received the book reviewed here—Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary. How, I thought to myself, is this man who taught me to be skeptical of the purposes of liberal democracy, now writing a book on democracy that doesn’t seek to put the final nail in its coffin? However, I then noticed the subtitle of the book—Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian. Well, I thought, at least he hadn’t sold me completely down river.

While it was not hard to determine who was representing the Christian perspective in the conversation, the man representing Radical Democracy (a term I was unfamiliar with) is Duke Professor of political science and Germanic languages and literature, Romand Coles. The book explains that they originally found each other through students who had taken classes with Coles, who were being sent over by a “fideistic, sectarian tribalist.”[1] At the same time some of his students came back attempting to enlighten Hauerwas on the themes they had encountered in Coles’ courses. From these encounters with students, and finally with each other, a friendship was formed that led to a cooperatively taught course on Christianity and Radical Democracy, eventually leading to a book.

What brings together these two authors is a new series titled, Theopolitical Visions, from Cascade Books. The goal of this series is “to open up new vistas on public life” and to host “fresh conversations between theology and political theory.” Tracing the history of this thought through Jeremiah, Plato, Saint Paul, and Augustine, the “series is founded in the hope that the renewal of such mutual illumination might make a genuine contribution to the peace of our cities.”[2]

What, then, is this book exactly about? Well, any attempt to define it is a difficult task. Beginning with an enjoyable introduction, both authors include lines such as, “Hauerwas is less clear that he has a stake in radical democracy” and “Coles imagined radical democracy is a line written by Hauerwas and it makes Coles squirm.”[3] The co-authored introduction is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, however the rest is not similarly constructed.  What follows are chapters that were originally written for this book, talks from other venues, various papers, and a collection of letters. The book concludes with a conversation between the two authors that is reflective, but could have easily been expanded upon and deepened. While it is hard to determine a major theme, one would recognize many of the conversation partners: Ella Baker, Jean Vanier, Sheldon Wolin, John Howard Yoder, and Cornel West. With each essay, the reader gets a different picture of the conversations that Hauerwas and Coles have together, even if the chapters don’t always fit well together.

What emerges from these engagements is a conversation that is both serious and playful. While Coles tends to be more straightforward in his contributions, Hauerwas remains as frustrating as he can be, but as helpful also. Both authors seem open to learning from one another, while at the same time remain clear about their distinctions. As Hauerwas remains frustrated at Coles’ lack of church attendance, Coles presses Hauerwas on his claim to being a theocrat, but unable to rule because he is committed to nonviolence.[4] What emerges is no clear definition of radical democracy, but it “names the intermittent and dispersed traditions of witnessing, resisting, and seeking alternatives to the politics of death wrought by those bent on myriad forms of immortality-as-conquest.”[5] It is not hard to see that Hauerwas can easily begin to see this as an ecclesiological statement.

In light of our recent elections, both authors name our current “death-determined politics of compulsory speed, which assumes that we do not have the time to take the time to listen to one another or to remember the dead.”[6] The speed of our current political world makes us look for large victories and is paced in such a way that we can hardly remember where we’ve been in the past month, let alone the past year. Hauerwas and Coles point us to a new revolution that moves through the small, “fine grains of politics of micro relationships and small achievements.”[7] The victories they see worth waiting for will come from those who have “taken the time to listen to one another and to remember the dead.”[8]

In the final conversation that concludes the book, we get a glimpse of Hauerwas at his best. When talking about the task of narrative he often fails flat in the face of death, but Hauerwas begins to explain how the gospel narrative is different in this regard. He states:

Crucial for me is the presumption that the gospel is a story meant to train us to live without explanation. Explanation presumes that if I can just account for why what happened did happen, then I will be able to live with what has happened. . . . I think Christianity is the training for learning how to live without being in control: you learn to live in the silences, and you learn what the politics of living in the silences might look like. . . . But to learn patiently in a world where you have no answers, it seems to me, gives you political alternatives that otherwise would not exist—through hope. . . . I assume that God will show up in all different kinds of ways. That’s how I try to conceive of what it means to live hopefully without explanation. You don’t try to explain the death of a child. That will kill you. That will kill you.[9]

In the midst of our fear and death-centered culture, Hauerwas provides us with the critical nature that we don’t need to explain everything, and in that we are liberated to live life unabashed, Christian, and free. This lack of explanation is the primary character in the book as both authors seek to show how we need not attempt to explain everything (most importantly death) but how we must rather learn to sit in the hard places and be formed. It is the cross that often comes before the resurrection.

In the end though, this is a difficult book to fully appreciate and understand. The breadth of material covered and the large amount of different conversation partners pulled in make it hard to keep up with. Those well read in one of the two main subjects (theology and politics) will have a hard time keeping up with the other. While I have read a large amount of Hauerwas, I don’t feel that this book gives the full weight of his thought on this subject, and I am sure the same could be said of those who are more familiar with Coles. But perhaps this is the greatest lesson of the book: two well respected thinkers take to writing a book where both perspectives are represented and heard, and that radical democracy and ekkelsia both require the ability to listen to those who you might not agree with and those who challenge or “haunt” you (a term Hauerwas uses for Coles, and Coles uses for Yoder). Thus, we do end up with a compromised vision, but an imaginative one that gives us new ways of being in the world.


[1] Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas. Christianity, Democracy, and The Radical Ordinary (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008) 15.
[2] Ibid., ii
[3] Ibid., 11
[4] Ibid., 38
[5] Ibid., 3
[6] Ibid., 4
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 332