Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 4)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1Week 2, and Week 3!

Students arrived in class this week having read Chapter 3 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. Entitled “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” this chapter’s focus is on uses and misuses of biblical texts in contemporary moral decision making. To be fair, Hauerwas would likely take issue with how I just framed the matter, as he argues in this chapter that talk of how to “use” biblical texts in Christian ethics is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. “For to put it in that way,” he contends, “assumes that we must first clarify the meaning of the background … and only then can we ask its moral significance” (55).

At the start of class we spent a significant portion of time noting some of the difficulties inherent in the “moral handbook” approach to biblical texts, which Hauerwas argues (rightly, in my view) is always arbitrary and selective. That is to say that persons who claim to be doing “what the Bible says” are always picking and choosing what portions of the Bible they are willing to claim as authoritative for their own lives. A good (albeit overused) example is homosexual relationships, which would seem to be explicitly condemned in Leviticus. Some cite this prohibition as evidence that homosexuality is morally wrong, and universally so. Yet the code in Leviticus condemns a host of behaviors that might be considered (at best) morally neutral by the same group: wearing clothing of mixed fabrics, tattoos, having disheveled hair, etc.

Hauerwas reframes the matter by emphasizing the role of the community that reads these texts as scripture. For this community the texts are not revealed morality but revealed reality. The relationship is a cyclical one, for the community that is formed by these texts is the same community that gave rise to them in the first place. This is to say that the canon of Christian scripture is a product of the community’s ongoing process of reflection and self-definition. Below is a word cloud (generated from student essays on this chapter) in which these themes emerge clearly.Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 1.52.24 PM

Our film for this week was Finding Neverland (2004), which is loosely based on the story of the playwright J. M. Barrie’s creation of his magnum opus, Peter Pan. In this film Barrie fosters a close relationship with a recently-widowed mother (Sylvia) and her four boys (Jack, George, Michael, and Peter). His experiences with this family inspire him to write his hit play, and the process of writing this play in turn affects his relationship with them and the others in his life. It is this cyclical relationship that drew me to Finding Neverland as a fitting illustration for what Hauerwas is getting at in Chapter 3.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs near the end, during the first stage performance of Peter Pan. In preparation for this big night, Barrie requests that the owner of the theater set aside twenty-five seats scattered throughout the room. As the start time draws near, the seats begin filling up with orphans that Barrie had invited to view the play. The scene is quite moving at first, of course. Inviting orphans to a live performance of Peter Pan? What could be cuter? In short: nothing!

But as the play begins, we see that the invitation was in fact quite practical. The orphans are the ones who respond to the play and thereby invite the “regular” theatergoers to experience the story with them, laughing at the subtle humor and waiting alongside them in anticipation of what will happen next. The orphans, in a sense, teach the theatergoers how to “read” the play, and in doing so, beckon them to abandon their adult ways and become like little children again. And it works, but not because of the play itself. It works because of the unique intersection of the play with the community that has ears to hear and eyes to see.

This illustrates well Hauerwas’s point regarding the relationship of biblical text to community. The scripture,” he argues, “functions as an authority for Christians precisely by trying to live, think, and feel faithful to its witness they find they are more nearly able to live faithful to the truth … The moral use of scripture, therefore, lies precisely in its power to help us remember the stores of God for the continual guidance of our community and individual lives” (66).

Stay tuned for more next week!

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