Archive for July, 2014

I don’t know that Dietrich read Mark Twain’s masterpiece, though he did study the situation and history of the Black Americans when he was in New York in the early 1930s. But in an odd way, thanks to PBS and Ken Burns,* I now see that Bonhoeffer and Huck are very close in spirit.

Huck Finn, a white boy running away from a harsh father in the era before the American Civil War (which resulted, among other things, in the freeing of the slaves in America), is befriended by Jim, a runaway slave. The two become good friends, though Huck remains troubled by his conscience. Everything he has been taught about right and wrong says he should turn in his new friend. He even writes a letter to Jim’s “owner,” telling her where Jim can be found.

He pauses to consider the letter on the table before him.

“I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”

There are times when people who are deeply honest know what’s right, even when everything in their culture says otherwise. Perhaps it is that remnant of the image of God in us. It is something deeper than culture or circumstances can reach.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer was becoming aware that the growing crisis in Germany was going to require great sacrifice — even martyrdom — on the part of Christians. Yet he could see that the sacrifice would not be an act of purity and innocence. Innocence, he was sensing, was not an available option.

In a sermon in June of that year, he said:

“. . .we should not be surprised if for our church, too, times will come again when the blood of martyrs will be required. But this blood, if we really still have the courage and honor and faithfulness to shed it, will not be as innocent and untarnished as that of the first witnesses. On our blood would lie great guilt of our own: the guilt of the worthless slave, who is thrown into the outer darkness.”

Those who heard that message in Berlin that day would probably have thought Bonhoeffer meant no more than that we have all lost our innocence through our sinfulness. Maybe Bonhoeffer himself was thinking no more but Bethge, his friend and biographer, heard in these words a “premonition” of what was to come.**

Bonhoeffer’s whole understanding of ethics, which took years for him to learn to articulate, was centered around his simple conviction that we follow a living Christ, whose Spirit cannot be captured in words or rules or commands.

Mark Twain, who like many in his day rejected the harsh and legalistic portrait of God taught by many a stern Christian, glimpsed at least for that moment in Huck Finn’s story, that there is a goodness which lies deeper than and sometimes contrary to all that churches and cultures tend to teach.

But that “deep” truth is hidden in very plain sight. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

*PBS in Minnesota is currently showing Burns’ series on Twain. I’m thankful for the reminder of Huck Finn’s great moral decision.
**Costly Grace, Bethge’s first biography of Bonhoeffer, p. 56.


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During the period 1928 (when Dietrich was in Barcelona as something of a pastoral intern) until the mid-30s (when he wrote Discipleship and Life Together), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was developing an understanding of Christian life and faith that is a model of nearly all that modern Evangelicalism could desire. He emphasizes the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ and the complete trustworthiness of Scripture as the Word of God.

What does seem to be missing, or at least minimalized, during this time is a concern for Jesus specifically as Savior. Personal salvation is a topic seldom noted by Bonhoeffer, in this period or any other. His ideas about salvation (called “soteriology” in theological circles)are always lurking in the background, however, as we can see in his very unusual letter to his brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher, dated 8 April 1936 (DBWE 14:166ff).

Dietrich is attempting openly to persuade Rudiger to read the Bible will a full expectation that God will meet him in those pages. Toward the end of the letter he writes:

“Resurrection – this is anything but a self-evident notion or an eternal truth. Of course, I am referring to it the way the Bible intends – as resurrection from real death (rather than from sleep) to real life, from alienation from God and abandonment by God to new life with Christ in God.”

Obviously, he sees the resurrection of Jesus Christ quite as do we modern Evangelicals: the key to eternal life. We would want to emphasize, of course, that this is true specifically for all who believe.

But this is a long letter and that sentence is only a small part of it, hardly the center at all. What really concerns Bonhoeffer in this persuasive letter is that Rudiger learn to listen for God in Scripture.

“Hence,” he says, “all that remains is the decision whether to trust the word of the Bible, whether to allow it to sustain us as does no other word in life or death. And I believe that we will genuinely become happy and at peace only after making this decision.”

We can see that Bonhoeffer is not indifferent to the benefits we receive from entrusting ourselves to God and his Word but there is something a bit different here. We Evangelicals tend to make those benefits the heart of our understanding of evangelism. We must tell people — we seem to think — how much good they will derive from entrusting themselves to God. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, is more concerned with the faith itself and with the God to whom we are to entrust ourselves. He has a God-centered understanding of the Gospel, not a self-centered interpretation.

Listen to these strong words:

“Thus do I read the Bible. I ask every passage: what is God saying to us here? And I implore God to show us what he wants to say. Hence we are no longer even permitted to seek universal, eternal truths, that might correspond to our own “eternal” nature and that might be demonstrable as such. Instead, we seek the will of God, who is utterly alien and repugnant to us, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thought are not our thoughts, the God concealed beneath the sign of the cross, where all our ways and thoughts come to an end. God is something entirely different from so-called eternal truth. The latter is still merely our own self-conceived, desired understanding of eternity. By contrast, God’s word begins by showing us at the cross of Christ where all our ways and thoughts – including so-called eternal ones – ultimately lead, namely, to death and judgment before God.”

The way of Christ is the way of the Cross, which is costly, difficult, demanding. . .and fatal. Bonhoeffer, in his teaching and in his very life, show us the way of the Cross, that is the way to the Cross and beyond the Cross. We, on the other hand, want to dwell only on what lies beyond, on the blessing, the joy, the fulfillment. Our evangelism, as a result, tends to be little more than showing people a shortcut to happiness. For Bonhoeffer, evangelism is calling people to give up their lives for Christ and the Gospel.

Does he not sound like Jesus in such a call?

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We’ve just returned from a long drive from Minnesota to New Mexico, California, Oregon, and back through the northern states (15 in all). It was a wonderful time of visiting friends and family, enjoying our annual week of Bible study with long-time friends, and enjoying the western forests and sea.

I had planned to read 20 pages of Bonhoeffer each day, a goal which proved me to be as unrealistic as a university student planning to study during Christmas break.

But, visiting the bookstore at Fuller Seminary, I did pick up a copy of Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, a set of papers delivered at a Wheaton conference in 2013. Lori Brandt Hale’s contribution attracted me first because of its theme: Bonhoeffer’s idea of vocation as responsibility. Responsibility, it seems to me, is close to the very essence of Bonhoeffer’s idea of Christian living.

In our culture, we sometimes speak of people being responsible for themselves. That has often struck me as an odd phrase because it neglects the central dimension of responsibility. While it is true that we are responsible for ourselves, the real question is, To whom are we responsible?

When we ask the question that way, our thoughts must immediately go to our Creator. And we have to notice that if ours is a life lived in responding to God, then of course that means God has had the first word.

Thinking of responsibility as responsiveness to our Lord fits perfectly with the idea of our vocation, that to which we have been called. Who does the calling? God, of course.

We needn’t be simplistic about this, as if there were only one call (i.e. to a religious profession) or only one way to hear this call. Parker Palmer, writing from a Quaker perspective in “Let Your Life Speak,” says that vocation is a matter of being true to our own self. He does not mean that in a secular humanist way. His conviction, like that of Bonhoeffer, is that God has created us each and, to be true to God, we must be true to ourselves. To deny who we really are is to deny our own creation and therefore our Creator.

As Palmer learned by experience, sometimes we hear our call only by trying and failing to be that which we are not. It is almost as if our “true self” were that which is left after we’ve tried out all the other options. That does not sound very noble and in fact requires real humility.

Humility allows us to be responsive to God without trying to change His Word to us or to accomplish his Word as if it were a challenging puzzle to solve. Humility reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, not even the center of our own private little universe. God is the center and there is no other beside Him.

Responsibility, as Barth was fond of saying, is our continual Yes to God.

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