Archive for July, 2015

In January, 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was preparing a radio message in which he was going to warn Germany that, in her hunger for some strong leader to take over the state and take full responsibility for the nation, Germany was in fact looking for a tyrant. And of course there was no question that at least one person, Adolf Hitler, was eager for the chance to become that tyrant.

The radio message was in fact delivered and broadcast live on February 1. . . .two days after the aging President Hindenburg had appointed Hitler to be Chancellor (somewhat akin to the British Prime Minister). So Bonhoeffer’s warning was a direct challenge to Hitler. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer was too subtle, too careful in building his case, so that by the time he reached the conclusion of the talk in which he was to speak most directly about the danger Germany was in, the talk was cut off the air. Some say the Gestapo cut the speech, though Bonhoeffer himself merely said he had gone over the allotted time.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so quick to recognize the threat of Hitler and the vulnerability of Germany, would have no trouble today recognizing many of the same problems in America. Large numbers of people have felt helpless as our culture undergoes a major transformation bigger than anything in the West since the Renaissance. And more than a few of them are starting to place all their hopes on a man who is marked by unlimited pride and an inability to realistically assess himself and recognize any weakness or flaw in himself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am very sure, would be preparing a radio talk right now, warning us of the dangers of tyranny.


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Doing some reading yesterday I bumped into another writer struggling to figure out what Bonhoeffer meant by speaking of “religionless Christianity.” I am really surprised that anyone would find this an odd statement.

Years ago one of the cute little sayings that was bouncing around Evangelical circles, at least in the US, was, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I heard it often in the late 60s and the 70s. It was always commended and I never heard anyone argue against it or question what it meant. It just seemed obviously true to all of us. The essence of Christianity is our communion with Jesus Christ. It is not the habits, liturgies, jargon we have developed over the centuries. No form of worship, no special “holy” language, no particular rules of behavior or answers in theology make us Christian. We are Christian only when we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus Christ. What’s so hard to understand?

Way back in Barcelona, when Bonhoeffer was only 22 years old, he said that, “Christianity contains a seed of animosity to the church . . .” Sixteen years later, sitting in his prison cell, he returns to that thought. He has had time to observe the church under fire and to realize that “church-ness” (to make up a word) cannot withstand the heat. Religion burns up in the fires of a fury like Nazi Germany but devotion to Jesus Christ is purified as in a refiner’s fire.

Bonhoeffer does not in any sense mean we are to lose our commitments to Bible, to prayer, to fellowship, to being church. But he most certainly does mean we are never to confuse these with the heart of our faith, which always and only is the living person of Jesus Christ himself.

And, just as importantly, we must never, never convey to the world around us that we stand above all else for Right Answers (making us the intellectual superiors of all others) or Right Rules (making us morally superior). We are to be a people marked by gratitude for the grace of God and by the love and integrity which are the characteristics of our living Lord.

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In the Evangelical world where I dwell, we have made almost no progress in separating ourselves from the Pharisees who argued with and opposed Jesus.

The Pharisees agreed with Jesus that personal righteousness was extremely important in God’s kingdom but differed with him on how to be righteous. For Jesus, righteousness was a gift bestowed in forgiveness and grace. For the Pharisees it was an achievement gained by adherence to the law. (Historical note: We should never forget that in the years after Jesus, the Pharisees became the legitimate heroes of Judaism, leading the people in adapting to faith-without-the-Temple.)

Jesus spoke of love while the Pharisees spoke in terms familiar to all fundamentalists: Right Answers in Theology and Right Rules in Ethics. Two of the many problems with such an approach to life, however, are that it is almost impossible for those who have all the Right Answers and Rules, first, to learn anything new or, second, to avoid becoming the judges of all who differ with them. Fundamentalists are well experienced at condemning others.

We Christians throughout the centuries have sought ways to disentangle ourselves from the fundamentalist mentality. We’ve often said that we’ll just do what the church leaders tell us to do and that will relieve us of personal responsibility. But responsibility cannot be evaded: God holds us accountable.

We’ve said that our traditions are right but then we’ve proven to be the last ones to see that the old ways (e.g., submission of women or of Blacks) make no sense and even violate Scripture.

We’ve tried hard to simply disown all the Rules and let love be our guide but, as the “New Morality” demonstrated in the 60s, we tend to use the idea of “love” to cover a multitude of sins.

People that we recognize as truly mature faith, demonstrated in love and graciousness and wisdom, have usually begun with obedience to the Rules but have outgrown them. The Rules are not wrong (cf. Romans 7) but they are meant for those who are just learning to walk with Jesus (cf. Galatians 3). Mature Christians are marked by Christlikeness of character. This doesn’t free them from doing the “right thing” but it means they do right, not because they must but because that’s just who they are in Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to describe the middle way between a pharisaical Righteousness by Rules and licentious freedom from the rules. He spoke repeatedly of responsibility and insisted that we are not to bother asking such questions as, How can I be good?” We are simply to ask, in every situation, What is the will of God?

I very much like and appreciate what Bonhoeffer is seeking to do but I cannot yet see that he succeeded. Can someone help me here? Does he ever address directly the crucial question, How do we know the will of God?

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I’ve long since despaired of defining the word “Evangelical.” It has changed so often even in my lifetime and is now so broad that it covered an incredibly wide range of ideas, that I don’t know how to pin it down. Whatever it may mean, it does seem that I am one of those Evangelical creatures.

For me, that means two things. First, I take Scripture seriously and accept it as the Word of God. That does NOT mean I take it literally. I have no use for the term and am convinced its modern introduction to the debate about the nature of the Bible has done far, far more harm than good. The Bible is written in ordinary language, used the way ordinary people use language, and not in some sort of special “God-talk.” In ordinary usage, I may say something like, “Okay, son, time to hop into bed.” When our firstborn son was still very young, he loved to take such talk seriously and hop into the bedroom. But even as a three year old, he knew he was just being cute and knew that I wasn’t speaking literally. In ordinary usage, we slip into and out of literal or figurative language all the time. If I read that Jesus says I must poke out my eye if I look inappropriately as a woman, I don’t sit down and try to work out some sort of interpretation that will relieve me of the responsibility of blinding myself. We know without having to think about it that we are not to take his words literally. I listen to Scripture as I listen to anyone else: I listen for the self-revelation that lies behind the words.

Second, but most importantly, I have entrusted my life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I might differ a bit from those to my Right who place the emphasis differently than I do. They think of Jesus as SAVIOR and Lord. I think of him as LORD and Savior. I value him as Savior because I trust that I am receiving salvation from him, both countless deliverances in this life and ultimately deliverance from death to life. But what I receive from him is minor compared to what he deserves and wants to receive from me: my complete love, faith and devotion to him as Lord and Master. It is not that my gift to him is greater in any sense than his gift to me but he is more important, more central than I am.

I cringe often when I hear the word Evangelical used to identify, for example, any conservative Christian who supports the Far Right politically. I’m bothered that there is a word which could encompass both me and Jerry Falwell. I was astounded to hear one conservative Christian say she trusted Limbaugh more than anyone else on the air because he is the only one who tells us the truth. I can think of very, very few people who remind me less of Jesus than does Rush Limbaugh. the commentators on Fox News, of course, are serious competitors with Limbaugh in being so unlike Jesus.

This blog entry is getting long but let me add before I close two areas where I think I and my fellow Evangelicals (of whatever stripe) have huge holes in our theological understanding. One, we seem to have an extremely shriveled understanding of the biblical word “:righteousness” and all its cognates. We think of it in strictly individualistic senses, thereby leaving ourselves badly crippled when we try to figure out how to be witnesses in our society. Because we conceive of righteousness in terms virtually identical to those of the Pharisees with whom Jesus so often tangled, we think only of trying to be righteous ourselves (whether we emphasize grace or works — but that’s for another day). We cannot seem to grasp that in the Greek New Testament, there are not two separate words for righteousness and justice. One word, just one word, gets translated both ways. One implication is that when we think only of individual righteousness rather than social justice, thereby simply  omitting from our view an essential half of the biblical idea of justice.

Such severely truncated thinking allows a great many “Christians” to favor slavery and racism, xenophobia and a thousand other prejudices. Shame on us. . .

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The Pastor’s Task

While writing my book on Bonhoeffer, I stop now and then to read other books or old notes from various readings and fields. I don’t want to look at Bonhoeffer with tunnel vision!

The most valuable books to me in ministry were those by Eugene Peterson. Glancing through my notes from his book “The Contemplative Pastor,” I’ve been reminded this morning of Peterson’s advice that pastor’s are not to impose some particular form or task on a congregation but to listen for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in that congregation. Peterson’s father, with whom Eugene sometimes worked as a young man, was a butcher. He taught Eugene that “a beef carcass has a will of its own.” That is, the butcher’s knife must follow the meats contours rather than simply cutting wherever.

The same lesson showed up in a different field when PBS interviewed pianist Artur Rubenstein on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Asked about the young musicians of the day, Rubenstein commented that there are many fine piano players but he was concerned that perhaps some of them were playing the piano instead of playing the music. There is a musicality that, though sometimes lost even in technically proficient piano playing, can often be heard even when the technique is not flawless.

I will never forget taking a young friend to USC to audition for a grant for graduate piano study. There were four other finalists and they all wee asked to play the same piece of music, a movement from a Beethoven sonata. The other four went first. they were excellent but, oddly, they all sounded identical. I couldn’t guess how the professors were going to choose one from the others. However, since all four were so very good, I feared that my friend might be in over her head. And then it was her turn. She sat for a moment before the piano, then began to play. Electricity filled the room! Her technique was as good as that of the others but her musicality was shockingly beyond them. Before she left the room, the professors told her that the grant was hers. They didn’t even pause to discuss the matter together. They all knew.

Michelangelo also learned the same lesson of not imposing oneself on a congregation or a piece of music or — in his case — a chunk of Carrara marble. His task as a sculptor, he said, was to see and free the image within the rough marble.

Woodworker James Krenov had the same sense about wood. He did not design a cabinet, then find pieces of wood that were the right size and cut them into the appropriate shapes. He said the true craftsman will let the wood tell him which lines will suit it.

Pastors, on the other hand, often have in mind a certain view of what a congregation should be like and should be doing. They try to impose that pattern on the congregation, whether it is suitable or not. Under the influence of sociologist George Barna in the 1990s, more than a few congregations in America were split because their pastor went to a Barna conference and came back saying, “I’ve got the vision for this church.”  Barna didn’t even believe the lay people in the congregation were to have a vision of their own. That was the pastor’s prerogative.

Peterson, making the same point but with a very different story in mind, tells of Annie Dillard’s report on the 1845 Franklin expedition on which he led 137 officers and sailors to the Arctic. Like any fine English gentleman, Franklin took with him a 1200 volume library, officer’s dinner settings of china, silver, and crystal. He never thought to pack clothes appropriate for the deadly cold, trusting simply that English naval uniforms would handle anything the planet could throw at a sailor. The number of deaths on that expedition: 138.

The lesson for Eugene Peterson is clear: A pastor’s work must be grounded in prayer and listening, listening for the voice of the Spirit in prayer and listening for the work of the Spirit in the lives of the people of the congregation. Bonhoeffer would say yes!

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In his extremely important letter from prison, dated April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Bethge words which now seem prophetic. If we had let Bonhoeffer start a good discussion in the church over the ideas of the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity,” we would not be so mute in response to our critics such as Dawkins. Such critics demonstrate precisely what Bonhoeffer meant by “world come of age” (i.e., the feeling that humans can explain and ultimately control all things “without the need for a “god-hypothesis,” as Stephen Hawkings puts it).

Bonhoeffer wrote:

I often wonder why my “Christian instinct” frequently draws me more toward non-religious people than toward the religious, and I am sure it’s not with missionary intent; instead, I’d almost call it a “brotherly” instinct.  While I’m often reluctant to name the name of God to religious people–because somehow it doesn’t ring true for me there, and I feel a bit dishonest saying it (it’s especially bad when other people start talking in religious terminology; then I clam up almost completely and feel somehow uncomfortable and in a sweat) – yet on some occasions with nonreligious people I can speak God’s name quite calmly, as a matter of course.  Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when  they’re too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails.
Actually, it’s a deus ex machina that they’re always bringing on the scene, either to appear to solve insoluble problems or to provide strength when human powers fail, thus always exploiting human weakness or human limitations.  Inevitably that lasts only until human beings become powerful enough to push the boundaries a bit further and God is no longer needed as deus ex machina.  To me, talking about human boundaries has become a dubious proposition anyhow.  (Is even death still really a boundary, since people today hardly fear it anymore, or sin, since people hardly comprehend it?)
It  always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety.  I’d like to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.  When I reach my limit, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can’t be solved unsolved.
Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” to the problem of death.  God’s “beyond” is not what is beyond or cognition!  Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence.  God is the beyond in the midst of our lives.  The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.  That’s the way it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we don’t read the New Testament nearly enough in the light of the Old.

We Christians, especially on the conservative side, can hardly conceive of evangelism as anything but telling people how needy they are and how Jesus will make them happy. The roots of such thinking lie in the First and especially the Second Great Awakenings (early 18th century and then early 19th century). Bonhoeffer is calling us to understand, first, that we don’t have to reach out only to unhappy people and, second, most importantly, we are to call people to meet God not just at the point of their perceived needs but in their strengths and joys. We can hardly make sense of that. We don’t know what it means, for example, to say that the subject of the Gospel is Jesus Christ, not our salvation. Jesus is the Lord of happy, healthy people, not just weak and needy folk. Have you thought about that?

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to the suffering of Christ’s people again and again. Suffering, in fact, is one of the mark’s of a true disciple. He gives multiple reasons for this in various part of his writing. I’ll mention just two and then add another of my own which I believe complements Bonhoeffer’s ideas.

First, “The community of disciples does not shake off suffering, as if they had nothing to do with it. Instead, they bear it. In doing so they give witness to their connection with the people around them” (Discipleship, DBWE 4:104). Followers of Jesus Christ are not excluded and sheltered from the world around them. The “prosperity preachers” are simply liars. While the Lord does indeed grant us more blessings than we can count, he also sends us into the suffering world. We are connected to the world around us, especially at the point of their suffering. Christlike compassion would never allow us to protect ourselves from the pain of others.

Second, followers of Jesus suffer because we find our very identity in our communion with the suffering Lord of the Universe. God grieves with humans; God feels every insult to himself or to one of his people; God bleeds because of our sin; God allows himself to be vulnerable to human hatred. To believe otherwise is to ignore the Cross of Jesus Christ, where God accepted into himself all our sins and sinfulness.

And this leads us to a third way of expressing the suffering of God’s people: As the Cross demonstrates, forgiveness means absorbing the sin of the other into ourselves. It means paying a price for the sin of the other. If I forgive you for betraying me, it means I am simply accepting the pain without retaliation or any form of self-protection. We cannot be a forgiving people if we are not willing to be a suffering people.

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