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Archive for October, 2015

“In October 1940, despite previous Gestapo tracking, Bonhoeffer gained employment as an agent for Hans von Dohnanyi’s Office of Military Intelligence, supposedly working for the expansion of Nazism. In reality, he worked for the expansion of the anti-Nazi resistance. During his 1941 and 1942 visits to Italy, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, he attempted to gain foreign support for the resistance movement.”  (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Bonhoeffer.html)

Wouldn’t it be nice to find writing which is perfectly objective? That’s not possible, of course, because writers cannot separate their personal views from what they see. Indeed, we cannot even see without distortion. And, I suspect, purely objective writing would be very dull. It is the human perspective that makes things interesting. A dog sees the same sunset I do but, so far as I can tell, thinks it not worth noting.

The brief article on Bonhoeffer in the Jewish Virtual Library shows a tendency to diminish the work of Bonhoeffer, as in the article’s failure in the quote above to mention that Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators were working both to assassinate Hitler and to establish a new government immediately. They were being very specific in their work, not merely being part of some general resistance to the Fuhrer.

On the other hand, the Jewish perspective when examining the work of Bonhoeffer gives an emphasis to something about Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church that many commentators overlook.

“Bonhoeffer’s defense of the Jews, however, was based on Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism as the new chosen people of God. Despite his outspoken defense of victims of Nazi persecution, Bonhoeffer still maintained, on a religious level, that the “Jewish question” would ultimately be solved through Jewish conversion to Christianity.”

As Bonhoeffer’s primary biographer, Eberhard Bethge, often confessed, he and Dietrich and all the others in the Confessing Church were far too slow in defending Jews as Jews. In fact, despite Bonhoeffer’s pleas, the leaders of the Confessing Church were mostly concerned about the idea that Hitler was trying to tell them how to run the church and whom to accept into leadership positions. That is, their first level of concern was for the church, not for the Jews as Jews.

What the JVL article doesn’t note, however, is that Bonhoeffer moved beyond this starting point and he did so because of his theology, not his church work. The beginning of resistance for Bonhoeffer was his conviction that Jesus is Lord and cannot be challenged even by a powerful fuhrer. Building on this foundation, Bonhoeffer came to see that Jesus is Lord of people as they are and because of who he himself was, not because of who the people might or might not be.

Thus Dietrich remained true to his commitment to Jesus Christ while shedding the kind of exclusivism and even elitism that often marks people who are convinced they know the most important truths. In America’s church today, we are still in need of coming to understand that.

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If I were to write a book on Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “the world come of age,” I would ask the publisher to put on the cover a photo of Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David.

david-full-frontIt was four days ago that I first saw the statue in person, though I have admired it from photos for many years. It very clearly is one of the greatest expressions of artistic genius ever produced.

Though the “subject” is the biblical David about to face and conquer the giant warrior called Goliath, the only biblical aspect to the statue is that David is shown holding a sling and a rock. So I do not admire it as an expression of biblical truth.

Instead of portraying David as a young boy totally incapable of being a soldier at all, let alone single-handedly taking on a giant, Michelangelo has made David a mature and supremely fit man. What is most vividly conveyed is that David is absolutely confident that Goliath will be no match for the sling and stone.

Completed in 1504, this statue is probably the most perfect representation of the humanism which fueled the fire we now call the Renaissance. Mankind can conquer any challenge! There is in this David no hint of faith or of any need for God at all. In fact, quite contrary to the biblical story, this David is himself a giant. He is 14 feet tall and stands on a pedestal which itself seems to be more than 6 feet high. When you stand at the base, you are looking up 20 feet to see his head. This David is more than twice the height of the real Goliath!

When Bonhoeffer used the phrase “world come of age,” he did not mean that he thought the world has achieved some level of power and virtue that leaves God with no necessary role in the world. Rather — and this is very important if we want to understand Bonhoeffer at all — he meant that those who influence and shape the cultures of the world now consider themselves to be men of great personal confidence in need of no dependence upon the supernatural. And that is exactly what the David embodies.

Evangelicals in America and — to a lesser degree — Britain have come in the last two centuries to conceive of the Gospel as Good News to those who feel the need for salvation and deliverance. Thus, says Bonhoeffer, we have been left with little to say to those who might take David as their standard bearer.

The problem is the church, having narrowed the Gospel to mere salvation, does not know what to say to a world thus come of age and accepting responsibility for itself. We have dumbed down the Gospel to the level of a needy child that we can barely imagine what we might have to say to a grown up world. That’s not the world’s fault; it is ours. We Christians have go to grow up. It’s that simple.

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Char and I are in the home of friends in Switzerland. Our friends subscribe to Losungen, the Moravian daily devotional begun in 1728 and refreshed every year since then. Bonhoeffer used this little book nearly every day of his life from his teen years onward. For each day there is a verse of Scripture quoted (and two or three others listed) plus a brief sentence of comment or a short and relevant quotation from a noted author.

When Bonhoeffer was in New York in 1939, wrestling with the question of whether to stay in America and be safe or return to Germany and risk his life, one of the daily readings was a verse Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy: “Do your best to come before winter.” Doesn’t look very spiritual, does it? Yet it struck Dietrich as a word from the Lord: Get back to Germany right away! And that ended his agonizing over the decision. He returned to Germany well before winter.  And it cost him his life.

There are many ways to read the Bible and each of us needs to be regularly using at least three of those ways. One way is simply to read large sections at a time. We’d never read a novel or a biography three or four sentences at a time because we know we’d never be able to get the big picture that way. We would see little trees but not grasp the forest. We need to read whole books of the Bible at a time. Only in that way can we keep in mind the whole spectrum of the biblical testimony.

A second important way is to study it with great care, using reference books to look up material which the writers would have expected their first readers to know. For instance, no Gospel writer defines a Pharisee because all their readers would already know about the Pharisees. The New Testament does not tell us that travellers between Galilee and Jerusalem would cross the Jordan twice, once at each end. Their journey would be almost entirely on the east side of the river, that way they would avoid walking through Samaria. Do you know why? Look it up in a good Bible dictionary. There are three essential questions in careful Bible study: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean for my life?

A third way is the slowest and least efficient. It is the way of dwelling on a brief passage, listening carefully and patiently to hear the voice of the Spirit of God. Such meditation on the Bible often leads us to apply a text to our lives in ways we might never imagine were we quickly to read through the passage.

“Do your best to come before winter.” No quick skimming of the text and no careful study of it would lead you to conclude that the Lord meant the sentence to instruct a German theologian to go to Berlin. That is a very personal reading which actually excludes the rest of us. We cannot say it means what Dietrich heard because that meaning is strictly between Bonhoeffer and the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Such meditation on Scripture, listening for the voice of the living Spirit, is dangerous. It allows a great deal of room for us to claim to have found anything we like in a Bible verse. And many, many people over the centuries have abused Scripture in this way. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very familiar with the broad sweep and intent of the Bible and was a meticulous student of the Book. He had therefore a spiritual and biblical foundation which protected him from merely mistaking his own inner voice for that of the Spirit.

Meditation on biblical texts is essential to Christian maturity but inherently dangerous because so easily abused. Dietrich was always afraid of finding his own doppelganger in the text, a reflection of himself, so he was always cautious about finding “meanings” which weren’t supported directly in the text.

The three kinds of reading the Bible support one another. Neglect one and you’ll find yourself sitting on a two legged stool. Neglect two and you’re sitting on a single stick. Neglect all three and you’re grounded on your rear end.

[Losungen, by the way, is available in an online English edition on the Moravian Brethren website.]

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Char and I are in Oxford, England. On Saturday evening we attended a Vigil service at a very small (no electric lights, just candles and lots of darkness) Anglo-Catholic church. There was incense, bell-ringing, Bible lifting, even a procession for the whole congregation (all five of us) to move from the rear of the sanctuary to the front. There was a “sermon” or, perhaps more precisely a devotional which lasted about four minutes. The climax of the service was Mass, at which all were welcome. The priest was in full regalia and the 900 year old building was covered on the inside with countless icons and images, almost none of which could I make out because of the darkness.

Almost every moment was devoted to liturgy. And clearly it was all (except the brief devotional and the equally brief Mass) intended to convey our devotion to God. It was a from-us-to-God experience, enacted on our behalf by the priest, the Vicar of Christ and the vicar of the people before God. (Vicar has the same root as “vicarious;” a vicar is one who stands in the place of another.)

Was that religion? Was that an example of what Bonhoeffer calls us to move beyond? Not necessarily. For me personally, yes, it was mere religion, a set of words and motions which in fact did not express my heart, my love for God, or my devotion to my Lord. But for many people such high liturgy does in fact express their own heart. If it is empty of meaning, as it was for me, it is just religion. But if it is filled with meaning for a brother or sister, it is devotion rather than religion and I am happy to share it. (But not too often: The incense still has my nose running three days later!)

Religion is a humanly devised pattern of words and actions designed to please or, maybe more often, appease God. The liturgy, I believe, is of no meaning or pleasure to God. He is reading the hearts of those in the service.

So, can you be an Anglo-Catholic and still cheer for Bonhoeffer when he calls for a non-religious Christianity? Of course.

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