Archive for November, 2015

In 1942 Bonhoeffer wrote these words:

                                                      The View from Below

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action. But this perspective from below must not lead us to become advocates for those who are perpetually dissatisfied. Rather, out of a higher satisfaction, which in its essence is grounded beyond what is below and above, we do justice to life in all its dimensions and in this way affirm it.

Read that and see how long it takes you to guess how Dietrich would view the current refugee crisis. would he favor closing our hearts and our borders to Syrian refugees?


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In the 12th century, when Western culture was beginning to flourish again, new church buildings were springing up all over Europe. Architecturally, they were awe inspiring, tangible promises that the life God offered in the hereafter was going to be grander than anything on earth. They even seemed to reach as high as heaven itself.

They were often decorated with decidedly antiquated forms of gargoyles and dragons and ogres. Perhaps the builders could imagine life was being liberated from the Dark Ages but the people’s imaginations still feared the darkness.

One of the greatest saints of the period was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who became the most powerful abbot of his day. His was a very personal and simple faith and he was openly and loudly critical of artistic elaboration in the churches and monasteries. In the long run, obviously, he lost that battle because churches became ever more elaborate, to the point where they became the primary examples of the intricacies of baroque art a few centuries after Bernard’s time.

A modern day Bernard, minus the powerful role in the church, is Harold Best, emeritus professor of music at Wheaton College. In 2003 he published a still-popular book called Unceasing Worship. In the midst of many insights into the nature of worship, he draws some conclusions which seem a bit Bernardian to me. He disparages what he sees as a tendency in contemporary Evangelical churches to be more interested in art and sacred places than in faith alone.

“Faith remains faith,” he writes, “and music is merely music and not a sacramental substance that mediates between God and me.” A professor of music warning us against taking music too seriously in our worship services?

The problem for Best is common in Reformed circles: They place great emphasis on “propositional revelation” because they are convinced Truth is essentially a set of true propositions.

Bonhoeffer would have little patience with such a view. “Propositional theology,” I can imagine him saying, is just philosophy about God. For Bonhoeffer, revelation is always personal, not ideological. It is God revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, not God teaching us doctrines.

In part, of course, Bonhoeffer is simply showing his Lutheran heritage, though in fact he is taking that heritage much more seriously than other Lutherans in his day. Even in the field of ethics, Bonhoeffer insisted that we are not to obey laws but the Lord himself. Ethics is personal, not propositional.

Yes, art – whether visual or verbal or aural – can distract us from Christ and become ends in themselves. Having recently spent a number of hours in Roman churches, I am certain that it would be very difficult for me to worship in such visually cluttered environments. On the other hand, the two most enjoyable services for me in Europe were in an almost stark  Reformed Church in Switzerland (even though I understood not a word) and a Wednesday morning Mass in an Irish Catholic Church in Dublin (with a minimum of decor). But surely that is mostly a matter of taste.

I am much more at home in the world of music and have always bemoaned the fact that our Evangelical churches are increasingly opting for pop music, which compares to Bach and Beethoven as a Big Mac does to a fillet mignon. We dumb down our reading (even the very popular New International Bible is actually a children’s Bible, written at a seventh grade level) and we dumb down our music.

It is my firm conviction that the children of the Creator, created in the very image of the Creator, must be an essentially creative people. How I long for us to live and serve and worship creatively!

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“Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call. Where are these responsible ones?”

So wrote Dietrich in his 1942 essay called “After Ten Years.” He was still trying to finish what he intended to be his major work,
. The essay was to be included in that book.

The paragraph quoted above is an example of a fundamental theme in Bonhoeffer’s thought, namely that God is the center and ground of all reality. I suppose we all believe that in one sense or another but Bonhoeffer is unique in how totally that thought governed all others for him. He rejects all human efforts to make ourselves into good people or strong people. All that is expected of us — and all we can do — is to be faithful to God.

Again, that doesn’t sound very radical, but all around me and sometimes even in my own mirror I see people who are trying very hard to do the right thing, to make themselves into good people, and who are usually discouraged by their lack of success. In truth, it is difficult for us to believe that God holds us accountable not for being successful but for being faithful. We are responsible to God, which — as Bonhoeffer understands — means something deeper than mere accountability. We are to be responsive to God. His is the initiative. In the ultra-simple way Barth put the matter, our lives are to be one continuous Yes to God.

What freedom awaits those who discover this simple truth!

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