Growing Up Conservative, 2

Here are the rest of my reflections on my Bible college education.

Yes, we were taught a conservative view of the Bible and the Christian faith. We were taught that the “social Gospel” was dangerous. We were taught our primary mission was evangelism, winning people to faith in Jesus so they could go to heaven, rather than building schools and hospitals. We were warned about liberal theologians who were basically atheists that used religious language as metaphors. But we were not taught hate. Overall, my conservative religious education was positive and wholesome, and made me a better person.

Brother Wilson had been the founding professor at Ozark Bible College. He celebrated his fortieth year while we were students there. There was also a new, younger professor, Knofel Staton there. He was known as a dynamic speaker. He spoke nearly every weekend in different churches or conferences throughout the area. Sonja and I both enrolled in his “Introduction to Bible Study Class” our freshman year. It was an amazing class. This was before I had enrolled in the official hermeneutics class, but it was a seminar in historical and contextual interpretation.

Professor Staton’s favorite theme was unity. The church was to be a community of unity. He loved to explain agape, the Greek word for God’s love. Agape is “seeing a need and moving to meet it.” The church is a community of unity, the body of Christ through which his love flows to a hurting world. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping single mothers, sponsoring alcoholics anonymous, fighting racism, all these works of love were as valid as evangelism. He led us through Romans 16 and pointed out all of the women who were active in ministry. He mentioned Deborah in the Old Testament and called the theory that God chose her only because there were no strong men available “poppycock!”

I did a lot of reading beyond course requirements. Whenever I found a good author I ready several books by the same name. One of my professors liked Elton Trueblood. I read his book on Philosophy of Religion in conjunction with a course on the subject. A statement in that book surprised me for its direct and simple logic: “You don’t have to believe anything that is irrational.” Specifically, he was talking about Christian beliefs about hell. The statement struck me. I had somehow believed we have to believe some things that don’t make sense, as a test of faith, or because God is smarter than we are. But here is a Christian thinker who says, No, you don’t have to believe things that don’t make sense.

Along with several of my friends, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which emphasized genuine repentance and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ. We didn’t know much of the historical background. We thought obedience meant being faithful in prayer and church attendance, avoiding pornography and alcohol, the traditional sins for conservative Christians. We didn’t realize the book was written in 1937, three years after Hitler seized power, and that for Bonhoeffer, obedience meant resistance to the ideology of Arian Nationalism, white supremacy, the idolatrous worship of a strong leader, and the compromise of the churches in endorsing “German Christianity.” Later I would make a more detailed study of all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written while he was paying the personal cost of his following Jesus.

You had to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate Francis Schaeffer. He had a ministry in the Swiss Alps called “L’Abri Fellowship.” Wandering hippies and students on a Wanderjahr and young people needing a few days of detox would crash for a day or a month and think deep thoughts and have deep conversations with Francis and his wife Edith. These vagabond seekers experienced genuine Christian love and heard answers to their deepest questions, while being challenged with new questions. Occasionally Francis would tape record a lecture and put it in an archive. He also collected recordings from other visiting lecturers, such as Os Guinness.

Francis Schaeffer had long hair and wore Lederhosen. His voice was high-pitched and always reminded me of Truman Capote. Friends would gather his recorded lectures and transcribe them into books. And the books were eloquent. Schaeffer critiqued modern literature, philosophy, and theology, along with art and politics, and presented faith in the living God as the alternative to modern despair; He spoke of “The God Who Is There,” as a reality not just a metaphor.

There has often been an element of anti-intellectualism in conservative religion. We valued the positive contributions of Schaeffer’s thought. But he also gave us “permission” (if we needed it–yes, we needed it) to attend to great art and literature and to think serious thoughts.

At the other extreme of intellectual stimulation was a satirical journal called the Wittenberg Door. Reading it helped keep my perspective in balance. The magazine regularly lampooned icons of the evangelical subculture. But it also included serious interviews. I was introduced to Martin Marty, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other serious Christian thinkers and activists. A cartoon in the Wittenberg Door characterized what kind of magazine it was: a young man standing at a news stand was surreptitiously looking at its pages hidden under the cover of a Playboy magazine.

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Another Bonhoeffer Biography

I don’t know if we need another one, but here is a review of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Evidently Charles Marsh indulges in a little speculative psychoanalysis about Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge, suggesting a latent homosexual attraction.  This speculation, based on no evidence other than reading between the lines in the letters, of course could be neither proven nor refuted.

I think it does show a pretty serious failure to understand Bonhoeffer.  First of all, he had no use for psychoanalysis; he described it as a secular version of religious fanaticism.  Revivalist preachers tried to convince decent, honest people that they were miserable sinners, and psychoanalysts tried to convince happy, well-adjusted folk that they are inwardly miserable.  Bonhoeffer believed private matters should be kept private and one should not speak in public about sexuelle Dinge.  Aha, proof of repression?  I think rather it reflects his aristocratic upbringing and some honest convictions about propriety and ethics.

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer followed traditional categories of duty, vocation, family, work, government.  But He also said there is another realm where ethical behavior is realized, and that is the area of freedom.  To this area he assigned friendship.  He recognized a failure in previous attempts to define and describe ethical behavior without recognizing the importance of deep and abiding friendships not confined by categories of duty but developed in the realm of freedom.

One of the failures of a lot of our thinking today is a lack of imagination and vocabulary to appreciate the value of friendship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge certainly did love one another.  It was a deep human and Christian friendship.

WWDD?

Nearly everyone admires Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and nearly everyone wants to claim him for their cause.  He is the only theologian Richard Dawkins has every quoted, with approval, as far as I know.  In the 60’s the theologians of the “God is dead” fad appealed to him for his remarks on “religionless Christianity.”  Elton John sang about that fad in the song “Levon” (I think that was the song: “and the NY Times say ‘God is dead’ and the war’s begun . . .)

The new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas is attracting a lot of attention and selling well.  Metaxas claims Bonhoeffer for American evangelicals.

Bonhoeffer did part with German liberal theology–but not without a sympathetic respect for what it attempted to accomplish.  He was impatient with those who would simply dismiss it.

Clifford Green, editor of the authoritative “Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition” project, doesn’t care for Metaxas’ interpretation of Bonhoeffer.  (Review here)

Victoria Barnett, another editor of the Bonhoeffer Works, also finds Metaxas’ portrait one-sided.  She has an interesting insight on why Bonhoeffer appeals to people at opposite ends of the theological spectrum:

Bonhoeffer was deeply pious in a way that some liberal Christians (again, in the contemporary U.S. sense of that word) might find hard to connect with and it’s that piety that speaks directly to evangelicals around the world. At the same time, he was a highly intellectual and critical Christian, and therein lies his appeal for Christians on other points of the spectrum. More importantly, Bonhoeffer had witnessed firsthand what happens when faith and ideology converge.

I haven’t read Metaxas’ new biography yet, but it is on my list, along with one  by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, newly translated from the German.  (Reviewed by Bob Cornwall)

New Bonhoeffer Biography

Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is getting good reviews.  My friend David Chicaguala, who works with homeless folk in New York City knows Eric, and says he will introduce me when I get up there again.

You can see a video of Eric discussing his new book here.

I plan to read the book by the end of May–as soon as I’m done grading papers and final exams.  I’ll pass on my reactions then.

Government Takeover of Textbooks?

OK, not really–but there are new federal regulations that require colleges to list their textbooks with the course listing.  Since our line schedule comes out next week, I have to select books now for fall classes.  Here’s what I will be using:

For a new course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life, Thought, and Influence, I will require the following:

  1. Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8).
  2. Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6).
  3. Stephen Haynes, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians.
  4. Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World.

The new edition of Letters and Papers is due out this June.  It is nearly twice as long as the prior English edition–and will unfortunately be much more expensive.  But the Bonhoeffer Works volumes are magnificent editions, carefully edited and translated with helpful introductions and annotations.  The English series is nearing completion, following the German editions which appeared throughout the decade of the nineties.

The book by Stephen Haynes is also new and I haven’t seen it yet–I’m walking by faith here–but I assume it is of the same quality as his two prior books on Bonhoeffer.  Finally, I am using one of Moltmann’s little volumes because the course deals with Bonhoeffer’s influence.

Professor Moltmann spoke in 2008 at the Prague Bonhoeffer congress on Bonhoeffer’s influence on his own life and theology.  He mentioned that he was originally a bit put off by the formal and “churchy” language–Moltmann himself was brought up in a secular household and came to faith as a prisoner of war after an American army chaplain gave him a New Testament and Psalms.  He joked that his first reaction to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together was that after his years in prison camp, he had had quite enough of life together.

The book Jesus Christ Today is professor Moltmann’s attempt, some forty years later, to answer a question Bonhoeffer raised in one of his prison letters,

Wer ist Jesus Christus für uns heute?  Who is Jesus Christ for us today.

One answer is given in a chapter on Jesus Christ and Torture.  Jesus Christ is the brother of the tortured and the judge of the torturer.

Who Am I?

Whoops!  I meant to post the following comment on “Theological German,” but accidentally placed it here.  Oh well, I guess I’ll leave it here.  If you are interested, the book is in English.

Dave Black recommends a new book on Bonhoeffer’s Poetry, due out in June from T&T Clark.

For a sample, see “Christen und Heiden” posted earlier here in three installments (1, 2, and 3).

By the way, Dave also says he is not opposed to Greek students using helps, if that’s what they need.  I assume the same would apply to German.

Things to Read in Prison

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison, hoping to be released but-as it turned out-waiting to die, he kept himself busy by reading and writing.  One of the books that captured his attention was The Worldview of Physics by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker.

Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943, initially on relatively minor charges after helping a Jewish family escape to Switzerland.  The Nazis did not yet suspect him of involvement in a plot against Hitler, and he hoped to be cleared of the lesser charges.  After a year, by May of 1944, he must have seen it becoming less likely that he would be released, but still he maintained hope.

Bonhoeffer continued reading and writing as a way of occupying the time-but also for a more serious purpose.  He was planning to participate in rebuilding Germany and Europe after the war. He was thinking about serious issues affecting the church and the world.

While reading Weiszäcker he expressed the view that we can no longer think of God as the answer to the gaps in our understanding and abilities.

We should seek God in the middle of our lives and activity, not out on the boundaries.

We should see God in our success, health, and strength, not only in our weakness, sin, and failure.

Weiszäcker himself was an interesting figure. He was a brilliant young scientist, working alongside of Heisenberg, Bohr and others on nuclear research during the war.  He later claimed that they had deliberately avoided developing the bomb, though that has been disputed.  Nevertheless, after the war he did devote himself to banning nuclear weapons.

Weiszäcker was a committed Christian who taught philosophy in German universities for a second career after teaching physics.  I wonder if he read Bonhoeffer after the war, and if the influence was mutual.  Carl Weiszäcker lived to be 94.  He died just last year, in April of 2007.

(More here, here, here, or here.)