Friday, August 31, 2007

Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Writings Selected with an Introduction by Robert Coles. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Orbis Books, 2003.

This newly published collection of some of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer gathers together pieces from most of his popular writings. But I was drawn to this volume, not for the Bonhoeffer texts most of which I have already read, but for the introduction by Robert Coles. Indeed, Coles, a professor of social ethics at Harvard, has written a brilliant introduction to Bonhoeffer. If you do not know the story of Bonhoeffer’s life and death, this introduction will quickly educate you. For those of us, probably most Presbyterian pastors, who are very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Cole’s introduction is a brilliant theological interpretation and perceptive analysis.

I have always, like most people familiar with the Bonhoeffer story, appreciated and struggled with the profound depth of his calling. It was a calling that he clearly understood as coming directly from Christ. It was a calling that led, almost inevitably, to his imprisonment and death at the hands of the Gestapo, only days before Hitler’s own suicide. If we desire, and I believe we must, to consider the power of the calling of Christ in our own lives then we may ponder the calling of Christ in other people as testimony and witness. But we speak of being called by Christ to give up our lives as a metaphor, a manner of speaking. Bonhoeffer understand such a calling literally. Like others in that terrible era, Bonhoeffer had options. He could have saved himself, and ride out the war safely within America enjoying the opportunity to teach at Union Theological Seminary surrounded by other, brilliant German theologians who did just that. We must ask ourselves the deeply haunting question which emerges from the Bonhoeffer story: Why did he choose to leave the safety of America and return to Nazi Germany, when he fully understood the consequences which probably would result? Coles reflects on this question brilliantly and sees it as central to the Bonhoeffer legacy. It was for Bonhoeffer the fulfillment of the call of Christ. I quote at length from Robert Cole’s introduction:

“In this regard I remember well a conversation with Reinhold and Ursala Niebuhr in the summer of 1963 and their polite but candid wish to convey not only the concern so many at Union Seminary felt for Bonhoeffer, but an interesting and all too instructive variant of that concern. Why did he want so badly to go back to Germany? What did the “homesickness” of which frequently spoke “really” mean? Was he not, perhaps, “depressed”? Might not he have been helped by some “conversations” with a “professional” person? Wouldn’t it have been “wiser” for him to stay in America and help rouse a significantly isolationist nation to an awareness of what was at stake in Europe? By then Paul Tillich and Karl Barth had gone into exile; hadn’t Bonhoeffer already struggled harder against the Nazis that just about anyone throughout the German universities, throughout Christendom?” (Page 24).

“The heart of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy to us is not be found in his words, his books, but in the way he spent his time on this earth, in his decision to live as if the Lord were a neighbor and friend, a constant source of courage and inspiration, a presence amid travail and joy alike, a reminder of love’s obligations and affirmations and also of death’s decisive meaning (how we die as a measure of how we have lived, of who we are). Bonhoeffer abandoned cleverness with language, brilliance at abstract formulations; he forsook denominational argument, oaths and pledges and avowals. In the end he reached out to all of us who crave, in hunger and in thirst, God’s grace. And, one believes, unwittingly, unself-consciously, he became its witness, its recipient. His spiritual gift to us, especially, is his life.” (page 41).

Thanks be to God for the words and witness, the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Back to School

The Presbyterian Church in American history has always expressed a strong commitment to public education. It is a rich discussion to consider the differing theological foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in America which has adamantly fought for and maintained a strong system of parochial schools and the Presbyterian Church which has always advocated and supported a strong system of public education and schools. Which system is better for the church? Which system is better for our society?

In the churches I have served as a pastor there have always been in the congregation teachers and school administrators who were very active, committed, leading church members. One of the great blessings for our family was the educational experience that our oldest son had in the town of Morris, Illinois where I served as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Kyle started school while we lived in Morris, and his first grade teacher was Mrs. Joan Smith. Mrs. Smith is a very active member of First Presbyterian Church. Moreover, our church started an after school program on Wednesdays, named the After School Special. Mrs. Smith was one of the original, driving forces behind this program and taught its first grade class. So during his first grade, our son Kyle had Mrs. Smith as his first grade teacher and on Wednesdays came to the church and had Mrs. Smith as his After School Special teacher. Kyle learned how to read and how to do arithmetic with Mrs. Smith. He also learned about Jesus with Mrs. Smith. This has been a deep and lasting blessing for Kyle and our family.

I was invited to participate in Sunday School and worship at our First Presbyterian Church in Newville on the Sunday before school started this year. Here again I saw a marvelous expression of the deep connection between the Presbyterian Church and public education. First Newville has started a creative, little program which they call, “Blessing the Backpacks.” All the children are invited to bring their school backpacks to worship. And the congregation was packed full with families and young children with their new school clothes on and their school backpacks still clean and new. For the children’s sermon all these children were called forward with their backpacks; and Pastor Vern, in his message to them, encouraged them to remember that God is always with them especially when they go to school. In addition, there was recognition of all the professional educators in the congregation, and a special responsive litany asking God’s blessing at the start of another school year.

In your church, please ask God’s blessing upon our schools, students, teachers and school professionals. Presbyterians have always believed that through public education God is praised.