Tag Archives: Bonhoeffer

Strange Glory (a book review, of sorts)

My latest read.Strange Glory
Charles Marsh’s A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It was Eric Metaxas’ tome that served as my first real introduction to the story of Bonhoeffer, so I hadn’t imagined needing to read another biography, Metaxas covered the ground so well, his book almost reading like a devotional for me at times.

But then I saw this title and Speakeasy sent me a copy to read and review.

Yes. There is room for another biography.

I still love Metaxas’ work, but Marsh in his lively and meticulously researched book showed me refracted views of Bonhoeffer’s story and character that I hadn’t seen. In many ways I felt as if I was meeting Bonhoeffer anew, and he’s always worth meeting, so the book richly repaid each moment spent. And as a bonus, Marsh sent me frequently to the dictionary to dig into words that are either new acquaintances or ones that I’ve met and quite forgotten. I know this may not be a selling point for all too many of us. But it should be. We need a rekindled love affair with words!

Musing on the refracted views I mentioned – I was reminded of this comment by Joshua Shenk about histories and biographies and how when we tell the truth of them we invariably “tell it slant” to use Dickinson’s phrase:

Historians must choose interpretative frameworks. And in this they are inexorably subject to the fancies and suppositions of the times they live in. As times change, so do popular dogmas and curiosities. Therefore our approach to history changes as well. This is not to say that history is merely subjective, but that objective and subjective realities interact to create a foundation of accepted truth. “What happens over and over,” J. G. Randall wrote in 1945, introducing the first volume of his biography Lincoln the President, “is that a certain idea gets started in association with an event or figure. It is repeated by speakers and editors. It soon becomes a part of that superficial aggregation of concepts that goes under the heading ‘what everybody knows.’ It may take decades before a stock picture is even questioned as to its validity.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy

I suppose what I feel Marsh has done with Bonhoeffer is taking what for me was a bit of a stock picture and giving it some helpful dimensions that have helped me to better “behold the man.”

And with such a man and story as Bonhoeffer, that is a true gift.

Take and read.


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Posted by on August 8, 2015 in Books


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Bonhoeffer, Maher and the Mount

What a curious intersection.

I thought this was going to be the year of C.S. Lewis and a rabid reading of the New Testament. But my devotional life has been overtaken by Bonhoeffer. Reading Metaxas’ somewhat foreboding behemoth biography of Bonhoeffer I have not only been drawn into reading simultaneously Bonhoeffer’s books (Life Together, Cost of Discipleship and Ethics), but I’m being drawn into a prolonged contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s a Sermon I memorized nearly two decades ago. It’s one that I’ve literally preached on numerous occasions in various churches over the years – it makes for a very brief Sunday sermon (all of ten minutes or so). The first time I preached the Sermon was in my former church fellowship as I was on the way out. I mounted the podium dressed in my usual Sunday best (meaning suit and tie in that context) and without preface or explanation preached the Sermon. I recall literally weeping out the final words. Reflecting back on that, I believe the weeping was rooted in a deep seated realization that this rubber was not meeting my road.

Listening to the sermon this past Sunday, I had the Sermon open before me, meditating upon it as I listened. “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went eis to oros (pronounced “ace tow oh-rohs”) – up the mountain – and his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” I still haven’t advanced beyond those words this week. As I rolled them around my tongue and turned them over in my spirit, I heard mention in the sermon of Matthew 28 and the “great commission.” Turning there the words leapt off the page like a bolt. “The eleven proceeded into Galilee eis to oros – up the mountain – which Jesus had appointed/told/tasked them.” The Sermon on the Mount is not just another sermon; the Mount of the Sermon is also the Mount of our sending, our commission. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The “all things I have commanded you” is not an invitation to a commandment scavenger hunt back through Matthew or the rest of the Bible, for that matter. Think of where they are sitting as they hear this commission. It’s the same spot, perhaps even at the same time of year. All that was missing was the large crowd below. The commission – its nature, its content, its direction – flows from the Mount, from the Sermon given there that functions as the Jesus Manifesto. All else in the New Testament is commentary.

This is what Bonhoeffer saw in the midst of the perilous times his generation faced, writing to his brother after deciding to lead an illegal seminary (O, for a few more of those!):

The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.

What other point as believers, ultimately, is there to gather than to pursue a life together in becoming active practitioners of the Sermon on the Mount? Some gather on the one hand for fun and frolic (and I’m all for fun!) and others for an academic exchange on theology (I can get into that right along with the best of them). But to gather to go eis to oros, to go up the mountain, to sit at his feet, to truly hear and digest his words, and to divinely pursue that rubber meeting my road – not only is this the restoration of the church, it is the restoration of the world, of “all things spoken before by the prophets of old.” Anything less than journeying eis to oros and then living from there, and we are only building academic/theological/speculative societies long on talking and activities but woefully short on the one doing that is needed, the only meaningful doing that can issue from being rooted with him eis to oros. Living from the Mountain.

Enter the third party in this intersection via a friend’s posting of a Bill Maher rant. I’ve caught glimpses of Maher for years now and found him genuinely funny and frequently offensive but just about always thought-provoking. Sometimes Maher, like all of us, is off by the proverbial country mile. Other times he is so dead on that he verifies the fact God does indeed still speak through donkeys (which means there’s hope for us all). I’ve listened a few times to this “rant” of his on Christians celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden, and each time I find myself laughing as well as wincing. As usual, Maher doesn’t pull any punches, nor spare any words – including one usage of the “f” word (not forgiveness or faith…the other one), so be advised. Watch and listen if you dare. But for me it’s worth the listen simply because in it I hear echoed the challenge and call heard by Bonhoeffer (if delivered a bit more crassly). If more of us (myself included) were truly doing our “home” work and were active practitioners of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps we would supply much less angst fodder for a rant like this.

Now it’s true, some will rant regardless because it’s more about what’s in them than what’s out there. But the question remains before me, challenging and even taunting me: if we defined a “Christian” as someone who is an actual practitioner of the Sermon on the Mount, how many of us would in fact qualify as “Christians”?


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The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue

This one cracked me up today.

Just finished Bonhoeffer’s Life Together  – again (see my review on the BookCellar site) and I absolutely loved the section that kicks off chapter four, a chapter entitled “Ministry.” In the chapter, Bonhoeffer discusses multiple areas of ministry in our “life together” including meekness, listening, helping, bearing, proclaiming and authority…but at the head of them all? The ministry of holding one’s tongue. This has got to be one of the most neglected areas of ministry across the land today. Allow him instruct us again in this lost art:

Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin, which we shall discuss later. He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him…

Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God’s creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation. To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it.

Strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another. Each member of the community is given his particular place, but this is no longer the place in which he can most successfully assert himself, but the place where he can best perform his service.

And then, a related point under the ministry of listening:

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words (what a wonderful definition of too much ‘sermoning’! mf).

And one more Bonhoeffer thought to add to this wee thought thread, this time from the ministry of “proclaiming”:

The person who has really listened and served and borne with others is the very one who is likely to say nothing. A profound distrust of everything that is merely verbal often causes a personal word to a brother to be suppressed. What can weak human words accomplish for others? Why add to the empty talk? Are we, like the professionally pious, to “talk away” the other person’s real need? Is there anything more perilous than speaking God’s Word to excess? But on the other hand, who wants to be accountable for having been silent when he should have spoken? How much easier is ordered speech in the pulpit than this entirely free speech which is uttered betwixt the responsibility to be silent and the responsibility to speak!

Who dares force himself upon his neighbor? Who is entitled to accost and confront his neighbor and talk to him about ultimate matters? It would be no sign of great Christian insight were one simply to say at this point that everyone has this right, indeed, this obligation. This could be the point where the desire to dominate might again assert itself in the most insidious way. The other person, as a matter of fact, has his own right, his own responsibility, and even his own duty to defend himself against unauthorized interference.

Wow. What counsel to consider before we speak (pontificate), before we FB (once again, pontificate), before we blog (did I mention the word ‘pontificate’?)! What a foreign thought that we would prohibit ourselves from saying much that occurs to us – especially when engaging in the impersonal and faceless world of social media where we will “accost and confront” with “pious (or impious) prattle” to a degree that we seldom will face to face.

Lord may we grow in the ministry of holding our tongue…

“Where words are many, sin is not lacking…”


Posted by on May 5, 2011 in musings


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