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He Was Researching the Decline of Churches in America and Noticed a Parallel That Truly Stunned Him

A ministry expert who has spent years studying churches and who recently produced a documentary about the overall decline of congregations in America said that he was shocked to uncover a parallel between what has happened to a well-known American business and to American Christianity more broadly.

Thom Schultz, CEO of Group Publishing and director of the film ”When God Left the Building,” recently told The Church Boys podcast that he noticed some stunning comparisons between the paths of the Eastman Kodak Company and the collective Christian church.

“We wound up, during the course of making the film, running into the example of what happened to another big American institution — not the church, but in this case the Eastman Kodak company,” Schultz said. “That story of the rise and fall of Kodak that we dug into had so many parallels to what’s happening in the church that it just stunned us.”

The director said that his team located the chief engineer at Kodak during the time in which digital photography emerged, explaining how the company’s purported handling of that technology directly led to its decline in pertinence.

“He witnessed firsthand how that company tried to sideline and put on the back shelf digital photography, hoping that their legacy business [of] film and paper and chemicals would continue,” Schultz said, explaining that the engineer detailed the company’s decisions over time — choices and moves that the filmmaker said are reminiscent to what’s happening inside churches today.

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I am surprised at how many of my students under the age of 30 have never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the whole, when I mention Bonhoeffer, they look at me blankly, and when I say “German theologian,” they glaze over and tune out. So I wrestle with the question of how we can persuade younger people that Bonhoeffer is relevant for the 21st century.

In my research, I have been struck by how little the world of religion has changed between Bonhoeffer’s time and our own. When Bonheffer decided to become a theologian in the early 1920s, his father and older brothers derided that decision. The Bonhoeffers were a family like the Kennedys, meant to make a difference in society, and in that context, becoming a theologian seemed a waste of talent. The church appeared, then as now, to be dying, its place in the civic discourse largely irrelevant.

As Barry Harvey outlines in his book, Taking Hold of the Real, Bonhoeffer faced the same “world come of age” that we live in today, in which a worship of technology pushes theology to the margins. This is a discounting of God’s presence in the world that Bonhoeffer fought against vigorously.

God is in the center of the village, Bonhoeffer insisted, Christ the only reality in the midst of a world of illusion. Yet today, we face the same battle he did to infuse a marginalized church with meaning.

Bonhoeffer also fought against mistaking the institutional structure of the church for the church itself.

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Bonhoeffer belonged to an epoch that was drawing to an end–for the church, for Western Christianity and its theology, for the land of his ancestors as well. He reached beyond his era towards models for the future, helping to create these new models at the cost of his own life. The son of a professor’s family that embodied the best traditions of the bourgeoisie, he made theology his life’s work. Within this vocation, he eventually achieved a very personal relationship to the church of Christ. This led him away from nationalistic tendencies and brought him into the ecumenical realm. Finally, he faced the challenges of his political era. With sacrifice for the sake of his country, a different vision of how to be a Christian in the future emerged, and Bonhoeffer was free to conceive a new theology. This sequence of events, and the inner consistency of this richly talented man’s path–his transition from theologian to Christian and, finally, to a man for his times–is precisely what is unique about Bonhoeffer’s brief life.

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Preface to the First English Edition (1970), xv

After his (DB) death the family entrusted me with his unpublished theological work in progress, the surviving parts of his library, and most of his papers. I eventually felt a sense of obligation to make his materials available, permitting a sounder interpretation of his life and work. This obligation arose at a point where the significance of his life and work transcended the private sphere and no longer belonged only to those close to him. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Preface to the First English Edition (1970), xv.

Julie Hanlon Rubio  | 

From both the right and the left, commentators are mourning the lost opportunity of Amoris Laetitia, claiming that it adds little to the conversation that we did not already know. While it does not meet the expectations of either group, it articulates a theology of marriage for a world longing for love yet suspicious of traditional claims about marriage.

For those on the right, Pope Francis says far too little about the normativity of the two-parent heterosexual family, the threat of same-sex marriage, the immorality of contraception, and the unacceptability of second marriage. Groups of traditionalists lobbied the pope during the synods of 2014 and 2015, asking for clarity.

According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, the pope did not contradict doctrine, but in proposing official teachings with a “lack of confidence,” “in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique,” he has brokered a truce but left the church weaker.

Some on the left criticize the document for its limited, exclusive vision of love. According to feminist theologian Mary Hunt, writing for Religion Dispatches, “There is only one ideal — heteronormative uncontracepted sex in monogamous marriage — in relation to which everything else is derivative, lesser, lacking, and/or forbidden.”

The exclusion of same-sex couples and judgment against contraception, while not surprising and only briefly discussed, are disappointing. Many hoped that a pope who has sounded a different tone about these issues would at least move in a better direction in this letter. He does not.

Yet, the decentering of sexual ethics that has marked this papacy remains in force. While progressive Catholics will rightly continue to insist on greater inclusion and rethinking on both issues, it is important to notice what is not in the document.

Unlike in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2010 pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” we do not see same-sex marriage identified as a threat to marriage. Whereas the U.S. bishops have made fighting against same-sex marriage the central plank of their defense of marriage, Francis has other concerns.

Unlike in Pope John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, Francis’ Amoris Laetitia does not say that those who use contraception “degrade” and “manipulate” human sexuality, themselves and their partners. Natural family planning is not presented as an essential to Christian marriage.

The central concern of Amoris Laetitia is providing a credible theology of marriage. Before the world’s bishops gathered at the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, they learned from surveys given to lay Catholics that, for many, the teachings on marriage and family were obscure and unconvincing.

With a humility that is uncommon in papal documents, Francis acknowledges the church’s failure to communicate, saying, “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

Instead, Francis says, he wants to offer a vision of marriage “as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment.” He seeks to follow Jesus in offering a “demanding ideal” with sensitivity to the “frailty” of human beings.

While juxtaposing the Christian ideal to certain problematic cultural currents, the pope avoids simplistic generalizations about individualism and consumerism. Still, he worries about a “culture of the ephemeral” in which people move from relationship to relationship, fearing long-term commitment that will necessarily limit their choices. He associates the drive for independence with a difficulty in sustaining community that ultimately leaves many people lonely.

Francis is also aware that economic forces make marriage more difficult to choose, both for the poor, who “lack possibilities for a future,” and for the privileged, who have too many other options. The same forces make marriage more difficult to sustain. He expresses particular concern for families destabilized or torn apart by migration and for those living in extreme poverty.

After describing the many different challenges families face, the pope concludes by saying, “There is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.”

It is from the ground of the diverse experiences of families that the pope seeks to reformulate the Catholic vision.

In the portions of the document that are uniquely his, Francis seeks to communicate the beauty of lifelong marriage. Very close to the surface of the document is an acute awareness of just how suspicious many are of this ideal.

Central to his vision is fidelity, which is grounded in “the experience of belonging completely to another person” and the challenge of “supporting one another, growing old together.” Though seemingly at odds with passionate love, Francis argues that love itself demands fidelity.

There is no naïve romanticism of “the one,” no sense that one person completes me or makes me whole.

The pope insists that each person retains his or her own autonomy and does not see the other as “his or her own.” He quotes German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argues that each spouse must be realistic about what the other person can give, not “expecting from that person something which is proper to the love of God alone,” the pope says.

I…saw him several times in Tegel prison, until our contact was finally broken off as a result of my own arrest in October 1944. The Gestapo explored my relation with the Schleicher family (Eberhard married Renate Schleicher, the daughter of Bonhoeffer’s sister, Ursula), but neglected to investigate my ties to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thus I survived. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Preface to the First English Edition (1970), xv.

By David Ruzicka , CP Op-Ed Contributor

April 13, 2015
Quick answer: Of course! But that’s the wrong question so read on.

So I’ve heard some folks really don’t like Trump. I get it. He’s a proud and unrepentant adulterer, says he’s a Christian who’s never repented (two mutually exclusive positions), has called about 70 people names just during this primary cycle, and exhibits the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old bully in his speech and on twitter. One anti-Trump hashtag that has made the rounds is #MakeAmerica8Again.

But then I’ve heard Christian folks say, if he’s the nominee, they’ll vote Democrat. Which brings up an important question: can you be a Christian and vote Democrat?

Important: I’m not a Republican and this is not an endorsement of the Republican Party OR Donald Trump. I have no love for the establishment of that party.

Now before you get whacked out that a pastor is talking about politics, remember, the Word of God intersects with ALL areas of life.

There was another country where the pastors refused to talk about politics — Germany circa 1933-1945. Christian pastors thought that political parties shouldn’t be mentioned — too messy and “earthy,” while they were more “kingdom” minded. They praised Jesus in church while Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps.

Except for a small number of pastors. The most famous and politically radical member, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is considered a hero today. He was hung for plotting to kill Hitler. Talk about a political move. Praise God for him! And how evil are those pastors who refused to “sully” themselves in politics.

So — I have no problem discussing politics and faith in areas where lives are actually at stake, and I hope you’ll understand why by the time you’re done reading.

So back where we started — can you be a Christian and vote Democrat?

Of course!


Perhaps it is the consistency and credibility of his admirable understanding of his cultural and church traditions, and the way in which he accepted the shaking of these foundations, while he lived and conceived a new Christianity for the future. Perhaps part of our sense of his conviction comes from the incompleteness of the of the man and his answers–because he presents us, not with a finished doctrine, but with an active process of learning. Perhaps it was a strong identity he preserved, even as he wrestled with a complexity of themes, answers, and problems. Perhaps we are fascinated by his utterly unfashionable renunciation of publicity. Perhaps, too, it was the triumph of his humanity over its betrayal by the means he was forced to use. To explain the widespread attention that has been given to his theological contentions, Christian testimony, and actions, we must look along all these lines. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Preface to the First English Edition (1970), xiii.


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Post by Diane Reynolds:

The people closest to Dietrich Bonhoeffer weren’t there when he died at Flossenbürg concentration camp, but one he was probably thinking of was his twin sister Sabine.

Bonhoeffer, who would become famous for both his theological writings and his life resisting Hitler, had a very wide acquaintance and many friends. He was part of the interwar trans-European elite and knew almost everybody. He had by all accounts, a self-assurance and a perfect command of manners that made him welcome in the highest echelons of society. He performed the role of a man in charge.

Yet what surprised me as I researched Bonhoeffer was the extent to which women populated his innermost circle of intimacy. For example, in a letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote that Bethge and Sabine, his twin, were the two to whom he felt, “in contrast to . . . other people … a remarkable sense of closeness.

I discovered (common, I learned in the German biographical tradition) that a male perspective on Bonhoeffer dominates the discourse, best typified by Eberhard Bethge’s mammoth biography. Thus, I began my book on Bonhoeffer and women, called The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to reinsert women more fully back into Bonhoeffer’s life story. In a very real sense, I wrote the book that wasn’t in my library. (For details on a drawing for a free copy of the book, see above.)

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 12.09.55 PMWomen have often been downplayed in Bonhoeffer’s story. Not entirely, of course, but strange omissions occur. For example, there is no published photo of Elisabeth Zinn, who more than one writer, including Eric Metaxas in his bestselling Bonhoeffer biography, calls Bonhoeffer’s fiancée. (I have a photo of her in my book thanks to the generosity of Zinn’s daughter, Aleida Assman.) And, in another example, the story of his relationship with his fiancée, Maria von Wedermeyer, has been routinely misrepresented: Maria’s story has become part of what filmmaker Laura Pointras calls a “locked narrative:” a somewhat distorted story that has been told so often it attains the status of truth.

My book tells—or tries to tell—the true story of the women closest to Bonhoeffer. This seemed important because it was in dialogue with women (as well as men) that Bonhoeffer hammered out his theology. Further, this man for whom the personal was always the theological and the theological always the personal, built up through these women the layers of experience—all-important to him– that helped form his theology.

For this book, I used the letters and memoirs of some of the women in Bonhoeffer’s life. These sources were a species of women’s writing, often with a strong emphasis on the domestic. In my book, I aimed to capture some of the domestic flavor of the women’s writing—and, through narrative nonfiction also to provide a sensory context for life in Weimar and Nazi Germany.

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by Paul Trewhela

Paul Trewhela writes that it takes little courage to demand the removal of a statue of a man who died 113 years ago
Thinking about the campaign against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town last month and its repercussions at other universities (including my alma mater, Rhodes University), led me to think about the German Christian priest and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.With Bonhoeffer, deeds matched words in the toughest of parishes: Nazi Germany. His most famous teaching was about what he called the “mortal” difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.

On April 9 1945, exactly 70 years ago this month, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer in Flossenburg prison, two weeks before it was liberated by the Allied armies and three weeks before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker. Bonhoeffer was 39, and had been arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943.

A vocal critic of the regime’s euthanasia programme and its genocidal persecution of Jews, he published his most famous book,The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge, meaning discipleship), in 1937, at a time of ferocious repression.

I think his words are relevant in South Africa today, if one can consider Bonhoeffer’s Christian concept of “grace” – understood as the highest kind of spiritual and moral behaviour, embodying God’s word in action – in the light of how young people should address themselves to the problems of South Africa, now.

Cheap grace, he wrote, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. …Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.”

Costly grace, by contrast, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

He continued: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

By that, Bonhoeffer meant direct conflict with the Nazi regime.

It is easy to see that “cheap grace” in South Africa today could be represented by the throwing of faeces on the statue of a man who died 113 years ago, and demanding that the statue be removed, or that a university change its name.

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April 2016


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