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A new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Gloryimplies that the German theologian experienced same-sex attraction toward Eberhard Bethge, his friend and confidante who later wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer and oversaw the collection of his works.

The response to the biography has been interesting. In his typically understated manner, Frank Schaeffer wrote an article, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It,” in which he predicted evangelicals would be up in arms about such an explosive claim.

In contrast, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported on how different Bonhoeffer scholars and evangelical leaders have responded. Christianity Today gave a positive review of the biography, as did The Gospel Coalition, though the reviewers saw the biographer’s focus on Bonhoeffer’s sexuality as distracting.

The facts in the case of Bonhoeffer are clear: he was engaged at the time of his execution, and he wrote about the fact he would die as a virgin. No biographer or scholar claims that Bonhoeffer engaged in a sexual relationship with anyone, male or female, whatever his attractions may have been.

I believe the conversation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality tells us more about life in the sexualized culture of the 21st century than it does about Bonhoeffer. In fact, if we pay attention, we will see how Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy directly challenges several commonly held assumptions today.

Assumption #1: Life lived to the fullest must include sexual fulfillment.

Bonhoeffer lived faithfully – emphasis on fully – as a virgin. One should not miss the countercultural reality on display in his life.

Post Sexual Revolution, people often define themselves by their sexual identity. For this reason, many people see any restriction or moral restraint on how sexuality is expressed as oppressive, a dagger to the heart of a person’s life and dreams.

For the Christian, such an exaggerated view of sexuality is a pernicious lie. It feeds the falsehood that, without sexual fulfillment, it is impossible for someone to live a full and engaging life. In contrast, Christians believe celibacy is not a pitiable choice but a beautiful calling.

Bonhoeffer’s witness (along with evangelical heroes like John Stott, not to mention Jesus Himself) testifies against the assumption that self-actualization must include sexual relationships. His life challenges a culture that says you are your sexuality.

Sam Allberry, a pastor in the UK who experiences same-sex attraction yet believes homosexual behavior to be sinful, is familiar with the accusation often made against evangelicals, that adhering to Christianity’s sexual ethic contributes to teenage angst and suicide. His response is spot on:

“No, the problem is a culture that says your entire identity and sense of who you are is bound up with fulfilling your sexual desires. You are the ones who have raised the stakes that high. So that the moment you don’t fulfill your desires, you have nothing left to live for.”

Society’s view of a Forty-Year-Old Virgin is Steve Carrell. Christianity’s view of a forty-year-old virgin should be Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Assumption #2: Affectionate male friendships must be romantic in nature.

History is replete with examples of robust male friendships that are full of affection and expressions of love and yet are not sexual.

Unfortunately, the sexual revolution has made it more difficult to imagine passionate philos apart from eros. That’s why revisionist historians read romantic notions into Teddy Roosevelt’s affectionate letters to his closest friends. People wonder out loud about Abraham Lincoln’s sharing a bed with his friend, Joshua Speed. It’s hard for our society to understand how King David could weep so terribly over the lost love of Jonathan unless there was some sort of romance between them. And now, Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge is put under the microscope of 21st century assumptions.

In fairness to the biographer, it is certainly possible that Bonhoeffer was attracted to Bethge, even though acting on such a notion was always out of the question. But it’s also possible, even likely, that Bonhoeffer’s friendship was, like many male friendships of the time, strong and affectionate, with a passion that did not include sexual desire.

The speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality distracts us from the greater loss of slowly disappearing same-sex friendships, the kind of love we see in literature between Sam and Frodo, relationships that many today can hardly conceive of, apart from some sort of sexual longing.

sam Assumption #3: Sexual attraction must define one’s identity.

Because our society has adopted the notion that sexual expression is wrapped up in our identity, some may think that getting to the root of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality is the only way to truly understand the man he was. But I suspect Bonhoeffer himself would dispute such a notion, and so would most people throughout history.

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“By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian,” Harris wrote on his Instagram account.

The author of the best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye book (written for Christian singles encouraging them to stop dating, which Harris has since redacted) says he has undergone a “massive shift” in his “faith in Jesus.” Harris refers to the shift as a “deconstruction” of his faith, but translates his words for Christian followers by saying “the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’”

Josh Harris ‘Repents’ of Teaching on Sexuality, Harming LGBTQ+ Community

Harris articulates he has spent the last several years “repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.” He also “repents” of his teaching concerning homosexuality, saying he’s sorry for the hurt he’s caused the LGBTQ+ community through his teaching.

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Pastor Niemöller spoke out against Nazism. In 1937 he was sent to the camps for “misusing the pulpit.”

By Doris Bergen
In the annals of the Holocaust, Martin Niemöller cuts an awkward figure. A celebrity in his day, the impulsive German pastor is now remembered, if at all, as the tag to the quote that begins, “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist.” Though a political prisoner, he is sometimes called a martyr but did not die at Nazi hands. In fact, Niemöller remained alive for decades after the war, time he used to try to reckon what he had been part of—and frequently to put his foot in his mouth.

Niemöller’s only meeting with Adolf Hitler was a fiasco. It was January 1934, and Hitler had been in power for just under a year. The chancellor, obsessed with his image, was irritated about strife in the German Protestant church and the foreign press coverage it attracted. Disunity made him look weak. To manage the situation, Hitler summoned a dozen prominent clergymen to his presence. Among them was the Lutheran pastor and former submarine captain Martin Niemöller.

THEN THEY CAME FOR ME

By Matthew D. Hockenos
Basic, 322 pages, $30

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a U-boat officer during World War I, received the Iron Cross in 1917. PHOTO: ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES

A junior member of the group, Niemöller stood near the back. When Hermann Göring, head of the newly formed Gestapo, spoke he pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and began to read the transcript of a phone call recorded that very morning. It was a conversation between Niemöller and a friend. Frozen with dread, the churchmen heard how a cocky Niemöller had promised that everything would be fine. Hitler would come to see that the people he considered opponents within the church were in fact loyal Germans. Anyway, President Hindenburg would take their side, Niemöller predicted gleefully, and by the end of the meeting the old man would be “administer[ing] the last rites” to the upstart Hitler.

The meeting thus torpedoed, the future of the outspoken Niemöller quivered in the balance. Would the devout Christian emerge a champion against the moral evil of Nazism? Or would the ardent nationalist, who voted for Hitler in 1924 and again in March 1933, redouble his efforts to prove that he could serve both his country and his faith and in the process become complicit in Nazi crimes? The answer, Matthew Hockenos reveals in a gripping biography, is “yes” and “yes,” or, more precisely, “yes but.” Niemöller was heroic but flawed, and his life and legacy challenge the popular notion of the individual hero as society’s best hope. In its place, “the pastor who defied the Nazis” offers two modest messages for those under threat in our own troubled times: help one another and don’t wait too long.

For the rest of the review…

By Megan Briggs

Joni Eareckson Tada cancer

“For now, we have been spared of more cancer battles. We humbly realize that may well change in the future; but for today, for now, we are rejoicing in those wonderful words from my medical oncologist: ‘all clear!” Eareckson Tada wrote in an update on her health.

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By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

judging others

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He (Bonhoeffer) was a loner. His Tübingen friends were more interested in seeing him than he was in seeing them. It was hard for any group of people to live up the standards upheld by the home on Wangenheimstrasse. Bonhoeffer himself admitted that newcomers to his home were put under the microscope. With background, he sometimes gave the impression of being proud and standoffish. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 66.

 

How the murdered theologian came to be a symbol in American politics.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
by Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, 208 pp., $19.99

You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. After all, people model themselves after their heroes—and sometimes model their heroes after themselves.

That’s the basic premise of Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, lives on today as a hero for American Protestants across political and confessional boundaries. Different readers and biographers of Bonhoeffer have made different things of him—so strikingly different that in 1964 theologian Harvey Cox famously called Bonhoeffer “a veritable Rorschach test.”

Bonhoeffer wasn’t always a hero for American evangelicals. For two decades after his death, his legacy was the near-exclusive domain of liberal theologians attracted to the concept of “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer developed while on death row. For those so-called “death-of-God” theologians, he was a prophet of a happy future in which Christianity would outgrow many of its traditional beliefs and practices. Needless to say, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were unamused.

But as death-of-God theology started to, er, die out, the growing evangelical movement began to claim Bonhoeffer as one of its own. New interpretations of Bonhoeffer and his ideas emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Haynes sorts these into four types: Bonhoeffer as a “Critical Patriot” showing liberal Protestants how best to critique their own government; Bonhoeffer as a “Righteous Gentile” whose advocacy for Jews models Jewish-Christian relations to this day; Bonhoeffer as a “Moral Hero” whose ecumenical battle for conscience transcended particular religious traditions; and the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” whose Bible-believing Christianity can be weaponized in today’s cultural battles.

Each new Bonhoeffer has required more abstraction than the last—and because each has relied heavily on the broad outline of his life (and, more importantly, the story of his death) for symbolism of heroism and holiness, the actual details of his life and his writings have taken a back seat. It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas but the model of his self-sacrifice that demanded emulation, asking of every American, as Haynes puts it, “What are you doing to arrest this ongoing assault on innocent life?” As for which“ongoing assault,” well, that’s up to the reader. In recent decades, Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired right- and left-leaning Americans alike, all insisting that if Bonhoeffer lived today he would be on their side. Haynes documents Bonhoeffer’s postmortem crusades against abortion, the Iraq War, President Bush, President Obama, and finally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this back-and-forth deployment of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Eric Metaxas’s bestselling 2009 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has a special place. Metaxas’s book and his subsequent attempts to employ Bonhoeffer to critique the Obama administration are significant not so much for changing anyone’s view of its subject but for amplifying the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” in its public role. Dismissing prior Bonhoeffer scholarship as “a terrific misunderstanding,” Metaxas made a Bonhoeffer from scratch, one who (as evangelical reviewer Andy Rowell put it) “looks a lot like an American evangelical—an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

Thanks in large part to Metaxas, the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” became a powerful call to arms, especially for politically conservative Protestants. And as Bonhoeffer’s symbolic importance grew, the need for facts, either about him or about present realities, diminished. In the battle over religious liberty, for example, Haynes notes that evangelical leaders used the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” almost without context. “Elaboration was unnecessary,” he explains, “because these leaders shared with their audiences an intuitive understanding of the expression.” The fact that the real Bonhoeffer might have disagreed strenuously with any number of the uses to which his name was being put doesn’t matter in the least.

At this point in the book, it looks like Haynes is about to ask why: Why do we still tie our political disputes today to the (usually far more dramatic) struggles of the last century? Why do the real details of those times matter so little to those who invoke them today? Why do our causes need to piggyback on the credibility of older ones?

But Haynes doesn’t ask. Instead, his narrative and argument collapse into the very misuses of Bonhoeffer that he criticized in the first half of the book. His analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision about same-sex marriage struggles to retain scholarly neutrality, and the closer the story gets to the 2016 election, the more it relies on personal views and anecdotes.

By the end, Haynes’s scholarly project is altogether abandoned.

For the rest of the review…

In May of this year Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, published “An Antiracist Reading List” in the New York Times. His list popped my bubble of self-perceived, well-read, wokeness given that, to date, I’ve read one (yes, one) of the books on his list. I plan to correct that in the months ahead. His list, however, inspired me to come up with a list of my own. Not an antiracist reading list (I am not qualified to curate such a resource), but rather a books-that-inspire-me-to-be-better list.

“Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It takes brilliance and spiritual maturity to pack so much profound wisdom into so few pages. My copy dons various colors of highlighter and pen, revealing the many times I’ve returned to this book for a booster shot of biblically-shaped inspiration for not only my call to ministry but my call to human decency.

“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein details policy after government policy that continues to shape our country, oppress people of color and render racial equity impossible. Every white person in America needs to read this book. The sin I must confess is that of my surprise. My African American siblings know all too well the reality and scourge of these long-standing laws.

“Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention” edited by Seth Michelson. Read these poems and weep. Heart-wrenching and yet relentlessly hopeful, the words of these young people whose lives overflow with hardship humble and convict me. Christians should be flooding the halls of power and demanding better for the least of these languishing behind locked gates and prison bars.

“The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco. This beautifully written and illustrated children’s book speaks to young and old alike. Children with various disabilities are relegated to the classroom known as the “junkyard” only to be met there by a teacher who sees their value, giftedness and possibilities. Polacco based this book on her own childhood experience. Everything she writes unveils the glorious that lives within the junkyards of our world.

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FROM THE PULPIT

FROM THE PULPIT
Rev. Bryan Galloway CONVERGE CHURCH, OMAHA

Throughout the history of our nation, tens of thousands of people have sacrificed their lives to preserve the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. How often do we think about the price paid for our freedoms? I like how Erma Bombeck put it:

“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”

On this Fourth of July weekend, I want to make a link between the freedom that we Americans enjoy and the freedom that takes place when we turn to Jesus for salvation. The ultimate freedom in the universe is found in Jesus and Jesus alone. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote these words about his relationship with Jesus Christ:

“My only hope of salvation is in the infinite, transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it. Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!”

Have we relied on the death of Jesus on the cross to save us and free us from the consequences of our sins? Romans 6:18 says: having been set free from sin. All of us were slaves to sin. Sin once owned us, but if we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we have been freed from it. When we trust Jesus, God’s mercy will flow into our lives and we will be liberated from the power of sin.

 

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