Review: Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2013,  208 pp.,  £12.99/$20.00,  paper.

The question of ‘Christ and Culture’ persists and here we are gifted with a volume whose contributors’ “love for Bonhoeffer, the academy and the church” provides an exciting opening into such a busy inquiry. This collection of papers is the outflow of a 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference which sought to bring Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought to the question of ‘Christ and Culture.’

A number of articles are worthy of mention, such as Daniel Treier’s essay on Bonhoeffer and technology – especially useful as a conversational launching point for theology, popular culture, and secularization theories (91). Timothy Larsen’s essay on the reception history of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in American Evangelicalism is well worth attention as well.  Larsen’s depiction not only highlights the current critical and popular appeal of Bonhoeffer but challenges as well the overly idealized reception narratives of Bonhoeffer. Larsen accomplishes this by underscoring changing attitudes in American culture which make any single interpretation seem less likely, in addition to illuminating some of the cultural conditions which have created spaces wherein Bonhoeffer has served as a  strong conversational partner (39). Jim Belcher’s essay, the outcome of a year sabbatical in the UK and Western Europe, provides further evidence of the impact Bonhoeffer has had upon American Evangelicalism.

Yet it is in the three outstanding articles authored by Reggie Williams, Charles Marsh and Joel Lawrence that solidify the significance of Bonhoeffer’s thought for the contemporary cultural conversation.

Williams’ essay makes significant connections between the development of Bonhoeffer’s theology and the writings of W.E.B. Dubois in addition to the poetic mode of Dubois’ son-in-law, Countee Cullen (66-67). Williams convincingly contends that it was specifically Cullen’s poem “The Black Christ” that exuded a strong influence upon the young Bonhoeffer. It was during his time spent at Union Theological Seminary in New York and his exposure to the poetry and writings of the Harlem Renaissance that Bonhoeffer began to see more clearly the “American Christian problem of race” (67). From this experience he is given a theological framework that would only deepen during his return to Germany wherein it would become only more apparent that “Jesus is very different from the Christ who is co-opted by forces that turn him into a weapon wielded against marginalized people” (71).

A continued examination of Bonhoeffer’s concern for the marginalized comes in the vivid narrative Marsh constructs. As a theology student, constantly assessing the significance of academic theology for the life of the church and wider world, I found Marsh’s account heart gripping and stirred my imagination as he traced Bonhoeffer’s travails in academic life and church ministry (135). “Two dissertations and a full slate of comprehensive examinations and his only options were an unpaid teaching post and an uninspiring chaplaincy – neither of which came with an office” (135).  Marsh provides an excellent picture of Bonhoeffer’s struggle living in “the anxious middle” (151) where he continued to pursue a theological agenda focused on the young and marginalized.  He not only soon attracted students at the University where they sat anticipating the unique perspective of the “ponderous, pastoral theologian,” (147) but made a significant impact on a number of youth where he “served them supper; played recordings of classical music and Negro spirituals, taught them to play chess, read Scripture and told Bible stories.  Sometimes he shared an account from his travels, and concluded the evening with ‘a short spell of catechizing’” (144).

Important for our interest in the arts is also the fact that Marsh draws attention to Bonhoeffer’s welcome amongst artists where he was known for “his new theological style, observed in his lectures, sermons and writings, [where he] merged familiar images and ancient convictions with bold shapes and slashes, creating a subversive effect” (150).

Perhaps the central thread uniting these essays can be found in Lawrence’s essay where he raises a significant question for us, today:  How do we become a church for others?  By playing on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Lawrence asks, how are we to experience Death Together in order to be the presence of Christ in the world?  Pulling from Bonhoeffer’s dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, Lawrence quotes, “The church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God” (120).

The importance of questions such as these and their shared rootedness within the work of one of the Twentieth Century’s most influential theologians make this critical edition an excellent collection for anyone interested in the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Providing fresh insights into Bonhoeffer’s contribution in everything from politics to theology of the Word, I am confident that the question of Bonhoeffer’s significance for the church will continue as we ask why he has become such a trusted source for matters of faith and culture. This collection makes a notable advance in examining this question for us today.

 


Originally published on 4 June 2014

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