Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review — Christ Among the Dragons

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  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (June 4, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Q and A with the Author
  • Orthodoxy. Dogma. Creed. Church. Religion. These words can evoke mixed feelings from those whose eyes wander across them. Even Christians, whose religion is shared, may react differently to a word like “Dogma” or “Orthodoxy.” One of the great questions of our Christian Age (and of any Christian Age) is this: “How are we to live?”

    James Emery White addresses this very topic in Christ Among the Dragons. White properly distinguishes two approaches to this question that have caused great turbulence in our Church:

    1) A lack of concern for truth and an abandonment of the central doctrines of Christianity

    and the very opposite problem of:

    2) An overly zealous tendency to focus too much on issues of little importance and to alienate those with which one disagrees on the details of Christian faith.

    Christ Among the Dragons is a book that on some pages convicted me—for I had, myself, sinned against my Christian brothers and sisters in my denouncing them over certain details of our Faith. On other pages it caused me to nod my head with sadness—for I have been attacked for different opinions on non-central doctrines of Christianity. The book, in all honesty, led me to tears on both accounts, and led me to repentance and to forgiveness.

    White begins with a chapter discussing the concept of “truthiness”—a divergence from absolute truth that has permeated our era. He then explores the concept of and need for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, on White’s account, should be confined largely to “Mere Christianity.” White gives the illustration of Richard Baxter, who coined the term. Baxter was called upon to write about the “fundamentals of religion” for the government by Cromwell, and came up with a summary that “could be affirmed by a Papist,” as the complaint from Cromwell went. To this, Baxter replied, “So much the better” (p. 58). Baxter wrote, “Must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: but if any will call Mere Christian by the name of a Party . . . I am of that Party which is so against Parties . . . I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other religion” (58-59). It is this Mere Christianity that White stresses Christians should embrace: an acceptance of the central tenants of Christianity (namely, belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, the Trinity, and the Resurrection), but this not at the expense of jettisoning other beliefs. Instead, we should not let these other beliefs divide and separate us.

    White then goes on to describe the impact Christianity has had on the world. Then he explores the absolute necessity of Christian witness. Christians should never approach people outside the faith as needing to go to hell; instead, they are in need of witness (95). He finishes this chapter with one of my favorite quotes ever, from the atheist Penn Jillette: “If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” (100).

    Finally, White enters the section that I find most important in his book: an exploration of Christians’ attitude toward the world and toward other Christians. We should not approach non-Christians as enemies to be attacked, but as fellow creations of God, a God who loves them and who is calling them to Him. Our fellow Christians, likewise, should not be seen as enemies. White discusses what Christians should do about disagreements on doctrines in some quotes I simply must repeat:

    “Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist and the basis of our community. . . . And our rhetoric isn’t helping” (126).

    White later quotes two other theologians, John Stott and the Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin. Stott wrote:

    “Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which [that is, which doctrines are essential and which are matters of liberty] . . . should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty” (127-128).

    Meiderlin stated, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    Christians of either of the two views outlined in 1) and 2) above tend to disagree with White here, but I think it is absolutely essential to take White’s words to heart:

    “When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the ‘gospel,’ as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When we exhibit a haughty smirkiness, or we so state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups or denominations, then we are sinning” (126-127).

    Christ Among the Dragons is one of the books I would consider essential reading for the Christian. It is a simple work that is never simplistic. White’s points are clear and relevant. Most importantly, however, I think many Christians will find, as I did, that his words will convict and comfort, his points will hit close to home, and Christ will shine through. I cannot recommend White’s work highly enough.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of Christ Among the Dragons.

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