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 — Life in the Spirit

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  • Paperback: 270 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • IVP Page, with Sample Chapters
  • Life in the Spirit, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, is an excellent collection of essays on the Holy Spirit and Christian spirituality.

    Topics in Life in the Spirit are varied, and are grouped under the headings of “Theological Contours,” “Historical Approaches,” “Spiritual Practices,” and an epilogue.

    The “Theological Contours” section includes two essays on spiritual formation, and an essay entitled “Getting the Spirit Back in Spirituality.” This latter essay was written by Gordon Fee and it is, in my opinion, the best essay in the volume. Fee urges readers towards the realization that the Holy Spirit is fully active and alive in the church and to open ourselves up to the presence of God. Fee’s article was simply fantastic, and this entire section on Theological Contours is perhaps the highlight of the book.

    The “Historical Approaches” section features four essays that focus on Christian spirituality throughout history. I found each of these essays interesting, particularly Lawrence Cunningham’s “The Way and the Ways” which discusses Roman Catholic spirituality. His insights on different “Ways” within Christianity and spirituality were enlightening. His points could be equally used for other denominations, such as his advice to analyze Catholic spiritual practice by asking, “Do we follow Christ by this practice, or by reading that book, or by participating in the liturgy, or by seeing Christ in others? By the use of that criterion we can then judge whether this vast panoply of Catholic devotional, ascetic, spiritual, liturgical and diaconal practices . . . are worthy of attention” (96).  I urge readers to consider the various “schools” or “Ways” Cunningham discusses. My single complaint about this section is that it seemed a little unbalanced to have two out of four essays on Roman Catholic spiritual practice. Surely there are other spiritual traditions worth exploring within Christianity! Catholicism would obviously be one of the top choices, but to dedicate half the essays on the historical perspectives to it seems a little extreme.

    Part 3 focuses on “Spiritual Practices” and features five essays on the topic. These essays are wonderfully diverse. I was particularly excited to see that the essays weren’t all on topics that were to be expected, such as prayer (though the essay on prayer by James Wilhoit is great). Of particular interest to me was David Gushee’s essay on “Spiritual Formation and the Sanctity of Life” in which he urges Christians to “establish . . . the sanctity of human life as our utterly fixed, unshakable and immovable moral standard” (215).

    There are difficulties with reviewing a work of such a broad scope, as it seems unfair not to deal with each essay individually. I trust this doesn’t reflect on this fantastic work, but instead on my inadequate review. I highly recommend Life in the Spirit for both interested laypeople and scholars. The diverse array of topics alone makes it worth buying, but the incredible insights the authors offer make the book essential.

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

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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