Sunday before last my friend and brother Seth Stiles filled the pulpit at Wellington Presbyterian Church. He preached on one of my favorite texts: Colossians 1:15-20. It's not often that I get to share sermon audio from a personal friend, but I'm not sharing it just because he's my friend. I'm sharing it because it's good!
As of June 30 Seth will no longer be serving the saints at WPC. Pray for him as he seeks God's will for his future.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Sunday before last my friend and brother Seth Stiles filled the pulpit at Wellington Presbyterian Church. He preached on one of my favorite texts: Colossians 1:15-20. It's not often that I get to share sermon audio from a personal friend, but I'm not sharing it just because he's my friend. I'm sharing it because it's good!
After watching Barack Obama's reaction yesterday to Jeremiah Wright's magical mystery tour (Moyers, NAACP, National Press Club), I almost posted some comments on how all of this relates to the church and the gospel. I'm more interested in that angle, than the politics. I'm glad I waited though because Thabiti Anyabwile writes what I would have wanted to say and does it so much better than I could have.
While Rev. Wright gets the headlines, a far better model of gospel ministry within the rich context and tradition of the African-American church went to be with the Lord. Anthony Carter and John Piper pay tribute to Elder D.J. Ward. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the clip of Ward joyfully magnifying the grace of Christ be played on TV as often as the clips of Wright's bitter sarcasm?
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
From this it appears that, whatever it is one wants to persuade people of, we must take into consideration the person with whom we are concerned, of whom we know the mind and heart, the principles admitted, and the things loved; and then we must take note, in the matter concerned, of the relationship it has with admitted truths or of the objects of delight through the charms we attribute to them.
So the art of persuasion consists as much in pleasing as it does in convincing, humanity being so much more governed by whim than by reason.
Blaise Pascal, The Art of Persuasion (section 9)*
*Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings (translated by Honor Levi)
Monday, April 28, 2008
It's hard to tell who's more excited about the forthcoming economic stimulus -- American consumers or the executives at Sony and Nintendo. $600 is such an intriguing amount. It's too small to do something significant -- like putting a down payment on a home or paying off one of those credit cards -- but it's large enough to purchase one of those big ticket items we've managed to do without up to now. Well, 2009 is just around the corner and my analog TV is starting to look positively antique...
Minnesota Public Radio's Jeff Horwich asks some St. Paul consumers what they plan to do with their government cash:
From the Palm Beach Post:
Smoking scofflaws at PBAU may be forced to quit refuge
This raises an interesting question. How far should a Christian university go in regulating the behavior of it's students? Especially one that isn't tied to a denominational, confessional or creedal standard. Personally, the smoker's wall doesn't bother me. I pass it often. What does bother me is the scantily dressed students that one can't help but encounter when walking/driving down Olive Ave. I think that hurts PBA's Christian testimony more than a few smokers.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Friday, April 25, 2008
America's going green. According to Time "green is the new red, white and blue." I love trees too. In fact, I am one. Metaphorically.
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Almost overnight Ben Stein has become the spokesman for intelligent design. He's even received an award named after Phillip Johnson, the godfather of the ID movement. I find this an unfortunate development seeing as it will be equated by many with Stein being the spokesman for those of us who believe in the Creator God of the Bible. It doesn't help that the latest cause du jour for some prominent conservative and Christian media sources is to urge evangelicals to rush to the nearest theater and see Stein's new documentary. Can similar calls from the pulpit be far behind?
I haven't seen Expelled, but I did watch this 8-minute "super trailer" on YouTube. It looks to be entertaining and reasonably well done, if you judge it on the rules of documentary filmmaking set forth by Michael Moore. I have seen Moore's work -- he scores his share of points and I'm sure Stein does too. I surveyed the reviews of Expelled at metacritic.com and there is an evident double standard at work. The tactics that some of the reviewers decry in Stein's film, are the same ones praised or overlooked in Moore's polemics. Nevertheless, let's assume that Stein's polemic convinces millions of Americans that proponents of Darwinian evolution are jerks, idiots and latter-day Nazis. What then? Perhaps Expelled will lead a few people to thoughtfully examine the faulty assumptions behind Darwinism, but I doubt it. In any case, please don't assume Ben Stein speaks for me.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I'm concerned about global warming, but this is offensive. I hope TIME catches major heat for this cover.
HT: the winding tale
UPDATED 10:53pm - Kevin Williamson writes at NRO: "In this age of dung-Madonnas at the art museum and mock-crucifixions of that other Madonna at pop concerts, it is tempting to forget that there are images that decent people hold above mockery and misappropriation: the death gate at Auschwitz, the fall of the World Trade Center, or nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc fleeing napalm. It is never appropriate to alter those images for crass commercial ends — or for petty political purposes...If it exists, and if we can do anything about it, man-made global warming deserves our attention. But global warming is not World War II."
In a September 2006 cover story for Christianity Today Collin Hansen correctly asserted that the most important phenomenom in contemporary American evangelicalism was the resurgence of Reformed theology, not the rise of the so-called Emergent church. According to Hansen "Calvinism is making a comeback and shaking up the church." Brian McLaren may get the Larry King invites, but John Piper is more likely to be on a young evangelical's bookshelf or iPod. Now Hansen has followed up with Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists which is basically a book-length expansion of the CT article. It's an entertaining and worthwhile read.
I couldn't help but see elements of my own biography of the last 5-10 years in Hansen's travelogue. Many of the leaders and organizations he profiles have had an influence on my life in profound ways. Hansen has a journalist's eye for the telling detail and anecdote. I enjoyed reading that the Piper house doesn't have a TV and that Pastor John unwinds over a bowl of cereal after preaching his Saturday evening sermon. I chuckled over the fact that C.J. Mahaney has a copy of Encyclopedia Idiotica in his office, and was saddened (but not surprised) that the church once pastored by Jonathan Edwards now advertises support for alternative lifestyles. Though Hansen is clearly writing as a sympathetic insider he treats fairly and respectfully opposing voices including Piper critic Roger Olson and several Southern Baptist leaders concerned about the revival of Calvinist theology within the SBC.
In an autobiographical epilogue South Dakotan Hansen writes affectingly on how the rise of Reformed evangelicalism is having an effect even back home, "Hunger for God's Word. Passion for evangelism. Zeal for holiness. That's not a revival of Calvinism. That's a revival. And it's breaking out in places like Emery, South Dakota." There's no doubt in my mind that the Reformed resurgence is having a positive effect on the American church. Young Christians are looking for something more than the shallow theology and pragmatism that characterized the seeker-sensitive churches of their parents. They are finding it in a radically God-centered view of the gospel and the church. I don't see how a fair-minded person could fail to be impressed by some of the young pastors and leaders in this book. Hansen profiles Josh Moody, the 37-year old pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in ultra-secular New Haven, Connecticut. Trinity bought what was once St. Boniface's Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist congregation was down to 30 members when Moody was called in 1999, but has grown to over 300 under Moody's Puritan-influenced, Gospel-centered preaching. Moody says, "we like to think of this as the Reformation all over again."
Will the young Reformed resurgence bring lasting reformation and renewal to the American church or will it be just another passing fad? Will the revival of Calvinist doctrine lead it's young adherents to an embrace of a more, fully-orbed Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions and catechisms?
An excellent book to read in tandem with Hansen's is An Unexpected Journey: Discovering Reformed Christianity by W. Robert Godfrey. Godfrey is the President of Westminster Seminary California and a lover of church history and the Psalms. Godfrey grew up in a nominally church-going home, but didn't meet his first Calvinist until he was in high school. Paul Hoekenga was a member of the Alameda High School swim team with Godfrey, and Hoekenga's family were members of the Christian Reformed Church in town. Hoekenga invited his teammate to church and thus began the unexpected journey of the title.
Part autobiography and part apologia, Godfrey weaves his own story into an introduction to the various strands of Reformed theology, practice and piety. This book is especially valuable because it spends relatively little time focusing on five-point Calvinism. Why? Godfrey's WSC colleague Michael Horton makes the case in Hansen's book that believing in TULIP doesn't make one Reformed. Godfrey agrees:
Much confusion has arisen from the tendency of the Reformed to talk of the five points of Calvinism. Such talk implies that Calvinism is simply summarized in five points. In reality, Calvinism cannot be reduced to five points, but is summarized only in its confessions, such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession.
I know there are some that would disagree with that, but one should at least read a lucid exposition of historic Calvinism -- the kind that's been around for several centuries -- before dismissing this view as too narrow. An Unexpected Journey does this well. Not to say that much of Godfrey's critique of American evangelicalism doesn't track with the young, restless crowd. It does. Godfrey and Mark Driscoll agree on a lot, but Godfrey's regulative principle of worship rules out most of what goes on at Mars Hill. Although I come down somewhere in the middle on this issue, I have a better understanding of the historic Reformed view of worship having read this book, and I agree with Godfrey that we could do with more simplicity, reverence and awe -- "as Psalm 2:11 says, 'Rejoice with trembling.'"
An Unexpected Journey also contains a spirited call for a return to keeping the Christian Sabbath, and chapters on the Reformed view of the two kingdoms and calling. It's thoughtfully arranged and sprinkled throughout with Scripture, especially from the Psalms. John Calvin believed the Psalms expressed all the emotions of the Christian soul, and so does Godfrey. When he does address Calvinist doctrines such as election, he does so clearly and concisely. Young, Restless, Reformed is an exciting book for those of us who believe Reformed theology is the fullest expression of what Scripture teaches. I had a blast reading it. Though not as exciting, Godfrey's book may well point the way to something more lasting, once the young and the restless are no longer either. Read them both.
Friday, April 18, 2008
J.I. Packer is a contemporary giant of the faith. So it's always a treat to come across new material from him. I've been listening to a chapel message he gave at RTS Orlando called "Nothing Better". It's a brief survey of the themes found in the "literary duality" that is the book of Ecclesiastes. Packer explains how it's written in a kind of classical sonata form. He shares that this is his favorite book of the Bible because as a young man he was the sort of cynic that the writer of Ecclesiastes almost became. I can relate. I was well on the way to becoming a joyless cynic until God gripped my heart with the truth and beauty of the gospel. The message is available at iTunes U>Reformed Theological Seminary>RTS Chapel Messages>RTS Orlando Chapel Messages-Fall 2006 or search "Packer nothing better".
If you don't have iTunes on your computer...what are you waiting for? You don't need to own an iPod to enjoy the wealth of free resources available at iTunes U.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The World War II generation is often referred to as the greatest generation of American history. But which is the greatest generation of redemptive history? My answer would be the generation of Israelites, led by Joshua, who crossed the Jordan River and took possession of Canaan. It was to this generation that the LORD granted the promised rest. Compared to the generations before and after they were remarkably faithful. They feared God, the opposite of which is forgetting God. It's telling that they weren't prepared to tolerate even the hint of idolatry (see Joshua 22). The writer of Judges pays tribute to them with this epitaph.
And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2:7-10
As great as that generation was the last sentence suggests a failure. Because every generation was/is prone to forget God, the Law repeatedly commands Israel to diligently teach the next generation.
Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children. Deut. 4:9
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deut. 6:6-7
When your son asks you in time to come, 'What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?' then you shall say to your son, 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Deut. 6:20-21
I wonder how this generation of God's people is doing. According to Scripture the primary responsibility falls on parents and grandparents, but that doesn't mean those of us without children are off the hook. It takes a covenant community to raise a generation to fear God. When a child is baptized into our church, the congregation takes vows similar to the parents. These vows are as solemn as any others we take before God. This might mean helping out in the nursery, or teaching Sunday School, or simply praying for the children of the church -- all for the purpose of doing what the Psalmist describes.
One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. Psalm 145:4
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
My wife thinks Tom Waits is "weird". I think he's one of our few poet/theologians. Ben Myers agrees:
I think it’s fitting to describe the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits as a 'theologian' – but we must immediately add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the 'bad news.' His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the startling first glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace 'out of the depths' (Psalm 130:1).
"Monstrous grace in the songs of Tom Waits"
In the last years of the euphemistically named German Democratic Republic (GDR) a staggering percentage of the population was on the payroll of the Ministry for State Security aka the Stasi. The Stasi's goal was to know everything and by all accounts they came very close to reaching it. They did it with an official payroll of 100,000 along with hundreds of thousands of paid informants -- as many as 1 in 50 East German citizens. The GDR couldn't produce a decent car, but they refined the apparatus of the police state to a science.
I finally had a chance to watch The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the winner of the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This category has become something of a joke in recent years because of the Academy's odd definition of what makes a foreign language film, but in this case it was well deserved. This is a terrific film in every way! It's an assured debut for German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I didn't detect a single false step in the script or direction. It's also one of the best depictions of life in a totalitarian society I've ever seen. As an aside -- those on the far left or far right who claim America is a police state should watch this film to see what a real police state looks like.
The Lives of Others revolves around the personal and professional life of mid-level Stasi agent Captain Gerd Wiesler played brilliantly by Ulrich Mühe. He's tasked with the surveillance of a prominent writer and his actress girlfriend, but comes to find out that there's more than possible subversive activity involved. When everyone is watching (and listening) to everyone else, things get murky in a hurry. Wiesler seems to be a true believer in the Stasi's mission. Or is he? Perhaps he's become a master at playing the games necessary for survival, but this operation will prove the undoing of his stony-faced professionalism. His evolution is strikingly similar to that of the character played by Gene Hackman in Coppola's The Conversation, and fans of that film will see other similarities. The tension ratchets up scene upon scene culminating in an unforgettable conclusion.
The Lives of Others is superb historical drama, but it's also superb cinema. Watching a film is fundamentally a voyeuristic experience. Hitchcock understood this better than anyone and exploited it in films like Rear Window and Psycho. Director Donnersmarck exploits it too. There's a Rear Window-ish quality as we watch the watcher watching the watched. Watching others has the potential to change the viewer in ways both good and bad. In East Germany the state was the ultimate reality and spies like Wiesler were it's omniscient eyes and ears. This movie could just as well have been titled The Sins of Others. The Stasi never slept in their search for secret "sins" that could be used for the benefit of the state. But sometimes the tables are turned. As Wiesler watched and listened he saw other things: beauty, forgiveness, courage, even grace -- all obviously missing from his own life. It was fascinating to see how what started out as passive voyeurism turned into active involvement.
Watching this film I was struck again by the "banality of evil" (a phrase from Hannah Arendt). There's a comic quality to the party big-shots in their ill-fitting suits and the Stasi agents with their awkward manners. The team of agents that shows up to do a search of the writer's apartment looks like they could have stepped out of Ghostbusters or Revenge of the Nerds. Except these men were the willing tools of a brutally efficient regime that ruined the lives and careers of thousands. With The Lives of Others, Donnersmarck has told a great story, but he's also made a fitting tribute to the victims of this chapter of German history.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
The Evangelical Philosophical Society blog has an interview with Paul Copan on the new atheists, particularly their attacks on the "God of the Old Testament." Paul also has some great advice for the church.
In general, I would say that Christians need to be well-informed about their faith and its robust intellectual strength as well as common challenges to their faith. This will require turning off the TV and doing research and deeper thinking. We must also help equip the next generation of Christians to be more thoughtful about their faith rather than presuming upon the fading Judeo-Christian heritage that many Christians in our culture seem to cling to. Although the church throughout the world is growing dramatically, the church in North America is facing great challenges from within and without.
This afternoon I listened to a sermon by Matt Chandler: Nine Pastoral Prayers. There's a God-centered vision behind these prayers that I want to appropriate for my local church. Here are Chandler's nine prayers:
1. That we would see the greatest problem in the universe is not mere moral failure, but rather failure to honor God.
2. That we would understand that discipline rarely brings about love, but love always brings about discipline.
3. That we would realize that children of God are not under wrath, but under mercy.
4. That we would find that the fullness of all things, including life and joy, is in Christ.
5. That we would experience a holy discontentment with where our lives are, and we would espouse the hope of what our lives could be.
6. That we would recognize that God has purposefully placed us here at this time and this place for his glory.
7. That we would develop a taste for truth, even difficult ones.
8. That we would embrace Biblical Christianity not American Evangelicalism.
9. That we would believe in the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, and desire them earnestly.
Friday, April 11, 2008
Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) achieves what few films do: a perfect ending. One of it's main charms is that it's wordless, and except for a brief cutaway, done in a single shot. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has just been complicit in the death of his chum Harry Lime -- played famously by Orson Welles. Lime is a reprehensible character and his death in the Vienna sewer tunnels is well deserved. Yet, nobody loves a narc. Not Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) whose contemptuous look in the aforementioned cutaway tells us all we need to know about Holly, or Harry's ex-girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) who Holly has fallen head-over-heels for.
For this scene Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker set up a camera and told Valli to walk toward it. Not a bad move when you're working with an actress of her sophisticated beauty and bearing. I can't imagine the average Hollywood starlet of today being able to pull this scene off. For one thing, they wouldn't be able to walk like this. Holly (and we the audience) anxiously watch as her figure approaches framed by falling leaves and the sounds of Anton Karas's zither. Will she stop? Surely, Anna will at least cast a sympathetic glance Holly's way. But no, our experience of this moment is the same as his. As quickly as her face comes into focus, it's gone. There will be no happy ending. Holly Martins lights a cigarette. What else is a man to do when his heart's been broken?
Thursday, April 10, 2008
I wish more Christians of his generation (and mine) got it too.
"I know that we're living in a time where there is a cultural crisis in our country. Many Christians are decrying the decadence of our culture and complaining about the government, and the government's value systems, and all of that sort of thing, and I understand that. But if we want to be concerned for our nation, if we want to be concerned for our culture, our priority has to be the renewal of the church. That's the institution that Christ has established to be the change agent of culture...the change that we need to work for is within the church chiefly."
R.C. Sproul, Let the Church Be the Church!, Renewing Your Mind (4/8/08)
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
On 9 April 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer suffered death by hanging in the concentration camp at Flossenbürg. Like millions of other victims of the Nazi regime, his body was cremated. It's fitting that a plaque at the site is inscribed with a cross and 2 Tim. 1:7 "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."
Please don't ever get anxious or worried about me, but don't forget to pray for me - I'm sure you don't! I am so sure of God's guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I'm travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I'm being led. My past life is brim-full of God's goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. I'm most thankful for the people I have met, and I only hope that they never have to grieve about me, but that they, too, will always be certain of, and thankful for, God's mercy and forgiveness.
Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Mad props to my friends at Urban Youth Impact on the opening of the Education & Medical Building and the rollout of their new website! God continues to do a new thing in West Palm Beach -- one life at a time. UYI is a model of what faith-based ministry should look like. Here's some video:
Put me in the "nay" camp for Leatherheads, a failed attempt at screwball farce. What I like to call the "comedy metronome" was way off in this one. Timing, so crucial to good comedy, was almost completely amiss from the opening scenes (when a confused cow is the most hilarious element in the film, you know you're in trouble). The rapid-fire exchanges were fewer than expected, and mild at that. No zip. Certainly not like any Preston Sturges I've ever seen. Clooney tries hard to evoke the spirit, but it comes off very heavy-handed. Much of the period flavor is there, but it mostly fizzles. And the editing was often amateurish. I was almost shouting at the screen, "Hey George, it would've been more effective to cut to..." Maybe I've seen too many movies. But then, so has Clooney. If he was trying for a Palm Beach Story sorta vibe..he needs to go back and absorb not just the structure of the film, but how kinetic the whole affair was. Again, timing. Maybe this sort of comedy genius is only relegated to certain artists?
The script, however, is what really does it in. The decision to take one of the subplots so seriously really derails any comedic rhythm the film could've had. It seems the writers wanted to make some STATEMENTS about integrity in sports (how timely), but this was the wrong vehicle in which to do it. Perhaps Ron Shelton should've tackled this project?
There are some good moments--a comical war flashback and a hotel lobby argument among the 3 principals had the sort of energy and sense of humor the remainder of the film lacked. The His Girl Friday-type homages with Zellweger worked far better in the Coens' Hudsucker Proxy, and Clooney himself nailed the old-time caraicatures infinitely better in O Brother, Where Art Thou. Krasinski was fine, but was only occasionally called upon to show his comedic talents. Mostly, he's just dour---a problem mainly with how his character was written.
So, no rec from me. Very disappointing.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Maria von Wedemeyer met Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the home of her grandmother. She was twelve and Bonhoeffer was thirty. Wedemeyer's grandmother was a supporter of the Finkenwalde seminary for Confessing Church pastors that Bonhoeffer headed. His experience of Christian community at Finkenwalde was the inspiration for what is still my favorite Bonhoeffer work: Life Together. Maria graduated from high school in 1942 and it's then that their initial meeting years earlier turned into an unlikely romance. Wedemeyer describes their unusual courtship in an Appendix to Letters and Papers from Prison:
I saw him again after I graduated from high school and the rapport was immediate. Dietrich had the great gift of putting a person utterly at ease by accepting the level of the other with sincerity and commitment. We talked about mathematics. Neither of us knew much about the subject, but we managed to fill an evening with animated discussion of it. During the next fall I was in Berlin taking care of my grandmother, and Dietrich had ample opportunity to visit and talk. It amused him to take me to lunch at a small restaurant close to the hospital which was owned by Hitler's brother. He claimed there was no safer place to talk.
Things moved quickly and the two were engaged, but in April 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested. Maria was able to visit Tegel Prison regularly (although under supervision) and the two continued to plan their future together. Wedemeyer writes: "Dietrich encouraged me to plan the practical aspects of our future together. It helped him to envision a specific piece of furniture in our future apartment, a particular walk through the fields, a familiar spot on the beach...he enjoyed talking about details of our wedding; he had chosen the 103rd psalm as a text and claimed that he was working on the menu."
Dietrich and Maria were able to see each other and correspond until October 1944 when Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison on Prinze-Albrecht-Strasse. Bonhoeffer's contact with the outside world slowed and then ceased as he was moved from there to a series of concentration camps: Dachau, Buchenwald, and finally Flossenbürg where he was executed on 9 April. Maria continued to look for him though. Here is an excerpt from a letter Maria wrote to her mother on 19 February 1945:
Unfortunately my whole journey to Bundorf and Flossenbürg has been completely unsuccessful. Dietrich just isn't there. Who knows where he is? In Berlin they wouldn't tell me anything, and in Flossenbürg they don't know. Quite a hopeless business. But what am I to do now? If I remain in Berlin, our Pätzig friends (Soviet troops) will come and that's no help to Dietrich! If I arrive too early, I shall be called up into the anti-aircraft force or who knows what? If I stay in Bundorf, I'm so awfully far from you all and I don't know how I shall be able to get back to you. I really think that there's relatively little sense in going back to Berlin now. If I can't even do anything for Dietrich any more.
Maria wouldn't find out her fiancé's fate until June (his parents didn't find out until July). While Letters and Papers sheds light on their relationship, the actual letters from Bonhoeffer to Wedemeyer are not included at her request. However, she includes some excerpts in the Appendix. This is from the last letter she received from Bonhoeffer dated 19 December 1944. What a bleak Christmas it must have been, yet a spirit of love and gratitude remains!
These will be quiet days in our homes. But I have had the experience over and over again that the quieter it is around me, the clearer do I feel the connection to you. It is as though in solitude the soul develops senses which we hardly know in everyday life. Therefore I have not felt lonely or abandoned for one moment. You, the parents, all of you, the friends and students of mine at the front, all are constantly present to me. Your prayers and good thoughts, words from the Bible, discussions long past, pieces of music, and books, - [all these] gain life and reality as never before. It is a great invisible sphere in which one lives and in whose reality there is no doubt. If it says in the old children's song about the angels: 'Two, to cover me, two, to wake me,' so is this guardianship, by good invisible powers in the morning and at night, something which grown ups need today no less than children. Therefore you must not think that I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little on the circumstances; it depends really only on that which happens inside a person. I am grateful every day that I have you, and that makes me happy.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Letters and Papers from Prison was collected and edited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's friend and relative by marriage Eberhard Bethge. Bethge and Bonhoeffer had been friends since the earliest days of the Confessing Church. It was to "Dear Eberhard" that the majority and best of Bonhoeffer's prison letters were written. I should add that their correspondence was illegal. It was only thru the kindness (or bribery) of various guards that their letters were smuggled in and out of the prison. We wouldn't have them today if not for this example of God's strange providence. Bonhoeffer valued Bethge as a confidante and sounding board for his evolving ideas about Christianity and the church. He writes that there are certain things he can share with Bethge that he can't share with others -- even his parents or fiancé Maria.
This was a most intimate friendship between two pastors born out of a common struggle and vision. The most moving moment of the outstanding documentary Bonhoeffer (2003) is when Bethge reads this passage from the letter Bonhoeffer wrote the day after the failure of the July 20 plot -- "I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith."
On February 3, 1944 a son was born to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoeffer's niece). They named him Dietrich after his great-uncle. Of course this was a cause of joy for Bonhoeffer and is a major subject of these letters. On 5 February he wrote to Renate -- "I'm very pleased that you've called your boy Dietrich. Not many people in my position will have a similar experience. In the midst of all our hardships we keep experiencing an overwhelming kindness and friendship." and on 9 May to Eberhard -- "How I should have loved to baptize your little boy; but that's of no great consequence. Above all I hope the baptism will help to assure you that your own lives, as well as the child's, are in safe keeping, and that you can face the future with confidence." Dietrich Bethge was baptized by his father on 21 May 1944 as air raid sirens sounded throughout Berlin. Bonhoeffer participated in the only way he could, with prayer and a letter:
I've just written the date of this letter as my share in the baptism and the preparations for it. At the same moment the siren went, and now I'm sitting in the sick-bay and hoping that today at any rate you will have no air raid. What times these are! What a baptism! And what memories for the years to come! What matters is that we should direct these memories, as it were into the right spiritual channels, and so make them harder, clearer, and more defiant, which is a good thing. There is no place for sentimentality on a day like this. If in the middle of an air raid God sends out the gospel call to his kingdom in baptism, it will be quite clear what the kingdom is and what it means. It is a kingdom stronger than war and danger, a kingdom of power and authority, signifying eternal terror and judgment to some, and eternal joy and righteousness to others, not a kingdom of the heart, but one as wide as the earth, not transitory but eternal, a kingdom that makes a way for itself and summons men to itself to prepare its way, a kingdom for which it is worth while risking our lives.
I love the attitude behind those words! An attitude of clear-eyed realism and defiance of temporal circumstances. This is what faith looks like "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." He was manifestly "in the world" but clearly not "of the world" and he had a firm grasp on the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man. Yes, the example of the German church of Bonhoeffer's day is an extreme one, but in all ages the temptation to compromise the mission of the church for the sake of worldly survival or success is strong. There were historical reasons why the established German church shamefully capitulated to the Nazi idealogy, but some of the seeds were sown during World War I when German Christians believed that God was on their side. After that national humiliation, many were far too eager to believe Hitler's message of a return to traditional values, and his assertions that this time God would be on their side. In this way, the wider story surrounding Bonhoeffer is a cautionary tale.
Bonhoeffer also participated in little Dietrich's baptism by penning a sermon of sorts (Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge). It's Bonhoeffer at his prophetic best. The more the church finds itself situated in a post-Christendom context (as is already the case in Europe) the more I believe he has to say to us. Bonhoeffer knew the war would end eventually, and much of his prison theologizing was toward answering the question of what Christian faith would/should look like in the future. Sadly, his work was cut short, but you can get the drift of his thought in this excerpt from the baptism sermon. It ends with a prayer.
Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship - all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, although we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church's form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming - as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. 'They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it' (Jer. 33:9). Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God's own time. May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, 'The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day' (Prov. 4:18).
Friday, April 4, 2008
Thomas Goodwin was one of the greatest of the English Puritans (and I love the Puritans!), but as Mark Jones explains he had some wacky eschatological views too. Apparently it's not just 21st-century televangelists and authors of best-selling Christian fiction who think Revelation is all about us.
Just as ridiculously expansive interpretations of the First Amendment have given us constitutional rights to abortion on demand and flag burning, so ridiculously expansive interpretations of the Second Amendment give us insanity like this:
Calin Chi Wong's biggest mistake wasn't owning rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, or even telling Homestead police about it.
It was threatening to re-create the worst mass shooting in U.S. history in an e-mail conversation that was posted on a gun enthusiast website, police said.
..."So that's what we're doing now, seeing if he has obtained them legally," said Rivera. "Unfortunately, the way the law is written now, you can have as many guns as you want."
There's nothing conservative about America's and the GOP's love affair with guns. Another reason why voting Republican is for me usually a case of supporting the lesser evil.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the King assassination. NPR remembers through the voice of another victim of '68.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Air raid alerts were a constant part of life in Tegel Prison, indeed in all of Berlin, during 1944-45. Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to it often in his letters from prison. Tegel sat next to a factory which was a frequent target of Allied bombing, and sometimes the prison itself was struck. In one letter, Bonhoeffer mourns the death of a fellow prisoner (killed by a direct hit) who he'd become close to. Elsewhere he writes of the God-forsakenness he felt while lying on the ground waiting for the bombing to end. "While the bombs are falling like that all round the building, I cannot help thinking of God, his judgment, his hand stretched out and his anger not turned away (Isa. 5:25 and 9:11-10:4), and of my own unpreparedness...as we were again lying on the floor last night, and someone exclaimed 'O God, O God' (he is normally a very flippant type), I couldn't bring myself to offer him any Christian encouragement or comfort; all I did was to look at my watch and say, 'It won't last more than ten minutes now.'" Whatever the inner turmoil Bonhoeffer experienced, his fellow prisoners testified to his strength and calm. In this passage -- from a letter to Eberhard Bethge -- Bonhoeffer articulates an attitude that sounds a lot like the peace that only Christ gives.
I hope that, in spite of the alerts, you are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summer-like Whitsuntide days. One gradually learns to acquire an inner detachment from life's menaces-although 'acquire detachment' seems too negative, formal, artificial, and stoical; and it's perhaps more accurate to say that we assimilate these menaces into our life as a whole. I notice repeatedly here how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time. When bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something nice to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else. They miss the fullness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence; everything objective and subjective is dissolved for them into fragments. By contract, Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the whole world. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep; we are anxious (I was again interrupted just then by the alert, and am now sitting out of doors enjoying the sun) about our life, but at the same time we must think about things much more important to us than life itself.
Letters and Papers from Prison (29 May 1944)
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Jules Dassin is a name known only to the most devoted film buffs. I know him from his 1955 French classic Rififi. This hard-as-nails tale of "honor among thieves" is famous for it's half-hour heist sequence -- that's been often imitated but never surpassed -- and features a cast of hangdog faces with unforgettable names like Tony le Stéphanois and Cesar le Milanais. NPR looks back at Dassin's life and career.
UPDATED: a nice tribute from Issa Clubb at Criterion.