Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bonhoefferian Take on Evangelism

Evangelism, under the sway of the 16th century’s emphasis on the individual person’s (sinner) relation to God (judge and forgiver), saw people as needing to know they were miserable sinners in God’s sight and that they ought to avail themselves of his gracious forgiveness. Evangelism calibrated to this theology sought, then, to find others’ weaknesses and sins and bring them the good news of the gospel (as they understand it).  

As long as the sense of guilt before God was strong in our culture, this approach seemed effective. I say seemed, because whenever we met someone for who life was going well, were decent people, successful, good marriage, children doing well, etc. we discovered our gospel has little to say to them. And as the sense of guilt before God ceased to be potent culture reality the gospel was speaking a language fewer and fewer people could or wanted to understand.

The world had changed. The 20th was no longer the 16th century. The gospel we inherited, while not wrong in itself, proved less comprehensive than it needed to be. It no longer “scratched where people itched.” This, and churches behaving badly, soured many on the whole gospel “thing.” If what we were offering was “good news.” Those we were offering it to chose to pass.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized this as he sat in prison for his resistance work against the Nazis. In his Letters and Papers from Prison he offered this analysis. The changed world we live in he named the “world-come-of-age” (w-c-o-a). Humans were confident and assertive in using their powers to change the world. Science and technology were tools that engendered this confidence. They didn’t need God to solve their problems for them. No longer at the mercy of fate, custom, taboos, and religion, people took charge of their own lives. They had become agents of their own lives and history. This historical development was irresistible and irrevocable.    

In this w-c-o-a Bonhoeffer observed

“. . . In very different forms the Christian apologetic is now moving against this self-confidence. It is trying to persuade this world that has come of age that it cannot live without “God” as its guardian. Even after we have capitulated on all worldly matters, there still remain the so-called ultimate questions—death, guilt—which only “God” can answer, and for which people need God and the church and the pastor. So in a way we live off these so-called ultimate human questions. But what happens if some day they no longer exist as such, or if they are being answered “without God”? Here is where the secularized offshoots of Christian theology come in, that is, the existential philosophers and the psychotherapists, to prove to secure, contented, and happy human beings that they are in reality miserable and desperate and just don’t want to admit that they are in a perilous situation, unbeknown to themselves, from which only existentialism or psychotherapy can rescue them. Where there is health, strength, security, and simplicity, these experts scent sweet fruit on which they can gnaw or lay their corrupting eggs. They set about to drive people to inner despair, and then they have a game they can win. This is secularized methodism. And whom does it reach? a small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, those who consider themselves most important in the world and therefore enjoy being preoccupied with themselves. A simple man who spends his daily life with work and family, and certainly also with various stupid affairs, won’t be affected. He has neither time nor inclination to be concerned with his existential despair, or to see his perhaps modest share of happiness as having “perilous,” “worrisome,” or “disastrous” aspects. I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian. Pointless—because it appears to me like trying to put a person who has become an adult back into puberty, that is, to make people dependent on a lot of things on which they in fact no longer depend, to shove them into problems that in fact are no longer problems for them. Ignoble—because an attempt is being made here to exploit people’s weaknesses for alien purposes to which they have not consented freely. Unchristian—because it confuses Christ with a particular stage of human religiousness, namely, with a human law” (Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Kindle Locations 12081-12097). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.)

Both Christian apologists and secular “therapists” ply their trades by trying to ferret out people’s weaknesses, failures, and “sins,” especially those of the strong and successful. Both Bonhoeffer believes fail to take seriously the new historical epoch we live in. Such efforts he calls

-pointless: it seeks to infantilize others, to treat them as less than they have become.

-ignoble: it exploits others for purposes to which they have not consented (manipulative).

-unchristian: it assumes an approach which worked under certain conditions will work everywhere.  

I believe Bonhoeffer’s critique is valid for much of the “evangelism” practiced in North America in the 20th and 21st centuries. (This does not mean God has not or does not use such an approach to people; Phil.1:12-18.) We need a new way.

And that way according to Bonhoeffer is having a gospel large and supple enough to address people at their points of strength, success, health, and well-bring and not having to prey on them in weakness, wickedness, ill health, failure. And the like.

“From a theological viewpoint,” he writes, “the error is twofold: first, thinking one can only address people as sinners after having spied out their weaknesses and meanness; second, thinking that the essential nature of a person consists of his innermost, intimate depths and background, and calling this the person’s ‘inner life.’ And precisely these most secret human places are to be the domain of God! (LPP: 12955-12957)

Rather, Bonhoeffer says, ”It is not the sins of weakness but rather the sins of strength that matter. There is no need to go spying around. Nowhere does the Bible do this.” (LPP:12959-12960). The corollary here, I believe, is that evangelism is about idolatry not morality. The gospel addresses us in our strength, the places or postures we take that we believe maximize our drives for significance and security. For those places are where our idols reside and sponsor our hardcore resistance to God. The issue in evangelism, again, is idolatry not morality.

Secondly, we assume that we have an “inner life” which is where our life with God happens. But Bonhoeffer claims

“The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance (probably from Petrarch). The “heart” in the biblical sense is not the inner life but rather the whole person before God. Since human beings live as much from their ‘outer’ to their ‘inner’ selves as from their ‘inner’ to their ‘outer’ selves, the assumption that one can only understand the essence of a human being by knowing his most intimate psychological depths and background is completely erroneous” (LPP: 12969-12972).

Further, and in conclusion, he writes,

“What I am driving at is that God should not be smuggled in somewhere, in the very last, secret place that is left. Instead, one must simply recognize that the world and humankind have come of age. One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest. One must give up the “holier-than-thou” ploys and not regard psychotherapy or existential philosophy as scouts preparing the way for God” (LPP:12973-12976).

“One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest” – this must be the mantra of reconstructing evangelism in our day.

Monday, December 11, 2017


This week’s readings are full of expectation, anticipation, and the sighting of buds and blooms of nearness. Appropriate texts for this Sunday in Advent, I think. We’re zeroing in on the figure of the Messiah. Last week we talked about the kind of waiting required of us, that paradoxical “waiting that hastens the Day of the Lord.” This week we look at waiting itself.

We live between God’s acts in the past and what he will do in our future. Psa.126 captures this perfectly. The first three verses celebrate the Lord’s past actions for his people; the last three anticipate his actions in restoring their fortunes.

Isa.61 looks forward to the coming of a Spirit-anointed one who will bring healing and justice. Lk.1, Mary’s famous “Magnificat” looks forward to the great reversal of all things God will enact in favor of the poor, hungry, and lowly. John 1 edges us closer to the realization of all this with its sighting of the “Lamb of God.”

Waiting is not easy. Nor do we do it well. Yet, these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer remain true:
"Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting—that is, of hopefully doing without—will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tales of War and Redemption

Even in the face of the ultimate human failing, we must be responsive to suffering and attuned to joy
By Phil Klay
DECEMBER 4, 2017

When I was a kid, I had a comic book called The Big Book of Martyrs, part of a series by Factoid Books that included such titles as The Big Book of Thugs, The Big Book of Losers, and The Big Book of Weirdos. Inside the martyr book were comic-book depictions of various saints and their horrible, horrible deaths—great stuff if you’re an 11-year-old boy. I know that Catholics like myself are trying for a more modern, nicer church these days, with less of the fire and brimstone and more of the let-the-children-come-unto-me, but I can’t help thinking that if Game of Thrones can be a smash hit, then the Catholic Church might make progress in the 10- to 14-year-old demographic by leaning more heavily on the decidedly R-rated tales from The Big Book of Martyrs.
I enjoyed these stories immensely, but they were also confusing—and not because of all the killing and dying for faith. That, I could understand. God, on the other hand, behaved very strangely. He was always protecting his martyrs before their deaths, but (to my eyes) in what seemed like the laziest, most halfhearted way imaginable.
There’s Saint Lucy, for example, who refuses to burn a pagan sacrifice. She is sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, but when the guards try to take her away, they find she’s completely immovable. Big, muscular guards strain to drag off this slender young woman, but she’s fixed to the spot, standing firm. Not the greatest miracle in the world but, okay, not bad. Then things escalate. They bring in a team of oxen, hitch her to the animals, and let them loose. Once again, nothing. Guards lash the massive beasts forward, the animals pull with all their might, but Saint Lucy does not budge. They lay bundles of wood at her feet and try to set her on fire, but the wood doesn’t burn. Things are looking up for Saint Lucy. But then it’s as if God gets distracted and looks away for a moment, while they rip out her eyes and stab her to death. . .
Read more

Thursday, December 7, 2017

46. Mark 11:12-24: Another Sandwich

 Cursing of the Fig Tree (11:12-14; Part 1)

Hope you’re hungry. Mark’s serving up another sandwich. One story split in two and another inserted between those two parts. Each story helps interpret the other.

Speaking of hunger, Jesus is hungry on the way from Bethany. He sees a fig tree and inspects it for fruit, and is disappointed to find none, even though it is not the season for it. So he curses it. What’s up with that? Is Jesus ignorant? Petulant and demanding? Neither, I suspect.

Having the cleansing of the temple episode inserted in this story gives us a decisive clue. The fig tree could be used as a symbol for Israel. Micah 7:1-2:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
    after the summer fruit has been gathered,
    after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
    there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
The faithful have disappeared from the land,
    and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and they hunt each other with nets.

The temple was the most important symbol of the nation. If we allow these two stories to talk to each other, it becomes apparent that the fig tree = temple and Jesus action here portends his rejection of the temple.

Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19)

Jesus enters the temple he had surveyed the night before. Seeing the money-changers and animals in the outer court, Jesus stages another piece of street theater. He disrupts the money-changing and animal buying and thus prevents the sacrificial system, the temple’s major role, from functioning. It’s street theater, symbolic action, temporary. Jesus is not trying to effect some systemic change to make the temple function better. He’s announcing its condemnation (a lá the cursed fig tree). We saw earlier that Jesus has appropriated some critical temple functions to himself (forgiveness, 2:1-12) forming a one-man counter-temple movement. This action continues his assault on this venerable institution.

“It is the only account in the Gospels in which Jesus engages in any kind of violent action against others, though there is no hint that he attempted to harm anyone; he may have intended only to force a halt to the objectionable trading operations going on in the sacred precincts of the temple” (Hurtado, Mark, 271)

Jesus charges that the temple has become not “the house of prayer for all nations” it should have been but rather a “den of robbers” (v.17). The word translated “robbers” (or “brigands”) does refer to commercial activities. Rather it refers to revolutionaries who were manipulating the temple and its services for their narrow nationalistic purposes (Wright, Mark:190). No longer “for all nations,” the temple had lost it reason for being. Jesus’ action marks it “destined for destruction” which happened in the war with Rome in 70 a.d.

This was no trivial or entertaining sideshow. It was a serious politico-religious action. Deadly serious. Now the chief priest and scribes join the Pharisees and Herodians (3:6) in seeking to kill Jesus. He was winning over the masses and they could not have that.

Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25; Part 2)

The next morning the disciples saw the withered-up fig tree, roots and all. This again highlights the finality of Jesus’ condemnation of the temple. Peter, seeing this, is non-plussed by what it signifies. Jesus tells him and the rest of the disciples to have faith in God. Even if the temple is to be destroyed, unthinkable to most Jews as this was, continue to believe in God (see 10:27).

He follows up with a reference to “this mountain” being thrown in the sea by prayer. What is “this mountain”? The temple mount. God is powerful to overthrow even the temple system, which is exactly what Jesus has just done. Disciples have only to trust God in prayer. He generalizes from this event to “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“One more thing. In encouraging his followers to pray with confident boldness for the present order to be replaced by God’s new order (‘this mountain’, in context, almost certainly refers to the Temple mountain), Jesus is quite clear that there can be no personal malice or aggression involved in such work. Even at the very moment where Jesus is denouncing the system that had so deeply corrupted God’s intention for Israel, his final word is the stern command to forgive. Perhaps only those who have learnt what that means will be in a position to act with Jesus’ authority against the injustice and wickedness of our own day” (Wright, Mark, 193).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

45. Mark 11:1-11: The Mystery, Majesty, and Mastery of the King

 Jesus comes to Jerusalem. The narrative draws to its climax. Forces swirl around Jesus thicker and faster. Theologically speaking, mystery, majesty, and majesty interlock and weave a tapestry within which readers must work to understand Jesus.

It’s too easy and rationalizing to suggest that Jesus has previously arranged for the use of the colt with its owners. Mark does not suggest this. Instead vv.1-6 reek of mystery. Jesus anticipates the question his disciples will get about why they are untying the colt: “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately” (v.3). Who is this “Lord” and whence his authority to take this animal? There’s abundant mystery here. Mystery Mark does not try to penetrate.

Jesus enters the city unusually – seated on a garment-covered never-ridden colt and with cloaks and branches providing a “red carpet” welcome for him (vv.8-10). This is an entrance fit for a king.

But what kind of king is this whose majesty is proclaimed by a borrowed colt, a makeshift throne on the colt and “red carpet” along with “a rag-tag, miscellaneous group of the poor” (Placher, Mark:3183-3184) as his supporters? This crowd provide this majesty his royal welcome.

Zech. (9:9) sets the context.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

This, this king, comes under the symbolism of a triumphant conqueror. And he comes under the adulation of a Davidic messiah.

 “‘Hosanna’ is  a Hebrew word which mixes exuberant praise to God with the  prayer that God    will save his people, and do so right away. The beginning and end of their cheerful chant is taken from Psalm 118.25–26, which is itself all about going up to Jerusalem and the Temple. The sentence that follows means, literally, ‘Blessed is the one who comes’; but in Hebrew and Aramaic that’s the way you say ‘welcome’. In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David! This is what the scene is all about – as Mark’s readers have known for some while, and as we saw in the shout of blind Bartimaeus in 10.47–48” (Wright, Mark, 185-186).

Mystery and majesty intersect here in a way that explains without quite explaining and reveals without quite revealing. Only some of those who followed Jesus closely for some time might have a clue about what this scene means. Only they would have some insight into the bizarre “street theater” (Myers, Say to this Mountain, 145) Jesus enacts here. Presenting and then subverting well-known and precious images is exactly in line with Mark’s way of telling Jesus’ story. This whole scene raises more questions than it answers and requires one to make a decision about this man. It is a “Triumphal Entry” only in a most ironic sense!

To add to the mystery and sense of majesty Mark has already inscribed in his narrative the last verse adds a sense of mastery to the picture. Jesus walks into the temple as if he owns it, glances around at everything, and then leaves with his disciples (v.11). Again, more questions than answer. Anticipation galore. What happens now?

Mystery, Majesty, and mastery – these are the keys to reading this scene rightly. They yield questions more than answers. And those questions keep us reading to find out more.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 2017 - Week Two

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

Peter offers a compelling yet mystifying image for Advent in the reading from 2 Peter 3:8-15a for this second week of Advent 2017. That image of believers “waiting for and hastening the day of the Lord.” What can this paradoxical saying mean for us? Fritz Bauerschmidt prones this image for us.

“Waiting and hastening.
These two things might seem incompatible.
How is it that we can patiently wait for something
and yet still impatiently seek to hasten its arrival?
Even more, how can we,
by acting with holiness and devotion,
do both things at the same time:
both waiting and hastening?
In answer to his own question
of what people we ought to be
in the face of God’s coming transformation of the world,
Peter says our lives should be a hastening that waits
and a waiting that hastens.

“We need somehow to work for the world’s transformation
while at the same time waiting for that transformation,
which only God can bring about in God’s own time.
That day we work to hasten
is what Second Peter calls “the day of God” –
the day whose coming belongs entirely to God and not to us.

“A hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens:
what Peter says about the kind of people we ought to be
might at first sound quite strange and paradoxical
but perhaps it is not so unfamiliar as it first appears.
Think of the process of growing from a child into an adult.

Of course for me that was a long time ago,
so I think of this in terms of my more recent experience
as the parent of teenagers.
I know that, as a parent, I want my children
to work at developing into adults
and to act like the adults they are becoming,
How many times have I said,
“you’re too old to act this way”?
At the same time,
I want them to be patient with themselves,
not to rush too quickly into adulthood,
but to let it arrive in its own good time.
How often have I said,
“Sorry, you’re too young for this”?
I want them both to wait for adulthood
and to hasten toward it.
And this is not, I hope,
simply one more unreasonable parental demand
because, oddly enough,
these two things often occur simultaneously
in a hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens.
Sometimes it is a step toward maturity to recognize
that you are not yet mature enough for something
and that the most adult thing you can do
is to let yourself be a child for a little while longer.
At other times maturity involves stepping forward in faith
into a risky new experience,
despite all hesitation,
trusting that, whether your succeed or you fail,
it is all part of your becoming an adult
though it may require patient waiting before you can see that.

“Maybe if those of us who are adults
can recall how it was that we became adults
we can have some idea
of the sort of persons we ought to be
as “we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.”
If we listen to the voice of the apostle Peter
calling us to cultivate lives
of holy waiting and devoted hastening,
then the Advent season can be for us
a time both of anxious yearning for the world’s redemption
and of patient waiting to receive it as God’s gift.”

This is how to make Advent great again!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

45.Mark 8:26-10:52 DIagram

The “Way” to Galilee (8:22-10:52): Spiritual Sight

8:22-26         Healing Blind Man at Bethsaida (Two Touches)
8:27-30        Peter’s Confession (Insight/Misunderstanding)
8:31-33          First Passion Prediction          
8:34- 9:1      Call to Cross-bearing
9:2-8            Transfiguration
9:9-13          Coming of Elijah
9:14-29         Exorcism of a Boy with Unclean Spirit (Openness of the Kingdom)
9:30-32          Second Passion Prediction
9:33-37         Who is Greatest?                                          
9:38-41         Another Exorcist                                            
9:42-50         Stumbling Blocks               (Discipleship)
10:1-12         Controversy over Divorce            
10:13-16       Blessing of Little Children             
10:17-31       Rich Man and Wealth                   
10:32-34        Third Passion Prediction
10:35-45       Power and Position in the Kingdom “
10:46-52       Healing Blind Bartimaeus (Spiritual Sight Achieved)