Last month (November), I was fortunate to be able to attend the nerdstravaganza that is the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion annual conferences in Boston. Both during and after the conferences, I fielded a number of requests from friends and colleagues asking for recaps of specific sessions or of the overall experience. (Want to go back to Part 1? It’s here.)
I’ll do my best to summarize the main arguments of each presenter (and to not drown us all in minutae), then add a brief reaction/commentary. Though this will be multi-part, I don’t intend to summarize every session or encounter; just those that I found most intriguing or thought-provoking. I’d welcome interaction or feedback through the comments, or (as seems by far to be the favourite method of my faithful readers) private message through the Contact Form or email.
“Re-imagining Piety, Prophetic Witness, and Political Theology: An Appraisal of Bonhoeffer and Evangelicalism.” Presented by Paul Louis Metzger, Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Session: AAR Evangelicalism and Posturing Public Life.
Metzger’s talk addressed what he considers the “misuse” of authors such as Bonhoeffer in popular Evangelicalism. As goes the Cult of Personality (endemic in modern Evangelicalism), pseudo-superstars such as Mark Driscoll (may his reputation rest in ever-disturbed turmoil*), James Dobson, and Chuck Colson often have cited Bonhoeffer to bolster the credibility of their messages. Yet, it is Bonhoeffer himself who in “Life Together” speaks of the dangers of the cult of personality and willing acceptance of such a status. From Metzger’s Patheos blog posting on this same topic from 2014 (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2014/03/dietrich-bonhoeffer-and-the-cult-of-personality-3/):
“Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons that Christian community…(it) springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”
Asks Metzger, why do we elevate the Christianese term “Servant Leader” but disregard the title itself: “servant”?
The speaker went on to assert that Evangelicals enjoy the more “devotional” aspects of Bonhoeffer’s writings, but tend to ignore the fundamental theological messages and import of Bonhoeffer. For example, one might consider the distinguishing of the concepts of “pure” and “impure”. One may discern that more “liberal” philosophy speaks on behalf of societal fairness and equity, while more “conservative” philosophy speaks on behalf of purity, loyalty, and authority. As an example of the conservative interpretation sphere, the unborn (centered around the issue of abortion) would be “pure”, while immigrants (who are presumed to have breached legality to be in the country, or come from “outside” the accepted authority structure) are considered “impure”. Yet, says Metzger, Bonhoeffer seems to favour the “impure” as regards his prison ministry.
Metzger goes on to cite other Evangelical leaders such as Tim Keller and Eric Metaxis for having a poor understanding and unresponsible presentation of Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophies; this latter example is of note as Metaxas’ 2015 volume “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” was positively recieved in the popular audience, though panned by Bonhoeffer scholars (Richard Weikart, for example) as naive and conveying a poor understanding of Bonhoeffer’s theological and philisophical stances.
As Metzger states, Bonhoeffer favours the suffering Christ on display, not a powerful nationalistic God. Yet this powerful nationalism has fueled Evangelicalism since the Scopes trial placed this group on the defensive; Fundamentalists were wounded, and wounded groups often tend to wound others. To see world events as Bonhoeffer might, is to view them with a sense of “tragic heroism”** – seeing great events from the perspective of the outcast.
*My own personal note.
**”Christian action thus acquires the dark glow of tragic heroism”, Bonhoeffer, “Ethics”.
My familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s works and theology is, as I realized in follow-up discussions of this talk, quite limited. I have read and discussed a few of his more popular works (Life Together chief among them), but I felt more a roused spectator during Metzger’s talk. All this has inspired me to pick up a critically reviewed biography of Bonhoeffer which focuses on the overriding themes of his theology to gage for myself if Metzger’s critique of his use in certain circles of Christianity is valid.
…And yet, I highly suspect that I will find much of substance in Metzger’s critiques upon completion of such an exercise.