I’ve been enjoying listening again to this song from the later career of the Who. It’s a nice ballad with an evocative lyric and a cool moment of inter-textuality as Roger Daltry channels his inner Elvis. Pete Townsend has told a little of the story behind the story:
Real Good Looking Boy is a song I wrote quite a few years ago about two young men who worry about their looks. One of them, based on me – hopes and believes he might look like his best friend who is a conventionally handsome fellow. (He is disavowed of this notion by his mother). The second, based on Roger – hopes and believes he will one day turn out to be like the young Elvis. (He, more happily, sees part of his dream come true.)
They both find love in later life (Pete Townsend).
Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warders freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison,
New Greatly Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1971), 347-348
Born into a well-to-do family in Berlin in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew his station in life, was accustomed to his liberty, and generally had the resources available to secure it. Imprisoned in Tegel, and deprived of every normal comfort, Bonhoeffer struggles now with what is left once the various markers that had anchored his identity have been stripped away.
In his essay on Bonhoeffer and the question of Christian identity, Jens Zimmermann applies Paul Ricoeur’s theory of identity to Bonhoeffer (in Houston & Zimmermann (eds), Sources of the Christian Self: A Cultural History of Christian Identity, 628-647). Idem identity refers to that ‘sameness’ of the self that endures through time, the sense of permanence in terms of characteristics and habits that declare what kind of person we are. Ipse identity refers to one’s personal agency, our self-constancy in the face of challenge when idem identity falters or fails. The generality of ‘what’ becomes more specifically and personally, ‘who.’ Typically, the kind of person we are, and who we understand ourselves to be, find a sense of coherence in a narrative that integrates events and character centred on a personal self we can identify. Yet what happens if one loses control of the narrative, if the crucible of life exerts such pressure that our narrative is forcibly changed or reconfigured in ways contrary to our subjectivity? What, then? Zimmermann suggests that this is what we find in Bonhoeffer’s Who am I?
The three opening stanzas portray Bonhoeffer as he is perceived by others, with a bearing that reflects the kind of person he has become in accordance with the formation which occurred in his family life, education, and other life developments and opportunities. Like a squire coming from his country home, like one accustomed to command and to win. His bearing is that of formative habituation, and in a very real sense, this is who he is.
Or is it? He is not in command nor at liberty—at least, not as he was used to. Is he really that which others say of him? Is ascribed identity his real identity? Is he merely what others see in him? Perhaps it is actually him after all? It is, after all, his action, long practised and deeply ingrained. These are habits of life, relationship, being, and carriage that he has chosen and lived; it is not something merely ascribed as though he had no essential relation to what others now think of him. And yet, his external bearing does not reflect his internal turmoil.
Is his identity really that which he knows of himself—something vastly different from his public persona? The language of the longer central stanza is the haunted voice of his inner unrest, his weakness and powerlessness, his loss of liberty and desperate yearning for the smallest kindness or grace of life.
And so, who am I?—This man as seen by others, or this whom I feel myself to be? Who am I before others—a hypocrite? Before myself—contemptible? Am I both these men? Neither? Who am I? What is my identity?
In the end it is not a question Bonhoeffer can answer, and in the end, he turns from it and lets it go. In the end it is neither a matter of how he appears before others or before himself. Both the approving court of external opinion and the harsh court of internal censure are set to one side. Such opinions, questions and determinations can only mock; they are not a path toward reality or peace. One’s identity rests not in others’ opinions or in one’s own reflections, but in a source external to ourselves. Ricoeur noticed this.
In the final analysis, the ipse or true selfhood that persists when all other aspects of identity fall away consists in the address from beyond itself by another to which the self responds, ‘here am I’ (Zimmermann, 634).
Zimmermann notes that Ricoeur would not identify the source of this address which calls to and grounds the ‘I’—philosophy forbids such identification. This Other could be God, or it could be another person, or perhaps one’s own very self, or perhaps an empty space. Bonhoeffer as a Christian, however, has no such hesitation:
Whoever I am, thou knowest O God, I am thine.
Who he is, whether before others or himself, is a question he cannot answer. But he knows, and he knows that God knows—which is the truly important thing—that he is God’s. His identity and being lie not in himself but in God. And in this he can rest.
In 1963 Emil Brunner wrote that, ‘A further consequence that necessarily follows from the basic error of orthodoxy is the overvaluation of doctrine in the life of the church and in the faith of the individual’ (Truth as Encounter, 178)—this from a man who spent his life teaching and writing books on Christian doctrine! Brunner has not had a change of heart whereby he now considers doctrine to be deleterious to the life of faith or the life of the church. To the contrary sound doctrine is greatly desired and necessary. Still, he asserts that doctrine can be ‘overvalued.’
First it is necessary briefly to note the ‘basic error of orthodoxy’ to which Brunner refers. The error is what he calls objectivism, the idea that somehow God’s activity stands complete in and of itself whether or not there is any human response or correspondence to that activity. This view pictures God’s work in impersonal terms and as such departs from what Brunner considers a more biblical portrayal of God as relational and personal. Thus, Brunner views with suspicion concepts of grace, the church, or the sacraments in which the divine activity is institutionalised or rendered automatic or mechanical in its operation. Brunner uses the practice of baptism as an example. Baptism is a work of divine grace in which God is active forgiving sin, cleansing, and regenerating. But it is not an act of God solely, for the human agent is also active having been moved by grace in faith and confession. Any practice of the sacrament that either implicitly or explicitly diminishes or removes the human element so that the requirement of faith is removed ‘destroys’ the character of the sacrament (181-184). Brunner’s view is that God’s grace and truth is always an ‘event’ in which the person is encountered by God in such a way that their personal response is called for and called forth.
With this background we can begin to explore Brunner’s point in the citation above. Brunner insists that the primary commission received by the church is not doctrine but proclamation.
Proclamation, I suppose, must always have a doctrinal content, but it is itself something other than doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. Genuine proclamation always has a prophetic character – even if we preachers are no prophets; pure doctrine, on the other hand, has a didactic character (178).
As Brunner uses the term, prophetic refers not to foretelling future events or preaching about social issues or condemning various evils—two common misconceptions. Rather it is hortatory address, calling people to respond to God and his promises. It is to be a messenger of the covenant as the Old Testament prophets are sometimes characterised, calling people to faith in God. The prophet confronts the hearer with the reality of God and calls for a decision. Teaching, on the other hand, is didactic, instructional, the communication of information that may or may not have any direct existential claim upon the hearer.
Brunner rejects, therefore, a direct identification of doctrine with ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God is the event whereby a person is addressed by God through the human word of proclamation in such a way that the response of faith and obedience is aroused. In the modern period especially, Brunner contends, proclamation is more necessary than teaching if the church is to fulfil its missionary commission (198). This is even more the case in the postmodern and post-Christian environment in which we now live.
Once let the relation between the Word of God and doctrine be rightly understood, and there will hardly be room any longer for the view that the single thing which the church could do for the awakening of faith is the conceptual clarification of the Holy Scriptures. Has it, then, not yet been noticed that the most perfect knowledge of Biblical concepts and the entire acceptance of Biblical doctrine is wholly compatible with the completest want of actual faith – and indeed that this is anything but a rare phenomenon? (180)
I am sure that Brunner’s reflection provides crucial guidance for the present task of preaching. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus went about teaching (didaskōn), preaching (kērussōn), and healing. Teaching is certainly necessary for those who are already Christians. But even more now than in Brunner’s day the church in the west exists in a missionary context. We would do well to infuse all our sermons with a kerygmatic element—proclamation, and not simply teaching. Such preaching points to the beauty of Jesus Christ, his sovereignty, grace, promise and redemption, and on this basis, calls people to repentance and faith. Such preaching seeks not merely to inform but to call for an informed decision. That such a decision is actually made is not our work, however, but the work of the Holy Spirit. For this we can and should pray.
We had our final Zoom Church service this morning; well, for now at least. From next Sunday our church will be meeting in person again, gathering for worship, fellowship, and teaching, and it seems that most of us are pretty keen to be back together again.
Our church is a smaller congregation with a mostly older demographic. The leadership did not even really consider the possibility of ‘live-streaming’ or pre-recording a service for distribution on the internet.
I’m glad. We would not have had the technical capability to do so, and I am sure the product would have been very poor. Instead they opted for a live Zoom Church model with two or so YouTube worship clips, one to start and one at communion. There was pastoral time, a shortened message, and general conversation at the end that most times included some Q&A around the topic of the message. They worked hard to make sure that our most senior members had devices, could get logged on, could make contact during lockdown via Facebook or email, and could join church services on Zoom. We had folk in their nineties who had never used a computer before joining in like old pros!
I’ve enjoyed Zoom Church. It’s been easy for me since I am not one of the organisers! Before Zoom I was at church early every week to help set up and participate in the worship ministry. For the last two months or more I have Zoomed in at 9:28am or so, wearing pretty casual around-the-house kind of clothes, participated in the service, and at the end, I was already home! It’s been a pretty-relaxed couple of months.
This relaxed approach to church can be deceptive, however. “How can I offer to the Lord that which costs me nothing?” asked David in Chronicles. It is possible that Zoom Church could reinforce the sense of worship and fellowship as optional aspects of Christian life. It could also reinforce a passive, individualist, or consumerist approach to Christian life and worship, although Zoom Church could be better in this respect than live-streaming. At least we can speak to and interact with one another in real time.
Actually this was both a blessing and a difficulty. I found the conversation time at the end of the service could be difficult with one person only at a time being able to talk. Typically our church gathers for ‘foyer time’ – coffee and cake and all kinds of goodies, as well as conversations that can linger on for longer than the service itself. Multiple conversations and prayers happen in this time, and frankly, I prefer the foyer to Zoom.
In Zoom Church we can see faces and hear voices which is great. But it is not the same as the embodied presence of one another when we are all together. Christianity is an embodied religion – think incarnation; think resurrection; think the church as the Body of Christ – and in this respect Zoom is less than adequate.
And embodied gathering is local, public, and visible in a way that Zoom Church is not, and this, too, is part of what it means to be the people of God in the world. The digital environment is a representation that does not yet mediate reality; I doubt it ever will. Reality is messier and more demanding.
But a blessing of Zoom Church has been a new experience and depth of spiritual conversation. At the end of the service many in the congregation have stayed online and we have opened discussions around the content of the message and theme preached. And sometimes, this has been very rich indeed. It was this morning, as different members shared insights and experiences of prayer, faith, brokenness, and hope. I came away from the service grateful for the privilege of having been there, enriched by the depth of conversation, in awe of the way in which God was teaching and forming us through the priesthood of all believers.
As we return to gathered services next week, the leadership of the church are planning to gather differently. We are not going back to ‘business as usual,’ but are endeavouring to retain some of the advances we have made in Zoom Church. Foremost for me, is the hope that we can retain and grow in this practice of spiritual conversation.
The latest edition of The Advocate is now available (published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia). During COVID this has been a digital publication only. This month’s edition has many reflections with respect to the situation in which we find ourselves, including my brief reflection on Martin Luther’s 1527 letter On Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague.
My article starts as follows:
The Reformers had first-hand experience with the plague, which struck with great fear. In the mid-fourteenth century it devastated Europe, killing tens of millions of people in only five years. And every decade or so afterwards it would return bringing fear and death.
Ulrich Zwingli almost died of it in 1519 in Zurich. Andreas von Karlstadt did die of it in Basel in 1541. And Luther, too, experienced it in Wittenberg in 1527, ironically, as he responded to a letter asking Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.