Category Archives: Books

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

An Enduring Voice

There is still an hour or two before the day ends: enough time to recall with gratitude, the life and legacy of Jane Austen – who died two hundred years ago on this date. Not that I can say much more than to what extent I appreciate her work. I am a fan and an admirer, not an expert.

Austen died on July 18 1817 at just forty-one years of age, after a year or more during which her health had been deteriorating. Her books, published anonymously during her lifetime, became amongst the most loved in English literature, and have enjoyed continual publication from the time they were first presented to the reading public until the present. They have also stimulated a raft of film adaptations, as well as a whole genre of Austen-knock-offs.

In some respects, Jane Austen has been viewed as writing simple romances, stories that tell a happy tale that ends with the heroine securing her husband and living happily ever after. More recent scholarship, however, insists that Austen’s novels

… are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. (See my post on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

Austen is very aware of the social, cultural and political factors at work in her world, as well as the hopes and sorrows, triumphs and pains, that attend daily affairs. She too, like her sister Cassandra, knew what it was to love and be loved, though neither ever married. Cassandra’s fiancé died in the West Indies when she was twenty-four. Her family said that Jane loved a young clergyman who also had died.

A couple of months ago I read Persuasion in part to recall this author whose legacy we honour. Toward the end of the book there is a spirited discussion between Anne Elliott and Captain Harville about whether men or women have the deeper feelings, more constant and faithful:

“Well, Miss Elliott, as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall.—Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands…”

This telling line provides a little window, perhaps, into what Jane Austen was about, when she took up the pen. And we are immeasurably the richer for it.

A Book for Baptists: Contesting Catholicity

I picked up one new book at the ANZATS Conference this year, which is something of a record (to buy only one…)! The book by Curtis Freeman is entitled, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Freeman is Research Professor of Theology and Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. The term “other Baptists” comes from a list of Baptist statistics, in which various Baptist denominations were named. The final category in the statistical list was “Other Baptist.” As he reflected on the list, he realised that he belonged to that category of “Other Baptists,” which he defines as neither conservative nor liberal. Here is a paragraph from the Preface of the volume:

This book offers a theology for other Other Baptists. It is part diagnostic and part therapeutic. The diagnosis is that many Baptists and other Free Church Christians are suffering from a condition that if left untreated results in death. This sickness did not happen all at once. It was gradual. Nor are the signs of its pathology obvious. They are silent and often unnoticed. Yet the result is deadly. The remedy for this sickness unto death (John 11:4) is the life that is really life (1 Tim 6:19). This life is not the product of human creativity. It is God’s own life, and its curative power is realized by participating in the fellowship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, with the saints. [What a great line; just sayin’…] This is the life of the world. In a word the cure lies in the rediscovery of catholicity. Baptist Christians are more familiar with dissent than catholicity, but, as I show, the way of recovery comes by embracing a mode of being in which contestation and catholicity are not opposites but are instead complementary and necessary for the church to be the church.

Freeman wants to chart a course between the Scylla of conservatism and the Charybdis of liberalism, “toward a generous orthodoxy,” along the way of postliberalism—Duke is not far from Yale after all, and Hauerwas is also at Duke! The chapter titles show the outline of his theology, especially in Part II. He deals with matters of the triune God, the priesthood of all believers, the gathering of the believers in Jesus’ name, light from Scripture, evangelical sacramentalism, and a final chapter entitled, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” His ultimate aim to be remain a Baptist Christian, but a Baptist within the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” I don’t know when I will have time to read this, but I am looking forward to doing so, and will blog it as I do.

New Barth Books

Two new Barth books arrived in the post this week, all the more exciting because they are primary documents rather than new books about Barth.

The first A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons contains thirteen sermons preached by Barth to his small congregation at Safenwil from July 26 through November 1, 1914 – the first three months of the war. Here is the young pastor Karl Barth, twenty-eight years of age, wrestling with the meaning of the war in the light of Scripture and theology. Nine of the sermons are based on New Testament texts, and four on the Old Testament. This is the first time these sermons have been translated for an English audience, and I am very much looking forward to reading this volume, together with its introductory essay by Canadian translator and editor William Klempa.

The second volume is also early Barth. The Epistle to the Ephesians were amongst the first lectures given by Professor Barth in the winter semester at Göttingen, 1921-1922, just months after Barth had ended his pastorate at Safenwil and finished the second edition of his Romans commentary. It seems Barth spent most of the course exegeting his way through the first chapter of the epistle, and then devoted the final lesson to chapters two through six! This volume also comes with introductory essays by Francis Watson and the late John Webster.

I have dipped at random into A Unique Time and present a brief excerpt (pp. 112-113):

So war, even this terrible war, has its place in God’s purposeful design of peace for us. Hence, for us men and women, what matters is that we have a living experience of the wrath and of the unspeakable grace of God, to which the European nations now tread so near. Nothing else will help us. In this time, victory and defeat can again be quickly reversed. For thousands of years the history of humanity has simply been a story of alternating victories and defeats. God has permitted time and again that humanity would go its way and on its way find only misery. Victory and success should no longer be what they want; what do they get out of them? Surely, we should all let God speak to us through the present storm, for which human beings are at fault. This will pass away, but you remain! As long as we keep on praying only for victory and success, God will not hear us, and we will continue to be confronted by new storms through our own fault.

Moveover, we Swiss should not think and pray in this manner. Yes, we want to pray for our beloved country, but not to a god of war and victory, in accordance with the practice of the ancient Jews and the pagans. Nor are we to pray that narrow-minded selfish prayer: “Spare our house; instead, burn down someone else’s!” Yes, and if the situation were to become serious, in no way could we boast about our just cause! Nor could we at all demand without question that the good Lord stand right behind our soldiers and cannons. We also are culpable in our whole being for the present world’s situation. Rather, we must pray as Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done! And forgive us our sins! And deliver us from evil!”

Lord, set us free, not from the enemies but from the powers of darkness that are in and around us, from falsehood and arrogance, meanness and thoughtlessness. Lord, let us be victorious, not over foreign nations but over ourselves, over our selfishness. Lord, let us triumph, not in outward success but in letting ourselves be filled and empowered with your love, freedom, and justice. Dear friends, let this be our war prayer, the war prayer of a neutral nation. . . .  May God grant this. If we so pray, God hears us. 

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (2)

In an initial post, I provided an overview of the first part of this book by Scott Hendrix.

The second part of the book is comprised of ten chapters covering the period from 1522-1546. Here the pace of the book slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. Luther steadfastly resisted rigorist developments which either enforced reform on unwilling participants or bound their conscience with all kinds of rules. Instead he sought to liberate consciences and counter “unthinking piety.”

Nor was Luther’s concern limited to spiritual matters. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. In Luther’s view, God’s word and grace had given Germany an opportunity which it dare not refuse lest it fall back into misery and darkness, as had happened to the Jews, the Greeks, and now Rome and the Latins. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents. Hendrix details formative ecclesiastical developments, especially the German mass, the new church order, and formal parish visitations for quality-control and oversight which together facilitated the establishing of a new form of (Evangelical) church. Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges,

If all of that resembles the ideal monastic life of common prayer and work—although stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection, and adapted for all “earnest Christians” outside the cloister—it is no coincidence. Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man (176).

Nonetheless, Luther’s refusal to limit the church to the “faithful,” faith-filled or fully-devoted is of a piece with his theology: we are ever sinners in need of grace. Thus Luther rejected the perfectionism of the monastery while retaining other aspects of its ideal of a life devoted to God. His Small Catechism sought to instil the fear and love of God as the manner of Christian life such that God’s people were free but did not “misuse” their freedom ((196-197).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (1)

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. Subtitled Visionary Reformer, we catch a glimpse of Hendrix’s purpose on page 115:

From this point on, freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free. The decisive turning point in his life was not the ninety-five theses or the Diet of Worms. It happened at the Wartburg, where he adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed to have come from God. It was based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was intent on pursuing.

Hendrix has divided his book into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Hendrix details Luther’s demanding schedule in the years prior to 1517 as a cleric, professor and administrator. “When the ninety-five theses made their splash, their author was not an insignificant Augustinian monk. Rather, Brother Martin belonged to the senior management of the Reformed Congregation” (46). His initial aim was reform of the curriculum at Wittenberg University, along humanist rather than scholastic lines, emphasising the study of Scripture and the early teachers of the church, especially Augustine. But the indulgence controversy caused the reforming impulse to move beyond the university. Here a pastoral motive emerges alongside the theological; this was theology applied for the nature of the gospel and the salvation of the people was at stake. Thus theological, pastoral, hermeneutical—and financial and political—factors combined to spark the Reformation.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. His disputations at Heidelberg, and with Cajetan and Eck were apologetic attempts to commend his new theology. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). By now he had given up on the clergy taking up the call to reform the church, and so turned to the German nobility to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. The papal bull Exsurge Domine, the edict of ex-communication, and the summons to appear before the emperor at Worms issued in Luther’s determination to recognise the authority of scripture as greater than that of the papacy. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, holed up in the Wartburg, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, a “visionary Reformer.”

New Barth Books

Today Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth arrived in the post, the Conference papers from the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. Contributors include Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Bauckham, Willie James Jennings, Bruce McCormack, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, and a sermon by Fleming Rutledge. The line-up looks great, and I am very much looking forward to reading the contributions by Moltmann and McCormack particularly. Moltmann’s essay addresses “Barth on the Doctrine of Predestination,” while McCormack explores “Barth on Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction.”

A week or two ago Paul Nimmo’s new introduction to Karl Barth arrived. Nimmo is a prominent younger Barth scholar, who I had the privilege of meeting briefly last year at the Barth Conference. (I also got to meet both Migliore and Guretzki at the same Conference!)

There are quite a few introductions to Barth and I look forward to seeing how he interprets Barth. His approach is to give an overview of each volume of Barth’s Dogmatics, and then provide a brief reflection. Because I am lecturing on Karl Barth this semester, I have already started reading sections of Nimmo relevant to my lectures, along with the magisterial treatment of Barth’s theology by Eberhard Busch (The Great Passion).

Finally, I have been sent a review copy of David Guretzki’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth which I need to read and review in the near future. This looks like a very different kind of introduction; Guretzki appears to have written for the novice approaching Barth for the first time, and it will be fun to read his book alongside the more formal treatments by Nimmo and Busch.

I will post reviews on this site in time…

History by the Earful

A couple of months ago I purchased two new audio books to listen to while cycling. Often, while cycling, I listen to novels: they do not seem to demand as much concentration. Listening to non-fiction is harder, and I seem only to get a portion of what I am hearing.

The first of the books is Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. The sub-title indicates the bold, perhaps grandiose, vision of the book. Of course it is impossible to write a complete history of the world; that would be beyond any possible scholarly capacity.  Frankopan, however, has achieved much of what he has set out to do.

Frankopan argues that Asia and the Middle East constitute the “heart of the world,” and that major trading cities were strung across this region, across “the spine of Asia,” like a string of pearls. These cities became centres of mercantile activity from ancient eras to the present, and indeed, the world as a whole is pivoting back to this region as it once more fulfils its role (destiny?) as “the heart of the world.”

Frankopan’s history is deeply fascinating and somewhat depressing. He manages to include enormous detail and great sweeps and movements of history as he exploits the imagery of the “silk road.” The origin of the term refers, of course, to the trade routes linking China to the west so that silk production in the former might find its way to the latter. In Frankopan’s hands, the silk roads become the “road to heaven” (the crusades) and the “road to hell” (the Black Death or the plagues). He speaks of the “slave road,” and the “road to the Christian east;” the roads of furs, gold, silver, and black gold. The roads to compromise, genocide, and super-power rivalry; the roads of catastrophe and tragedy.

There is much in the book to inform Christian interest in church history, though Frankopan seems to regard religion as a human capacity. His treatment of the modern world, as expected, is more detailed than that of the ancient world. The British are portrayed as a particularly wicked empire, followed closely by the Americans, though Hitler is worst of all, simply and utterly evil. In contrast to the British, other brutal tyrants of history such as Genghis Khan seem almost tame by comparison. But perhaps I missed some of Frankopan’s nuance, due to the cycling.

So why was it somewhat depressing? Because the story is one of warfare, conquest, exploitation, bloodshed, and tyranny, and all this based on economics and the desire for power or glory. While trade has certainly opened up the world and brought its varied peoples into contact and communication with one another, it has also opened doorways to violent military conflicts that have devastated entire peoples and regions.

As I listened I was glad for relatively recent developments in international relations and law which serve to constrain some of these worst impulses, though obviously not entirely. I was also very aware that the privilege I enjoy as a member of a first-world society has been funded at least in part by injustice in previous generations and centuries.

Is there hope that the future might be different from the past? Might new systems and mechanisms of trade and development emerge that somehow privilege the under-developed nations and allow them to space to prosper, even if “economic growth” and “standards of living” in the wealthier countries do not continue to grow at the rates we seem to desire? Might warfare and violence be constrained, and its devastating impact on civilian populations (especially children) reduced? Can the international community find better ways of relating than via stand-off and conflict?

I am not overly optimistic about this. It seems humanity is fatally incapable of learning that the way of hubris and greed leads inevitably to destruction, both for others and ultimately, for oneself. Perhaps works like Frankopan’s will help stimulate deeper reflection across many constituencies, and so result in new movements towards peace and justice. Such movements are welcome and are to be encouraged.

In the end, however, I find I hope most in the eschatological and apocalyptic vision of the New Testament: that is, I hope for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishing of the kingdom of God. As Christians, it is this in which we hope, this that we are to image now in our life together, and this that we are to work toward.

I found this a very worthwhile book, one I will listen to again. I have also bought a Kindle edition and hope one day to read it as well. I can recommend it.

Credo (A Review)

St Bega's Church
St Bega’s Church

This is the only novel I have read in over twelve months—a very sad state of affairs! I began it last year and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I have managed to listen to a number of novels however, so it hasn’t been a complete withdrawal from the world of fiction.

Melvyn Bragg was labelled by The Times as a “novelist, television presenter, and arts doyen.” He has led a quite public life in the UK and was made a peer, Lord Bragg, in the 1990s. This is the first novel I have read by Bragg, though I have another on the shelf. The story-telling in this novel is quite good and the style, while neither riveting nor overly-memorable, does its duty of maintaining sufficient interest to keep the narrative moving.

Credo is a large work, over 750 pages, telling the story of Bega, a young Irish princess who becomes a nun at Whitby Abbey in the mid-seventh century, and establishes her own convent shortly afterwards. Based faintly on historical events, characters and writings, Bragg has imagined how things might have been, drawing especially on the work of Bede the Venerable, who features in the book as a child. The story follows the life and love, the faith and service, prayer and miracles, struggles and triumphs of Bega in a world dominated by political ambitions, warfare, and ecclesiastical factions (the Roman church and the Celts) striving for their own versions of Christianity.

The portrayal of the faith of these early British Christians was interesting. Bragg presents them as dedicated and devout, and in their pre-scientific culture, credulous, even superstitious. Their asceticism and their focus on prayer is emphasised while the presence and influence of the Scriptures is peripheral. Bega is shown as specially marked out and gifted by God with special grace and powers, though her exceptional humility keeps her from any self-aggrandisement.

The relationship between Bega the Christian leader and Reggiani a local pagan wise woman and healer is explored, with Bega often—from a modern perspective at least—appearing backward and ill-informed. Yet her faith and faithful prayer triumphs in the midst of much adversity, suffering, and self-abasement.

CredoThe historical record of Bega is slight. In an afterword Bragg notes that she “hovers between the historical and the mythic,” although traces of her life still exist in place names, and a tiny lakeside church by Bassenthwaite in the Lakes District named St Bega’s (752, 756f.). She is said to have inspired miracles until about 1300.

I had never heard of her, although I have known of and visited the abbey at Whitby, know the story of Hild, and am aware of the important synod held there in the mid-seventh century. Bragg brings these events and their personalities to vivid life, though to what extent the portrayal is an accurate reflection of the reality, I am not sure.

Reading this book has kindled a desire to read—sometime—Bede’s history of the English church, and perhaps other works of history to learn more of these faithful Celtic Christians, and the extraordinary devotion and service they appear to have shown. Thus I have found the book worth reading, and not simply for a fascinating and enjoyable story.

Strange Glory – Reflections

Strange GloryWhen I am on my bike or on the train or doing some housework, I often listen to audio books. Mostly I have listened to fiction, but I recently began listening to other genres, including this wonderful biography by Charles Marsh: Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Knopf, 2014), 528pp.

I cannot write a review of the book because listening, especially when doing something else, means I do not give the book my undivided attention. Nor can I provide page numbers or citations. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and intend some time to read the book itself.

So what did I enjoy? Strange Glory was well written and beautifully read by Paul Hecht. It covered the whole life of Bonhoeffer with a great deal of detail, insight and connection. It presented Bonhoeffer as a complicated human being, brilliant and needy, a member of the privileged elite with a great concern for the common man. It was theologically rich and informed, not compromising the depth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in the telling of his story. It relied extensively on primary texts, especially the letters and journals of Bonhoeffer himself. It provided an entrée into Bonhoeffer’s personal thought and relationships, his prejudices and commitments, his loves and affections, his misgivings, self-doubts (at times) and determinations. It charted his development as a person, churchman and theologian across the course of his life. It explored his dedication to the ethical character of the Christian life without reducing Christianity to ethics.

CharlesMarsh

Much discussion surrounding Marsh’s book concerns the author’s portrayal of Bonhoeffer as gay, as in love with his friend, confidante and confessor Eberhard Bethge. He does not assert that the two friends had a sexual relationship, but that Bonhoeffer, at least, was in love. Marsh does provide many details to support his case, though whether his argument is convincing is disputed amongst reviewers. I am not sufficiently acquainted with Bonhoeffer to make a firm determination on the matter—is anyone?—but I am not wholly convinced by Marsh. In the end, the issue is peripheral and should not detract from the major aspects of his story.

Far more important in my estimation, is the portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a man of great passion and compassion in addition to his penetrating intellect. Despite his elitism and eccentricities, he loved those he ministered to, struggled to find his place in the world of German Christendom, and was amongst the first to understand that the Nazi oppression of the Jews was a betrayal of the gospel. His life exemplified both the “cost of discipleship” as well as a fulsome embrace of the delights of the world and culture. One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me, and something I want and need to return to, was the way that Marsh was able to correlate Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde “experiment” with the theological development that occurred in the prison years. Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” constituted new growth in the field of his thought, but not disjunction with that which preceded it.

Anyone interested in Bonhoeffer’s life and theology will gain much benefit from this extensively researched biography. Formal reviews of the book can be found at First Things, the Gospel Coalition, the New York Times, and the usual theological journals.