What about Bonhoeffer?

You know how sometimes, events cluster together.  This has happened to me recently with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. First, I read the relatively new biography by Eric Metaxas.  Here's the two minute promo video.


Then I met a young man several weeks ago while worshipping at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kennebunk, Maine.  He has been attending the congregation for less than a year, and initially started coming after he heard an interview with Metaxas on television.  The young man and his wife were so taken with Bonhoeffer's story and writings that they sought out a Lutheran Church.   Hmmm, Bonhoeffer as evangelist.

Then I picked up Cost of Discipleship and started reading it yesterday.  It's been 30 years.  Ask my wife Lisa and she'll say this was the most important book she read in college.  

Now today, I get this wonderful follow up to our synod assembly panel of non-affiliated guests from Professor John Hoffmeyer from our Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.  I had asked him to write a response to the evening discussion.  Why ask John?  Cause I think John is one of those hidden secrets we have in the Lutheran community.   His response is below, and includes this discussion of Bonhoeffer.

Hmmmm, I'm thinkin' someone might be steering me toward more Bonhoeffer.  If you are not familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I suggest starting with his biography or the movie, Agent of Change.  That should prepare you for his writings.

Here is Professor Hoffmeyer's letter:  In a few days, I'll post my thoughts on his letter, particularly his insights into what was not said by our panelists (see below paragraph two).  I think this may suggest a significant opportunity for us in the christian community, and I'll explain what I mean.

Dear Bishop Hazelwood,

You asked me for reflections on the stimulating conversation with the group of invited guests on Friday evening of the recent Synod Assembly. Two things struck me most. One is the extent to which the guests saw the church as being in the rules business. In their experience, the church told them what to believe, how to act, and how to think. They objected to this.

The fact that our guests had experienced the church as being about rules made me sad. The Christmas angel who appeared to the shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce Jesus’ birth did not say, “I bring you a set of rules that will tell you the right way to think and the right way to act.” The angel said, “Do not be afraid, because I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” How sad it is that we in the church have acted in such a way that people associate the church with rules more than with joy and freedom from fear. How sad it is that our guests perceived the church in this way, but it did not surprise me.

The other thing that struck me was not what our guests said, but what they did not say. None of them, as far as I can remember, said anything about a sense of failure, a sense of tensions and contradictions in life that undermined their own efforts to live a good life and make the world a better place. None of them said anything about a sense of guilt, a sense of being complicit, even against their own desire, in structures and practices that hurt other people or damage the non-human world. In short, none of them articulated for their own lives the problems to which Lutherans have traditionally addressed the promise of the gospel. In the language of the beginnings of Lutheranism in the 16th century, none of them talked about having a “terrified conscience.” In more contemporary terms, none of them expressed a sense of needing to be delivered or healed from the things that Lutherans have traditionally highlighted as the problems for which the gospel offers deliverance and healing.

I think that it is important to listen and not to rush to “fix” things, but I do have one suggestion for something that might help us in thinking about “so what does this mean for the church?” We could read (or re-read) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s exploration of a “religionless Christianity” or a “non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts” in his letters from a Nazi prison cell beginning in April 1944. Bonhoeffer came to mind for two reasons. First, he was thinking precisely about what the gospel is for people who do not feel a need for God or religion to fill in something missing in their lives. Second, he was very clear that the gospel and religion are two quite different things. That is an insight that we should explore and expand in a time and place where so many persons identify as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Thank you for asking for my thoughts.