Bonhoeffer Scholarship Come of Age

Review of Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness of Christianity by Barry Harvey. Cascade Books, 2015.

This Review was Published in Cultural Encounters in 2017.

“Taking Hold of the Real” by Barry Harvey is a powerful book with an important message for Christians today. More than yet another monograph on Bonhoeffer, it offers a compelling analysis of the state of our Western society and the Church’s complicity in its ills. With Bonhoeffer’s help, Harvey seeks to describe an alternative way of being in the world that patterns itself after Christ’s being with and for the world. Harvey takes up Bonhoeffer’s concept of this-worldliness (the insistence that Christian existence is to be radically worldly in a christocentric sense) within the context of a world come of age. The world come of age is yet another term Bonhoeffer coined while in prison to describe the emergence of a modern world that had thrown off religion as an unnecessary garment as it encountered a new dawn of rationality and alleged maturity. How should Christians be Christians in such a world, Bonhoeffer wondered?

Bonhoeffer merely offers us fragments. Harvey, however, carefully analyses and reconstructs Bonhoeffer’s concepts and uses them as a springboard for an in-depth and up-to-date interpretation of our own contemporary Western society. Harvey identifies the modern social technologies of the modern age, religion, culture, and race, as instruments to create a well-ordered state which operates according to its own internal and self-perpetuating measurements and mechanisms in order to “assume control over virtually every aspect of our lives” resulting in our “abdication of the need in a world come of age to make substantive moral judgments” (p. 109). The state streamlines its citizens into well-behaved consumers, categorizes, masters, and subjugates the cultural and racial other, and relegates religion to the innocuous and thus irrelevant realm of private values. Going back and forth between Bonhoeffer, contemporary social critics, theologians, and his own analysis, Harvey shows that much of the Church has in fact succumbed to worldliness, but not the kind that Bonhoeffer talked about. In order to counter this modernist malaise we need to embrace the so-called scandal of particularity, namely, that of the Jew Jesus (p. 204). We need to repent of the sin of supersessionism.

Harvey points to an emerging trend in Bonhoeffer’s own thought of seeking to read the New Testament in light of the Old. Harvey proposes a figural reading of the Old Testament in which we are constantly reminded of the Church’s embeddedness in the narrative of Israel through Jesus the Messiah. This will heal the Church of its docile submission to the system of modernity. Thus a learning attitude is fostered toward the Jewish people as ones who found ways to exist as a minority in the shadow of empire. Being a musician himself, Harvey picks up on Bonhoeffer’s theme of the polyphony of life and unpacks it as a powerful metaphor useful for the specific understanding of the proposed this-worldliness of Christianity that involves a weaving together of the concepts of space, human personality, and community (p. 252). The polyphony of life centered around the cantus firmus of Christ is the alternative against “the monophony of acquisition and consumption” (p. 253) of the buffered self subjugated by the social technologies of the modern age. The book finishes with a kind of coda that generously but also critically compares Bonhoeffer’s role in the resistance with a faith community in France at that time that saved many Jews from death in the concentration camps.

Sometimes footnotes do matter. To understand where Harvey comes from, the one footnote in which Eric Metaxas and Charles Marsh (both Bonhoeffer biographers) are rejected as offering extreme interpretations is telling. In this, he serves Metaxas well, but hardly does justice to the erudition of Bonhoeffer scholar Marsh. It is, however, typical for Harvey’s evangelical scholarship that, while looking askance at a too liberal interpretation of Bonhoeffer, knows how to steer clear from a conservative hijacking of Bonhoeffer for the current political situation. No doubt, Harvey represents one of the most in-depth and balanced engagements of Bonhoeffer anywhere.

His “Bonhoeffer scholarship come of age” not only pertains to the close and careful reading of Bonhoeffer’s work, but also shows itself in Harvey’s insistence that the whole of Bonhoeffer’s work needs to be seen as a unity. Harvey puts his money where his mouth is when he cites profusely from Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being where many others would prefer not to touch these difficult texts. With it, this book offers a contemporary praxis of the kind of theological interest that Bonhoeffer himself embodied: a theology in and for the world, intended to shape and influence that world, while pointing toward Christ as its Center.

Harvey helpfully integrates post-colonial theory and theories of the theological origins of racism into his analysis. His willingness to engage these discourses is refreshing and will no doubt help the Church see into the mirror (p. 205!). Especially his close reading of Willie Jennings’ “The Christian Imagination” provides a sobering assessment of Christianity’s implication in the process of racialization over the past 500 years. It is equally confronting to read of the Church’s docile submission to being relegated to the realm of private values where it no longer stands in the way of the machinations of the modern age.

Harvey offers a thick description of both Bonhoeffer’s terminology and our current situation. When a scholar elucidates an ambiguous concept such as this-worldliness by means of Bonhoeffer’s use of the Old Testament, you know he doesn’t cut corners. Nonetheless there are a few oddities. Harvey interprets Bonhoeffer’s world come of age as ironic. That is to say, Bonhoeffer doesn’t really think the world has come of age. Many scholars, however, rather think that with this term Bonhoeffer was trying to take the new world with utter seriousness. Yet, the way Harvey makes use of this ironic reading to reveal the current state of affairs, makes it entirely justified and meaningful. One could also wonder, notwithstanding Harvey’s convincing arguments, whether Bonhoeffer’s figural use of the Old Testament was, in Bonhoeffer’s own mind, the antidote against the social technologies of the modern world.

This brings me to one important observation. Even though Harvey shows awareness of Bonhoeffer’s lutheran background and the influence of Luther’s theology on Bonhoeffer’s thought, there is not even one mention of the the term “theology of the cross.” Bonhoeffer’s theology, however, can really only be understood well if it is seen as a theologia crucis (as Bonhoeffer scholar Gaylon Barker has recently pointed out). Harvey, for instance, criticizes Bonhoeffer’s stance on natural theology, but that would not have been meaningful had he understood Bonhoeffer’s stance against it as integral to his theology of the cross. The theologia crucis functions as a rejection of all philosophical conceptualizations of God, but also as a hermeneutical principle with regard to both Scripture and with regard to the identity of the Church. It constitutes also an ethical call to the Church to be for others especially those marginalized and oppressed. This is central to Bonhoeffer’s thought.

Harvey does make mention of the Church’s identification with the suffering Messiah so he does get the importance of suffering presence as a leitmotif in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Perhaps, using the concept of the theology of the cross as a main category doesn’t come automatically for a baptist scholar. What is really interesting though, is that one of Harvey’s main arguments, namely the need for a figural reading of the Old Testament, i.e. the reading of the New Testament in the Old, is precisely a pointing toward the theology of the cross that is not mentioned. According to the theology of the cross, theology begins with the particularity of the man Jesus Christ in whom God has revealed Godself. Beginning there also means beginning with Jesus’ jewishness and the story of Israel. The Church is only the Church as grafted into the narrative of the people of Israel. Harvey inadvertently makes his own contribution to a better understanding of the function of the Old Testament in Bonhoeffer’s theologia crucis: “…in the Old Testament the blessing includes the cross…” (p. 221).

This book may not be the easiest to read for a lay person. Harvey uses difficult words and complex concepts and does not always explain them. Yet, Harvey’s analysis of our current society and the way he brings Bonhoeffer’s thought to bear on our modern world come of age, make this book indispensable for Christians today. There are enough books about our faith, spirituality, or our relationship with God, but not nearly enough books that tell us what it means to be worldly in a way that transforms our culture. Harvey’s figural reading of Bonhoeffer shows us what following Jesus Christ means for the Church today. It is my hope that the Church will heed Barry Harvey’s message.


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