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Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5 Kindle Edition
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be as close as we Lutherans get to declaring a saint. He is the most notable Lutheran theologian of the 2oth century, and he may be the only Lutheran theologian whose name, aside from Martin Luther himself, whom Lutheran lay congregants recognize. But I suspect few Lutherans know anything about his works beyond his Letters and Papers from Prison. Up to a short time ago, I was familiar with only three other works, all available in popular paperbacks. I have since discovered that Bonhoeffer's works in English fill 16 volumes.
My interest here lies with Life Together, as an interesting contrast to The Rule of St. Benedict. Bonhoeffer's primary experience was with the community of Lutheran seminarians at the 'underground' Confessing Church's Finkenwalde Seminary in 1935--1937, where Bonhoeffer was a professor. St. Benedict's on Monte Cassino was founded sometime shortly before 543 CE. The only real similarity is that both communities were founded in times of extreme civil stress, and both communities may have been a refuge from that stress. The difference is that Benedict's stress came largely from brigands. He had the support of his church and state, such as it was, behind him. Bonhoeffer did not have the support of Germany's 45 million Protestants or even of his own Lutheran church. His opponent was the most ruthlessly evil state in modern history. Bonhoeffer became a founding member of the `Confessing Church', formed to oppose Nazification of the churches. No more than 1/6 of all the Protestant clergy in Germany opposed the Nazi regime.
While Benedict's community seemed to primarily be a spiritual refuge for peasants and the lesser merchant and handicraft businesses, Bonhoeffer's own community was composed of German intellectual elite, who were in training to be pastors. Benedict's rule is all about `what and `how'. Bonhoeffer's far more theological work is primarily about `why', plus a lot about the `how' that Benedict does not cover.
In Bonhoeffer's words, `Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this...Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.' He explains this statement with three points:
1. `Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone.'
2. `A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. Among human beings there is strife. "He is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14)'
3. `When God's Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily, out of pure grace, took on our being, our nature, ourselves. This was the eternal decree of the triune God. Now we are in him.
Bonhoeffer has much practical advice about the conduct of morning and evening services. Except that service must include scripture reading, psalms, and prayer, he states 'Daily morning worship will take as many different forms as there are communities. That is the way it is bound to be. When a community living together includes children, it needs a different sort of daily worship than a community of seminarians'.
Like Luther, Bonhoeffer had a special regard for praying the Psalms, as it is simultaneously God's word and the prayer of human beings. The psalms are especially useful for communal celebration, due to their antiphonal structure. He has no interest in dismissing those psalms which seem rooted in an earlier age, a `preliminary stage of religion'. The Psalter is `the great school of prayer. First, we learn here what prayer means...on the basis of promises. Second, we learn from the prayer of the Psalms what we should pray. Third, the prayer of the Psalms teaches us to pray as a community.'
This book is a great source of guidance for our Worship and Music committees, and the advice on hymn singing has a special ring to it. He admonishes those who sing too loud, sing out of step, sing poorly, or do not sing at all. He honestly believes those who cannot sing are far rarer than congregants would like us to believe.
Although Bonhoeffer has kind words for the `Daily Texts' of the Moravians, for communal Bible reading, he prefers the lectio continua method, where a book is read from front to back, covering as much as a half chapter in a service. For those `mature Christians' (familiar with the Bible), any length of reading may seem too long. Bonhoeffer says the depths of connections in scriptural passages, as God's word of revelation in Jesus Christ, make it eternally illuminating to the careful reader.
Bonhoeffer has much to say about life alone, and how this relates to communal life. On this subject, we see how Bonhoeffer has inherited Luther's love of dialectics, where two puzzling and seemingly incompatible statements are joined. For example, `Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone'. This continues Bonhoeffer's theme which I try to paraphrase as `The Christian community is not a `therapeutic' community. It is not composed to `heal'. People with psychosocial pathologies need not apply. Life in the community is not `medicine' or `bed rest' for the psychically damaged. Communal life regimens are like exercise, sunshine, good food, daily showers, and 8 hours of sleep every night. In other words, it is a regimen to stay healthy.
Even though Bonhoeffer is not direct about opposing laughter and loud talking, you hear undercurrents of a good Prussian prudery which would have made the Puritans proud. One wonders what he would have thought of the communities of the contemporary `New Monasticism', where members put on ad hoc circuses and street fairs. One also wonders how he would handle the physically fragile, infirm, demented, and bedridden.
Sirach 10:12--13a The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its maker. 13 For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
The chapter on 'Confession and the Lord's Supper' may be surprising to American protestants, as it recommends something very close to the Catholic sacrament of confession. `Confession in the presence of another believer is the most profound kind of humiliation. It hurts, makes one feel small; it deals a terrible blow to one's pride....but our community with Jesus Christ shatters all pride. We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we are afraid of go in to the place where Jesus can be found, to the public death of the sinner.'
This book is one with which you must join in dialogue, and address its issues, if you have any intentions of pursuing a contemporary Christian community.
The Bonhoeffer Works edition of Life Together provides historical clarification with extensive notes from leading Bonhoeffer scholars. It is an excellent resource both for those who are studying Bonhoeffer academically and those who use this book in church groups.
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