Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mid-revision reflections

Clifford Green, the president of the International Bonhoeffer Society, writes extensively on Bonhoeffer's theology and is considered one of the prominent Bonhoeffer scholars. Other scholars answer to his interpretations, critiques and assessments. As I read his writing, he litters his comments with these really great German words (Grenze, Mundigkeit, Existenz - I'm always alarmed at the fact that these nouns are capitalized and then remember that this is how Germans treat all nouns - so democratic).

I don't know German, but for the first time, wish I did. By reading these terms in their original sound and shape, I can see how much of my reading of Bonhoeffer is guided by my own language, my culture, my English-framed view of theology. I would love to hear how the words felt and sounded to Dietrich.

Green's work with the letters includes touching and holding them, examining them firsthand in their fragmented form, on old sheets of paper, weather and care-worn. Green writes that the book Ethics by Bonhoeffer was never actually a book. It was the last collection of writings intended to be a book written by Bonhoeffer before his imprisonment. The book was created based on a series of fragments gathered from hiding places posthumously. Some of Bonhoeffer's writings had been confiscated by the Gestapo so we know that the resulting "book" is actually the best scholars can do to gather up remaining fragments, arrange them in some kind of order and sell it to us, the public, in a book format. Not all of what Bonhoeffer wrote is even in the book. They admit that the dating of some of the pieces was dependent on things like comparing the kinds of paper Bonhoeffer used to each other. If one undated sheet was from the same stationary as a dated one, the scholars would make an assumption that the dates must have been similar.

Additionally, Bonhoeffer's handwriting is notoriously bad, so scholars have to make educated guesses about what he meant by various scribbles - what words might he have meant to include? He also uses his own abbreviations for ideas knowing he'd return to revise his own work... only he never did. So it's up to scholars to guess about what these stood for as well. (Many a scholarly career has been sustained through the defense of a position about what a scribble or abbreviation means in any historical text...) Scholars also analyze things like which books Bonhoeffer read during a period of his writing. They can reread those books and see where the ideas were absorbed into Bonhoeffer's thinking, even down to specific terminology. Makes a lot of sense to me as I look back at my own writing and can see how various writers' thoughts are more apparent during the seasons where I was reading them.

The letters and papers from prison, similarly, were not all together laid out in order for Bonhoeffer to review and build on. He was not writing a book. He was writing to a friend, mostly. His theological explorations were written in the dark, that is, blindly. He couldn't go back and compare his thinking in one letter to another. He was literally developing his thoughts as he wrote without the benefit of hindsight or revision.

There are many moments where Bonhoeffer says in a letter to Bethge that he will return to an idea later to flesh it out... and then never does. Bonhoeffer didn't have a "sent" file to check and so as he wrote and mailed off his letters, they were gone from him. His next letter may have built on the thinking, but the continuity can be difficult to establish conclusively. Additionally, it's clear in reading the letters that letter writing allowed him to make statements he might have nuanced more carefully had the audience been "the whole world" rather than a trusted friend and fellow theologian. It's clear he never imagined these letters would be published.

Even though I've worked with this material in various forms for four years, and while I have been reading and rereading the LPP for longer than that, it's interesting to me that it took a scholar laying out how fragmentary the last writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were for me to imagine in my mind's eye the stack of old, wrinkled, sheafs of scribbly writing. I always forget it. I've got that book on my shelf that deceives me into thinking he wrote a book.

I got to thinking again about the importance of immersing oneself in the reality of the historical context of whatever we study, particularly the conditions under which the text developed. Dr. Dewey, My Favorite Professor, says that until you can smell the garlic, you haven't entered the historical imaginative space sufficiently to study the topic/theology/text in question.

Then I started to think about the power of binding letters into a book format. What does that do to how we see them? How is the reader's view of the content changed by the fact of their being hooked together in a binding and read all at once rather than over the two year period it took for them to be written? What happens when we examine and study the words and thinking in a linear way when Bonhoeffer was still asking questions, not even finishing the answers? I love how in his outline for the book he never got to write, some of his a), b), c) points are single words while others are full paragraphs. It's apparent he hadn't yet done the thinking necessary to flesh everything out. We are not left with a systematic theology, but rather, a glimpse into how someone thinks theologically when wrestling with new ideas. I love that!

And of course, I couldn't help but think about the Bible. What happens when that collection of writings is bound in leather or some gorgeous cover, and then the leaves are edged in gold? How does the "specialness of the text" grow when we add footnotes and commentary, when "historical someones" order the "books" in the identical way every time, leaving some writings aside and determining which are "canonical"? And then centuries later, what does it mean to us today to purchase (pay for) this collection in that book format, in the common version of English? What impact does it make to find the Bible on a shelf in a book store amid other versions, or to discover it in the drawer of a hotel? Do we see it as both special and mundane - as if this book has existed as it is today for centuries? What happens when we forget that communities crafted the Gospels (and instead assume they were written by individual men), that these Gospels were not concurrent - that is, not all the early Jesus communities had the same Gospels, that the letters from Paul were no longer in his possession when he wrote one after the other? How does it change what we think of Pauls' writings when we realize he didn't have a "Christian" Bible when he wrote his letters, didn't know he was writing "Holy Scripture"? Do we stop to consider that his thinking, too, evolved over time, under the constraints of prison or in the luxury of one of his benefactor's homes? How did his thought-world shape his writing? How did he nuance his meanings to suit the particular audiences? Did he write all of his letters? Or do we brush off the hitorical context (give it lip service) but instead put greater emphasis on the idea that these exact words are the very ones God wrote, thereby erasing the importance of the genuine historical, human conditions under which the writings were created?

It makes me think about the danger of remvoing the text from its original context because we tend to enshrine the written word as though it adequately reflects the whole intent of the thinker who generated the original text. Perhaps it is better to think of all writing as letters and papers... a snapshot in time of ideas to encounter—not the final statement, but certainly as provocative points of reference for us today.

I would love to take the Bible or the LPP and republish them in a box, on fragmentary paper, all out of order. I think we need to see a Bible like that, a Letters and Papers from Prison, like that.


RebeccaC said...

Great thoughts! This is not the time of year I can provide anything profound in the way of response but it's a great set of thoughts to ponder in my off-moments. Thanks. . . .


Sentient Marrow said...

Now that would make an interesting Bible... of course, since it is in our human nature to want to categorize and label things we would take those letters and papers and try to create order whether it be in timeline form, topic form, writing style, etc.

julieunplugged said...

You know, taking responsibility for the order each person imposes would be a healthy step, if you ask me. I have one friend who thinks we ought to print up and distribute all the ancient writings we have related to the early church and use all of them to think about the faith.

To me, what is missing for most of us (I count myself in this group) is the real awareness of just how other the formative period of early Christianity was and just how much it was changed and codified and adapted through the centuries to suit the new needs of each generation. By our time, there's a sense of "out of time-ness" that inhabits how we read Scripture that I think is unhealthy.

julieunplugged said...

Hey Rebecca! Good to see you round these parts again. :)

Dave said...

Julie, that unhealthy "out of time-ness" is, of course, one of the central tenets of belief for many Christians that most of their leading teachers try to impress and cultivate in the minds and hearts of their followers! Take that away, and I think that a lot of Christians would regard the Bible as "just another book." A lot of churches would have a hard time with that - they'd feel like they lost their moorings. And of course, they simply wouldn't stand for it - as we already see them striving vigorously to elevate and privilege the biblical text above all others.

Same goes for the Quran and I suppose most other scriptures that are regarded in some way as the concrete and articulated Word of God.

The Bible functions in the lives of so many as an infallibe book of oracles - short selections of verses are interpreted and applied as completely authoritative and descriptive of whatever topic they are addressing. I like what you are proposing but the resistance to it in the functional life of the evangelical church, in any case, is soooo daunting!

NoVA Dad said...

This is a marvelous posting; I, too, was amazed to learn that Ethics was put together after DB's death, and that it was a "best guess" effort. I would love to know what he would think of the end result if he were to walk into a bookstore and pull it off the shelf -- would he even recognize it as HIS work, even though the words were/are his? I haven't yet made it around to LPP (different events and different inclinations push me around quite often -- working now on a biography of Churchill, a book by Spong, and some fiction by Vonnegut), but I've loved the various posts you've put up over time about the letters (and I look forward to peppering you with questions as I go along, o learned one!!):-)

SusansPlace said...

I am reading "How The Irish Saved Civilization" and was struck again by the authors pointing out how much the history we read is influenced by the mindset of those that wrote it. It is biased. Also, from days of old(thinking about the Bible and other historical documents)we don't have a multitude of opinions, as we do today. Usually the conquerer is the one who writes and will have his voice heard throughout history.
Sort of rabbit trailing here.


SusansPlace said...

Have you seen the documentary about Bonhoeffer?


Steve said...

Julie: Well done, again. This makes me also think of how little thought we give to the whole idea of contextualization in terms of the way we view the Scripture. We want the Bible to fit our world, be it liberal Episcopalians, inner city baptists, or surbanite health and wealth pentacostals. We want the Bible to fit our worlds, all of us. The scary thing is that it may not fit any of those places well. It is a large, and wild, and very ancient text, that has undoubtedly been shaped by those who have interpreted it over time. And there is a God behind all of it, who, in the words of CS Lewis, is, "not safe, but good".