As Hitler’s Nazi party was consolidating power in January 1935 and the church was succumbing to the lure of the Reich’s Thousand-Year Reign, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, despaired over the weakness of his fellow believers in Germany. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism…. I believe it is now time to call people to this.” What did he mean?
Two years ago my family and I went in search of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, visiting the underground seminary that he directed in Finkenwalde and traveling to the different prisons and concentrations camps that he spent time in and where he eventually lost his life. One question was on my mind: Was Bonhoeffer calling the church to retreat from culture, politics, and life in the world? This is what it seemed when he used the phrase “new monasticism.” But this didn’t fit the man who became a double agent, a conspirator against Hitler and eventually a martyr.
IN SEARCH OF THE TRUTH
On our trip to Finkenwalde, on a bright April day, I was finally able to reconcile this conflict. What I came to see was that Bonhoeffer wasn’t taking these young men to a remote place to teach them to retreat from the world, a form of old monasticism, he was taking them to the countryside to re-story them so that when they returned to the world ruled by Nazism they would have the inner spiritual resources to resist the false ideology of the Fuhrer. It was not a monasticism of retreat but a new monasticism built around the Sermon on the Mount. It was a monasticism of engagement. He wasn’t calling the church to flee the world but to transform it.
And here is the bottom line. For pastors that were trained under Bonhoeffer, 80% of them resisted the pressure to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler. For those pastors trained elsewhere, only 20% resisted the pressure. What was the secret of Finkenwalde?
I think it was twofold. First, if his students didn’t already understand the mesmerizing power of the Nazi ideology—the flags, the oaths, the quasi religious night parades, the uniforms, the music, and Hitler’s “sermons” extolling the 1000-year reign and the chance for immortality—Bonhoeffer made it clear that the Nazis were trying to form the imaginations of the German people through a powerful narrative. And it was so strong, so attractive, so alluring that the vast majority of the people couldn’t resist it. And by the time many of them woke up it was too late. Bonhoeffer knew that if his young students (and the church in general) would resist it, they would need to be formed and shaped in a story that was every bit as robust, and with a liturgy that was every bit as rigorous.
This two-part vision is disclosed in his magnificent little book, Life Together, written shortly after the Nazis closed the seminary in 1937, a book I use in my class, “Ministry in the Church.” In Life Together he stresses over and over again the need to recover the gospel in the church. And once this is recovered, the church must begin to shape her people with a living liturgy of the Word, Sacrament, community, and a liturgy (which includes daily and weekly worship but also the habit-forming communal practices like prayer, hospitality and calling) that cultivates new habits of faithful presence and effectiveness in the world.
THE HOPE OF THE CHURCH
My students and I spend many class periods discussing this liturgy of worship and community, how these communal practices re-story people, how they cultivate new habits that are able to shape and channel our desires toward the kingdom, how they are able to resist the pull of outside forces—false gods, ideologies and stories—that want to push Christians into its mold. Bonhoeffer believed that when the church is truly gripped, shaped, and formed by the gospel narrative and this counter liturgy—we not only will learn to live in a manner that is “liturgically treasonous” and that does not retreat from the world—but learn to engage it with love, grace and service. This is the vision I teach my students. This is the vision our faculty has embraced. This is the vision that is the hope of the church.
*This article was in the spring 2013 issue of Knox Now. See the full magazine here: