This is a book that I had not known about until Peter at Slow Reads gave it to me as a recent birthday gift. I had not heard about it beforehand and was a bit intimidated by its large number of pages. That being said, I’m really glad that I started reading it and had no trouble staying motivated enough to complete this biography all the way through to its end.

The book by Eric Metaxas starts slowly, offering a detailed look into Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s family, even touching upon his great grandfather and great uncle. This first chapter’s detailed look at Bonhoeffer’s ancestry exceeds what is normal for most biographies. However, extended family connections would prove to be important for him throughout his life, and this chapter provides some of the needed context for this. Bonhoeffer’s upper-middle class parents taught their children to come to their own conclusions after a careful consideration of the facts at hand. They also instructed them to eschew emotionalism of any kind. These character traits would later, of course, put the family at odds with the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

The pace of the book quickens when Bonhoeffer begins his theological studies. Even though his professors were strongly in the camp of the 19th century German revisionist and liberal theologians, Bonhoeffer oriented his own thinking towards the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer would befriend a few years later. The end of Bonhoffer’s period as a young adult student would end with him finding his first best friend, Franz Hildebrandt.

Much of the middle part of the book centers on the split between the “German Christians“, those Lutherans in Germany who acceded to the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies, and the “Confessing Church“, which made several futile attempts at reconciliation but eventually ended up as a partially underground church movement. Since Germany followed the continental European model of funding church pastors and buildings via state funds, Lutheran pastors were reluctant to speak out too boldly against the Nazi state. The Confessing Church would not move fast enough for Bonhoeffer away from Nazism; he always seemed to be a few steps ahead when it came to realizing the seriousness of the evil of Hitler and his rule.

The middle part of Bonhoeffer’s short life was taken up with several foreign travels and assignments. Bonhoeffer worked as a pastor for German expatriates in Spain and England. He also spent some time in post-doctoral studies at Union seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, intrigued by the community-life that he had heard about with Mohandas Gandhi, even made plans to visit India. Yet fate would permanently postpone Bonhoeffer’s trip to India, and the meeting of two of the 20th centuries great religious figures would never take place.

In the mid-1930’s, Bonhoeffer would return to Germany, and begin running the underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania in eastern Germany (now in western Poland). Here, Bonhoeffer would begin breaking down the usual barriers that separated a professor from his students. He would emphasize personal scripture meditation and servant-leadership and even a revival of Martin Luther’s injunction for Protestant Christians to confess their sins one to another. The Nazi state would eventually discover and shut down Finkenwalde, but the short two years that it was opened produced deep and lasting friendships, including Bonhoffer’s friendship with his second best friend Ebehard Bethge. Rural Pomerania was steadfastly anti-Nazi, so Bonhoeffer found many supporters for Finkenwalde in that region, including especially the grandmother of his future fiancee. Many of the members of Pomerania’s old aristocracy would lead the failed July 1944 assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was drafted into the resistance by his brother-in-law in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence operation that was filled with prominent resistance members. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent, and the Abwehr gave him a means of resistance and the ability to escape being drafted into the military. Eventually, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law were arrested on a minor charge of helping to smuggle Jews out of the country. For many months, the Gestapo did not realize the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities, and, since Bonhoeffer’s uncle had authority over the prison warden, Bonhoeffer was given favorable treatment. All of this changed after the aborted July 1944 coup attempt. Eventually, Bonhoeffer’s activities were exposed and he was ordered executed by Hitler just before the end of the war.

The book only mentions in passing the later controversies over Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially the meaning of the Bonhoeffer’s term “religionless Christianity”. Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned when he coined this phrase and died before he had had a chance to expound upon it in any detail. The author offers passing criticism of more the liberal views of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but a more detailed analysis of post-mortem theological arguments are left to other books.

The author also clearly comes down on the side of being in favor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to involve himself in the plot to kill and overthrow Hitler. The decision to undertake regicide is one that many of Bonhoeffer’s fellow Christians would disagree with. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of how Bonhoeffer weighed the pros and cons of this fateful decision, you will need to look at other books and sources.

The surprising parts of this book for me: Bonhoeffer’s deep sense of connectedness to family and friends. Bonhoeffer, a bachelor for most of his life until his engagement just before his imprisonment, believed in fully integrating his life between his family and his friends. Bonhoeffer’s friends often became closely linked to his parents and other family members. Bonhoeffer treated his former students like family. Bethge helped Bonhoeffer with the particularly sensitive mission of helping get Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, her Jewish husband, and their daughters out of Germany, and Bethge eventually married his niece. Bonhoeffer’s lifelong struggle with depression is also a surprise. Additionally, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to explore forms of community life in Protestant Christianity, including New Monasticism, make Bonhoeffer a man who was 50 or 60 years ahead of his time.

The book includes extensive excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with family and friends. Some readers may not like switching between the narrative and these letters. Others may appreciate reading from these important original source materials.

All in all, this is a great book and one that I would highly recommend reading.

Fammunity, Part 1 – Introduction

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on July 10, 2010

For the last few months, I and some friends been discussing the concepts of spiritual families and spiritual communities. Combining the two words together led us to coin the new word “fammunity”.

Spiritual families are formed when a spiritual father is connected to spiritual sons. The reemphasis on spiritual families is an expression of what the book of Malachi talks about when it mentions God’s desire to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and vice versa. Families take time to build, and spiritual families provide for intergenerational building blocks of spiritual growth.

The roots of community life in Christianity go back all the way to the book of Acts, where the first followers of Jesus lived together in Jerusalem and held all things in common with one another. Spiritual communities continued through the centuries, usually on the edges of society, first, in the lives of persecuted believers, then, in monasteries and friars and, later, in networks of rural believers like the Amish and Mennonites. “Community” is where a group of people make the choice to share their lives with one another in an organic way. This often involves living together in some type of communal setting. These spiritual communities often include service to the poor and disadvantaged in their local neighborhoods. The younger generation, those now in their 20s and early 30s, in particular, is embracing community life. Several communities together form what is called a “community of communities”.

In later posts, I’ll talk about more about spiritual families, spiritual communities, and what they have in common with one another.

Monks Making A Living

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on May 29, 2010

CNN had a very good article recently about monks: “Monks making money: A business beyond prayer”. The article covers the history of Western monasticism and how monks today in the United States earn money to support themselves and their monasteries.

As the article points out, monks have some of the same concerns that we all do, including a slumping economy and rising health care costs. The monks also face a need to be entrepreneurial with their side businesses and yet also maintain a solitary of life of prayer.

Body = House

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on April 16, 2010

My apologies for my long absence. It’s now time to get back to more shadows and symbols …

There is no question that the words body and house have symbolic significance. The terms “a house divided” and “royal house” come from ages past, and “body politic” and “body of knowledge”, “… of water”, etc. describe the completeness of things. As symbols, with both bodies and houses, one is either in or out but not both. And, if there is more than one person in a house, there can only be one head of that house, as there can only be one head directing the body. A house cannot be divided. There is an order in the household, and there is a brain on top of the body.

Yet, as you consider these words, … you may not have considered how these two terms, symbolically, can be interrelated.

For each of us personally, our bodies are not merely the physical display of our being in this world. They are the location in time and space of our spirits (our spiritual being). One could say that our bodies are not primarily who we are but, rather, where we are. Our bodies are, essentially, the mobile houses for our spirits. One could say that who we each are is a spirit (spiritual being) stuffed into a house of clay (our physical being), and if our temporal bodies die, our spirits go on into timeless eternity.

Just something to think about in the days ahead.

Post tags: , , , ,

Come As A Child

Posted in: Current Events,Spirituality by bill-o on February 20, 2010

The famous American author of the book The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, died on January 27 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, USA. Despite the resounding success that he had found as a young author in New York, Mr. Salinger withdrew into seclusion in his adopted Connecticut River valley town about 55 years ago after negative experiences with an overeager public.

A recent New York Times article about Salinger’s life in Cornish notes how bossy strangers would ride into town demanding to see Salinger. The people of Cornish would always oblige their reclusive neighbor by sending these strangers in the wrong direction.

What the article points out is that Salinger was not entirely reclusive. He was generous to food servers at church suppers and friendly to his neighbors. One neighbor told the Times how Salinger always graciously allowed his children to sled down the hill in Salinger’s property and was concerned about the children’s welfare.

What example can we take from this story? Well, it’s simple: On our spiritual journeys, come as a child. J.D. Salinger rightly saw the children in his neighborhood as no threat to him, his family, or his privacy. Rude adults came from other places to disturb his peace and quiet just so that they could say, with pride, that they had met him. The nearby children didn’t care about any of that. They only saw Mr. Salinger as a kind neighbor and not as an object to be manhandled. Perhaps this is a lesson for us all in how we treat our neighbors.

Post tags:


Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on January 26, 2010

Who will receive the greater honor? That is the question for any social event where two or more dignitaries are present. For example, at a formal dinner, who will have the honor of speaking last? You may not have realized it, but social planners have already prepared lists to deal with such contingencies. These lists are called orders of precedence.

The concept of precedence is distinct from orders of succession or formal chains of command. Precedence is the ceremonial order of respect. Being higher on a list of precedence does not necessarily imply having greater authority or power. In fact, someone high on a precedence list may have much less power than someone lower on that same list.

What precedence bestows is the greater honor. The list of precedence for the United States is at: You’ll find the list for England and Wales at:

Precedence echoes through great historical moments in American history. For example, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address after the featured speaker Edward Everett because the president had the greater honor. At inaugurations, the President is sworn in after the Vice President. The Supreme Court of the United States maintains its visible order of precedence with its seating order: The Chief Justice sits in the center, the most senior associate justice to his right, the next most senior justice to the Chief Justice’s left, and so on, alternating between right and left for all 8 associate justices as per seniority on the court. After all, to sit to the right implies the greater honor. Yet to sit closer to the center of the court is an even greater honor.

In England and Wales, proximity to the throne grants the greater precedence. Then, the greater titles take precedence. In the United States, a mayor of a city has the greater precedence while in his or her city than almost everyone else. For within the proverbial walls of the city, the mayor is the honorary king or queen, able to give the ceremonial “keys to the city” (the proveribal city gates) to others. Regarding mayors, the American order of precedence recognizes that a mayor is, in a sense, a monarch within one’s own home town.

And so it is with each of us: with the measure of spiritual rule that we have each been given. There will be others with more power, money, and authority in this world. Yet within our own homes, whether actual houses or within the lives of those few who are close to us, we are kings, queens, princes, and princesses. In a way, we each have a divine precedence given to us that takes effect within our own “personal kingdoms”. And that precendence is not given to us to “lord it over” others. Rather, it’s given to us for the sake of love.

Thick and Clear

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on November 14, 2009

The writer C.S. Lewis once wrote that a true religion needs to be both thick and clear. (Please see: “Thick and Clear Religions” at dangerous idea.)

“Thick” religion is full of symbols, traditions, ceremonies, and mystery. It touches the human heart as per what is extra-rational and eternal. “Clear” religion provides a straight-forward philosophical and moral arrangement for living that even a child can understand. A religion that is thick but not clear is a cult of great obscurity, where only a small priestly class knows (or is allowed to know) the inner secrets of temple life. A religion that is clear but not thick is a perpetual child’s school, where simple truths are never built upon into adulthood.

I come from a faith tradition that had far more emphasis on “clear” spirituality than on “thick” religion. I am seeking a way of life that maintains my clear religion yet lovingly incorporates mystery, shadows, and symbols (“thick” religion).

Any thoughts?

Post tags: ,

Visit to Solomon’s Porch

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on November 08, 2009

In addition to a visit to Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, Shadows and Symbols also had the opportunity recently to visit Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Because Solomon’s Porch is a much smaller faith community than Willow Creek, I’ll be keeping many of the details of the service/meeting at Solomon’s Porch purposefully vague. Since the service at Willow Creek had more than 10,000 attendees, there was really no expectation of privacy for what was said or heard there by anyone present. On the other hand, the meeting at Solomon’s Porch had only 100-120 people present; so, even though their meetings are open to the public, there should be a much greater expectation of privacy for any services that are held there, and I’ll be respecting that here.)

Just walking into Solomon’s Porch is a wonderful experience in itself. Meeting in what used to be a moderately small and traditional church building, Solomon’s Porch has completely redesigned what most of us would expect to see when we enter a church. Instead of pews or rows of stacking chairs, one is greeted by circles of easy chairs and sofas. In the middle is a stool that can be rotated for the speaker to see everyone. The concept is similar to theater in the round. The part of the room that used to be for the choir also has sofas and easy chairs. The only difference with the old choir area from the rest of the room was that it was elevated slightly. Most traces of traditional church building symbols, such as a pulpit or altar, were also not present. A large wooden cross, however, was visible above the old choir area. Solomon’s porch is also an artist’s colony, and several original paintings from that artistic community are visible next to the wooden cross above the former choir stage.

After a period of time, the music band, a group of about four musicians, began to play a set of original songs, each evidently composed by musicians within Solomon’s Porch. The music was great, refreshingly original, and one of the best parts of the service. The lyrics of the songs were definitely original as well and somewhat open-to-interpretation as per exact theological meaning. Periodically, the music stopped and gave way to what I might term “a light touch of liturgy”.

Rather than a sermon from one pastor or preacher, there was a guided discussion time, with readings from Bible on two projection screens on both sides of the church building. This part of the service was led by the leader of Solomon’s Porch Doug Pagitt. The thing that I noticed (and respected) the most about this was that, rather than shying away from controversial subjects, Mr. Pagitt and the congregation took theologically difficult subjects head on.

The pace of the service was leisurely and the exact starting and ending times of the service and the parts within in it didn’t seem to matter or be important. In fact, Solomon’s Porch is really a community experience rather than a church service, as you would commonly think of it. So if you’re ever in Minneapolis on a Sunday night, I’d highly recommend a visit to Solomon’s Porch.

Post tags: ,

Visit to Willow Creek Community Church

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on October 14, 2009

Sorry for no posts lately. Shadows and Symbols has been on travel recently, including visits to two interesting churches. I’ll be describing my impression of these visits in the next two Shadows and Symbols posts.

Willow Creek Community Church is the third largest megachurch in the United States. Its main campus is located in the northwestern Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Illinois. I visited Willow Creek’s main campus recently for its Saturday night service.

The Willow Creek facilities are massive. Just driving up to the parking lot is like driving into the parking lot of a basketball or hockey arena or a large shopping mall. Parking attendants guided our car through each part of the parking lot to our parking space. After leaving our car, we entered one of the large number of doors into the main campus building. We walked down a wide hallway that led into the open air cafeteria. Food service lines, where people could buy cafeteria food, were visible on the right side as we walked into the cafeteria area.

Rounding another curve, we finally approached the main auditorium. And I say main auditorium because there is another smaller, overflow auditorium next to the lake on the left as we walked past the cafeteria. The main auditorium can seat thousands of people in theater-style seating. The very large room is divided into balcony, mezzanine, and main levels, each separated by escalators.

After taking our seats near the front of the main level, the house lights were dimmed and a set of drummers on the stage began a series of energetic beats. After a period of three minutes, two large choirs filed onto the two sides of the stage. A handful of  praise singers or leaders also came onto the stage and positioned themselves at the front of the stage and began leading the congregation (audience) in a series of fairly simple praise songs. Two very large projection screens displayed the lyrics for each song in English and Spanish. The volume of the music was loud but not overpowering. It seemed clear to me that the volume for the music had been carefully considered and calibrated.

The overall experience of the Willow Creek music for me was that it was very professionally produced and managed, but that it was in no way a transcendent spiritual experience. For me, probably the best part of the music service was the scripture reading by the song leaders during a musical pause in the middle of the songs.

After the music, there was a series of announcements and a brief video presentation. After this, Willow Creek senior and founding pastor Bill Hybels came onto the stage to give his message, which lasted about 25 minutes. Bill Hybels, one of the foremost proponents of the “seeker-sensitive” movement for churches (although that’s a term that I don’t think that Mr. Hybels uses), gave what appeared to be a completely scripted message. During the message, Mr. Hybels did explain his approach to evangelism, which is closely linked to local churches. Other than, perhaps, the importance of evangelism and its link to the local church, there was little that was spiritually challenging or profound during this talk. There was some mention of fighting poverty and social justice, but this seemed to me to be dissonant to the ears, hearing it inside of one of the wealthiest church facilities in the United States.

I would like to stress that there is no spontaneity whatsoever during the Willow Creek service. Nothing is given to chance or surprise, and every action appears to be scripted down to the nearest second. The lighting in the auditorium is fairly dark, so it is difficult to see one’s neighbors or read anything (such as a Bible) other than what is on the projection screens. The setting made it impossible to interact with other people during the service time, other than a brief time of saying hello to one another near the beginning of the service.

Shadows and Symbols did appreciate some of the people that I met while visiting Willow Creek, including some of the other congregants and ushers. I also appreciated that people genuinely seemed to be pleased to be there and were positive about their experiences at Willow Creek. Willow also had none of the very visible displays of the American flag, such as Matt Pritchard of At The Margins saw when visiting the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas. In fact, the Willow Creek auditorium displayed no typical church items or symbols of any kind, such as a cross, a pulpit, or an altar.

However, that being said, Willow Creek appeared to Shadows and Symbols to be overproduced and too large in numbers. A person could both enter and exit the service anonynously, with no meaningful contact with other people within the church community. While respectful of Mr. Hybels’s innovative approached to evangelism, I encountered really nothing that could be said to be a spiritual experience. A completely secular presentation could have been substituted for the Willow Creek service and it might have produced about the same level of spritual transcendence or sense of community.

Time flows in one direction from past to present to future. Is eternity, on the other hand, essentially non-linear? Or is eternity simply time itself as we know it: linear, but with an infinite past and an infinite future?

Growing up in a Protestant, evangelical tradition, it was implied to me (though,  to be fair, never stated) that eternity is linear. With this view, eternity is simply the straight-line projection of time from infinity past to infinity future.

Yet, does not the Bible say that God created all things? Would this not include time? And if time is present from infinity to infinity, could it not be said that time contains God rather than God contains time? And if time contains God, can God really be said to be God?

As time has progressed, I’ve been introduced to other views about eternity. Views that are implied by biblical books such as Ecclesiastes. With non-linear views of “eternal time”, normal rules about cause and effect don’t necessarily apply. Time can ebb and flow and even loop back on itself again. With this, God could simultaneously touch two different circumstances on earth 1,000 years apart at the same time for him. Such a non-linear view of eternity might radically reshape views of predestination and prophecy. For example, the biblical picture of the Lamb of God being slain before the foundation of the world yet also being crucified on the cross at Calvary here on the earth about 2,000 years ago would only make sense with a non-linear view of eternal time, if that event was one and the same.

A recent movie that explores the possibilities of non-linear time is “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. In this film, a man is born with a genetic defect that makes him involuntarily travel through time. (Viewers of the film will have some issues with determining how old the time-traveler is at any given point in the film, by the way.) When he time-travels, usually to the past though sometimes to the future, he arrives naked without clothing (as per the Terminator movies and television series). So when he arrives, he has to resort to stealing clothes and then waiting for the next moment when he will travel through time again.

I see this as symbolizing the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. This time-traveler, like all of humanity, is forced again and again back to this terrible point in time: To the point where our progenitors recognized their own nakedness. Adam and Eve then felt compelled to make clothes for themselves (fig leaves). At that point, we feel compelled to resort to stealing and hurting others to provide for ourselves, rather than simply trusting in our heavenly Father for his constant provision, which was his original plan for all of us.

It is the daughter of Henry the time-traveler, Alba (which is a very rare name in the English-speaking world that means “sunrise” or “white”), who learns to control her time-traveling abilities by singing. After trying to sing, too, Henry gives up by saying tersely, “I can’t sing”. Yet, we know from the very beginning of the movie that he can sing, as he had sung with his mother, an excellent singer, when he was a young boy right before she died. Yet, like many of us, Henry (a common name that means “home ruler”) had lost the simplicity and innocence of childhood when he became an adult. After all, everything that can be spoken can also be sung. Yet to sing something requires reaching deeper into ourselves to something more emotional and primal. Singing speaks of love, joy, faith, and hope. And Henry’s and his mother’s deaths both come on Christmas Days, the day of the choir of angels in Bethlehem. So, the coming of Alba, who seems to be the only completely content character in the film, represents a new beginning for humanity (a new sunrise) where people can control their own destinies rather than be controlled by them.

Newer Posts »