Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer


When I began this blog, I promised to deliver essays that explored the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and the study of the past. This post will seem a little removed from that, but hang in there, and I think you’ll see a connection.

I had heard my younger daughter speak fondly of George Herbert before, but I knew almost nothing about him when I took my seat on the stage at Wheaton’s convocation this past August. “Convocation” is what we call the opening chapel service of the academic year. Wheaton has required chapel services three times a week, but the convocation is considerably more formal than these. The college’s two hundred or so faculty file into the chapel wearing caps and gowns, and it’s a stirring experience. The entire school is gathered under one roof—which I think is neat in and of itself—and the students and faculty sing an opening hymn while the chapel’s massive pipe organ makes the pews vibrate. Sometimes the relentless daily demands of my job cause me to lose sight of the eternal significance of my calling as a teacher. Never during convocation. When the organ is blasting away, and I look out on the student body for the first time since the summer’s hiatus, I regularly feel both delight and fear. I feel anew the wonder that God has called me to labor in this place, and I sense again—as if for the first time—the weight of responsibility that is part of the calling.

As moving as convocation can be, I rarely remember much about the speaker’s message. Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own reverie, or maybe I’m too self-conscious sitting up on the stage in medieval regalia that’s hot and itchy. But this year’s convocation was different. The speaker was Dr. Phillip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken speaks about once a month in chapel during the academic year, and he typically addresses a single over-arching theme from autumn through spring. This year he will be bringing a series of messages on the theme “When Trouble Comes,” and he chose to introduce the series during convocation. (You can download Ryken’s message here.)

It took about ten seconds for him to get my attention.

“It was the spring semester of the academic year, and I was in trouble,” Dr. Ryken began.  “Over the course of long weeks that stretched into months, I fell deeper into discouragement, until eventually I wondered whether I had the will to live.  I’m talking about me–not somebody else–and I’m talking about last semester.”  A hush fell across the chapel.  For the next several minutes our president shared briefly about the personal, family, and job-related circumstances that had  brought him to a lower point, spiritually and psychologically, than he had ever known.

Discouragement does not begin to convey the state of mind that Dr. Ryken related.  Depression comes closer, but I think that despair more truly captures the darkness that enveloped him. My own family has been touched multiple times by something akin to what he was describing. My pulse quickened as Dr. Ryken began to share honestly about his struggles. Then my heart began to ache. Then I began to feel the rush of encouragement that comes when God reminds us that we are not alone.

In describing what his trial felt like, Ryken borrowed two lines from a poem that he had come to identify with. The author was George Herbert. The lines that had literally become Ryken’s testimony were these: “I live to show His power, who once did bring my joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.”

These words impressed me deeply, and through blurry eyes I scrawled the phrase “griefs to sing” on my program and determined to locate the entire poem as soon as I could. When I got back to my office, a quick Google search took me to Herbert’s poem “Joseph’s Coat,” published in 1633. That same day I entered the entire poem into my commonplace book. I’ve shared it since with several family members and students, and I want to share it with you in a moment.

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

George Herbert (1593-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

But first, a little context. George Herbert (1593-1633) was born into a powerful English family. His father held the aristocratic title “Lord of Cherbury” and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Joseph’s Coat” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

The poem begins with a set of seemingly contradictory statements:

Wounded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down, I fall into a bed and rest:
Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will,
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.

The image here, as I understand it, is one of opposites. The writer has been dealing with a great trial of some sort, a trial so severe that he speaks of being “wounded,” “tormented,” and “thrown down.” And yet this great pain has been leavened with joy. It is a divine gift, Herbert understands, attributable only to the one who “changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.” It is a joy so powerful and life-giving that Herbert can now sing despite his wounds, compose poetry (this is the meaning of “indite”) amid his torment, and find peace and rest while being thrown down.

Herbert continues, referring to God,

For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carry with it ev’n my heart,
And both would runne until they found a biere
To fetch the body; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil’d the race; and given to anguish
One of Joyes coats, ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.

Herbert reveals that “many” griefs have weighed him down, and he is convinced that if even one of these had been given full sway he could never have survived the assault. (Is there a veiled allusion here to the attraction of suicide?) Undiluted, Herbert’s grief would have been unbearable. Absent the mercy of God, it would have triumphed, prompting body and soul to long for death, literally propelling both to run toward the grave. (A biere was a wooden platform that the dead were placed on before burial.) And yet God in his mercy did intervene. But He hath spoiled the race—this is probably my favorite phrase in the poem. God sends joy as a balm to the writer’s anguish.

I find it significant that Herbert does not write that his anguish disappears. This is about a million miles away from happy-clappy-your-best-life-now theology. The joy that Herbert writes about brings relief and revives hope. But nowhere does Herbert suggest that God has completely eliminated his suffering. In a sense, God has done something more amazing. He has empowered him to live victoriously in the midst of his trial.

Which brings us to Herbert’s concluding declaration:

I live to show his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

I review these words regularly, and I am praying that Herbert’s declaration will also become the testimony of someone very dear to me. Herbert’s words encourage me greatly, for they testify to “the God who does wonders” (Psalm 77:14). In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.” As followers of Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, we are to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Bendroth notes in her wonderful little book, The Spiritual Discipline of Remembering, most of us live “stranded in the present.”  (You can read my review here.)  We may refer to the “communion of the saints” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, but we shut ourselves off almost entirely from the Church across the ages. George Herbert penned “Joseph’s Coat” nearly four centuries ago. I went into a national chain Christian bookstore recently, and apart from a couple of books by C. S. Lewis, I didn’t find a single work more than twenty years old.

Yes, we are stranded in the present, and our lives are poorer for it.

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.


Fall has arrived in the Midwest. The leaves are beginning to show orange and red, the temperature is supposed to dip into the thirties tonight, and my recent trip to southern California already seems like a dream. I spent the latter half of last week in Malibu, where an organization called the Conference on Faith and History convened for its 2014 biennial meeting. The Conference on Faith and History is a national organization of Christian historians that has been in existence for nearly half a century. About three hundred participants gathered for this year’s meeting. The program was amazing, the fellowship was great, and I had a blast.

Almost everyone I tell about the location of the meeting chuckles and winks. The assumption is that the CFH intentionally seeks out beach-front locales for its meetings, as if we were all looking for a place where we could put on Speedos and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In past years, I’ve attended CFH gatherings in such non-Malibu-like sites as Huntington, Indiana, Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Holland, Michigan. The CFH always holds its national meetings on Christian college campuses, and it just so happened that this year’s host school was Pepperdine University. Not that I’m complaining.

Have you ever been to Pepperdine? It is perched on high ground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the vistas from the heart of campus are just ridiculously gorgeous. How anyone gets any work done there I can’t imagine. In an odd way, it was comforting to come back to the Chicagoland area, knowing that I could look forward to weather that will drive everyone indoors for the next eight months. What a blessing. . . .

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

But enough about the weather. My time at the conference sent my thoughts repeatedly to an extended passage in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve shared a portion of it before in a different post, but I thought I would return to it now and explain why I find it so meaningful. To do so requires a bit of personal context. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Thirty-two years (thirty-two years!) have passed since I embarked on an academic career. When I began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1982, I thought that God might be calling me to become a Christian professor on a public university campus. I had not reached that conclusion easily. Throughout my senior year at the University of Tennessee I wrestled with several career options. With no certain sense of direction, I tried to keep my options open and did everything I could to put off making a decision. By December I had applied to thirteen different graduate or professional schools encompassing four different kinds of study. The options on the table were law, business, law and business, and history. I didn’t have peace about any of them.

From hindsight, that began to change when I was home over Christmas break, thanks to an unexpected visit from a near stranger. I recognized the white-haired man on our front porch as an usher in the fairly large Southern Baptist church that I had grown up in. I didn’t know him by name, however, and I doubt that we had ever more than smiled at one another in passing. I had given my testimony in a Sunday night service right after Christmas, and this gentleman explained that he had felt impressed to pass along a book to me that someone had given him.

The book that he placed in my hands was a book on Christian discipleship: The Upstream Christian in a Downstream World, by Charles W. Dunn. I took the book back to school with me that winter and read it against the backdrop of my ongoing struggle to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do with my life. Although it contained a great deal of wisdom, what struck me most was not the author’s counsel but rather his own life story. Charles Dunn was a professor of political science at Clemson University, and he filled his book with summaries of countless conversations over the years with college students about the claims of Christ. Gradually, I became more and more excited about the possibility of imitating Dunn’s example, and when Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to pursue graduate study in history entirely on their dime, I decided to enroll and pursue a Ph.D.

Graduate school was harder than anything I had ever attempted, but it was also marvelously rewarding, and almost from the first I felt a sense of affirmation about the path that I had chosen. That sense of confidence was reinforced when, six years later, I was offered a marvelous job at a world-class research university immediately upon finishing my graduate study. My wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, determined to invest in the lives of students at the University of Washington.

I arrived at UW confident that God had called me to be a Christian history professor, but with only the slightest idea of what that meant. I took for granted that what would make me a Christian history professor would be what I did outside of the classroom. I would look for ways to witness to unbelieving students when they visited my office, and my wife and I would lead a Bible study for college students at our church. But when I was in the classroom, what I taught and how I taught wouldn’t differ that much from my unbelieving colleagues. I would just be nicer.

Had you asked me during those years, I would have insisted that I was doing my best to love God with my mind. I was pretty sure that I was imitating the apostle Paul in “pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But I was not thinking “Christianly” about my profession, nor did I have the remotest idea of what it might mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

My evangelical upbringing had taught me that, whatever my specific career path, all that truly mattered was personal integrity and evangelism. And so for years—it embarrasses me now to admit this—I defined faithfulness in my calling with little reference to the actual content of my teaching and scholarship. Yes, I would teach a Sunday School class, and yes, I would look for opportunities to witness, but otherwise I would simply jump on the academic treadmill. By not thinking deeply about the institution in which I labored, I found it relatively easy to be content in that labor. But while I was focused narrowly on personal piety and evangelism—good things both—I was also happily serving a university which rested on a worldview that was the antithesis of what I professed to believe.

I’m not pretending for a moment that I have it all figured out now, but I do think that God helped me over time to think more deeply about the foundations of the secular multiversity of which I was a part. I slowly began to realize that the classroom is never a neutral space, and that I had been teaching in a way that made me unwittingly complicit in the university’s secularizing mission. Whatever I might be doing or saying outside of the classroom, inside of the classroom I was implicitly teaching my students to make sense of their world without reference to the Author of all wisdom and knowledge.

As I came to grips with this insight, I was forced to wrestle with my calling in a way that I never had before. And as I tried—really for the first time—to think “Christianly” about my vocation, I began to experience what the late Harry Blamires (one of C.S. Lewis’s last students) called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Before this, I had never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular Academy for one simple reason: I wasn’t thinking like one. But now that was changing, and the result was a growing sense of alienation.

This is where the Conference on Faith and History came in. I knew that I didn’t understand how to pursue my vocation as a Christian historian faithfully, but I also didn’t know what to do differently. I needed to learn from those who shared my vocation and were farther down the road than I was. Some of this I could gain by reading books and articles on the subject, but that was not enough. Looking back, I think I was sort of like the Ethiopian court official that we read about in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-40), the one who Phillip the Apostle encountered on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Like him, I needed a living, side-by-side conversation, and when I attended my first CFH convention I found that. The fellowship that I encountered in the Conference on Faith and History encouraged me deeply. Even more important was the ongoing conversation about calling that I was invited to join. It continues to bless me immeasurably, and I will always be grateful.

RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERAnd so it is that throughout last week’s conference my mind kept returning to passages in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was a German theologian and pastor who was an open critic of Nazi rule from the moment that Adolph Hitler rose to power. Because the established Protestant churches were under the control of the Gestapo, for several years Bonhoeffer secretly trained young pastors in an underground seminary. In 1938 he penned Life Together, an extended meditation on Christian community that grew out of this experience.

Life Together III first read Life Together the fall that I arrived at Wheaton College after twenty-two years at the University of Washington. It impressed me deeply. Bonhoeffer began by quoting Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” The rest of the book proclaims two truths: First, as Christians we desperately need the blessing of Christian community.  Second, we must never, ever take it for granted when we are blessed to experience it.

Here is how Bonhoeffer explains the first point:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.

Here I read Bonhoeffer articulating both the longing I had felt at UW and the blessing that I had felt in my interaction with the Conference on Faith and History. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of vocation for nearly twenty years, and there’s only one thing I’m absolutely certain of: we need to work out our understandings of our calling in community. We need to be in conversation with other believers about what it means to follow God faithfully in the particular circumstances in which He has placed us.

Bonhoeffer also writes movingly about the preciousness of Christian community. The book’s third sentence sounds the theme: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Surely he must have reflected on that truth countless times in the years to come, including the two years that he spent in a succession of prisons before his execution in April 1945.

I have meditated on the passage below frequently since coming to Wheaton. It helps put into words my gratitude for the Conference on Faith and History, but it also provides a framework for thinking about the opportunity that God has granted me here at Wheaton. I need to hear regularly both the reminder and the warning that it contains:

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.


Hello!  I hope everyone had a wonderful Fourth of July yesterday.

I am going to interrupt my current focus on faith and the American founding for just a moment, as I can’t help addressing one current news item that’s generated considerable buzz in these parts.  The school where I teach, Wheaton College, got mentioned quite prominently in the most current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  If you’re not familiar with this publication, the Chronicle is sort of like the New York Times of the academic world.  Its target audience is primarily educators and administrators and public policy types, in addition to highbrow readers who want to follow the latest trends in higher education.  For a small school like Wheaton, getting a shout-out from the Chronicle is big.

But big isn’t necessarily good, and the attention Wheaton received is a case in point.   As it turned out, the college was exhibit A for the prosecution in a lengthy, inflammatory opinion piece titled “The Great Accreditation Farce.”  The author is Dr. Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania.  Conn is apparently an expert on accreditation because he participated in two accreditation reviews a decade or more ago.  In 2003 he helped his own institution prepare for an accreditation review, and the following year he was invited to be on the external accreditation committee charged with evaluating Johns Hopkins.

Conn’s title got my attention, as I confess I am more than a little skeptical of the accreditation process myself.  Any school interested in pursuing excellence should both seek and welcome outside feedback on a regular basis.  But because federal financial aid is prohibited to students attending non-accredited institutions, the accreditation process in its current form is, among other things, a Trojan horse for increased federal control of state and private institutions.  Considering all forms of aid, the U. S. government distributed nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars to college and university students during the 2012-13 academic year.   In today’s academic marketplace, rare is the college or university than can survive if its students are barred from federal aid.  This gives enormous leverage to the federal government, and I think it has more than enough of that already.

Conn has a very different set of concerns, however, as I soon learned.  The great “farce” at the heart of the accreditation process consists of the ridiculous practice of accrediting religious institutions.  “By awarding accreditation to religious colleges,” the author writes, “the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.”  This is because “skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research.”  It is “obvious” to Conn that “such inquiry cannot flourish” inside a religious institution.

Conn reserves his greatest scorn for Christian colleges–like Wheaton, which he singles out specifically–that require their faculty to sign statements of religious faith.  Such “intellectually compromised” schools are institutions for brain-washing the faithful, not pursuing the life of the mind.  “At Wheaton,” Conn explains, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

Lest the reader misconstrue, Conn makes clear–with calculated condescension– that he has “no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed.”  He does have “a profound objection,” however, “to legitimizing such an association through accreditation.”  Call it whatever you like, in other words, just don’t pretend that such a place is characterized by academic freedom and intellectual integrity.  In short, Conn concludes, “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stan Jones, has already published an eloquent reply to Conn’s polemic.  Consonant with his character, Jones’ comments are judicious, balanced, and unfailingly gracious, and I could not begin to improve on them, but I do want to share a personal testimony of sorts.  In his response, Jones notes that when Wheaton College “hires colleagues away from nonreligious institutions, we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers.”  This was precisely my experience.

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions.  For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle.  In many ways, my time there was a blessing.  The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources.  During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my well being, both personal and professional.  Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally–in certain respects.  I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided.  I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis.  In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”  Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW.  For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts.  Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden.  There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity.  After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided the questions of why we existed as a group.  As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum.  If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good.  Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out.   In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation.  Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life.  “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton four years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more.  Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here.  But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.  Conn’s assertion that, in leaving UW for Wheaton,  I have necessarily abandoned reason for dogma also mystifies me.  That he assumes such a trade-off suggests that Dr. Conn is not entirely free of dogma himself.  I could tell Conn about the intellectual excitement that abounds at Wheaton, about the brilliant colleagues I am privileged to work with (trained at places like Harvard and Yale and Duke and UNC), and about the extraordinarily gifted and motivated students that fill my classes, but I doubt that such a reasoned argument would sway him.  Reason is rarely helpful in changing an opinion not grounded in reason to begin with.

A final comment, this one about the relationship between academic freedom and academic community.  In addition to finding greater academic freedom at Wheaton, I have also encountered a true intellectual community here, one that the sprawling postmodern multiversity cannot be expected to equal.  Countless times I have reflected on the words of the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who observed in his 1938 classic Life Together, “it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living [and, I would add, of laboring] among other Christians.”   When we have that privilege, Bonhoeffer went on to observe, we should fall to our knees and thank God for his goodness, for “it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

Bonhoeffer knew firsthand about the hostility of an aggressively secular ideology.  He penned the words above while teaching at a clandestine seminary watched closely by the Gestapo; they were translated into English a decade after his execution in a Nazi prison camp for his opposition to Adolph Hitler.  Peter Conn does not want to drive all religious colleges underground.  He just wants to declare them to be, by definition, academically illegitimate.  In my experience, the most zealous champions of “academic freedom” are often selective in applying it.  That’s certainly the case with Dr. Conn.