Thursday, 18 October 2007

John Franke: Barth for armchair theologians

John R. Franke, Barth for Armchair Theologians, illustrated by Ron Hill (Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 183 pp. (review copy courtesy of WJKP)

Introductions to Barth constitute an entire literary genre. Indeed, Barth’s thought is so challenging and so difficult to penetrate that the production of “introductions” becomes a matter of some urgency. And the existing introductions take many forms: from mechanical summaries (G. W. Bromiley) to expansive readings (Eberhard Busch); from elegant outlines (John Webster) to complex architectonic frameworks (George Hunsinger); from sharply polemical sketches (John Bowden) to enthusiastic contemporary appropriations (Joseph Mangina).

And as the aforementioned names indicate, the calibre of these introductions tends to be very high, since some of Barth’s most distinguished interpreters have produced their own introductory guides.

So it’s surprising and impressive to see that John Franke’s new introduction has found its own niche. Here at last is a real beginner’s guide to Barth – an introduction that assumes no prior knowledge of Barth nor any familiarity with modern theology in general. Franke begins by tracing the early development of Barth’s thought, emphasising Barth’s break with liberalism. Even if the discontinuities are exaggerated a bit in this section, the main emphasis is right: “Barth increasingly believed that to speak of God was something different, strange, and startling” (p. 31).

And while earlier introductions tended to leap from the Romans commentary to the book on Anselm, Franke walks us through the important lectures of the Göttingen years, where Barth discovered the explosive reforming power of Reformed theology. In this period of transition, Barth’s crucial theological/political assertion was that “we are human and not God. God is God” (p. 77).

Franke’s summary of each volume of the Church Dogmatics is likewise crisp and insightful, as is his brief account of Barth’s ethics: “Christian ethics has more to do with the surprises that are part of the ongoing drama of human existence than with the certainties of a stable system” (p. 146).

In a final chapter, Franke considers the recent history of North American Barth-reception, under the three headings of “neo-orthodox Barth,” “postmodern Barth” and “dialectical Barth.” He criticises the “domesticating” tendencies of both neo-orthodox readings (which emphasise God’s objective givenness) and postmodern readings (which emphasise God’s incomprehensible non-givenness). In contrast, Franke suggests that the work of George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack opens the way to a proper appreciation of the “dialectical Barth” – a radical Barth “whose thought is governed by the notion of indirect identity and the dialectic of veiling and unveiling” (p. 161). Underlying this deceptively simple sketch of Barth-reception is a keen instinct about what’s really at stake in Barth’s thought – and it seems to me that the caution about “domesticating” Barth has never been more necessary than it is today.

All in all, then, this is a lucid, reliable and entertaining guide to Barth’s theology. And Franke succeeds admirably in his main objective, which is to show that Barth still has something to say not only to the lonely guild of academic theologians, but also (and especially) to the church.

While some introductions to Barth are like ponderous journeys through a darkening wood, this book is a brisk and cheerful ramble down a sunny street – it is, in other words, perfect “armchair” reading. Franke’s writing is crisp and energetic, and Ron Hill’s delightful cartoons are especially fitting in this introduction to the merriest of all theologians – a theologian who believed that “our daily bread must also include play.”

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