Sunday, 12 July 2009

Discipleship and christology

Today I drove to Canberra to give a talk at the School of Discipleship, an annual theological conference/retreat for Australian university students. While I was there, I heard a gripping and compelling lecture on Jonah and Second Isaiah by one of the plenary speakers, the Quaker scholar Daniel Smith-Christopher. My own talk was a more or less impromptu reflection on practices of discipleship as the context within which christology emerges in the New Testament: the Christian life is itself the basic christological text. (I was helped here by a recent reading of Terrence Tilley’s excellent new book, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice.)


I find theology to be especially enjoyable in a setting like this: an impromptu discussion leaves room for movement and discovery; it’s more playful and impressionistic than a formal lecture, more inventive and exploratory than a scholarly paper.

Anyhow, it did my heart good to see such an impressive gathering of theologians and university students. The event seems to offer a vibrant and theologically robust alternative to both the colourless conservatism and limp liberalism that one so often encounters in Australian church life. Best of all, each year the School of Discipleship creates its own themed range of beers: this year they had the Barmen Collection, including the Hans Asmussen Golden and the Karl Barth Porter (pictured).

And speaking of Barmen and discipleship, I’ve decided to set one of Bonhoeffer’s books for my undergraduate course on ecclesiology this semester. (After the lecture each week, a selection from the book will be the focus of a one-hour discussion, so that we’ve pretty much explored the whole book by the end of semester.) But I still haven’t decided between Discipleship (a richer, deeper work) and Life Together (shorter, more practical and accessible). Anyone able to persuade me one way or another?

26 Comments:

Evan said...

Life Together is the work that led me to academic theology (oddly enough, from pastoral plans, which is more the theme of the book). The last chapter especially impressed upon me the immediacy of dogmatic truth to the Christian life. My sense is (although it's been longer since I've read Discipleship) that Life Together would fit more naturally into an ecclesiology course... it concerns the community from start to finish in a way that Discipleship doesn't. I speak from a bit of bias, though, given the importance of Life Together for my own journey.

roger flyer said...

I agree with Evan. The section on the wish dream as the destroyer of community is profound and worth a couple one hour discusssions.

Will Aussie beer be served?

Chris TerryNelson said...

A 3rd vote for Life Together, especially the first half which grounds ecclesiology in Christology, rather than in the ideals and dreams of "community" - can I get an "amen"?!

Adam Kotsko said...

You should probably go with Sanctorum Communio.

Matt Jenson said...

I haven't read LT for quite a while, but I used Discipleship for an ecclesiology course this past fall. It seemed to work very well and was pastorally compelling even as it opened up a number of key themes and questions in ecclesiology. Plus, it's one of the better theological reads of Scripture around.

Brian said...

Life Together is, I suppose, more "to the point," but Discipleship knits the particulars of Jesus' life and teaching to the doctrine of the church more directly and systematically. Plus, I don't think one can do much better than Discipleship for giving undergrads a dose of "serious" academic theology that they nonetheless thoroughly enjoy. My students over this past year were unanimously enthusiastic about Discipleship, even though it was probably the most difficult text we read.

ccollinswinn said...

I would agree with LT being more accessible in general, and much shorter, and the section on projection is quite good (as roger mentioned). But I have to vote for Discipleship. I use it quite a bit in both theology and general education settings and students are consistently gripped by it. It offers a much better discussion of the cruciformity of common life, provides multiple places for discussion of the actualistic nature of the Christian life, and is really great for helping students to learn to "read between the lines" in reference to the Nazi background and the political nature of the gospel life. Plus, I find the section on music in LT kind of irritating. I hope it goes well.

Andy Rowell said...

I read all three (Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship and Life Together) this spring with special interest in ecclesiology. Sanctorum Communio would be difficult for beginners to Bonhoeffer because of the philosophy and technical sociological distinctions and its lack of polish. Life Together and Discipleship have two different tones--LT is sweeter--"listen to one another"--and pious--"read big chunks of Scripture together"; while Discipleship is jarring--"obey, be courageous." Either would be great. My hesitancy with Discipleship is that a) it is difficult to get through, and b) it is so polemical against ethical reflection in favor of "simple obedience" which he later significantly qualifies in Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. But Discipleship's chapter 10 "The Body of Christ" picks up lots of good stuff from Sanctorum Communio and Christ the Center; and chapter 11 "The Visible Church-Community" is my very favorite thing Bonhoeffer wrote on ecclesiology. Both Discipleship and Life Together had a profound impact on me when I read them in university.

myleswerntz said...

Adam's right that Sanctorum Communio sets the background for Life Together, but for my money, go with Discipleship if you have one book to go with. LT is good in that it's designed to be a format for common life, but Discipleship has more directions that it can be pushed.

roger flyer said...

I'd like to think that undergrads (and grad students) are sophisticated, self-aware, and wise--but at 18-22, they aren't.
At 30, mmmmaybe.
At 50, possibly.

Stick with basics. Gently hammer them home.

Evan said...

"Plus, I find the section on music in LT kind of irritating."

This is one of the best parts! The important thing is to get past whether Bonhoeffer is right or wrong about it, and appreciate the stark differences between it and what most of us grow up with in congregational worship. The culture shock is instructive in itself.

In any case, we spend enough time criticizing inane praise choruses- I think it's good to give Bonhoeffer some grace for his own overblown criticisms. One also has to keep in mind the good music that he brought over from America.

Darren said...

I've tried to read Life Together several times, and just can't get into it. Discipleship, on the other hand, is perhaps the single most significant book in all my undergraduate studies. Even if you just assign the first five chapters, it's about as good as it gets, as far as I am concerned. The material is also emminently "graspable" by men and women at that age.

The dialectic of "cheap grace" and "costly grace" alone is worth the price of admission, and a great way to introduce one's self to Bonhoeffer's ethics, his Christology, and in a way even his ecclesiology.

Brad said...

My vote is for Life Together. I actually read Discipleship (under such an antiquated title as "The Cost of...") in high school, and for whatever reason LT took me multiple tries to get into -- Bonhoeffer can be like that -- but the payoff was richer exactly in the deep simplicity of the work. The bare, straightforward, communal propositions and suggestions seem to be endlessly open to conversation, especially for an undergraduate course.

kim fabricius said...

Barth said that Discipleship was "By far the best thing written on the subject." When, however, he heard of what was happening at Finkenwalde, he sensed "a difficult-to-define odour of monastic eros and pathos" in the air. Barth was right - except that it was a fragrance, not an odour. Ecclesiology was not Barth's strong point, and he was always suspicious of religious "practices". Go with Life Together, not least because while your students will probably read Discipleship anyway, they may not get around to Life Together.

R.O. Flyer said...

I'd say Discipleship, but make sure to talk about some of the key ideas in Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being with regard to God's freedom and the church as "Christ existing as community."

roger flyer said...

Or you could just offer The Purpose Drive Life. ;)

kim fabricius said...

You gotta love roger flyer! But he forgot to mention Mark Driscoll's The Kenotic Church: Patterns of Cruciform Leadership .

roger flyer said...

You gotta love Kim Fabricius! But he forgot to mention The Prayer of Jabez! Must reading for undergrads!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks folks: this is very helpful. (The comments in favour of each book are so persuasive that I've changed my mind about 15 times over the past day!)

So anyway, I think I'll reread Life Together this morning — hopefully that will help me to reach a decision...

Erin said...

I'd vote for LT, as well. I remember in some of my formative-first-christian steps in college years we read "The Cost of.." We didn't understand much, and I took to calling it "Cough up Discipleship," as it seemed another cry for everything, just detailing the process.

When I read LT, I was perplexed because it seemed so foreign. I could read the words but couldn't see how he was fitting them together. It was easy to misread Discipleship for me, but not LT; I couldn't read it at all and it became a parable; an itch I had to scratch. So it seems more fertile for discussion for the perpetually freshmen like myself.

Ben Myers said...

Okay, I reread Life Together today; and while baking pizzas tonight, I also reread some of the best chapters of Discipleship.

So after much anxious deliberation, I've finally settled on Life Together. This is mainly because of the way it will fit with what I'm trying to achieve in the course. Each week, I want the (more theoretical) lectures to be followed by a discussion oriented around church practice. So Life Together seems like just the thing.

And of course, the students will still have plenty of other readings throughout the semester, probably including a couple of chapters from Discipleship (those first couple of chapters, plus the chapter on the church's visibility, are surely among the best things he ever wrote).

So anyway, thanks for all these comments: they really helped me not only with this decision, but also to clarify exactly what I'm trying to do with this weekly discussion.

roger flyer said...

Hammer them with the wish dream conversation.

I have yet to see young (and even old) idealists (myself as chief of these sinners) live peaceably in the stew we call ecclesia. AS DB says, it is a 'spiritual' reality, not a 'psychic' one.

Jody said...

Ben,

I'm thrilled to see you're introducting your students to Life Together. I taught this book a few years ago in an adult education class in my church, and it has been the most influential book in shaping my ecclesiology as well as my Christology. (I give a hearty Amen to Chris Terry-Nelson's statement above.) It's been so influential in fact that I credit my first reading of Life Together with sending me on a journey that led to discerning a call into the pastorate! I'll take my first seminary course this fall as a part-time student, and I hope to enroll full time in an M.Div. program in the fall of 2010. You should warn your students ahead of time- they may not realize it now, but this could be one of the most revolutionary books they'll ever read.

roger flyer said...

Hi Jody-
Take heart from DB--Speaking as a former and now recovering pastor, do not let your 'wish dream' for the church lead you to a place of despair.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for your comment, Jody: that's great to hear!

FBCVH: Pastor Rob Casey said...

I looked for a way to email you before being tacky and posting this as a comment. So apologies first.
Follow452 is dedicated to developing a more powerful generation of those discipled into true follow-ship with Christ.

My name is Rob Casey and I would like to ask you if you would you spread the word in your circles and please use the network God's given you to ask people to take 20 seconds to aid the cause of discipleship in our next generation of believers? We need 500 poll votes on the one question poll on http://www.follow452.com. Can you help me spread the word? It would mean a great deal to me! I promise it won't take you but about 20 seconds. You can gain more about what I believe God is at work in from the site, but all I'm asking for right now, by way of research, is for folks to answer one simple question, in checkbox format, so that I can formulate some of what I already believe is taking place in the area of the modern church's approach to discipleship and use it to approach the unaware and misguided within it to awaken and stir us. Thank you for your time and again, I apologize in advance for using your comment space to request this.

Grace and Peace to you,
Pastor Rob

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