Saturday 6 October 2007

Karl Barth: the word in this world

Karl Barth, The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, ed. Kurt I. Johanson, trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007), 66 pp. With an introduction by William H. Willimon.

In this splendid little booklet, two remarkable sermons by Karl Barth appear in English for the first time. The juxtaposition of these two sermons provides a striking picture of some of the ways in which Barth’s preaching changed over the years.

On the one hand, both of these sermons were preached amidst situations of global catastrophe and crisis. The first was preached in April 1912, just days after the sinking of the Titanic; and the second was preached in November 1934, two days after the Confessing Church had taken a public stand against Hitler (and two days later, Barth would be dismissed from his university post). Both sermons thus take the form of emergency proclamation, of urgent announcement amidst crisis.

On the other hand, the two sermons are remarkably different. In the first, Barth takes the sinking of the Titanic itself as his text – he insists that this event is the organ of divine revelation through which “God addresses us with … power and urgency” (p. 32). The sermon is thus entirely immersed within its specific situation; there is (in good liberal fashion) a presumed identity between divine revelation and the movement of history. This was precisely the position that Barth would later denounce and repudiate so fiercely in his commentary on Romans.

Needless to say, by the time of the 1934 sermon Barth’s mode of preaching is very different. Here the contemporary situation is even more urgent and more dangerous than in April 1912 – here, the German nation as a whole is steaming towards hidden disaster. But Barth only alludes to these specificities in passing – his entire sermon, from the first word to the last, is absorbed by the world of the Bible and by the sovereign command of God. Hitler, for example, is never named, but only alluded to as a mere “nothing.”

The two sermons thus offer a striking contrast. Indeed, the later Barth looked back on his Titanic sermon with considerable horror – in his Homiletics (WJKP, 1991), he called it “the monster of a full-scale Titanic sermon”! Following Barth’s lead, William Willimon also suggests in his introduction that this is a very “bad” sermon (p. 18), since its text is the newspaper rather than the Bible.

Nevertheless, I myself would like to say something in defence of this early (liberal) Barth – for all its theological failings, I think his Titanic sermon is an extraordinarily gripping and powerful piece of preaching. Even if the whole sermon is structured by the sinking of the ship itself (rather than by any specific biblical text), Barth’s perception of this event has already been filtered through a biblical imagination – so that the true starting point of this sermon is not merely a historical event, but a biblical “reading” of this event.

Barth’s main argument is that the sinking of the Titanic is the judgment of God: it is God’s judgment on the “crime of capitalism,” in which “a few individuals compet[e] with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits” (p. 40). Barth thus sees the sinking of the Titanic not merely as an isolated occurrence, but as an event wholly conditioned by a larger web of social and economic relations – the same web of relations which also structures the lives of the working-class parishioners here in the little village of Safenwil. For that reason, the judgment of God on the Titanic is connected – urgently and immediately – to the lives of these parishioners. The theological horizon which shapes Barth’s interpretation of the Titanic, in other words, is the same horizon against which his parishioners must understand their own material struggles.

So while I’ll admit that this very socialist and very “liberal” sermon on the Titanic is a far cry from Barth’s later preaching, I think this sermon also expresses something important about authentic Christian proclamation. In the sermon, God is addressing these particular people. And so the preacher must interpret not only the biblical text but also the world itself through the lens of the gospel.

On one occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by making Hitler disappear anonymously into the world of the Bible as a powerless “nothing”; on another occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by speaking directly against the “crime of capitalism,” and by summoning the people of God to re-imagine their own material world as the place of God’s reign. Two very different sermons, but – if we listen carefully – are we not hearing the same Word?


Anonymous said...

I must admit, Ben, that this loyal attempt to rescue the young Barth's reading of the signs of the times worries me, particularly as it is no longer liberalism that presumes an "identity between divine revelation and the movement of history" - on the specifics of providence liberals now tend to be practical atheists; rather it is the religious right that now clearly sees the hand of God in catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, speaks of "the judgement of God on [X]", and pinpoints connections with untroubled assurance between the local and the global - e.g. the symbolic Sodom of New Orleans and the decadent secularism of the West. Doesn't consistency demand that what is sauce for the socialist goose of Barth is equally sauce for the neo-conservative gander of Falwell? Is it sufficient, and not tendentious (special pleading), to say that Barth's view of the divine action in history, unlike Falwell's, was theologically rather than ideologically informed? After all, both claimed "biblical readings" of the events.

While I understand that we would like to say more than "what goes around comes around" (i.e. view the world more than merely karmically), I would be more at ease, in this case, if you can assure me (a) that Barth takes the role of a more modest prophet than Falwell (I naturally presume that he preached without the latter's schadenfreude); and (b) draws the kind of conclusions that Jesus draws in his quite unFalwellian analysis of what God was saying to Jerusalem in the collapse of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4-5).

In an essay on providence that takes its title from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins "'These Things Were Here and but the Beholder Wanting'", Nicholas Lash concludes "that it may make sense to affirm that 'these things were here', while at the same time acknowledging that the constraints of human, historical existence are such that, in any straightforward sense, the 'beholder is wanting', and that to seek prematurely to 'behold' is to substitute credulity for faith."

Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, do you have any suggestions on theologically interpreting the Poms' victory over the Wallabies in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup in Marseilles earlier today? Should we turn to the story of David and Goliath for "a biblical 'reading' of this event"?

As Americans will know at this time of the baseball post-season play-offs, we are now getting Falwellian readings of the against-all-odds comback of the modest Colorado Rockies. "Batting for Jesus" was the title of a two-page spread in today's Independent - a British broadsheet - reporting on this team laden with born-again Christians, from the boardroom to the diamond, and outlining its faith-based approach to the game, including prayer-time and Bible studies.

The chief executive Charlie Monfort has said, "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those."

It makes you want to see even the Great Satan itself, the New York Yankees, survive their series with the Cleveland Indians and kick the Rockies' butts all the way to Colorado Springs, home to "Focus on the Family".

Ben Myers said...

Hi Kim -- many thanks for this. I didn't mean to sound as though I approve of "Barth's view of the divine action in history" in this early sermon (in fact, I disagree with most of the sermon's theology: he also invokes the old liberal dream of history's "progress", etc).

All I meant to suggest is that the formal technique of starting with/expounding a biblical text isn't necessarily the only way of preaching a "biblical" sermon. Even Barth's straightforward "exposition" of the sinking of the Titanic was itself an attempt to expound the Bible -- even if the theology is basically mistaken and naive. (And, as you say, the idea of an "identity" between divine action and history is not merely naive, but downright pernicious -- as Barth himself perceived so clearly in the 1930s!)

To draw a parallel from the 1930s: I suspect Barth would still have been preaching a "biblical" sermon in 1934 if he had specifically named Hitler and Nazi ideology as demonic powers, and if he had specifically told the Confessing Church that their calling was to resist the German state. This would still be a theological interpretation of history: the crucial difference from someone like Falwell is that this would rest on good theology!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the clarification. And you are certainly right that beginning a sermon by citing a text no more entails preaching the word than beginning a sermon without citing a text entails not preaching the word. As Barth himself said, "preaching is exposition, not exegesis" - the text can put in an appearance in many different ways - and it requires imagination as well as attention to both Bible and world. Above all it requires prayer for a miracle to occur at around 11 o'clock tomorrow morning!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I read this when it came out a few months back, and I loved the sermon on the Titanic.

byron smith said...

Ben - thanks for the clarification. I'll have to look out for this book.

Aric Clark said...

I'm late joining this conversation, but I definitely appreciate your basic point that we can preach the Word in more ways than by beginning with a text from the Bible (though that is a good way).

Lately, I've been preaching a series moving through the Apostle's Creed, and I've found it to really spark my imagination. Also, I've heard great sermons that took contemporary events as their starting place. Presbyterians (like me) tend to be very suspicious of anything that doesn't start, continue and end in the Bible, but to me this conception of what the Bible is and how it works is often so broken that it is almost unsalvageable. Simply by quoting words off a page I certainly cannot hope to communicate their meaning, and just because I speak with Biblical language certainly does not make my proclamation genuine.

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