Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 1)

When I read the sermon Karl Barth delivered at the Frauenkirche in Bremen, Germany, in 1934, I can't avoid seeking the Nazi elephant in the room.
(The text is in The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. ed. Kurt I. Johanson and trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, BC, 2007.*) After all, of course, those were dark times for Europe generally and for Barth personally. I will explore that context more fully in my next post. Suffice it to say, the Confessing Church movement was beginning to coalesce, spearheaded by Barth's principal authorship of the Barmen Declaration earlier that spring. He would soon be dismissed from his post at the University of Bonn for what the powers that be would interpret as an act of civil disobedience: A refusal to pledge, without qualification, his loyalty to the Fuhrer.

How, according to Barth, do biblical text and contemporary context come together in the sermon event? Barth lays out his own methodological views on preaching in his Homilectics lectures, which also come from his Bonn period. It might seem natural, then, to try to use his explicit homilectical theories to parse what is happening in the Bremen piece. That is the approach taken by William Willimon, an attentive student and interpreter of Barth's sermons. In Willimon's view, this sermon exemplifies Barth's rigorous commitment to be a preacher of the biblical Word, to let the living words of the text recontextualize and reframe the contemporary context. If this is correct, then it is best not see Bible and newspaper as two foci of an ellipse -- a more Gadamerian model, we might say; rather, the events of the day are radically relativized and subsumed through an unapologetic and thoroughgoing expository sermon. The preacher finds the center of gravity in the biblical witness to Christ in scripture -- a testimony that brooks no competition for any of the lesser lights (or better, darknesses) of the created realm.

The juxtaposition of this piece with the 1912 sermon on the sinking of the Titanic (which I discussed here recently) suggests a strong contrast between early and middle preaching of Barth, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of fundamental method. Whereas the "Titanic" sermon is consumed with contemporary events, the strict biblio-theological focus of the Bremen sermon yields a sort of calm trust in the transcendent One.

In his introduction to this volume, Willimon compares the Bremen sermon to Barth's later homilies to prisoners (a few of which are collected in Deliverance to the Captives). He finds this piece from the Bonn period, based on the story of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14, to be "more detached from the congregation than those [prison] sermons, more studiously committed to a verse-by-verse commentary on a biblical text, longer, and full of serious intent" (p. 20). Of course, it is difficult to deny this fairly formal description. Willimon makes his point more explicit:

Preached under the gathering storm clouds of Nazism, there is no mention of Nazis or Hitler. Here is Barth following his own advice to the German Church when he was expelled from his professorate at Bonn -- "exegesis, exegesis, exegesis." He is preaching, as he urged, "as if nothing had happened." The "nothing" is Hitler and Barth refuses to let him or his minions enter the sermon (ibid.).

Ever since Karl Adam, in his review of the Romans commentary, famously quipped that Barth had dropped a bombshell in the theologians' playground, many interpreters of Barth have be drawn to images of things falling from the sky and/or exploding. What might we infer from this phenomenon?....Nah, I had better not go there. At any rate, the metaphor apparently works with sermons as well as Bible commentaries. Willimon writes: "It feels as if the text has just been dropped, like a meteor, in the middle of a congregation" (p. 21). If I might vamp on this trope a bit, the preacher (ostensibly) is more like a geologist scrutinizing an uncanny extraterrestrial object than a poet ruminating on some aspects of everyday experience; certainly, for heaven's sake, he is not interjecting his subjective experiences and emotions into the sermon, in which case we would be thrust back into the paradigm of the misty-eyed Schleiermachian parson, and all would be lost.

What is putatively liberating about this more stern and disciplined preaching method is that the messenger finds her self-absorption and social myopia submerged in an ocean of divine meaning. The exegete schools the journalist: "Here is a preacher who is more fascinated by the ancient text than by the contemporary congregational context" (ibid.). Willimon shows his debt to postliberal theology. The strange new world of the opened Bible absorbs the world, not vice versa. This sort of thinking has roots in the Reformation, to be sure, and at is a perfectly plausible and responsible way to read the Bremen sermon -- a way that takes Barth's musings on methodology at face value.

Still, I just don't find this take on the Bremen sermon completely convincing. I suppose, through personal inclination and some corrosive exposure to contemporary hermeneutical theory -- I studied at that other school, you know -- I take a more genealogical approach to reading texts, sermons included. I want to dig deeper, and if a speaker or writer claims that some biblical or theological content is determining her presentation in a univocal way, I tend to be a little skeptical of her claim. Or let me put it this way, so that I might redeem myself a little with DET's loyal postliberal readers: I would attempt to unpack this sermon via a close reading of the text enveloped in a thick description that tries to situate the piece firmly in its original context.

Forunately, Willimon is a more subtle reader of Barth than the foregoing paragraphs might suggest, and he catches himself here: Clearly, there is more going on in the Bremen sermon than a surface reading might suggest. Perhaps the situation has grown so desperate in Germany that the typical resources of Kulturprotestantismus are shown to be vacuous, just as had been the case in 1914.
Barth is seeking a living God who is powerful enough to speak and act in a liberating and saving way amid a regime of radical evil. Barth seeks a theological answer to the dilemma of himself and his congregants, just as a nascent Confessing Church is trying to cobble together a faithful response to the idolatrous insanity of the German Christians. Willimon writes: "The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God" (ibid.). The living word of text and sermon are ballast in the storm.

Barth claims, in this sermon, that we need not fear. God will speak to us, in the night, in the storm. And the word of God is a life-giving, victorious word" (ibid.).

Amen. Who would want to disagree with that? And yet, I think there is still more to be said about how text and context are related in Barth's Bremen sermon, but exploring that requires me to risk a close reading of this sermon for myself, with some gestures toward its possible resonances within its original historical context. But I you want to read that, inquiring readers, you will have to stay tuned until my next post.
* Johanson kindly sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed here are my own.



blair said…
No deep thoughts or responses other than to say I appreciate someone taking up Barth as a preacher and that if this series continues I may have more to say. As someone who preaches nearly every week (minus vacation etc.) I do struggle with shaping a sermon true to my theological convictions (which lean Barthian) in a world unaccustomed to hearing anything but American pragmatism or co-relationalism. Looking forward to further reflections.

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