Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Faithful SpyIn every age, during times of greatest crisis, there are unlikely heroes quietly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a theologian and pastor who died trying to assassinate Hitler before he could slaughter more innocent people.

There are many excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer, and he was a prolific writer himself, but John Hendrix has created an entirely new type of work by producing a graphic novel biography for teens. In just green, red, black, and white, the pages convey danger and tension, with emotive drawings and hand lettering that tell the story of Dietrich’s childhood and young adulthood, his travels to Rome and the United States, and his evolution of thought and faith that brought him to his resolution to join a plot against Der Führer. At the same time, Hendrix spins a brief but enlightening backstory of Germany’s history from World War I to the rise of Hitler: how the German people were demoralized and struggling, and the ease with which a dictator can gain power when the people are looking for a savior.

Hendrix succeeds at my top criterion for Bonhoeffer biographies: he is open and honest about Dietrich’s active participation in a political plot without denying, twisting, or trivializing his faith. There are no easy answers here. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground, “confessing” church, a man whose Christianity was the center of his life, but also a man who was determined to kill another man. How he reconciled those two realities is the subject of endless speculation and rivers of ink, but some writers deal more honestly than others.

My only problem with The Faithful Spy is that the printing is sometimes less clear than it should be. Particularly for some passages of very fine print, the coloring makes it nearly illegible. Perhaps teenagers’ eyes will handle this more easily than mine.

In a time that cries out for heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the best. He was brave, intellectual, kind, willing to learn, and yes, faithful. Teens and adults will also enjoy Eric Metaxas’ more comprehensive biography, reviewed here. As noted, there are many books and collections of writings by Bonhoeffer himself. His most famous is probably The Cost of Discipleship, but for an introduction to his thought, the two slender volumes Life Together and Letters from Prison are quite accessible.

John Hendrix is also the author and illustrator of the dazzling picture book biography, Miracle Man, reviewed here.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I own of copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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