Review: Experiencing God

experiencing God

Experiencing God (Inner Land – Volume 3), Eberhard Arnold. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: What it means for us to truly experience the greatness of God and the peace of God.

Many of us long for a deeper experience of God and peace in our lives. Eberhard Arnold, in this third volume of the Inner Land series, proposes that there is a far deeper and richer experience of God for believers than we reckon, but that this calls for far more of us, really all of us.

This work is broken into two parts: “experiencing God” and “the peace of God.” The first part explores how we may enter into a deep experience of God. It all begins with God drawing near to us, inviting us to escape judgment and know forgiveness, to know both his greatness and our smallness. He considers how God discloses himself in creation and guides history. As we trust in Christ we come to new life, and the inner life brings change in our love for others under the saving grace of God, leading to the just community and continuing renewal. Above all, we experience the strength of God for all of our life.

Peace is so much more than an inner experience of tranquility. It is both unity and justice; it is constructive work. It is rooted in God’s truth, frees us to serve, and demands purity. The unity of peace among the people of God can be expected to evoke opposition. Hardness toward peace leads to the judgment of war. Striking here is the development of the peace ethic of the early Christians in contrast to both abortion and the amassing of wealth in the culture around them, a culture of war. At the heart of it all, Jesus is our peace.

Reading Eberhard is best done slowly and meditatively. His sentences do the work of paragraphs, and paragraphs the work of chapters in many books. One example:

   God begins–that is the end for man. When in fear and trembling we know God and are known by him, God is drawing near to us in person. When the Most High descends to us, the degraded, he tears away all cloaks and barriers. God is revealed only through this fearful experience. When we experience God, we appear before him as we are. As long as we shrink from being exposed for what we are, from God’s unhindered recognition of us, we remain lost and helpless, overwhelmed by the superior power of the external world. As long as we submit to things as they are and remain their slaves, terror of God repels us and keeps us at a distance (p.5).

So much here. God’s approach, the fearsomeness of knowing and being known, the choice between vulnerability and enslavement. No sentimental, inspirational writing here but the truth we desperately need and often resist. The choice between a hard-won peace and unity, and the discord and war that surround us. Arnold offers us the vital, uncompromising substance of truth in every sentence, every paragraph and page rather than innocuous “inspiring thoughts.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Conscience

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The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Plough Quarterly

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Cover of Autumn 2018 issue of Plough Quarterly

It is not my usual custom to review periodicals on this blog, but I decided to make an exception because of an extraordinary publication that has come across my path in recent months. Plough Quarterly is part of the publishing efforts of the Bruderhof who describe themselves as “an international movement of Christian communities whose members are called to follow Jesus together in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and of the first church in Jerusalem, sharing all our talents, income, and possessions (Acts 2 and 4).” The Bruderhof began as an Anabaptist community formed by Eberhard Arnold in Germany in the chaos of post World War I Germany. The rise of Nazism drove the community abroad and led to the formation of communities in the United States, England, Germany, Australia, and Paraguay. These voluntary communities seek to live out the life of the Sermon on the Mount, and the book of Acts. Arnold wrote the following about the mission of these communities and their publishing efforts:

The mission of our publishing house is to proclaim living renewal, to summon people to deeds in the spirit of Jesus, to spread the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) in the social distress of the present day, to apply Christianity publicly, and to testify to God’s action in current events. We must get down to the deepest roots of Christianity and demonstrate that they are crucial to solving the urgent problems in contemporary culture. With breadth of vision and energetic daring, our publishing house must steer its course right into the torrent of contemporary thought. Its work in fields that are apparently religiously neutral will lead to new relationships and open new doors. (1920)

Only where the plough of God has tilled our lives can sowing bear fruit. An enduring deepening of the interior life can be brought about only through the ploughing of repentance. Therefore our main task is to work for that spiritual revolution and re-evaluation which leads to metanoia – the fundamental transformation of mind and heart…

This task can only be fulfilled in one way: in allowing the gospel to work in creation, producing literary and artistic work in which the witness of the gospel retains the highest place while at the same time representing all that is true, worthy, pure, beautiful and noble (Phil.4:8). This means breaking the cloistered isolation of Christian publishing, in which only explicitly Christian books are promoted exclusively to Christian circles. (1917)

I have reviewed several books from Plough Publishing, including works on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Archbishop Romero, Dorothy Day, a wonderful collection of the writings of Philip Britts, a Bruderhof leader in Paraguay, and a graphic novel of the life of Martin Luther. I’ve been struck with how these fulfill the standards of literary and artistic excellence while focusing on a clear gospel witness.

Plough Quarterly reflects these same qualities. What first catches my eye is the aesthetic appeal of the magazine, from eye catching covers, to original artwork and reproductions. The current issue includes an excerpt of a new graphic novel on the life of Nelson Mandela. There is artwork from Kandinsky, Raphael, Van Gogh, Winslow Homer, and Caravaggio.

Each issue focuses around a theme and brings together quality writing not only of those in Bruderhof circles but other thinkers and writers. The current issue, focused on “the art of community” includes contributions from the likes of Roger Scruton, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Annie Dillard, Dorothy L. Sayers, and James Baldwin, among others. There is a fine essay from Quaker writer Sarah Ruden on sound and silence, shaped by her Quaker tradition, and one by Scott Beauchamp on the use of the arts in the healing of the traumas of war among military veterans. The issue features a “manifesto” by the founder of the Bruderhof, Eberhard Arnold on “Why We Live in Community.”

I appreciate the focus on the gospel in all of life, from farming to art, from non-violence to the building of a summer tree house described in this issue. While the Quarterly certainly is a winsome portrayal of Bruderhof community, I think its most significant function is to nourish all those who aspire to a deeper engagement in following Christ, in the world, in the company of others.

A subscription to Plough Quarterly is currently $18 for U.S. residents, and includes both print editions and digital access to back issues. You may subscribe at their website. If you are not sure, you can access the current issue online. In its commitment to “all that is true, worthy, pure, beautiful and noble” it is a publication consistent with all that this blog stands for and I would highly commend it!

Review: Called to Community

Called to community

Called to CommunityCharles E. Moore (ed.). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: A collection of readings on Christian community centered around the Bruderhof Community but also including theologians and writers from throughout church history.

The Bruderhof communities, beginning with the initial ones formed by Eberhard Arnold, are in the vanguard of a movement among Christians longing for a greater depth of community than ordinarily experienced in congregational life, including intentional communities of Christians sharing accommodations and life together. This book represents a collection of writings published by Plough, the Bruderhof publishing arm, including Arnold and other Bruderhof authors, but also a diverse collection of writers on community including Benedict of Nursia, Eugene Peterson, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier of the L’Arche communities. This volume, organized into 52 chapters that may be used by groups over a year, brings together some of the best writing by these and a number of other writers on community.

The book is organized into four parts. The first is “A Call to Community”. Gerhard Lohfink’s statement in the chapter on Embodiment was a stunner:

“For many Christians it would not be a turning point in their lives if they decided, one day, to stop praying tomorrow, to leave off going to church next Sunday….”

This section challenges us to consider the call to something that is central rather than peripheral to our lives.

The next part is on “Forming Community.” It includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s telling observations on “Idealism” from his Life Together, and a wonderful contribution from fellow Ohio Art Gish on “Surrender.”

Part Three discusses “Life in Community.” The chapter on “Deeds” includes Mother Teresa talking about not despising small things, and John F. Alexander’s challenge to focus not on using gifts but cleaning toilets. Working through issues of “Irritations”, “Differences”, and “Conflict” the section concludes with essays by Richard Foster and Jean Vanier about “Celebration.”

The last section is titled “Beyond the Community”. One of the most moving essays is that by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice describing how they “interrupted” a series of five minute reports at a World Congress to wash one another’s feet before the assembly. Several chapters in this section talk about boundaries and the real tension between compassion and self-care that allows one to continue to minister and recognizes personal limits. The collection ends with Dorothy Day’s incisive comments on “Mercy.”

The book includes a study guide with questions and scripture readings for each chapter as well as sources for further study. It seems the perfect resource for a group who wants to go deeper in community, whether they have formed a more intentional community or not.

One of the things that commends this collection is its catholicity, and the stature of those whose writings are included. To listen to those who have lived community across the centuries is to drink at a deep well of wisdom. This is not just the latest “new monastics” thinking or the latest offerings from the Emergent Church. The call to community is challenging, and yet the recognition of the real challenges of community both tempers naive enthusiasm and offers wise counsel to those who pursue intentional communities out of faithfulness to Christ.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.