Listening in on conversations with Karl Barth

September 18, 2018 by Joe Small

Augustine heard the voice of a child saying, “Take and read, take and read.” He opened a Bible, began to read, and was set on a path of committed discipleship and faithful pastoral ministry as the Bishop of Hippo and a theologian for the ages. Let's assume that pastors do not need to be encouraged to read the Bible. But what else can we read that will enhance our preaching, teaching, and pastoral care?

Suggestions for September reading:

Barth's Church Dogmatics takes up two feet of shelf space, his other books three feet more. It is all intimidating, which may explain why pastors read so little of him. Barth in Conversation presents a more accessible, perhaps even more engaging Barth. Transcripts and accounts of interviews, question and answer sessions, and discussions, display a spontaneous Barth. Each of the 39 “conversations” is preceded by an introduction that describes its occasion and conduct. Readers can now overhear conversations between Barth and an array of European and American interlocutors.

In three of the conversations we overhear Barth the pastor who preached regularly in the Basel city jail. “Conversations with Prison Chaplains,” “Questions and Answers in the Basel Prison,” and “Questions and Answers in San Quentin” show a theological approach to pastoral care in prisons that is neither legalistic nor sentimental, but always focuses on the gospel and the person of the prisoner.

We overhear Barth in a 1962 interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune respond to a question about the aim of his writing: “I had to understand that Christianity means a covenant, an encounter between God and man, and now the problem is to understand God and man without mixing them up.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported Barth's observation that, “There are many interesting and serious attempts to show young clergymen how to deal with man and the modern world. In straining this ‘how,' the ‘what' has often been forgotten. I stress the ‘what,' the nature of the gospel to be proclaimed.”

Barth on other theologians

Hearing Barth's comments about other theologians is a guilty pleasure. At a Washington luncheon Barth was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's criticism that he failed to condemn the Soviet Union's repression of the 1956 uprising in Hungary: “I ask why Niebuhr is silent about American prisons. Wouldn't it be wiser if he thought of things nearer to him than father away? When he speaks out on this, I will speak out on Hungary.” What does Barth have to say about Tillich? “I have the biggest difficulty understanding him as a theologian. Here lies a great problem for me. Even at the end of a seminar [that Barth thought on Tillich's Systematic Theology I] I didn't reach a point where I could understand him as a theologian, but I can understand him as a philosopher.”

Throughout the volume, Barth's humanity is on full display. He is thoughtful, impatient, humorous, pastoral, professional, sarcastic, wise, and snippy. In all, it is a delight to be able to participate in “conversations” with the 20th century's most powerful theological voice.

Lectionary previews and stewardship resources available

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Presbyterian Evangelism Conference set for October

The PC(USA) Evangelism Conference will be held at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center at Lake Tahoe. The theme for the conference this year is “Sabbath Rest, Holy Surrender, Full Life,” through which participants will be invited to consider what it really means to bear witness to Christ's reconciliation by transforming our ministries into Sabbath Communities.