The Bookshelf: At The Heart of The White Rose

There is a paradox constantly present in times of persistent crisis. The world around us is going to hell, seemingly. Yet, at home, life goes on almost unblemished. In our modern times, this paradox is especially present. For the last sixteen years, our nation has been at war in at least two different theaters. Scientists are unanimous in their assessment that the climate is almost at a point of no return, and in half a century vast swaths of the world will be uninhabitable. Anti-democratic forces are gaining hold more and more worldwide, and hundreds of millions of people live in a state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. And right here at home, the most extreme, right wing administration in American history is reshaping the norms of American politics in terrifying and unreal ways. 

Yet, for so many of us, life just continues to roll on. We may know about all these crises, but we are so well-cushioned – a nice home, a readily accessible food source, good schools, decent neighbors, a consistent paycheck – that its hard to feel like we are in a moment of crisis at all. You could close your eyes, and it would almost all just fade away.

However, we don’t think of moments of historical crisis in that way. Surely, in actual moments of crisis, it must be overwhelming, the constant feeling of dread and insecurity one would feel. World War II, for instance, would seem like a time when normal life would stand still, and a daily sense of extremes would dominate. This would seem especially true in war-era Europe, and probably even more acute in war-era Germany.

The reality, however, is almost certainly the opposite, more akin, actually, to our present reality. This feeling of detachment and normalness in the midst of earth-shattering crisis is present throughout At The Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl.

Hans and Sophie were brother and sister, alternately the oldest and youngest of a larger brood of children, growing up in the first half of the 20th century in Nazi Germany. In their early 20s at the outbreak of war on the continent, both are conscripted into national service for the Reich, Hans as a military doctor, and Sophie in the compulsory Nazi youth organizations.

Yet, neither are Nazi supporters. Hailing from a highly educated, well-to-do family, they are well-read and intellectual, and both write obliquely of their horror at the rampant nationalism and violence going on around them. Eventually, along with a substantial group of friends and acquaintances their age, they begin writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich. Their group is dubbed “The White Rose.” After six subversive pamphlets, Hans and Sophie are caught distributing leaflets at the university in Munich, and subsequently executed. Hans was 24; Sophie just 21.

At The Heart of the White Rose is a collection of excerpts from their letters and personal diaries, kept between 1937 and their deaths in February of 1943. And despite the wartime setting, the sense one gets of reading the letters is normalness. Without the editorial inserts between letters and chapters, one would hardly know the circumstances they were facing. Hans, being in the military, obviously speaks often of his deployment first in France, then in Russia. But these references all come admidst rumination on philosophy and religion, vivid descriptions of nature, and mundane topics such as the need for clean laundry and money from home.

Sophie, who we meet when she is just 15, is a normal teenager of time, fond of biking and boys and nature. As the war continues, you watch her become a bit harder, at times forlorn. In her diary, she struggles both with her burgeoning religious beliefs, and also with self doubt. Yet, she maintains deep friendships with far-flung friends via letter, and her inherent optimism is always there.

This is a heartbreaking book, precisely because of the mundanity of the letters and diaries. Obviously, Hans and Sophie could have never imagined all this would be compiled and read nearly a century later. But, because we know where this story is going -not just the deaths of Hans and Sophie, but also the concentration camps, the ghettos, the atrocities of war – you read these letters with the feeling you are watching the moments just before a devastating car crash in slow motion.

In the second half the book, Hans and Sophie both begin to grapple with Christianity, which seems to have become a topic of interest among the White Rose members. Hans is ever the philosopher, writing academically of theological notions, grappling with them intellectually. Sophie, on the other hand, in her diary, is much more visceral, wrestling mightily with the existence of God, and her relation to such a being. I was astounded at just how articulate and brilliant both of these amazing people were, and acutely aware of the grand tragedy of their deaths.

Both Hans and Sophie’s last letters were written the day before they were arrested, and just five days before they are sent to the guillotine. Hans writes to his girlfriend, Rose; they appear to be going through a difficult moment in their relationship, exacerbated by their distance. Hans last words on paper are a wish for another letter from her quickly. 

Sophie writes to her best friend, Lisa, that she had been playing a piece by Schubert on her sonograph, and beautifully describes the piece. “You can positively feel and smell the breezes and scents and hear the birds and the whole of creation cry out for joy. And when the piano repeats the theme like cool, clear, sparkling water – oh, it’s sheer enchantment,” she ends the letter. Less than 24 hours later, she would be in the custody of the Gestapo. The enchantment in this amazing collection of personal writings is found in the privilege of being privy to the everyday lives of these normal, ordinary heroes, and seeing that they aren’t all that different from us, that the world they were living in was not so different from ours.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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The Bookshelf: Escape Routes

Christianity provides an extensive theological framework for a variety of important topics. Perhaps the most important subject it gives a lens to is that of human suffering. The Christian faith centers itself around the suffering act of God, experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The Suffering Servant is a widely popular image of Christ, and the stories of the martyrs feature prominently in church tradition.

In this light, Johann Christoph Arnold’s little book, Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapper in Life’s Little Hells, is a vitally important read on how to apply real-life theological understandings to the suffering nature of human existence.

Any regular reader here knows I am not a fan of the “self help” model of religion that 21st century American Christianity so often falls into. Yet, over the past month, I have begun to become intensely interested in a “theology of suffering,” chiefly as a result of reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God. While I certainly don’t want to narrow the life and message of Jesus down to a simple how-to guide of dealing with the hard parts of life, I do think the faith, at it’s core, should be oriented towards better lives for all human being. And a crucial part of that work is addressing and putting into perspective the suffering every person experiences in their lives.

Arnold, through the use of stories about people’s life’s, addresses the various aspects of suffering. Running through lonlieness, despair, difficult pasts, the struggle of success, and (interestingly) sex, he shows the universality of suffering in the human experience, and thus is able to effectively address the loneliness someone struggling though any of these areas surely feels. This arc culminates in the highlight of the book, Chapter 7, entitled, simply, “Suffering.” Arnold tells several stories again, culminating in the life of Bishop Oscar Romero.

The book ends on more positive notes. One of the most noteworthy, and surprising, moments of the book, is in the chapter entitled “Travel Guides.” Arnold illustrates the lives of three people who endured much suffering, and yet persisted, carrying through to significant and lasting impacts on the world. Surprisingly, one of the people he highlights at this point is Che Guevara, the Communist revolutionary who fought in Cuba and Angola. 

To encounter words of praise towards the leftist icon from someone within traditional Christianity is, well, rare, to say the least. And Arnold certainly doesn’t gloss over the most unsavory aspects of Guevara’s life and legacy. But crucially, he is able to draw out Guevara’s love for the regular people of Latin America, a love that drove him to fight against oppression and imperialism around the globe.  As a young left-leaning person, I obviously grew up around images of Che. I have always been intrigued by the man and the passion he exemplified, but was troubled, as a pacifist, by the violent methods he employed at times. Arnold, in this section of the book, is able to put my mind at ease.

He does all this in service to his broader goal, of normalizing the act of suffering and reassuring those who suffer that they aren’t alone, that even great men and women in history suffered greatly on their way to the things they did in the world. I found this little book an easy and enlightening read. Indeed, as Arnold shows, suffering is a key component to the Christian experience. For every Prosperity Gospel success story of big houses and helicopters, there are a thousand suffering campesinos, toiling everyday for pennies. Their experience is the dominant experience of the Christian movement. Their lives provide the primary paradigm for understanding Christian theology. And it is their suffering that Jesus took on and identified with, and called us all to recognize. The Suffering Servant isn’t an unobtainable ideal; the Suffering Servant is each of us.

As always with the books I receive from Plough, I of course was bothered by the allusions to traditional views on sexuality and reproductive issues, but they are few and far between here. Escape Routes is a lovely little book, and can be a highly useful resource for those enduring suffering (that is to say, all of us), and those who are called to be shepherds to those who suffer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Bookshelf: How To Be Here

Yesterday, I wrote about attending Rob Bell’s How To Be Here Experience tour stop here in Tulsa on Saturday. Today, I want to take a look at the book he is promoting.

After getting the tickets for the Saturday show from Ari late on Friday afternoon, I rushed out to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy of How To Be Here. I figured, if I am going to the show, I better read the book. And so, I did. I started it at about 6:30 Friday evening. I finished it at 6:30 Saturday morning. This is a pattern for me and Rob Bell books. (I’m really glad he said his next book is measurably longer; it will be nice to spend some time with his work.)

IMG_20160617_181306So, let’s get out of the way what How To Be Here isn’t. It is not a book about Christianity. It is not Biblical scholarship. It’s not theology. It’s not “Christian Living” (which is the heading it is shelved under at B&N.) So if you go into reading it expecting or hoping for any of those things, then you are going to be disappointed.

In the same vein, let’s get out of the way some things that Rob Bell isn’t, as well. Rob Bell is not a church pastor anymore. (Although I would still call him a pastor, albeit in a different way. He said the same in his talk.) He is not an evangelical Christian. He is not a theologian, or a Biblical scholar.

What is he? Well, I don’t want to speak for him too much. But I would say, he is a pastor in a wider sense, to a church, as he described it, without walls or a building. Instead, the church he leads is, in his words, “a group of people…….” He still guides people pastorally; he described that as a motivator for the more intimate nature of this tour, his hope to be able to interact with and hear from actual people, rather than lecturing from a stage. Theologically/philosophically, he is a universalist Christian. He still references the Bible often, both in the book and his talk, and he continues to describe his chief adherence to the Way of Christ.

And so, this book is a commentary on how to live in the world. It is a book that speaks about being yourself more fully. I hesitate to label it self-help, due to the baggage that comes with that term, but if you can think of the most generous categorization of that term, then you could call it self-help. The blurb describes it as a combination of “Spiritual wisdom with practical life advice.” I think that’s pretty accurate.

So, lets talk about this book. The premise is summed up pretty well in the title: Rob wants you to be here, present in this moment, in this life, in this world, in this place and time and context. We can spend a lot of time worrying about the future, and feeling guilty about the past, and those things can prevent us from experiencing life, from loving forward and fulfilling our potential and transcending  what we think we are and are capable of.

The book is split into 9 sections, each expounding on a practice geared towards maximizing your potential and experiencing life fully. It builds, starting with “The Blinking Line,” referring to the cursor in a Word document that blinks at you, waiting for you to type something into existence, seemingly pregnant with possibility and subtly mocking you, all at the same time. It moves from there to the blank page that is the future, ready to be filled, by finding your ikigai, or calling, by developing your craft, by tackling life one thing at a time, but being willing to take big risks, by being humble enough to work your way up from the bottom if necessary, and by taking everyday as a gift, culminating in a call to living fully present in this moment, unafraid, unworried, ready for whatever comes your way, optimistic and hopeful and gracious.

Like all of Rob’s books, it is full of wit and humor and short, catchy sentences and gripping stories and illustrations. He makes short reference to the Bible in several places (reminding readers at one point that he was, after all, once a pastor.)

The whole book is captivating and powerful. The arc of argument is inspiring, and for me, much needed and well timed. Specifically, his section on taking life one thing at a time really grabbed me. Rob calls it “finding your 1.”

I’ll let him set this up:

That’s where you start. With 1.

It’s too overwhelming otherwise. It’s too easy to be caught up in endless ruminations: What if Step 4 doesn’t work? or What if there isn’t money for Step 11 or What if people don’t like the results of Step 6?

You have no idea what the answers are the any of those questions. The only thing that wondering and speculating will do is seperate you from the present moment.

When you begin, the seventeenth step is sixteen steps away. You don’t have to know how to do it, or what it is, or even when it is.

Because the first number is always 1.

Not focusing on the 1 is a huge problem for me. I am all too often thinking far out into the future, planning and stressing and unsure of how I am going to bring all this together or do that thing or figure that out.

But what this section of the book instilled in me is, I don’t need to worry about that stuff right now. It’s not in front of me now. There are plenty of problems right here to solve, and then when you solve the first one, you move to the next. As Rob’s friend Eddie says in the book, “Stop thinking about shit that ain’t happenin’.”

Another good way to think about this is from the great movie The Martian(It’s a movie about outer space. Or course I think it’s great.) At the end of the movie, Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney is speaking to a class of future astronauts of the first day of class. He tells them, “You just do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next.”

You just do the math. You stop worrying about shit that ain’t happen’.

When it comes to writing, I am all to often way out in front of myself. What’s the next thing I’m gonna write? How do I follow this up? How am I gonna fill an entire page/post/book etc? And those questions paralyze me, and prevent me from sitting down and just writing what I know and what I have right now.

So now, I find my 1. What is that topic on my head today? What is that thought bouncing around? Write it down. It doesn’t have to be 1000 words or whatever. Just write down. More will come. Share it with the world when it seems right. And don’t worry about what comes next. Find your 1.

This extends to all areas of life for me. Work, home, family, leisure. I have problems to work today. Yes, we will plan and strategize and brainstorm and dream. But ultimately, we will work those problems when they get here. For now, we do 1.

Rob opened all that up for me in this book. Just that alone is big. But combined with everything else, I would highly recommend How to Be Here to you all.

Ok, so I said earlier, this is not a religious book. It’s not a book about Christianity. And that’s true. But I think there is a deeper spiritual point Rob is making, because, as he would tell us, everything is spiritual.

We have to be here, be present in this time and place and world, but that is where God is. God isn’t out in some cosmos. God isn’t beyond this plane. God isn’t out of this world. God is here, now, with us, in this world. But we miss God constantly, because we are constantly moving, and rushing, and worrying about the future, and not paying attention. God is here, and to experience God, we need to slow down and see God where God is. God is in people. God is in nature. God is in the little things that happen everyday that blow you away, or that you can’t explain.

And that’s Rob’s underlying point: be here, because God is here.