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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Blogging Update: I’m Gonna Write About Trump!(And other things too)

So I wrote a few months back about the intense writers block I’ve been experiencing. You can read about all the details here.

I’m working on getting back in the writing space by forcing myself to write daily. Usually, that has meant handwriting whatever has been going on in my days in this big black unlined sketch book. I force myself almost daily to do this just to exercise the writing muscle. I figure most of it is crap, but 1 out of 100 times something good will come and that, over time, I’ll get back in the swing of things.

So I’m now trying to work blogging daily back into the mix too. This is a much heavier lift, but I want to do it. And I’ve realized something that I think will help.

Ever since the election, I’ve been very resistant to the idea of writing about Trump or politics or current events, even though I have very strong opinions, stemming from my religious convictions, about what is happening in the world. I think I’ve been feeling like I shouldn’t stoop to that stuff, that I should write about something that “matters,” like theology or something. (I’ve broken this rule a couple times, like my MAGA post Wednesday.)

That’s crazy right?

I’ve realized, that stuff – Trump, politic, current events, injustice in the world – is really what gets my engine running, what drives my passion. So I’m gonna write about it. Sometimes it’ll connect to religion. Sometimes I’ll just purely write about religion or theology or Christianity. But sometimes I’ll just comment on things that are happening in the world. I mean, it all has spiritual implications; I’ve always felt strongly that our faith cannot disconnect from real world actions and consequences. So I’m gonna write about it all.

I’ve have at least three weeks worth of blog posts in the hopper here, so I’m feeling positive about consistency. I have at least two “Series” I want to do, some book excerpts to share, and a lot of standalone pieces. And I’ve got several pieces of big news I’ll share here soon! To everyone who is here and reading, thanks for sticking around, and I look forward to your comments and engaging with you all!

Why Should Christians Read the Old Testament?

The following is based on a finals project for a class I completed at Phillips this semester; for this paper, we are exploring the question of why the Hebrew Bible texts are important for Christians. I have reworked the paper for a public theology project for a different class, crafting it instead into a blog post. Enjoy!

The Hebrew Bible is an underappreciated corpus of texts in liberal and progressive Christian circles in the 21st century. The skepticism that greets the words contained in them is often well intentioned, but arises out of a deep misunderstanding of the texts, and even a deferral to a more conservative or fundamentalist-style reading of them. This is unfortunate, as the Hebrew Bible has much to offer progressive strands of Christian tradition, and those who count themselves as such should strive to reclaim them in pursuit of a more just and equitable world made in the image of the Kingdom of God.

Divine Violence in the Hebrew Bible

It is certainly true, on a very basic, narratively-minded level, that the Hebrew Bible presents an image of God distinctly at odds with the one many progressives hold; namely, that of a God more loving than angry, more merciful than vengeful, more justice-oriented than arbitrary and demanding, more rational and compassionate than unpredictable and quick to anger. The God we see in the Hebrew Bible does often seem violent and cruel. Just a few examples quickly highlight this. For instance, in the laws and instructions laid out in the books of the Torah, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Divine voice that is allegedly dictating these words commands the people of Israel to put to death violators of a variety of commandments, from the act of adultery (Deut. 22:22) to the act of working on the Sabbath day (Exodus 35:2,) to a child who disobeys their parents (Deut. 21:21.) God’s punishments for rule-breaking rarely seem to be proportional to the violation by modern-day standards.

Beyond the consequences of breaking the Torah instructions, God also makes violent appearances in the narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible. A most egregious example of an arbitrarily violent God is found in 2 Samuel 6:2-7; in this tale, the Arc of the Covenant is being transported on a cart when the ox pulling it stumbles. Uzzah, a man escorting the Arc, reaches out and steadies the falling Arc by touching it, and is immediately struck dead by God for a supposedly irreverent act.

Finally, another commonly cited text in accusing the God of the Hebrew Bible is found in the book of Joshua, when the titular character leads the people into Canaan. They are instructed to “possess the land” (Joshua 1:11), which is understood as meaning to commit Divinely-ordained genocide against the people already living there. And this is indeed what Joshua and the Israelites do, as is recounted vividly in the cases of Jericho (Joshua 6) and Ai (Joshua 8). As the account of the latter conquest states quite explicitly, “The total of those who fell that day, men and women, the entire population of Ai, came to twelve thousand. Joshua did not draw back the hand with which he held out his javelin until all the inhabitants of Ai had been exterminated.” (Joshua 8:25-26) Our modern sensibilities, rightly so, recoil at accounts of such barbaric genocide.

But to accept these stories of violence as the true actions and words of the Divine is not only to misread the Hebrew Bible, but is to accept an interpretation of such dictated by conservative and fundamentalist voices. It is an inherent contradiction of views to assert that the Bible was not in fact divinely ordained and thus a product of human hands and minds, while at the same time declaring these Hebrew Bible passages as describing an angry and violent God. One must consistently apply their hermeneutic to the entire Hebrew Bible, and understand that, just as Leviticus 18 does not carry binding weight towards the nature of same-gender relations in the eyes of God, neither does Joshua 8 definitively describe the will of God regarding violence.

Further, to reduce the Hebrew Bible to a set of passages of recounting  a violent and angry God, and thus essentially useless and discardable, is to miss out on what these texts do have to offer to progressive Christians. The Hebrew Bible is crucially important to those who consider themselves Christians, of any stripe, because it is a central current in the stream of tradition in which we count ourselves. This functions on two primary levels; the texts are crucial in that they are the paradigmatic lens through which we must interpret Jesus and the church that arose after him; they are also beautiful and instructive in their own right for any who seek the Divine, regardless of their impact of Christ and the early church. In this understanding, the violence found in the Hebrew Bible that is ascribed to God must be interpreted in the light of a people who lived in a violent world many thousands of years ago. In this contextual view, the Hebrew Bible takes its place as a progressive understanding of history and humanity, providing a view of the world shaped by the inherent goodness of people and an eye towards justice for the downtrodden and oppressed.

Reassessing the Hebrew Bible: Four Examples

Take the Psalms as a first example. Made up of 150 hymns, laments, and prayers of thanksgiving, this book is a beautiful glimpse into the worship life of the Israelite people. The theological breadth and depth of Psalms is astonishing, with these collections of works finding meaning and use in worship today, many thousands of years after they were first written and compiled. As Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt write in their Introduction to the Old Testament, “…the Psalter is evidence of a long practice of Israel finding poetic, artistic ways to voice faith.” The desire to know and relate to God has never departed from humankind, and the Psalms are a beautiful collection of works that show the timelessness of such pursuits. The King James Version, another text so often derided in liberal and progressive Christianity, provides a particularly striking translation of the Psalms, and should be appreciated for its own inherent beauty.

Another text in the Hebrew Bible that stands alone in its theological complexity and ability to speak to modern sensibilities is Job. Brueggemann and Linafelt write, “It is no overstatement to say that the book of Job is a towering classic of the human literary and theological imagination.” The book presents itself ostensibly as a narrative of the tragic account of Job, who as a result of a wager between God and a figure known as “the Adversary” loses all he has, a series of poetic discourses between Job, his friends, and God grapple with the theological implications of suffering. The book doesn’t end definitively, leaving the reader to ponder whether or not God should exercise God’s power to act in such a way. The presentation of a God who takes and tests, and is thus subsequently rebuked and questioned by human beings, should be enticing and appealing to progressive Christians who look to question structures of authority and power. While certainly not a rejection of the authority and sovereignty of God, the book of Job is a powerful struggle to understand the Divine-Human relationship that carries much meaning in a world riven by injustice and oppression.

The Hebrew Bible is also important for anyone who considers themselves “Christian,” as it provides the primary lens for understanding the context of Jesus, and the church that arose around the memory of his life. Indeed, one cannot read the Epistles of Paul, or other texts such as Hebrews, without a familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and its implications. To read the New Testament without such knowledge is to court anti-Semitism, as Jewish tradition is subsumed by a western Christianity largely detached from the context in which it arose.

Jesus made a ministry of preaching justice to an oppressed people. His priorities did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, Jesus was living into a well-established Israelite tradition. The defining narrative of the Israelite people was (and is) the Exodus out from Egypt, as recounted in the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus. As a result of the story, the Israelite people understood their God as a liberating God, one who sets oppressed peoples free from bondage, and who rejects the structures of empire and power epitomized by Pharaoh’s Egypt. “The God who defeats the oppressive power of Pharaoh and who thereby emancipates Israel from slavery is characteristically the God who delivers from oppression,” Brueggemann and Linafelt remind us. Thus, in order to understand the import of Jesus speaking words of liberation against an oppressive empire, one must understand that he was necessarily alluding to the central narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

Out of this narrative of liberation and justice for the oppressed arises the tradition of the Israelite prophets, who make up the latter half of the Hebrew Bible. Again, to understand Jesus, one must understand that Jesus was stepping into the rhetorical tradition of the prophets. The prophets spoke to an Israel mired in injustice and exile, imploring them to act with justice, and promising the faithfulness of their liberating God. Likewise, Jesus speaks to a people occupied and oppressed, and presents a view of a world reordered to God’s liking. This is most explicit in the quoting of Isaiah attributed to Jesus, found in the Gospel of Mark. Isaiah, writing to an exiled people, promises God’s restorative justice, in the form of restoring those on the bottom to their dignity: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned; To proclaim a year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication by our God; the comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2). The author of Mark puts these words in Jesus’ mouth, in order to draw a parallel between the God who returned the exiles to Jerusalem, and the God who would deliver them from the Romans. In order to understand the mission Jesus felt called to, one must understand that he understood himself as working in the line of prophets stretching back a millennium.

Supersessionism and Responsible Reading

There is danger in this reading of the Hebrew Bible, of course. Supersessionism – the idea that “Christianity has fulfilled and improved on the teachings of Judaism” in the words of my professor, Dr. Lisa Davison, from a lecture she gave in January – is a dangerous habit of Christians, one that silences the authors of these texts and the faith tradition they were contributing to. I invoke Christianity here, not as the “proper” lens for understanding the Hebrew Bible, but in the illustration of the importance the authentic Jewish tradition has in shaping and forming the Christian faith. Christianity arose and formed in a primarily Jewish context; one only has to make a cursory reading of Paul or the Epistles to the Hebrews to see this. So, in order to understand and participate in the Christian tradition, an adherent needs to understand the Jewish faith; there is no better way to do this than to read and grapple with the Hebrew Bible. One shouldn’t replace or supersede the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament -there is no hierarchy of ideas here- but should instead recognize the inherent beauty, power and theological might of these texts, both for their own sake, and for how they help us understand our own faith that formed as a result of this wrestling with God.

Why should Christians read the Hebrew Bible? We should read it because, without these texts, there is no Christianity, no western civilization as we know it, no major monotheistic tradition apart from it. We should read it because we stand in a great river of tradition, and we must understand where we came from to decide where we are going.