Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Book Review: A Broad Place

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography. trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006).

[Note: This is the first entry to this new blog that is unique to it. I will continue to re-post materials from my previous blog,  Levellers,  until I have saved all that I want from the old blog for readers of this one. But I will be intermixing this with fresh material written strictly for Pilgrim Pathways  After all, I don’t want to bore readers who have seen all the old stuff before–and reprinting it 1 post at a time is the only way I know to save it.]

This was one of several books I received as Christmas presents.  I love theological memoirs and I am a huge fan of the work of Jürgen Moltmann, so this was a wonderful present. (I also found out that Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel has written her own memoir, so I’ll be tracking that down.)

Born into a family without faith and with few church connections, but with strong communal ideals, Moltmann’s life begins in a utopian farming community until Germany is caught up into the Nazi terror. First his father and then young Jürgen are drafted and thrown into combat during the final days of the war. He hates army life and is horrified by war.  Repeatedly in a short period of time, Moltmann is among the few survivors bombs or other attacks that wipe out whole towns.  His survivor’s guilt is huge, but he comes through without firing a shot at the “enemy” soldiers. At his earliest opportunity, he surrenders to English troops–and spends the next several years in Scotland as a prisoner of war(1943-1947) .  During that awful time, he reads the Bible for the first time and Scottish and English Christians (lay and clergy) present him with the gospel. Finding that the “theology of the cross” speaks to his condition, Moltmann becomes a Christian while a prisoner of war–and his initial theological education is from evangelical lectures that he is able to attend as a P.O.W.

After repatriation, Moltmann decides to study theology (to the consternation of his family) and become a Protestant pastor and theologian.  The book describes well the incredible details of an exciting life–and the connections to his many writings. 

This isn’t a dry account. There is danger and death and high drama.  There is romance–I can identify with Jürgen meeting and falling in love with Elizabeth Wendel during his theological education since the same thing happened to me.  Elizabeth Wendel (later Moltmann-Wendel) was one of the first women theologians in Germany in the late ’40s–at first relegated to the role of pastor’s wife and only later able to writer her own books and give her own lectures–for there were no women pastors or shared pulpits when they began life together–and the women’s movement was still future.(Similarly, my wife, Kate is an ordained Baptist minister–still rare enough in the U.S. South and we discovered numerous obstacles to us both being able to share our callings together.)  There is hurt and emotional strain (e.g., when the Moltmann’s first spend a year in the U.S.–in the ’60s, in the South, and one daughter finds this closed world so hostile to outsiders that she counts that year the worst of her childhood–and passes up every opportunity for a return visit to the States). There is joy, the fleeting fame.  There is the ferment of being a leading, even controversial , figure, during a long life  that includes very stormy times.

Jürgen Moltmann has been a leading theological voice in the 2nd half of the 20th C,–and into the 21st even in retirement. But he hasn’t been an ivory tower intellectual. He has been “in the midst of things”–the ecumenical movement, including Catholic-Protestant dialogue; interfaith dialogue, especially between Christians and Jews–and helping Christians from Germany repent of the anti-semitism that created the context for the Holocaust. Moltmann led in Christian-Marxist dialogue.  His first major book, A Theology of Hope, helped spark both Pentecostal renewal and liberation theologies–but the liberation theologians weren’t always grateful for Moltmann’s support!! In America, his hope grounded in the resurrection of the crucified Christ was too easily confused with U.S. optimism–and a conference on that work in 1968 was interrupted by the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is globetrotting here–and the exhaustion and family strain that such entails.

But this is also a window on the thought of one of the most important theologians of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  More than most German theologians of his generation Jürgen Moltmann did his work in dialogue with other perspectives:  A Protestant in strong dialogue with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians; a “first world” theologian in dialogue with the liberation theologians of the “two thirds world” of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; a male theologian in dialogue with feminists; a white theologian in dialogue with African and African-American theologians of Black Liberation; an heir of Luther and Calvin in dialogue with Mennonites and Pentecostals, etc.  Yet, Moltmann’s theology has never been simply faddish and he has not tried to deny his own standpoint as a European white male from the Middle Class–dialogue has meant mutual learning, but could also entail debate and disagreement.

Here is he inside perspective–the truth or as much of it as one can tell about one’s self.

It’s a fascinating read.  If you are new to Moltmann’s theology, this is a good introduction–one can come away from the book with an education! If you have read some or all of his work, new insights are here, too.

I highly recommend A Broad Place to any who would be serious Christians today–this work will not be all one should read for serious discipleship, but it will contribute to it.  If you love theology, read this book.  If you think theology is a horrible disease that is killing the church, read this, too.  You may find yourself changing your mind!


February 6, 2010 - Posted by | autobiographyu, book reviews, theologians

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