When Karl Barth finally finished his formal education in the first decade of the 20th century, he, like many other rookie theologians, had trouble finding an academic post (some things never change). Unsurprisingly, Barth was in the upper echelon of the Western European liberal theological community, yet still struggled to find a teaching gig. Although he was Swiss, Barth was trained in German Protestant liberalism and was positioned to be the next big thing in the scholastic movement. That is, until he graduated.
Upon completing his training, Barth took his academic achievements into a job that was available: he became a pastor at a rural Reformed church in the village of Safenwil, in Switzerland. He began the regular pastoral duties of preaching and teaching in this small, simple congregation. He philosophized and theologized with grandiose word pictures and complicated strands of thought each Sunday only to watch his congregation's eyes glaze over. All of the theology that seemed to work in the academic world of Germany seemed to fall flat in rural Switzerland. He could not connect the word of God to the villagers. What was he doing wrong?
It was only in Barth's preaching through the book of Romans that he began to discover just how far he had been led astray while in school. Barth became somewhat famous for disagreeing with most of his academic mentors back in Germany as he began to watch the simplicity and power of the gospel take hold of his congregation through Paul's letter to the church in Rome. As Barth backed away from high philosophies and high theorizing, he let the Word loose, changing him and his congregation forever.
About 15-20 years later, as Barth moved on and became a professor, he also turned into an academic idol for a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had just accepted a Sloan Fellowship to study theology at New York's Union Theological Seminary. In New York, Bonhoeffer would encounter a similar struggle as Barth in American pastors. Much like Barth, they couldn't seem to get the power of the gospel on the ground to their congregations. Bonhoeffer became bitterly disappointed in the churches in New York for their theological gymnastics that ended far outside of gospel of Jesus. "In New York," Bonhoeffer famously said, "they preach about virtually everything except … the gospel of Jesus Christ."
As highlighted in Charles Marsh's excellent new biography on the man, it wasn't until Bonhoeffer joined Abyssinian Baptist Church in the ghetto of Harlem that he would say he "heard the gospel preached" for the first time. All through the large, well-known churches of New York City, there was little good news being proclaimed. From Bonhoeffer's view, it was in the "Negro churches" of the ghettos and the poor rural landscapes in the great American South that the gospel was alive and well. He was transfixed by the preaching in the black churches during the struggle for civil rights and often wrote about the "ecstatic joy 'in the soul of the Negro.'" Bonhoeffer found the joy of the gospel of Jesus, but only in what he called, "the church of the outcasts in America."
The idol of a rich gospel
These stories should give us pause as we consider where and how we proclaim the gospel in our different contexts. It is possible to create for ourselves an idol of theorizing "the gospel"—to be able to explain all of the intangible mechanics without proclaiming its reality and availability to all. It is easy for us to become "rich in spirit," thinking we need to create spiritual insiders instead of allowing God to remake humble worshippers. We are certainly able to have, as St. Paul would put it, "an appearance of godliness, denying its power."