Bonhoeffer Biography Espouses Transforming “The Proud and Hateful” into Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Kovacs

One book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration in these days is Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the experience of the Confessing Church, the resistance movement (from 1933 to 1945) within German Protestantism against the policies of the Third Reich. Marsh’s remarkable biography of Bonhoeffer, who was an active member of the Confessing Church, provides a fascinating window into the emergence, objectives, activities, struggles, and many disappointments of the movement.

Most striking is the way Marsh charts the changes in Bonhoeffer’s own theology, as he internally wrestles with and actively engages the demonic principalities and powers of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer’s activism and call to resistance were in response to, “The absurd, perpetual state of being thrown back upon the invisible God” (156), as he put it, to renewed Christological commitments, as well as a new interest in the centrality of prayer, worship, and life in community. “And the church,” Bonhoeffer said, “that calls a people to belief in Christ must itself be, in the midst of that people, the burning fire of love, the nucleus of reconciliation, the source of the fire in which all hate is consumed, and the proud and hateful are transformed into the loving” (204).

While it is false (I hope) to say that the present climate in the U.S. is exactly parallel to what happened in Nazi Germany (though there are eerie similarities), the church can be informed by what happened then as it seeks to be faithful today. Bonhoeffer witnessed a swift increase in authoritarianism, xenophobia, aggression toward the feminine, populism, and the dangerous conflation of religion, politics, and belief in an illusory national myth.

And, significantly, he soon realized that the church, along with its theological faculties in German universities, were theologically weak and ill equipped to withstand the collective force of what was happening around and in them. The Barmen Declaration, for example, expressed potential political resistance, but was largely ineffective and didn’t constitute real resistance. (Some of the Confessing Church members at Barmen were also members of the Nazi Party.)

Marsh maintains that, “[D]ogmatic proclamation would never be enough” for Bonhoeffer, because “every confession of Christ as Lord must bear concretely on the immediate work of peace. Obedience could not be separated from confession. The kingdom of heaven does not suffer lip service” (225). These are challenging words for all of us, especially for pastors and preachers.


Ken Kovacs has served as pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, since 1999. Catonsville, situated in Baltimore County, borders Baltimore City to the east and the wealthy suburbs of Howard County to the west. As a result, their ministry reflects the experiences and needs of an economically-socially-politically-racially diverse demographic. Ken’s academic work is in practical theology, which explored the relationality of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit.

Prophetic Theology From a Non-Theologian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Teri McDowell Ott

James Baldwin was not a theologian. He, in fact, left the church after a friend helped him realize he was only going because he was too afraid to leave. The church shaped him, though. His father was a preacher whose unsuccessful ministry took his family from church to church where he would show off young James’ singing voice. For me, Baldwin’s essays, particularly those in Notes of a Native Son, reside in the realm of prophetic theology because of the extraordinary way they describe and illuminate the African-American experience and call to account those of us who live in privileged ignorance.

In the “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares what could be read as his personal mission statement: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Baldwin himself, who began writing essays and novels in the 1950’s, perhaps never imagined the lasting mark he would leave. But today he is constantly quoted when race relations boil over and a relevant voice is needed. One reason why Baldwin’s words have been so influential is because of his honesty and his “enormous humanity.” He is fair and just, giving advice to other writers that “you do not have to fully humanize your black characters by dehumanizing the white ones.”

In this fair, honest approach, Baldwin is able to articulate and describe the human experience in a way that you, as a reader, know to be true, but could never articulate for yourself. In his introduction to Notes, Edward P. Jones describes reading Baldwin as wonderful: “We read [him] and come across passages that are so arresting we become breathless and have to raise our eyes from the page to keep from being spirited away.” This was my experience of reading Baldwin and why I recommend him so highly. He will take you places. He will take you to places of honest self and social examination, to places of epiphany and insight and crucial connection. Reading Baldwin is simply divine—and necessary for those seeking to be faithful.


Teri McDowell Ott is a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves Monmouth College (IL) as chaplain. After serving in parish ministry for 13 years, Teri now feels called to the liminal space between the sacred and the secular, the church and the ‘nones,’ the traditional and the contemporary. Teri feels called to build bridges between these spaces, especially through her writing and blogging. She has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.

Are the Spiritual but Not Religious Turning East?

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post blog. Linda Mercadante is our Monday evening keynote speaker at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering.

by Linda Mercadante

Are we all Hindu now? That’s what a Newsweek magazine claimed in 2009 when it observed the burgeoning world of the “nones.” “Nones” are those not affiliated with any part of the American religious heritage. Surveys seem to indicate they prefer not to identify with any religion at all. But the Newsweek article suggested instead that we are not seeing so much a lack of religious affiliation as conversion to some other world of beliefs, in particular Eastern.

Are we seeing a “turn to the East” among those people unaffiliated with any particular organized religion, especially those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious?” I don’t think so. Of course, the influence of America’s increasing religious diversity is evident in the burgeoning world of alternative spiritualities. And there is, in fact, a particular attraction to certain ideas borrowed from such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, such as “monism.”

But after spending the last five years speaking with hundreds of SBNRs, attending their diverse gatherings and learning as much as I could about and from them, I don’t think we are truly seeing a conversion to Eastern religions or religious ideas. Instead, I contend that many SBNRs are creating a particularly American spiritual mix, borrowing, adapting and adjusting from many sources. The key ingredients of this mix, however, are distinctly American. Here are some of them.

First, it is individualistic. Americans have always valued freedom of religion, but until recently were still fairly committed “joiners.” Now, joining with like-minded religious others does not seem to be as compelling for many. While most religions promote some form of community to a greater or lesser degree, this new spirituality does not give this top priority.

Second, it is “detraditioning.” Given that most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, America has always held tradition a bit more lightly than other places. And much of American Protestantism did stress “the priesthood of all believers.” But this new American spirituality takes that impulse further. Now, the source of spiritual authority” has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” In other words, many feel they must rely primarily on their own spiritual judgment rather than looking to an authoritative figure or tradition as many religions advocate.

Third, it is therapeutic. Many Americans are focused on becoming whole and healthy, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Whereas many religions see greater goals beyond personal well-being, this new American spirituality often promotes this as primary.

And, fourth, this American mixture takes the freedom to pick and choose ideas, adapting them to the American context. There seems little felt obligation to take the whole religious package of any particular tradition. As a case in point, many of my interviewees believe in reincarnation. However, their version is often unlike an Eastern form, which allows that one might regress, rather than inevitably progress, in the next life. My interviewees Americanized this. Our belief in “second chances,” late-bloomers, and the rewards of perseverance, made them insist that endless lives of self-improvement were the trajectory of the afterlife.

There are many implications, both positive and negative, of this new American spirituality. But whether we applaud or lament it, it is impressive to see American resourcefulness at work. In the end, I don’t see a literal “turn to the East,” much less a rush to convert to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, among my hundreds of conversation partners, all SBNRs, I saw very few who actually “converted” to a different religion. Instead, they borrowed, adapted, and adjusted what they found attractive or compelling in the culturally and religiously diverse world increasingly around us. My interviewees often believe that, rather than joining any particular religious group, they must keep their options open on the journey of spiritual growth.

“Spirit in the Dark” Examines the Boundaries of Religious Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Derrick McQueen

The book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration for me these days is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett. It is a work that examines the African-American cultural movements and their artistic offspring. From the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920’s through the Black Arts movement, Dr. Sorett examines the pervasive effect religion plays on these commonly seen as secular literary visions. This work is exciting because it puts religion in conversation with the secular and in doing so allows the church/religion to erase the divide between what is inside and what is outside of the church walls, or the boundaries of religious life.

Spirit in the Dark does not attempt to answer the question, “How does the church make itself relevant in the secular world?” It lays claim to the ways in which the division between the sacred and the secular is an artificial one. In fact, it sees the religious as an integral ingredient in the African-American literary tradition.

Church book study group leaders will find this book extremely helpful in training the eyes and ears to the religious undercurrents in the secular literary tradition. As Dr. Sorett’s work deals with the African-American experience, the culminating lessons are also applicable or at least adaptable for many different communities. It is just that in Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s impressive research makes clear that the African-American experience is one that able to be clearly defined and claimed as such in this rich tapestry of literary tradition and can serve as a model to other communities.

Specifically, it frees the preacher up to understand that the literary resource of the African-American literary tradition is ripe for bringing in texts to be in conversation with the Bible and the community. It also provides a way for preachers and pastors to parse culture without giving in to the demand to “do something new to fill the pews” by watering down the theological foundations upon which their churches and communities are built. This is an important book and readers will definitely find their own jewels within.


Rev. Derrick McQueen, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Director for The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University. He is also serving as pastor to St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, N.Y., and is an adjunct professor of Worship and Preaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Derrick has been actively involved in work for LGBTQ inclusion in churches and society, facilitating dialogues and serving on the boards of such organizations as Presbyterian Welcome, That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and Auburn Seminary. Recently he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.


I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”