Monday, September 13, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaving my office, I always pack up a few books to read every night, the choice being a mixture of necessity and desire. Today I find myself entangled in the lives of the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the American preacher, activist, and slain hero Martin Luther King, Jr.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...
Today I picked off my shelf Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945. Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and another new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., by sociologist Jonathan Reider.

It was only as I packed the books that I began to see the remarkable parallels between these two men.

These are two men brutally cut short in their lives; two men who struggled through the unique oppressions of their day; two men who had deeply faith-oriented lives that drove them to confront the ugliness in the world while keeping in step with their own sense of community and brotherhood.

Both appreciated education and preached with distinctive combination of intellect and passion. Both studied sociology and applied insights to their worldviews. Both admired people outside their immediate faith, especially Gandhi. Both men could be characterized as lovers with an array of relationships that connected them deeply to the people around them. Both were writers who left profound works which still occupy our thoughtful attention today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer - among others - lecturer ...
And their greatness may lie in that both attended to the larger issues of the world, provoking new theological responses to changing circumstances because, well, neither of them could leave things as they were.

It might go without saying that this is not my first encounter with either man. They've commanded my attention off and on for well over 20 years. But the well of Martin Luther King Jr. and the well of Dietrich Bonheoffer are both deep. Writers, theologians, and everyday people are continuing to draw endless insight and inspiration from these two men. My studies and my questions continue to bring me back to them, again and again.

Tonight, as these new books allow me to reflect even more closely one to the other, perhaps the insights this time will be even more surprising. And also perhaps therefore tonight they will prove to be even more transformative.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reading, Reading, and More Reading

I'm on my way out with family for the Labor Day Weekend, and as on other longer trips the biggest decision to make is not what to wear, it's what to read. I have a stack (okay, I actually have several stacks) of books to get through, a mix of personal and "business" reading, covering vast realms of fiction (literature, poetry, graphic novels) and nonfiction (history, philosophy, biography, social sciences, and more) that I hope to complete in the next year or two or five....

As I look at my own stack(s) of books and deciding what to take on our family trip, I'm reminded of how much I appreciate the opportunity I have to CHOOSE what I have to read. As a scholar, there is certainly a mix of "want to" and "have to" reading, but overall I devour writing that attracts my interest and my fascination while avoiding or skimming those that are more obligatory.

But as I'm writing this, I am also reminded that my professional duties occasionally assign me to read a less-than-satisfactory tome. Even so, I almost always find that what I had never intended to read becomes just as or even more valuable to me as something I had intended to read a long time.

For my students this semester, reading is more "forced" on them -- I'm thinking of several of them who are no-doubt slogging through dozens and even hundreds of pages this Labor Day Weekend in preparation for next week's classes.

One set of students is beginning James Cone's remarkable Malcolm and Martin in America, a book that will further prepare our understanding of Barack Obama's presidency and help place it in the context of other modern African American leaders and the political circumstances they faced.

Another set of students is making their way this weekend through Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a book that has had it's reputational ups & downs but which sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religion will at least reluctantly agree with it's significance for developing analytical conceptions of religious & social life.

One student is reading through Karl Marx's Grundrisse, a is sort-of a thick, rough draft of Das Kapital that weighs in at well over 800 pages.

And another student is beginning to work through Max Weber's masterful writings collated in Economy and Society -- one of my personal favorite books of all time.

As they make their way through these readings I hope my students will have the same experience I often do: required reading may not have been my personal preference, but in the end these readings become among the most memorable and thought-shaping of my life. The unfamiliarity and uncertainty involved in such texts stimulates a close attention to the words that "beach reads" and bestsellers rarely demand. In addition, the need to talk and write about such texts with other "smart" people cultivates an engaged standpoint that encourages us to draw out (and sometimes tear out) the unstated implications of found in these works.

So as I leave behind my stack(s) of books this weekend, I wish my students with their own growing stack(s) of "to read" books well with the hope that they will have a positive and even transformative experience. What may have been "required reading" today may very well someday be considered "must-read" in the near future.