Most Christians have heard it as a sermon illustration. I’ve heard and read many variations of the story. According to the story, Karl Barth was fielding questions from the audience after a lecture in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University Chicago in 1962. A student stood and asked him if he could summarize his life’s work in theology in one sentence. According to the story a gasp went up from the audience–responding to the student’s perceived audaciousness. Also, according to the story, Barth didn’t skip a beat. He said (paraphrasing) “Yes. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’.”
But did it really happen?
There’s a category of folklore called “evangelegends.” Many have been collected, published and interpreted by the chronicler and interpreter of urban legends Jan Harold Brunvand. Is the Barth story an evangelegend?
I don’t believe it is. It sounds like one, but I once met a man who said he was there and claimed the story is substantially correct. He was a retired theology professor of one of the seminaries near the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name.
And there’s part of the problem. Urban legends always come in that form–“I once met a man who said that this really happened!” But what makes an urban legend, including an evangelegend, a legend is the total lack of proof. In most cases urban legends “could have” happened. But if there is any proof of one actually having happened it ceases to be an urban legend and becomes historical event.
Recently someone challenged the truth of the Barth story (after I told it). He claimed it’s legend, not fact. One reason for discounting its factual nature is that the recordings of the question and answer session after Barth’s Chicago lecture does not contain it. However, there is some question about whether the recording contains the entire Q & A session. And that particular question and answer may have been cut out by the editors of the recordings.
Some years ago I saw a one frame cartoon in a Christian magazine that showed Barth sitting behind a desk saying to a student “Okay, so you ask me if I can summarize my whole life’s work in one sentence….” In other words, the cartoonist thought the event may have happened but that it was a set up.
The theologian who challenged the story (to me) said it is highly unlikely that Barth would even know of the childrens’ song “Jesus Loves Me” as he grew up in Switzerland and lived in Germany and only traveled to the U.S. once–in 1962. However, I remember hearing German children singing “Happy Birthday to you” in English in a backyard next to our house in Munich. We knew the family; they were our neighbors for a year. The parents spoke English; the children didn’t. But all the children at the party, all German children, sang the song in English.
So, it’s possible (however unlikely) that “Jesus Loves Me” is known in Germany and Switzerland. Perhaps it’s been translated into German and Barth learned it in German but was simply translating it back into English.
The whole story is so unlikely as to seem, on its face, to be invented. But it has taken on legendary status. Most people accept it at face value as true. I didn’t–until I met the theologian who was there and confirmed to me that he heard it. Again, I so wish I had kept his name in my memory.
So, I believe it really happened on the basis of that person’s testimony. He was a reliable witness, as far as I’m concerned. But, of course, I can’t expect others to take his/my word for it.
Does anyone have more solid information about this? Can anyone verify it as more than legend with documentary evidence? What would count as that? First, what would be best would be a recording. Lacking that, second best, would be the identity of a living person who was there who can verify that it happened. Third, possibly not solid, a written record left behind by someone who was there.
This blog gets thousands of “views” monthly. I’m hoping someone who visits can confirm (or disconfirm) the Barth story as fact. Please don’t comment unless you have some verifiable information about the incident–the existence of a recording that includes the question and Barth’s answer (or a transcript of such a recording), a living eyewitness or his/her written or recorded testimony about it, etc.