Bonhoeffer Wasn’t the Answer

Bonhoeffer Wasn’t the Answer May 16, 2012

This post (and series) is by my friend at Christ Church of Lake Forest, Syler Thomas.

I was talking with a friend recently about my new book Game Plan: Practical Wisdom for the College Experience (co-written by Nic Gibson, foreword by Scot McKnight) and he shared a story about the book he received to prepare him for life in college. He had just come to faith through an experience at a Young Life camp the summer after he graduated from high school, and his faithful leader handed him a book intended to help him with his new-found faith and the struggles he would surely encounter in college. It was Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship.

If you had one Christian classic to give to a friend who was a newer believer, what would it be and why? You can even answer with Bonhoeffer.

Now there’s no question that the book is a classic. Bonhoeffer should be read, and has plenty to offer in many situations. And given Scot’s deep love for and physical resemblance to the great German theologian, I’m on thin ice even bringing this up. The issue is that Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough to comment on the challenges of living a faithful Christian life on the college campuses of the 21st century.

This is why Nic and I wrote this book: to provide practical wisdom for the unique challenges and opportunities that students face on today’s college campuses. It was born out of a desire to share with our graduating high school seniors all the stuff we felt like they needed to know, that we couldn’t possibly tell them in one conversation.

Our chapters are on topics ranging from surviving a secular school, a Christian school, looking at the dating scene, dealing with temptation, integrating your faith and your major, and a whole lot more. Plus one of my favorite parts of the book is a “My Story” section after every other chapter: seven first-person testimonies from recent college grads about their own experiences, that serve to reinforce the messages we’re sharing.

Over the next few posts, I’ll invite you to think back to your college days for your perspective, and those of you currently in college or high school—we’d love to get your perspective, from those who are experiencing it right now.

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  • Blake

    I read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life all in college and they all continue to have a profound impact on my faith many years later. I recommend all of them to any Christian whenever I can (Fear and Trembling less often because of its density and difficulty). I’ve also begun recommending as an easier introduction to these lines of thought Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity. I’m intrigued by your book and will probably get it for my brother for his graduation (along with Mere Churchianity and David Platt’s Radical).

  • Diane

    I would recommend Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

  • I would suggest, “Life Together” by Bonhoeffer. University is about navigating life in a new community and DB nails it. The principles apply quite nicely to our present day and the wisdom is infinitely practical. Plus it’s a short read and probably fits the generally short-attention span our culture is nurturing at the moment.

  • Tracy

    What I like about giving a student Bonhoeffer over a contemporary “how-to” book is that it takes seriously the fact that the student is embarking on an intellectual journey. If all the Christian books on his/her shelf are lightweight, contemporary “how to handle your dating life”-types, it might not take long for him or her to conclude this religious tradition is pretty shallow, especially in the face of what she is studying.

    I don’t think a so-called “apologetic” text is the right thing either. Buechner’s “Sacred Journey” comes to mind, it is an autobiography of the first years of the author’s life. I’d love to entertain other suggestions, especially some by or about women.

  • Gloria

    I think the themes in One.Life are spot on for high school and college students (and beyond).

  • I’m not sure I see the benefit of placing their book in contrast to “Discipleship”. Especially for the reason that Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough. Neither did Jesus. For me, their book would stand alone on its merits. This comparison actually feels contrived. Perhaps I am wrong.

  • Michael Mills

    The intellectual side of me says I would offer, Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. However, artistic side of my brain wants to give, The Great Divorce, also by Lewis. That story has touched my life more than any other book….

  • Sam

    “Mere Christianity” is a terrific suggestion, but if you REALLY want to go classic, I might suggest Augustine’s Confessions. It seems to me to be a unique blend of careful thought and personal investment.

  • Alan K

    The real name of Bonhoeffer’s book is “Discipleship.” By inserting the very significant words “Cost of” the English language publishers have contributed enormously to a not-quite-right reading of Bonhoeffer by altering the framework through which readers approach the book.

    BTW, Bonhoeffer himself had read Schleiermacher before he attended university. Like him or not, at least Schleiermacher had Bonhoeffer thinking about Jesus Christ. Therefore, it seems that the young Christian would benefit from reading books that get him or her to consider the identity of Jesus Christ.

  • John W Frye

    I’m with Jamie (comment #6). Something about the post and its intent seems contrived, almost like name dropping. No one book is going to “prepare” every new college/university student, not even this new one by Thomas and Gibson.

    As a new believer, I was given several books by A. W. Tozer who had written toward the end of his quite remarkable pastoral, even mystic life. They were books that at first wowed me, then depressed me. “How could I live such a godly life?” A wise friend helped me to see that they were books that I would have “to grow into.”

  • Tim Ross

    How about Chesterton’s Orthodoxy! An excellent read; deep, thorough, and witty at the same time.

  • steve jung

    Either “Life Together” or Helmut Thielke’s “Little Exercise for Young Theologians”. Both are good short reads and deal with the now what. The problem with Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” is that it is apologetic and the idea is a new Christian, not needing an apology for themselves at the time.

  • Don’t know if it qualifies as a classic, but I’d give “The Knowledge of the Holy” by A.W. Tozer.

    First, it’s short. Second, if the reader will embrace the first sentence, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” then any number of very good things can follow. Third, the book is a devotional teaching on the attributes of God that can help a new believer deeply love God and, loving him, trust him more fully in the practical details of life.

  • As the other author of the blogger’s book, and a huge Bonhoeffer lover (I was reading Sanctorum Communio, his doctoral dissertation that is Life Together for terminal community-theology nerds), I think that books that are meant to cure ills are usually not the book for the HS senior heading to college. Cost of Discipleship and virtually everything Kierkegaard wrote are meant to cure ills by pushing back, and so I don’t use them for this stage and context. Mere Christianity and Orthodoxy, and I’d add Screwtape, are all AMAZING books, but the % of HS seniors that will read and digest them is sadly low (Syler and I know this from a lot of experience of recommending just those books)- though we advocate reading those three books in Gameplan.
    If you are dead set on introducing the student to dead greats that were responding to the change of modernity, I think the book Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft. It combines Pascal’s Pencees with Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Lewis, Dostoevsky, and a couple others in Kreeft’s very no nonsense and helpful style.
    But if you recognize that most students that will read at that level will DEVELOP INTO that over the course of college- rather than already be there at the beginning of college- then our book might be helpful in moving them in that direction. We have read all these books mentioned and incorporated that wisdom into it’s content in a way your average 18 year old can get a handle on. And we hope for it to be a gateway to more demanding and specialized reading. It is not meant to be a ‘how to book’ in the pejorative pop-psychology sense. It was written as a usable alternative to that all to common phenomenon in publishing.
    Hope that helps.

  • discokvn

    i just handed a student Abolition of Man; King Jesus Gospel; Cross of Christ…

  • Alan K

    Nic, if I’m understanding you and Syler correctly, your conviction is that life context should dictate the sort of literature that should be read and that the context you assume is largely an unmentored or minimally mentored one. Don’t you think that an authentic mentoring model would open up the possibility of high schoolers reading classics and enjoying them sooner rather than later? My own experience with the youth of our church is that they love being treated like adults and to be engaged like adults and given the responsibilities of adults–even if adulthood is still a few years away.

  • Hi Alan! I think the mentoring model would certainly open up the possibility of more sophisticated reading material at an earlier age. Our assumption is that your model is more the exception than the norm. I am right there with you on the idea that students want to and should be treated like adults. Take a read if you’re interested:

  • Alan, my answer is yes and no. My aim in youth ministry is to help give students what they need. All of them move along at different paces. In Lake Forest IL, we worked with kids from high performing, highly educated families. Among these students, about 5 a year were on the level of reading something like Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (out of maybe 150). And that’s generous, and I’m REALLY pro classics. When I was doing youth ministry in rural New York and Panama City FL, the numbers were less. Much less. I think the students you speak of are statistical outliers, not the products primarily of mentoring. Mentoring will produce this in these students who have that kind of bent, but even in an active program that treats them as adults, very few are going to read On the Mortification of Sin in Believers as part of being treated as adults.

    I DO agree with Lewis that the reason classics are classics is because they are so clear and readable, and that most normal people can read and love them if they’re taught to give them a chance. And I point people to them whenever I think it’s the right thing pastorally. But I also believe that smaller investments can help prepare and persuade people toward bigger ones. Gameplan is designed to cover more ground and pique more interest than a single classical volume normally would, and to generate multiple and diverse conversations about the experiences students are definitely going to have in the very near future. You can then use these conversations to share what Gregory of Nazianzus or Screwtape had to add- and so mediate the wisdom of classics to them- which is the very thing you’re good for and one of the great services you can offer. Those bits of wisdom from you will do a lot to demonstrate the worth of reading those books themselves.

    The year we gave our students the first version of Gameplan, they bought me the 48 volumes of the church fathers for a going away present. They had heard me quote them a lot in my preaching to them and counseling with them- and they respected that content. But we also had the hardest time getting them a book the majority of them would actually read until we wrote this one.
    For the kids you’re referencing, it is very easy to put great books in their hands. You don’t need me, or anyone else, to write something. But if a youth leader wants something that 70% of his kids will actually read, will make their students more likely to think reading for spiritual profit is good and enjoyable, and that deals with the specific areas of need as directly and practically as possible, then our book could be a great help.
    Note that in your comment that an ‘authentic’ mentoring model would ‘open up the possibility’ of enjoying classics. Yes, the possibility is there, though to be honest I don’t know what ‘authentic’ means in this context. But what about what I would want: “the real likelihood that the majority of most ministry’s students will be better prepared for their spiritual journey in college in most of the areas where they commonly and predictably flounder”?
    We all want to do as much mentoring as possible, and that is why Gameplan was written in short chapters designed to start discussions that leaders can add to. It is designed as mentoring fuel for your relationship with any student- both the precocious outliers and the normal kid that will be going to college none-the-less.

  • John M.

    Based on my personal memories of being a college freshman (many, many years ago!) and my knowledge of the graduating high school seniors at the Christian school where I teach, I would have to go with When I consider the books being recommended here, I wonder who are these precocious students that are being spoken of? I know there are college freshman on the level being considered here, but, at least in my circles, they are an elite minority. In 16 years, I have had maybe a baker’s dozen that I would give most of the books being put forth here. Am I underestimating the aptitude/appetite of the average college freshman? Or are those commenting aware of a demographic that I don’t see from my current vantage-point?

  • Just needed a break, and wondered how this topic was going to pan out today…I’ve yet to read the Game Plan book, but, having scanned the Amazon preview, it sure has a great style that I would commend: the use of narrative. I won’t repeat what Scot and others have endorsed and explained regarding the use of story throughout Scot’s blog: but, I like what the authors are attempting.

    Regarding the main question: I’m always in favor of reading books, and if gifting a book gets it done in the life of students, great: go for it. I’m not sure that I would favor one book over another

    Returning to Game Plan: Having looked the table of contents, and watched the comments play out here, I’d like to suggest an alternative to the proposed wisdom model. Let me first state: the model and the suggestions are great ones. The authors are the first to state they don’t claim originality, e.g., get into community that takes seriously Scripture and practices their faith. Those are good proposals, made often by campus ministers and demonstrated by the same. I’m supposing the narratives include both fruitfulness and failure, and hosting both would make for some authenticity that serves everyone.

    So: my alternative. It’s little too easy to point out the usual suspects, “anti-Christian ideologies” and “antagonistic professors” being among the most accessible. And, the rhetorical drift ends up ascribing more influence to the above than we may give credit to our students for. I’m not in favor of the opposite either: that the university is all neutral, and students don’t have to worry about a thing. That’s pie-in-the-sky.

    More recently, I’ve come to think that students are constantly making decisions about what they hear and see, as well as about the people they are (or are not) in relationships with. I’m less impressed with the “anti-Christian ideologies” than I am with the power of the freshmen who are processing what they encounter. They can’t pre-determine what and who they’ll meet in the university. But, they sure know how to move their feet when they want to. Why is that?

    I’m suggesting here that the freshmen (that’s all I’m discussing here) really have some varieties of purpose (and, perhaps, missions) in mind and heart. They are constantly deciding whether or not Marx or Kant or Einstein or Euler or Jesus are offering constraints or enablements directed toward their projects. Constantly, freshmen are deciding whether some idea or some person is contributing toward fulfillment of their purposes. Those decisions are not iron-clad and the processes that they use to understand and to decide are not fail-safe either; they perceive in incomplete ways and interpret partially all that is going on around them: just like us.

    Wisdom, if perceived as enabling their purposes, might be embraced: and that could include pre-Christian students. But, then again, some freshmen may hear/read some other (non-Christian) idea, and take that to heart because it advances their purposes. Indeed, to be clear about how complex this all is, some ideas/wisdom may advance the purposes of some freshmen and they may reject it anyway! I’m in favor of the wisdom model offered by the authors: but, I’d suggest a longer look at how freshmen are really processing (1) what they are hearing and (2) who they hang with, and how both are perceived as contributing toward their purposes. 🙂

    Looking forward to getting this book!

  • For most high school students, unfortunately, receiving a book for graduation is about equivalent to getting a savings bond. We live in a Big Ten university town, so there are a lot of kids from highly educated families. I really can’t think of anyone, including my valedictorian daughter, who would do more than glance through a book given as a gift. As for me, it was upon graduating from college that I read, loved, and was impacted by Mere Christianity and Packer’s Knowing God (probably not such a popular choice on this site…). I guess I was not one of the “elite” high school grads or just needed to mature (like a savings bond).

  • Annie: not sure if you’ll see this, but I just thought I would say that our target audience for this book is what I would call an “interested” reader. That is, a high school senior or college freshman/sophomore who WANTS to follow Jesus when they go to college. So our hope is that someone in this category who gets this book as a gift would have the same response as a young person traveling to London would have if they got a Fodor’s London book as a gift: Something along the lines of: “Wow…this should really help me!” That’s the hope anyway. And as Nic said, our hope is that reading this book would motivate them to read more broadly. Thanks for all the comments, folks!