Book Review: Life Together

Six years ago my wife and I launched an experiment in Christian communal living.  I gave up my teaching position in Phoenix (moving to a part-time, adjunct and fully online teaching status that has been blessedly continued for the last six years!), my wife gave up her position doing outreach and cross-cultural education to international students, and we sold our home in the ‘burbs.  We moved to St. Louis, Missouri so that I could enter the seminary and complete graduate work leading to ordination.  Our oldest was two then, we were pregnant with our second, and didn’t realize that sooner than we expected we’d have a third.

Two other couples in our student ministry in Tempe were also eying relocations to the midwest, and we decided to try living together.  We’d been experimenting with small group/cell group ministry at our small church, and were curious about intensifying some of those concepts.  We met every week for eight months before two of the three couples moved out, purchased a house together, and got down to brass tacks.
I wish that I’d read Life Together beforehand.  More accurately, I wish we all had.  I’m not sure if it would have altered how we approached things, or dissuaded us from approaching them at all.  The hopeful part of me thinks it might have altered what happened during two years of living together.  The realist in me suspects that it wouldn’t have.  
The first chapter of this book is so convicting on so many levels.  Bonhoeffer accurately diagnoses the dangers of Christian community infused with utopian or other human-focused goals.  I think he does an admirable job of identifying what the true source and purpose of Christian community (whether a biological family, congregation, or other community type) – Jesus Christ.  But then it gets tricky, and I’m not so sure that I’m on board with where he takes things next.
After laying out a very persuasive argument about how we should strive to avoid at all costs our infusion of human-oriented goals, actions, etc. into a communal relationship grounded exclusively in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer seems to move directly into outlining how a Christian community ought to operate.  And while he provides Biblical references to back up his assertions, in most of the cases I think he’s taking the texts out of context to support his ideas.  
I also struggle with what appears to be an emphasis by Bonhoeffer on how we are not to seek to change our brothers and sisters in the faith, but rather allow the Word to change them – however slowly that change might be in coming.  Yet he repeatedly makes references to how certain people ought not be allowed to do this, that, or the other.  He sets up regulations and rules that seem to violate his basic assertions that we have no right to attempt to dictate to one another how we ought to be in Jesus Christ.
I’m more comfortable with him violating his theoretical theology.  These ‘violations’ seem to be more honest, and more redolent of Paul’s repeated admonitions and very clear understanding that not only can Christians chastise and teach and otherwise seek to speak very pointedly to their brothers and sisters in the faith, he argues quite articulately that this is our duty.  We must do this, or we place  our brothers and sisters in temporal as well as eternal risk.  
I’m about halfway through the book at this point.  After the first chapter, he moves to discussing how the communal Christian life should be ordered, starting with what should begin and fill and end each day.  His recommendations are fine – but they’re only that, recommendations.  Most of them have some form of Biblical attestation, but are undoubtedly based equally on long-standing monastic traditions that Bonhoeffer has great appreciation for.  It’s not that these suggestions are wrong, but Bonhoeffer talks about them as necessities, as if this is the way that things should be done.  Which sounds a lot like infusing spiritual truths with human preferences and agendas – no matter how good or well-intentioned those preferences and agendas might be.  
I look forward to finishing the book and getting the full picture.  At this point, I think that I need to learn by heart his discussions in the first chapter, while the rest of the more logistically oriented material may get left behind.  I’ll keep you posted.   I’m pretty sure the logistical stuff wouldn’t have altered our experience in communal living in St. Louis.  But if there was a way to apply the first chapter’s theory, it might have made a great difference indeed.

One Response to “Book Review: Life Together”

  1. Book Review (2): Life Together | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] originally reviewed this book almost six years ago in two parts, here and here.  It was much closer to an experiment in Christian community that was very painful for my […]

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