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They are all dressed in sixteenth-century Flemish attire. Few are well dressed.

Karl Barth Reading Room

In the foreground, wrapped in a fine cloak, a man is having his fortune told. His palm is being read. An exotic figure, with a dog on his coat, is telling his fortune—a pastime specifically prohibited by the Reformed Church. They are by far the most prominent, most easily recognizable figures in the painting. Why has this crowd gathered? AU eyes, except for the gamblers, are turned inward toward the center of the painting. Three young peasants have clambered up trees to get a better view. Upon closer examination, we see that everyone, except for a gaping-mouthed sleeper toward the left of the picture, is listening to someone.

John the Baptist. He is lost amid his listeners. He has nothing that makes him stand out, no clerical dress, nothing that insists upon our attention.


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He is not in a church, but in a wilderness, far from a church. Many in the crowd ignore him, go on about their business or play their games. True, three of them have climbed a tree to get a better view, but some of the others are asleep. At whom is everyone looking? They appear to look toward an ordinary, none too special human being, gesturing toward another ordinary-appearing person.

I take Bruege? On Sunday morning, we preachers stand up and speak of Jesus, pointing toward him with our words. Sometimes a crowd gathers.

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Sometimes a few go to some trouble to be there and get a look. There are distractions. But for the most part, the world goes on about its business. Games are played. People doze. One can hardly see Jesus for all that is going on around him. Still, this is the way that Jesus gets introduced to most people, through the gestures of our preaching.

Although he was averse to most artistic attempts to represent religious subjects, Karl Barth had a lifetime attraction for another painting of John the Baptist preaching. He kept a copy of this painting over his desk throughout his ministry, from his days as a young pastor until his death, referring to the painting fifty-one times in his writings—the only artist, other than his beloved Mozart, to be so honored.

John holds an open Bible. He is preaching, pointing an incredibly long and bony finger toward the horribly crucified, dead Christ strung up before him on the cross. John is the voice of one crying in the wilderness John , quoting Isa. The Christian preacher merely points toward the Christ. The speaker ought to be transparent to the Light of whom John said, he must increase but I must decrease John The depiction of the Baptist on the Isenheim Altar was the perfect embodiment of two Barthian tests for faithful preaching: hint, pointing toward, indication Hinweis , and distance, detachment Distanz , themes first sounded by Barth in the first edition of his Epistle to the Romans.

The preacher must point directly toward Christ, but the preacher must be reminded of the distance between the preacher and Christ. In other words, Barth likes the painting because it commends Christ and does not draw attention to itself.


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Barth does not commend it for any of its intrinsic or artistic features but rather for its exclusively Christological focus. In the Isenheim Altar, John stands alone, pointing to the crucified Christ.

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There is no congregation to hear his sermon, except for the viewers of the painting. AIl is in darkness except for the central figures. The preacher is the one who stands up, amid a congregation of sometimes interested but more often than not disinterested listeners, and tries to say a word about One who stands quietly, arms folded, reflectively, on the edge of the crowd, a stranger whose name is God with Us. It is hard to get a hearing from the crowd; it is difficult to get them to pay attention, sometimes almost impossible to get them to see the Stranger as the Light or the World.

Few listen, yet I can see from the painting that some are listening and, in listening, are beginning to see. Are they hearing? I know the rest of the story ofthis strange prophet and his baptismal candidate; despite everything against these two preachers, people did hear. My favorite German artist is a contemporary, Anselm Kiefer, a man who is obsessed with narratives of life in the postwar, continually threatened modern world. I first met him in his massive, colorless, ashen, apocalyptic paintings.

It is a Kiefer sculpture on a theme that he has treated many times, Book with Wings. It is a large, ancient-looking gray book, fabricated from the beloved modern materials—steel, tin, and lead.


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  4. The work is surely meant to be ironic—the book is ponderous, leaden, dead, and cold, yet the book has two large, graceful wings. Is the book—the word—attempting to ascend or descend? How can a thing like that get off the ground? Yet, despite itself, it does appear to float. The preacher in me has an immediate kinship with this sculpture.

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    Preaching Ls impossible on most Sundays, an exercise in frustration, like attempting to take to the air in a lead-and-steel book. Yet sometimes, by the grace of God, miracle of miracles, they hear. The Word rises, ascends; the Word condescends, descends. The old Bible takes wing, tabernacles among us, flutters, quivers, and, despite everything against it, hovers, and we miraculously hear.

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    Every preacher knows the frustration of working with this ancient, weighty book that thuds like a lead brick when we try to talk about it. Every preacher knows the miracle when this old book takes wings and alights as a dove, speaks, and makes a way for itself despite us. It is a sight to behold. It is a triumph of God. Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland, in May of His father, Fritz, taught at the College of Preachers, but moved the family on to the University of Bern when Barth was very young.

    Conversations with Barth on Preaching

    Later in life Barth noted what a strong example his father had given him of someone who took theology seriously. In Geneva, even when preaching from that historic pulpit, the people were unresponsive.

    Later, Barth excused his efforts by saying that he thought he did little real harm to people because he was heard by so few. Though the nave was mostly empty, Barth continued to preach a mostly liberal gospel.

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    The liberal inner Jesus of his teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann , seemed to Barth the most credible basis for the Christian faith to make contact with the modern world. While the search for a Jesus of history had ended in a dead end with the historical reconstruction of Jesus looking suspiciously like a mirror image of the historians themselves, Herrmanns answer had been to turn from a historical Jesus to a subjective, inner Jesus. From Herrmann, Barth learned to be suspicious of historical Jesus reconstruction efforts as the attempt to step outside of faith into some objective security.

    Faith cannot be defended or justified by some means external to the faith itself. Historical research into scripture can therefore play an important but only secondary role. By , when Barth moved from Geneva to become pastor to a rather forlorn industrial village in Safenwil, canton of Aargau, he had the opportunity to focus more on his preaching, and when he did, he began to question some of his inherited theological assertions. Attendance in Safenwil was as poor as it had been in Geneva. However, now that Barth had had the experience of preaching week-in and week-out to his own congregation, he was more consumed by the challenges of the preaching task and more starkly confronted by the weaknesses of the theology he received at the university.

    In Safenwil, Barth preached long, excruciatingly intellectual sermons that sailed over the heads of the simple folk in the pews. So Barth preached many topical sermons in these early years at Safenwil, preaching on such invigorating topics as Mission or The Life of William Booth and The Heritage of the Reformation.

    He equated God with that which is highest and best in our souls and lauded Schleiermacher as the brilliant, leader of a new reformation. Jesus was resurrected long before he died, Barth assured his congregation…. He later recalled that he and the people of Safenwil always seemed to be looking at each other through a pane of glass.

    He realized how much theology had tailored itself to fit the demands of the academy rather than the church. He also realized the limits of attempting to preach from an anthropological assessment of the modern mind.