BOOK REVIEW: Angels, Worms and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism

by Phil Johnson

This somewhat odd title requires explanation. “Bogey,” for example, is one shot over par in golf. Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom points out that through the years, critics have characterized Pietism as below par with respect to sound Christianity on a number of counts. Our author challenges that notion and shows that Pietism’s performance has been miss-scored. Being a person for whom a bogey is my par, a “double bogey” is needed before I think it bad. After reading Clifton-Soderstrom’s book it is clear that Pietism scores a better than par “birdie” as does her book.

Clifton-Soderstrom is specific about her subject. She delineates Pietism as the movement in Germany during the span of the lives of Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705), Johanna Eleanora Petersen (1644-1724) and August Hermann Franke (1663-1727). This gives precision to the term Pietism in this study, and through Michelle’s guidance, the reader gets a very clear picture of what she is talking about with respect to the “Christian Ethic of Pietism.”

My late friend, Bruce Carlson, would say approvingly of a speaker or an author, “He gets the hay down where the goats can get it.” Spener, Franke, and Petersen did that and it is a characteristic of the ethic of Pietism. Ethics as an expression of ethos is more basic than morality. Ethics is a way of being and living in relation to the ethos of the street on which we live that shapes us and that we in turn shape. Clifton-Soderstrom helps us see how Spener, Franke, and Petersen reshaped an ethos creating an ethic in which personal life, personal relationships of friendship across the boundaries of their society, and the equal standing of all persons with each other before God were central.

While Pietism as the subject of the study is precise in Clifton-Soderstrom’s book, it is not true of “Evangelicals” or Evangelicalism. She acknowledges the difficulty of being precise about evangelicalism. She uses this broad term, but admits the difficulty. Most of us know of people on opposites ends of the Christian spectrum, who call themselves evangelicals and yet may not acknowledge each other as Christian.

Despite the word evangelical in “The Evangelical Covenant Church” of which I am a member, I do not describe myself by it. Though I am not an “Evangelical,” I love good news. I think this is similar to what Dr. G. Timothy Johnson, another Covenanter, said in the Noble Lectures “Finding God in the Questions” that he gave at Harvard University in 2004. He said he refers to himself as a follower of Jesus rather than as a Christian.

Despite the problems, I am quite sure Clifton-Soderstrom considers herself an Evangelical. She redeems, or at least goes a good distance to redeem terms I consider “double bogeys.” For example, she even puts a positive meaning on “indoctrination.” She is of a mind and spirit to find the positive meaning in most every term and designation and in so doing, clarify its value and take it off the bogey list.

A characteristic of Pietism in the lives of Michelle’s subjects and in the lives of other Christians of the same spirit is the ethic of avoiding insider language. The purpose of fellowship is common understanding. Spener, Petersen, and Franke and many fine Covenant teachers and preachers have strived to share understanding as sisters and brothers without distinction of class, education, or anything else.

I ponder this universal spirit and the power of it in the lives of the three Pietists Clifton-Soderstrom puts before us. How does it arise? To the extent I share their spirit, this impulse or ethic arises in me as the result of non-discriminating friendships. For example becoming friends with kids at school who weren’t Christian (as far as I knew). If they were or weren’t, it did not matter. They were good friends and fun to play with. Nor did social standing matter.

Though how I play now and what I want to do has changed some since I was a boy, I still cherish the experience of connecting with people and I’m confident the same is true of most Pietisten readers because that ethos is alive and well. I thrive on friendly contact and on understanding someone across a boundary of culture, philosophy, or religion and across social lines. Walker Percy, following Kierkegaard, calls such an event a rotation, meaning a brand new experience with someone or of something unexpected. It is hard to express the degree of excitement and blessing these rotations give to life and understanding. I believe Spener, Petersen, and Franke experienced precisely this—as you likely have—finding true friends, particular persons in “unauthorized” places. The subjects of Angels, Worms, and Bogeys made unexpected, unauthorized friendships and they did not devalue them in favor of a principle, a classification, or a doctrine. In particular, as the author shows, they crossed barriers of social class in their community in ways that mattered and dissolved them. Petersen opened up participation for women giving them voice, a startling development and a reshaping of Christian ethics.

Clifton-Soderstrom’s account of this threesome is wonderfully well told. I am filled with admiration for each of them. Far from being bogeys, they are clearly “birdies.” The author tells us that Pietism has been given bogeys for being “too subjective and individualistic, too emotional, and too other-worldly.” Therefore, its critics say, it does not contribute to the spirit of the larger church and is judgmental on the lives of others. Such criticisms are made in ignorance of the actual life, work, and spirit (aspects that can be summarized as ethics) of people like the three friends in Clifton-Soderstrom’s book. As to the metaphors “angels” and “worms,” read the book.

For these Pietists, the Bible was the “word of God.” Michelle represents the best of the tradition and she urges reading of the Bible just as the heroes of her story did. They studied it avidly. I was taught that the Bible is of utmost importance and that reading it avidly is, to say the least, good. As I encountered other great literature like the Tao Te Ching and Zen Buddhist stories, I began to realize that God’s spirit of truth is present in all humans and throughout the earth regardless of religion or nationality (the centurion Cornelius of Acts 10 comes immediately to mind). In 2 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul writes: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (RSV) The Bible is clearly a great, wonderful “earthen vessel.” Where would the world be without the Bible’s stories, wisdom, and understanding? Where would we be without the stories and teachings of Jesus who urges us to love one another? This treasure is an earthen vessel, I need not worship it or be blind to its humanness, nor closed to other expressions of God’s spirit of truth.

The Bible has been leveled by the doctrines and teachings about it and perhaps you, too, have noticed that it gets re-leveled daily when people read it merely to find morals or beliefs and doctrines. We can flatten the Bible with deadly seriousness, but it comes alive when we find the humor, the humanness, and the art.

I like to read the Bible unsystematically. It is a way to experience rotations. When I read a story that has become hazy in my memory, I am nearly always surprised and delighted by the chuckles and laughs that arise as a good story begins to flow.

How can one not begin to chuckle when reading the story of Namaan and Elisha (2 Kings, 5)? Or, sticking with Elisha, can one not be shocked by his calling on the bears to maul 42 of the boys who called him “Baldy?” This is literature and it is funny. Or how about the plight of one of the sons of the prophets who loses an axe head in the river while felling trees for their new building? It is a “borrowed” axe head. I bet you know the feeling, as do I, of losing or breaking something borrowed. Oh, to have the prophet Elisha around to throw out a stick to float over the spot where the axe head sank and watch it rise to the surface! What great stories, not unlike some of the great Zen stories.

It seems, too, that Christians would do well to acknowledge that Yahweh is less lovely than many humans. That our “god” scores worse than a double bogey when he tells the Israelites to not leave a single person of the Amalekites alive, including women and children (1 Samuel 15). Shouldn’t things like that, there are more of them, make us a bit humble when making friends with people of other faiths and give us pause in criticizing their literature when it seems to advocate violence?

As I see it, if studying the “word” leads to a spirit in which we stop trying to convert Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, non-believers, and others and if it helps us seek understanding and to make friends while at the same time making faith active in love, it is a “treasure” and a very important and really good thing to do.

Back to Angels, Worms, and Bogeys. I am grateful to Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom for her scholarship, literary imagination, and insightful Christian thought. This book is a jewel. It is truly a “companion” as she intends it to be. She writes:

...Francke created a room in his school that he called the “Cabinet of Artifacts and Curiosities.” In this room, he collected artifacts and gems from all around the world for his students to hold and ponder. Francke acted as a sort of curator of cultural and natural treasures evoking the children to move from curiosity to wonder. Pietists, like some cultural artifacts, are curious people, most certainly, but they warrant more than a glance or a single visit. It is my hope that like Francke, I can be the kind of curator who facilitates my readers to move from curiosity to wonder leaving you with a sense of the beauty portrayed by the faith, hope, and love of the early Pietists. (page 26)

She accomplished that with me. As Thoreau took his students on fascinating field trips in the environs of Concord, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom takes the reader through a delightful field trip among the persons and spirit of seminal Pietism.