An overwhelming Christian, pro-life novel
You must read Edna Hong’s novel Luminous Valley of Lovea true story about a community of severely disabled children, the Christians who cared for them, and a pastor who fought the Nazi euthanasia program to save their lives.
Although the book deals frankly with suffering and sadness, reading it is an extremely joyful experience. It’s because the author is doing something very difficult to do in literature, conveying the joy that comes from the love of Christ as it overflows into love of neighbor.
It tells the story of the Bethel Community, a Christian ministry in Germany devoted to the care of the physically and mentally handicapped, led by Pastor Friedrich (“Fritz”) von Bodelschwingh. It does so through the perspective of a patient, Gunther, who cannot walk, use his hands, or feed himself, a child abandoned by his parents and a cold-hearted grandmother who saw him as ” nothing to nothing”.
Then he came to Bethel. Most remarkable is the way the author shows Gunther gradually responding to the love shown to him by deaconesses and his confreres, some of whom are in worse condition than him. Since he couldn’t speak, the staff initially assumed Gunther was also mentally disabled, but that’s not the case. No one had ever spoken to him in a way that would help him learn to speak. But he learns to speak, then to read, and when he goes to school, his horizons continue to widen.
The regular worship model “centers” him, for the first time in his life, and he learns more and more about Jesus, especially from Pastor Fritz, who must be one of the most accomplished pastors in literature. . Gunther finds he has a knack for remembering hymns, which play an important role in the narrative and in resolving spiritual issues that unfold. (I’m told the audio version of the book, in which the hymns are sung, is particularly effective.) Eventually, Gunther and his friends go through a confirmation course, after which they enter a “calling” into the community, which leads them to reflection and insightful reflections on vocation, on how they can serve God and their neighbors despite their conditions.
Meanwhile, what happens in the outside world impinges on the Bethel community. The economy collapses, inflation soars, Bethel takes in the unemployed and the homeless, and soon the Nazis come to power. Whereupon they launch their euthanasia program, attempting to raise the master race and weed out the unfit and “useless”. They send a green questionnaire to hospitals and treatment centers to identify candidates for extermination. Bethel refuses to cooperate. As news of what is happening spreads through the community, Pastor Fritz stands up to the Nazis and does what he can to protect his flock.
Although the novel itself only alludes to this, Pastor Fritz was to become a leader of the Confessing Church movement, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Hermann Sasse, among others. The Bethel Confessionwho opposes the Nazified “German Christian” movement which has taken over the established Church, has come out of this Bethel.
The story is gripping, immersive and thrilling. And very moving. I’m warning you: I don’t care how cynical you are, it will bring tears to your eyes. Good tears.
Edna Hong, who died in 2007, was a National Book Award-winning translator. She heard of Bethel, that still works, of a prisoner of war – a Lutheran pastor – whom her husband met after the war. She got to know Gunther, who was then 62, firsthand. She first published the book in 1979. Inexplicably, it ran out of print and fell into obscurity. But Concordia Theological Seminary Press did a great service in bringing it back.
The book deserves a wide readership, now more than ever.
Today Christianity is widely misunderstood, distorted and repudiated. This book shows the Gospel of Christ and its impact on people’s lives in a powerfully winning way.
Today the church is discredited. The Bethel community shows what the church can be at its best.
Today, churches are encouraged to engage in works of mercy. This book shows what it looks like and how much it can cost.
Today, the reversal of Roe v. Wade sparked a backlash against the pro-life cause. This book argues for the value of all human life, however undesirable, and it does so not just with argument, but with imaginative appeal that pierces the heart. (In the Epilogue, the author explicitly links the fight against euthanasia to the fight against abortion.)
Today, we Lutherans still face the stigma of Hitler’s Germany because so many so-called Lutherans aligned themselves with Nazism and its atrocities. We must move away from this heritage by aligning ourselves with the confess Lutherans, making a clear distinction with the theologically liberal and conformist “German Christian” movement, with its plan to purge Christianity of its “Jewish” – i.e. biblical – elements to the point of suppressing the Old Testament of the Bible. (See my book about this topic.)
Moreover, in purely literary terms and as an example of Christian art, Edna Hong knew how to write. Here is the opening of the novel:
In the world of his mother’s womb, the fluid of life that flowed into him through his umbilical cord was weak and hungry. The world into which he was born one day in the year 1914 did not nourish him better. Maybe even worse. Because it was the worst of times, and his mother was not the best of mothers. And his father left for the First World War, which the whole world lost, even if some countries thought they had won it. For little boy Gunther, who was born in Germany – the country that lost the war most painfully – the sum of all these things was a life as a cripple.
“It’s no use,” his grandmother said coldly when the war was over and his father rescued him from the woman who wasn’t the best of mothers and brought him to his own house in a big, gray, shabby city west of the Rhine. , north of the Ruhr and south of the Lippe rivers.
The grandmother had swept and scrubbed floors and scrubbed clothes on a washboard practically every day she could remember in her life, and she believed that only people who did something useful like that had any right to live in the world. Or people who were rich enough not to have to be useful. (pp.9-10)
Here is a passage from much later in the story, when Gunther and his epileptic friend Klaus – who both know they would be put on the death list – act out the conversation they think Pastor Fritz might have at this precise moment with Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s physician and head of the euthanasia program, who came to Bethel to arrange the transfer of his patients:
“According to you, Dr. Brandt, there are people who are not human. Your standard is supposed to separate humans from non-humans, and non-humans must die. Do you call that a human standard? »
“Yes, because I don’t call the life of these poor creatures human.”
“Where is the dividing line? When does a human life become non-human?
“When he can’t respond to another human being in a human way. When he’s not able to have a human association with anyone.
“Dr Brandt!” Gunther’s voice rang with triumph. “That cannot be said even of the weakest in mind and body here at Bethel. I must say that I have never met such a person in my life, and I have spent my whole life here at Bethel. if you were to say that of anyone here at Bethel, I’m afraid I’d have to ask youDr. Brandt, if you are capable of human association with another human.
“Well done Gunther! Cheer!”. . . .
“Therefore, Dr. Brandt, no ruler on earth can set a standard that decides what is human, what human life is worth preserving, what human life is not worth preserving. Only God can give us that standard. And he did, Dr. Brandt. The answer to the question about the value of human life is Jesus Christ. First, he became human. And in his life here on earth, whom did Jesus Christ place first in his love and care? Tell me that, Doctor Brandt!
“I prefer to be silent before this question, Pastor von Bodelschwingh.”
“Dr. Brandt, before the answer to this question, we must all be silent. The poor, the miserable, the helpless, the lonely, the sick, the crippled, the epileptics – that was the norm of Christ here on earth. This is his standard today. This is the standard by which we live here in Bethel. We cannot allow any other standard by which God is here, for here in Bethel God reigns! (pp. 150-151)
You know what I mean?
TH: Paul Grime
Photo: Rev. Friedrich von Bodelschwingh by unknown author – Scan: Ersttagsbrief 50. Todestag Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1996), Deutsche Post AG, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76134920