For The Someday Book

Book Review: Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

Posted on: February 22, 2015

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.

LeavesThis book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.

In his preface from 1956, he writes,

The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)

That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.

The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)

So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.

Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.

“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)

It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.

It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.

The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:

We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)

There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)

Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.

Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)

This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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