Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barth, his bell rope, and the telephone game

In March, N.T. Wright left a comment on Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, describing his experience writing about the afterlife in his new short book Surprised by Hope:
As I said to someone the other day at the Pastors’ Conference, I find myself often in the position Karl Barth described a propos his Romans commentary: trying to find the way for myself, suddenly a lot of other people seem to be wanting to know as well. He used the image of when, as a boy, he was climbing up the dark staircase in the church tower in the dark and, thinking he’d found a hand-rail, leant his weight on it only to discover it was the bell-rope. (The full note is here.)
I liked the bell-rope image and went looking for it in one of the prefaces to Barth's Romans commentary. It wasn't there, so I checked the internet. Here's what I found:

J. Livingston's Barth page:
"As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone."
Livingston cites: Karl Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, 1927), p. IX, as cited in Paul Lehrnann, " The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology," Theology Today (October, 1956), p. 334.
F. F. Bruce's commentary on Romans (Eerdmans, 1985), 58:
He compared himself to a man who, clutching in the dark at a rope for guidance, finds that he has pulled on a bell-rope and made a sound fit to wake the dead.

Bruce cites: K. Barth, Die Lehre vom Worte Gottes (1927), preface.
Clifford Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom (Fortress, 1991), 16:
Barth himself drew on one of his own experiences and said it was like a man climbing up the church bell-tower in the dark who, reaching for the handrail, grasped the bell rope instead, and sounded the alarm throughout the whole town. (No footnote)
The Encyclopedia of Religion livens things up a bit:
Barth later said that in writing this book he was like a man in a dark church tower who accidentally trips, catches hold of the bell rope to steady himself, and alarms the whole countryside. (No footnote)
And here is James S. Stewart:
Barth's own vivid description of what happened with that book was that it was just as if a man, climbing a church tower by night, should clutch at a rope to save himself from falling : the rope does indeed save him, but it is the bell rope, and the sudden pealing of the church bell through the darkness awakens the whole town. (No footnote)
As a little source critical exercise--would Barth approve, I wonder?--notice the different emphases: Wright's version focuses on Barth's surprise, Stewart's stresses salvation, Bruce's draws on resurrection imagery, Livingston's highlights the personal implications of what Barth discovered, the Encyclopedia of Religion says that the man tripped, and Green focuses on the alarm.

I suspect we have a least two different translations of the German original with some secondary orality thrown in for good measure. Does anyone have access to the original German text?


Steve Perisho said...
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Steve Perisho said...

"Blicke ich auf meinen Weg zurück, so komme ich mir vor wie einer, der, in einem dunklen Kirchturm sich treppaufwärts tastend, unvermutet statt des Geländers ein Seil ergriffen, das ein Glockenseil war, und nun zu seinem Schrecken hören mußte, wie die große Glocke über ihm soeben und nicht nur für ihn bemerkbar angeschlagen hatte" (Die christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf: Die Lehre vom Worte Gottes (1927), ix (7-8 in GA II.14)).

Steve Perisho said...

Cf. Busch:

“[Barth] once had an experience there [in Pratteln] which he used later as a parable of his own work. ‘Feeling his way up the stairs of a dark church tower he unexpectedly caught hold of a bell-rope instead of the handrail, and to his horror heard the great bell ringing out above him, and audible not only to him but to others around.’”

Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: his life from letters and autobiographical texts, 20, where the reference is to the 1927 Lehre vom Worte Gottes above. English translation:

d. miller said...

Thank you, Steve!