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Nov142011

Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

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Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Marty, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Westminster / John Knox Press, 1991.

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LifeandLeadership.com Summary

This classic was first published eighty years ago, but it remains one of the most widely recommended books to help young ministers find meaning in some of the mundane and discomforting realities of ministry. It is just as useful in helping seasoned ministers come down from the seat of judgment against the church’s “lousiness” and dwell incarnationally among the people. It is perhaps Reinhold Niebuhr’s most popular work, taken from his personal journals from 1915-1928 when he was 23-36 years old and pastor of a rapidly growing church in Detroit during its industrial boom. Even though it reflects Niebuhr’s youth and immaturity (by his own admission in the 1956 preface) and is set mostly in the post-WWI era, his poignant reflections have enduring value. Current culture is never as different from history as we like to think, so one could find freshness even today in the young Niebuhr. Listen, for example, to the realistic journal of a young shepherd learning to care for his flock:

“I am glad there are only eighteen families in the church. I have been visiting the members for six weeks and haven’t seen all of them yet. Usually I walk past a house two or three times before I summon the courage to go in… . Usually after I have made a call I find some good excuse to quit for the afternoon.” (3)

And then there is the humbling conviction he experienced when encountering the deep faith of one of the “unschooled” members of his church who faced death:

“The way Mrs. ________ bears her pains and awaits her ultimate and certain dissolution with childlike faith and inner serenity is an achievement which a philosopher might well envy. I declare that there is a quality in the lives of unschooled people, if they have made good use of the school of life and pain, which wins my admiration much more than anything you can find in effete circles. She thanks me for praying with her, and imagines I am doing her a favor to come to see her. But I really come for selfish reasons — because I leave that home with a more radiant faith of my own.” (189)

The effect upon Niebuhr, and upon the reader, is a taming of the cold cynical edge by the compassionate fires of faithful ministry.

About the Author

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) taught for many years at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, as well as lecturing and preaching all over the country. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, he is the author of many books, including The Nature and Destiny of Man.


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