Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: "In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum" by Renate Köbler

In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum By Renate Köbler. Translated by Keith Crim. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989. 156 pages.

Renate Köbler's stated goal in this book is to liberate the German theologian and very capable assistant of Karl Barth from the shadows. With the dearth of biographical information out there about von Kirschbaum, Köbler's contribution seems very valuable to me and I think she does a commendable job. Admittedly the book is not overly generous on details of von Kirschbaum's life so those looking for a 1000-page volume overflowing with information might be a little disappointed. That being said, if you want to understand a little better how she influenced Barth this is a good place to start (and let's admit it--there aren't THAT many places to start).

For those that are not aware, Charlotte von Kirschbaum was for forty years one of Barth's closest companions and co-workers. That she had a significant impact on the Church Dogmatics and that history should remember her isn't disputed. Of course, to what degree she was a counterpart and "suitable companion" for Barth's great work is unknown. Even Barth suggests he could not have done the work he did without her (he said so many times)---so at the very least that must be taken into account. In the book, Köbler suggests that much of the material in the excurses of the Church Dogmatics is attributable to her work, mostly because of her help as secretary and archivist, not to mention the significant role she played as Barth's intellectual partner. This point is not backed up assiduously in the book, but the suggestion is strongly present. At the very least we are being encouraged by the book to appreciate the larger role played by von Kirschbaum, which is one of the work's strengths.

I appreciated the inclusion of two essays by Charlotte: the "Address for the Movement 'Free Germany'" of 1945 and "The Role of Women in the Proclamation of the Word" of 1951. It is nice to hear her own voice and the inclusion of these essays has whet my appetite to read more of her work. There's not a lot of it out there, but to follow-up on the reading of this book, I'll likely read (at a later point) The Question of Woman: The Collected Writings of Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology.