Three years before his death in 2018, Eugene H. Peterson, creator of The Message Bible translation, wrote this foreword to Peter Mommsen’s biography of his grandfather, J. Heinrich Arnold.
As a pastor, I have spent most of my adult life looking for connections between the lives of those with whom I am living and the stories of the men and women I read about in the Bible. Just as the entire biblical revelation comes to us in the form of story, so today nothing less than great storytelling is adequate to render the intricacy of creation and redemption in our own lives.
Peter Mommsen’s new biography of his grandfather, Homage to a Broken Man, tells a story worthy to take its place in the company of the “greatest story ever told,” as an extension of that biblical story into the circumstances of our contemporary lives. Today too, as in the days of old, God calls out the most unlikely heroes, uses imperfect people for his glory, and remains faithful to his people no matter how far they stray.
As I read this book lines from Psalm 118 came to mind: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Anticipating his imminent crucifixion, Jesus used these words to describe himself. It struck me as an apt text to describe the “broken man” of this story as well, a follower of Jesus who was also a “stone that the builders rejected.” Though J. Heinrich Arnold never doubted his calling to serve Christ in a common life together with his brothers and sisters – he shepherded a fledgling movement of Christian communities through a cataclysmic chapter of history and its own turbulent growing pains – he would never have chosen to lead. Humble by nature, mystical by bent, and a farmer by training, he was soon sidelined by more ambitious and manipulative men. We can be glad the story doesn’t end there.
Another scripture this story will evoke, I must admit, is Jesus’ counsel to his followers as he prepares them for what will most certainly come as they give witness to his new life of love and salvation: “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matt. 10:36). This book will give you a whole new appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s well-worn phrase, “the cost of discipleship.” It’s hard to believe what Arnold put up with from those closest to him, but what emerges is an exceptional personal story of faithfulness and forgiveness, one that in turn rekindled the fires of first love in an entire church community.
One of the most soul-damaging effects of modern life is the obfuscation of story: the fragmentation of story into disconnected anecdotes, the reduction of story to gossip, the dismemberment of story into lists of formulae or rules. In most of the words that come before us each day – delivered via television, internet, newspaper, billboard, and gossip – there is rarely any story beyond the immediate event. There is very little that connects to the past, reaches into the future, or soars to the heights. Instead of connecting us with a deeper reality, such words disconnect us, leaving us in a boneyard of incident and comment.
On the other hand, every time someone tells a story and tells it well and truly, the gospel is served. Out of the chaos of incident and accident, story-making words bring light, coherence, meaning, and value. If there is a story, then maybe, just maybe, there is (must be!) a Storyteller.
Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the Austrian writer and theologian, was fond of saying, “There are no dittos among souls.” At school I learned to marvel that no two snowflakes are alike, no two oak leaves identical. How much more unique is each human being! A true hearing of the gospel always takes in the specifically personal. “I have called you by name” (Isa. 43:1) has become an essential element both in my personal life and pastoral vocation.
Meanwhile the culture in which we are immersed is constantly at work eroding the uniqueness of named persons by giving them labels: ectomorph, unsaved, anorexic, bipolar, single parent, diabetic, left-brained. The labels are marginally useful for understanding some aspect of the human condition, but the moment they are used to identify a person, they obscure the very thing I am most interested in: the unprecedented, unrepeatable soul addressed by God.
Every time someone is addressed by name and realizes that in the encounter they are being treated as one-of-a-kind – not as a customer, not as a patient, not as a voter, not as a sinner – the gospel is served. Saving love is always personally specific, never merely generic. Christ’s mercy is always customized to an individual, never swallowed up in an abstraction.
A good writer gives us eyes to see past the labels, ears to hear beneath stereotyping clichés. Peter Mommsen is such a writer. By the time you finish the book you will have made a new friend in J. Heinrich Arnold. In fact, this book introduces us to a whole cast of characters whose stories can heighten our own awareness and sensitivity to the life of Christ being lived in us. If nothing else, I hope that after reading Homage to a Broken Man you will never again doubt that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28).
Evil is not, as some think, the greatest mystery. The mysteries of goodness and redemption far exceed it, but they can be entered only when evil is faced. These mysteries become apparent when we find companions like those brought to life in the pages of this book, in communities like the Bruderhof, and in unassuming and patient leaders like J. Heinrich Arnold.
Watch the introductory trailer for this book: