Karl Barth was a complex figure. He’s always had a tenuous relationship with evangelicals. In fact, this site derives its name in part from a simultaneously hostile and humorous conversation between Barth and evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. As recent research has confirmed, Karl Barth was no perfect man. He harbored sin in his life and attempted to justify it to avoid repentance (as we are all prone to do). But he also made significant contributions to Protestant theology, many of which helped steer a new course away from liberalism and toward a renewed appreciation for Christ and Scripture. If you view theological liberalism and traditional evangelical theology as a road trip from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Barth gets you all the way to about Jackson, Mississippi. His theological program has much to commend and leaves much to be desired.
But this post is not focused on Barth the adult or Barth the theologian. Rather, it will look at Karl Barth the child, “Karli” as his parents called him. As Mark Galli points out in his new book Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, young Karl had a mean-streak in him that led to his share of fight fights. But alongside this proclivity to confrontation, Karli was captivated by music. He first heard Mozart at age 5 or 6 and was gripped from then on. But Mozart was not the watershed musician for young Barth; his mother was.
He remembered his mother singing children’s songs written by theologian Abel Burckhardt. According to Galli, these songs gave Barth his “first theological education.” In Barth’s own words:
What made an indelible impression on me was the homely self-assurance with which these unpretentious verses spoke of the events of Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, as though they could have taken place that very morning in Basel or nearby, like any other exciting event . . . You could see everything for yourself and listen to it and take it to heart by hearing one of these songs sung in the language you were hearing elsewhere and beginning to speak, and you could join in the song itself. Holding your mother’s hand you went to the stable in Bethlehem, along the streets of Jerusalem, into which the savior was making his entry, hailed by children of your own age. You climbed the grim hill of Golgotha and walked in Joseph’s garden at daybreak.
What’s interesting about this reflection is that it’s buried within a footnote in his massive multi-volume Church Dogmatics. It’s as if Barth took a break from his intense theological task, pushed away from his desk, leaned back in his chair, adjusted his pipe, and wandered back to those simple choruses from days past. Then he regained his thought, returned to business, and constructed what was, according to Thomas Torrance, “the most powerful work on the doctrine of atoning reconciliation ever written.”
Think about that a moment: A simple song, written by an all but forgotten individual, profoundly impacting a young boy in Switzerland. And sixty years later, that same music fueling the same boy, leaving him in awe of God’s grace and spurring him to devote thousands of pages to the gospel.
What we sing and teach our children can have reverberating effects far beyond anything we can ask or imagine. It can spark in their mind a wonder for the story of Scripture. And, like Barth, it can give them something to hold onto, something real even if elementary.
What we sing together in corporate worship should be life-giving, not lifeless. In it we are reminding each other of realties we so easily neglect: God is active! Christ has come! Forgiveness is available! The tomb is empty! Adults, no less than children, need to voice these truths to themselves and others.
Maybe reading the following stanza to my daughter for the umpteenth time is actually forming in her a colorful snapshot of a night long ago. Perhaps there’s more going on in this moment than I realize. Perhaps it won’t manifest itself for another sixty years. Either way, tonight we sing this together:
In a quiet little stable in the middle of the night
While the animals slept with their eyes shut tight,
Mary and Joseph had a new baby boy
And the angels and shepherds sang out with joy!
Wake up, sleeping donkeys, wake up, dozing sheep!
Come close to the manger and take a quick peep.
See sweet baby Jesus, who was sent from above,
For you and for me—what wonderful love!
I think Karli would have liked this song. I know Macy does. Through simple biblical instruction and reminders—be they Scripture memory, songs, or another format—we can shape our children’s minds (and one another’s!). We can help create a gospel imagination that can almost see the splinters on that old wooden cross and the displaced stone next to the tomb. And we can all, with the eyes of faith, look forward to the day when we will see our Savior with unveiled face.
For a helpful perspective on how to think about Barth in light of his egregious sin, see Mark Galli’s Christianity Today interview “What to Make of Karl Barth’s Steadfast Adultery.” Also see Jenny-Lyn de Klerk’s “What to Do When You Find Out Your Historical Hero Did Something Sinful” on this site.
Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 17.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV: The Doctrine of Revelation, Part II, Trans. G. W. Bromiley (New York: T&T Clark International, 1958), 112.
Galli, Karl Barth, xi.
Gleny Nellist, Little Love Letters from God: Bible Stories (Grand Rapids: Zonderkidz, 2014), 9.