Downfall: The End of Hitler's Life

Downfall is a haunting and chilling movie. I left the theatre with an impression that I rarely have after viewing a two and a half hour movie. Starring Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire, 1989) as Adolph Hitler, this powerful movie offers an insider’s view of the last ten days of the life of the infamous Hitler, and his Third Reich, between the days of April 20 and 30, 1945. It also makes Downfall one of the very best World War II movies ever made.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s academy awards Downfall opens in 1942 in East Prussia, outside "The Wolf’s Lair," Hitler’s planning center for the war. In the opening scenes a twenty-two year old Munich woman, Traudl Hump, is ushered into Hitler’s office for an interview to become his personal secretary. Traudl is noticeably treated with kindness and human warmth by Hitler (one reviewer says Hitler appears here as a "fatherly and depressed sort of man"), demonstrating that he was not an entirely sub-human monster. But this is not the last time that we see good qualities in Hitler in this film. He later treats children, and his beloved German shepherd Blondi, with great warmth as well, even while his mad plan to conquer the Allies is collapsing around him. And those who served him to the end seem to have done so with a mixture of genuine repect and fear. Traudl, a lapsed Catholic, as was Hitler himself, seems almost oblivious to what she is getting herself into when she begins her secretarial work in 1942. By the end of the movie she seems a bit more reflective. (At the end of the film there is a cameo appearance of the real Traudl, filmed just prior to her death in 2002. She still seems unable to understand how she shared in the moral failures of the Reich!)

From this beginning the viewer is taken inside the Berlin bunker where Hitler and his closest comrades are seeking to save the war effort. These scenes begin with a celebration of Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday on April 20. The story is mostly told from Traudl’s perspective. (Frau Traudl Hump Junge married Hitler’s valet in the years between 1942 and 1945 and by April of 1945 was widowed.) Junge lived for eighty-one years and was interviewed countless times, in her old age, by journalists and historians seeking her first hand accounts of Hitler and his private actions. (She often referred to him as having a pleasant and paternal side and to his being "considerate" in private.) To many, fed the stories of a monster who can only be understood as sub-human, the story Downfall tells has brought considerable criticism for this film in some quarters precisely because it portrays Hitler as so very human.

It is precisely this point that moved me so powerfully. Evil men are not only and always evil. Depravity is not so pervasive, even in one of the most wicked men who ever lived, that there is no evidence of the Creator to be seen at all. If Hitler were something other than a human, who retained in his person the mark of the Creator, then we could reduce all evil to something other than deliberate human choice, and thus human responsibility for real evil would vanish. Neither natural selection, nor genetics, can be blamed for Hitler’s evil. He made real choices, just like every single one of us, and he became what he was precisely because he was tempted and "dragged away by his own evil desire" (James 1:14). The Apostle further says that, "After desire has conceived it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death" (James 1;15). So long as we believe that men like Adolph Hitler are exceptional, or less-then-human monsters, we will fail to see the vast potential for evil that resides in all of us, if left without grace to our own desires and passions.

What is even more gripping here, than the portrayal of Hitler, is the story of the sarcastic and loquacious propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and his amazing wife, Magda. Magda is the most chilling character I think I have seen on film in years. (She cold-bloodedly, and with carefully calculated intention, kills all five of her own beautiful Aryan children so they will not have to live a single day of their lives without National Socialism.) I asked myself over and over: "What makes a person give themselves so devotedly to a man like Hitler that they could kill their own children with such clear intention?" From the little boys who died fighting the Russians in the streets for Hitler’s dream, to the devoted household servants, those close to Hitler often adored him and gladly gave themselves to his every wish. Before Hitler took his own life Magda actually fell at his feet pleading for him to live, weeping and worshiping Hitler as if he were her/the messiah. The xenophobia, racism and unadulterated hatred aside, Hitler had a true following, and a large one at that. It is still true, men filled with themselves and their wretched tyrannical dreams can find followers who adore them and follow them into certain death. Hitler was not the first such man and sadly will not be the last. In this case, his particular evil led to the death of over fifty million people.

In the midst of this terrible story one or two characters actually stand out for their common sense and decency. The madness that surrounded the end of the Reich made many people choose to end thier lives by suicide but a few, filled with deep perplexity, sought hope and healing through serving others. All of this reminds me that it is simply too easy to judge everyone else in this story in the harshest way. Don’t get me wrong. I find nothing attractive about Adolph Hitler at all, absolutely nothing. But I am reminded that God commands me to: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:12-13).

Why Liberals Don't Get It

Everytime I engage the more liberal parts of the Christian Church I am amazed at how clueless these folks really are about true evangelism. I suppose I should not be amazed. Afterall, if you don’t have a gospel that takes sin and the fall seriously, and grace biblically, along with an objective/subjective redemption accomplished by the historic Christ and the blessed Holy Spirit working supernaturally, then you don’t really have a lot of good news to share. And when you continually reinvent your message to fit the culture you have no anchor for the soul either.

I was among mainline Christians again this week and picked up a copy of The Circuit Rider (March-April 2005), a magazine for United Methodist clergy published by Cokesbury, the denominational publishing house. In this issue I discovered a full-page ad for a program called Living the Questions (www.livingthequestions.com). The tag line says Living the Questions is "an unapologetically liberal alternative to the Alpha course." For those who do not know Alpha is a twelve-week course that is extremely popular in many churches, especially in mainline churches. I can explain this very simply. If you find a mainline church with life, spiritual growth, and effective evangelism it is likely using Alpha. It is one of the finest programs I know for winning people to real living faith in Christ.

Living the Questions might better be called "living your doubts and reacting to evangelicals who take the gospel seriously." It is a web based program designed for small group participation featuring radical liberals such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who both openly doubt that a great deal of the Jesus story is factually historical. Then there is seminar leader John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop, one of the most noted deniers of orthodox faith in America. With John B. Cobb, Jr., a process theologian (which means he believes God is in "process", or in effect, changing in his mind and nature), joining this august team you have a thoroughly modern group of true liberals who have made a career out of attacking and undermining historic, confessional, Christianity. This ad informs us that there is a special bonus session included for United Methodists by Leslie Griffiths, pastor of Wesley Chapel, London. Griffiths is no friend to orthodoxy either.

Rarely do liberals have really fresh, new ideas. They incessantly copy culture and the ideas of others who know how to win people. In this case these particular liberals must be deeply troubled by the evangelical success of Alpha. If this were not so then why would they create and market a progam as a "liberal alternative" by their own admission? It is a fitting tribute to Alpha, and the gracious work of the Holy Spirit through it, that such folks need to mimic the work of evangelicals in their respective denominations. If these evangelicals succeed through using programs like Alpha, and I pray every day that they will, then there is still hope for Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism and Anglicanism, as well as some other historic Protestant groups. I seriously doubt that this new liberal alternative will make any contribution to real evangelism at all since the leaders have no real gospel to offer. What a waste of time. Liberals just just don’t get it, especially when it comes to conversion and evangelism. But then a century plus of liberal Christianity has proven this beyond any reasonable doubt.

Avoiding Ideology

Tomorrow morning I drive to Dubuque, Iowa. I will share in a special evening, at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where a number of us will honor the life and work of Dr. Donald Bloesch, one of the greatest evangelical theologians of our time. Bloesch is not widely known to ordinary folks but he is profoundly respected within the academy.

I first met Donald Bloesch about thirty years ago. I began to read his work shortly thereafter. Only about eight years ago did we actually become freinds. I would now call Dr. Bloesch my mentor in many important ways. First, he has profoundly influenced my thinking on many levels. He has also helped me deepen my spiritual journey in terms of prayer and devotion. I believe I comprehend the centrality of Jesus Christ in Scripture better because of Donald’s personal piety and his crystal clear teaching on Christian spirituality.

Bloesch, like the earliest Protestant evangelicals, is a theologian of "Word and Spirit." He believes reason must always serve faith, not faith reason. This method has transformed my approach to theology and removed a great deal of hubris from my own systematic approach to theology. His seven volume magnum opus, Christian Foundations (InterVarsity Press), has recently been completed. Amazingly, he dedicated the seventh volume to this ministry and my renewal work. This fact occasioned my particpation in the April 12 celebration. These volumes, I believe, provide the discerning reader some of the finest interaction with catholic evangelical thought in the English language today.

One of Bloesch’s more important calls is for the church to avoid ideologies. Both the left and the right need his prophetic counsel desperately. He writes:

"The church in our time can only become truly prophetic when it awakens to the reality of the ideological temptation. Only when it successfully begins resisting the beguiling promise of ideological support will it be free to speak the Word of God with power and boldness."

This is precisely why the voices on both the left and right, in the currrent church scene, are generally muted when it comes to saying a truly prophetic word for the Lord.

The Problem of Dullness

Is it me or do you find many Christians spiritually dull these days? Again and again, I leave churches of all kinds and wonder to myself, "How can so many people listen to the mystery of the gospel preached with no seeming interest, or at least very little interest?" It is not that I look for tears, or warm facial response, but at least someone should appear moved in some way. The singing is often listless, the listening seems ho-hum, and the evidence of real spiritual hunger expressed in words following the service seem so rare. I often leave saying to myself, "What can change this dull response?" The answer lies in God’s Spirit alone. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit."

Francois Fenelon said it well: "It is easy to mistake intellectual curiosity for spiritual hunger." The late A. W. Tozer once said, "We are as filled as we want to be." I beleive that is true. And the fact is few of us truly long to be filled. Tozer also said, "If there is anything in your life more demanding than your longing after God, then you will never be a Spirit-filled Christian."

Show Me Your Glory

I have resisted composing blogs for almost a year. While many friends continued to tell me that I must enter the "brave new world," I declined their suggestions regularly. Friends not only urged me, they bugged me frankly, to begin. Journaling seems so private, so simple, so intensely useful, if done well. My friends kept saying, "Write your journal thoughts." I can’t I argued. Blogging is just too public for such writing, even potentially manipulative I feared.

But the medium is not the message, at least in this case. The message is what really matters to Christians I believe. I have prayed and labored for an outpouring of God’s glory, almost daily, since 1970. This is my passion. My message reflects that passion. Put very simply, I write and pray to see the goodness of God exalted in the church.

Like Moses, I have seen something of the Lord’s presence go with me, in my case for more than five decades. But like Moses I too pray, "Show me your glory." I saw something of it in the Jesus Movement in 1969-70. I have seen glimpses and powerful displays of it in south India and Latin America. I long to see it spread in North America. I fear for us, as churches and believers, if it does not.

What is this glory? God said to Moses, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exodus 33:19). There it is, God’s glory–goodness, mercy and compassion all reveal it.  God, who is eternally and only love, shows us his glory when he acts to spread this infinite goodness, in both mercy and compassion. When he relents from sending well-deserved judgment, when he gives the underserving another opportunity because of his grace, when he acts toward us in pure and sovereign love, all because God’s nature is love (1 John 4:8).

I have listened to lots of Christians talk about this glory. I have read lots of quotes about it too. It comes down to this: God’s glory is his goodness in action for "God is love."

I resolve to write (indeed to blog) for that glory, whether the subject is art, music, politics, culture, philosophy or theology. I resolve, this night of April 9, 2005, to make this my goal.

Soli Deo Gloria!