Why not read Barth?

Based on a link posted in the comments at Jim’s blog I found a supposed source for Barth-less pride. 

The apparent source of people not wanting to read Karl Barth a post by Janice Reese at this blog. People who used her post to excuse intentional ignorance misunderstood her point. She notes, with all the sincerity I can tell from the internet, that she suffers from hypocrisy. I do too. So we have something in common, so I hope that my counter-point can be taken humbly. 

She states her reasons for not reading Barth, which I summarize for you here with brief quotes:

  1. …It was clear time and time again that many around me felt a failure to consult Barth in numerous areas of doctrinal debate was a failure to engage in serious scholarship. I felt (and still feel) that it was not only legitimate to, but also that I had to, resist this…
  2. …Feminists have been silenced and ignored by these tactics for decades. Of course there are feminist Barthians, and there are minoritised scholars working with various forms of Barthian theology. However, nearly every time I have read Barthian scholarship and glanced over the footnotes I have seen been struck by how (obviously) this culture of systematic theology supports white men talking about what other white men have said…
  3. …When I attend conferences in America it is the Barthians who stand out, who have the large crowds, who have the ‘big names’. What stands out is in fact the white man’s club.  It is like watching the powerful movement of Patriarchy – striding confidently with long able legs while wearing leather patched tweed jackets…

I would understand if she were protesting Barth because he evidently cheated on his wife or something (but is it wrong to be baptized or educated by a sinner, St Augustine?), but the main reasons are apparently that “everybody reads Barth” and “patriarchy.” 

I think what she ends up doing by accident is playing a combination hipster card and what I call “the feminist opt out card.”


“Reading Barth is too common.” Really? That’s tantamount to saying, “I’m a Christian theologian…but I think the Bible is overdone, I want to read and preach on a less privileged text like Das Capital.” Why not read both (Barth and minority scholars)? Oh yeah, because Barth is privileged. He’s also dead, people aren’t reading him because he’s a rich white guy who is leading some charade designed to undervalue women. They might be reading him because he’s helpful, because they wanted the challenge, or because they like fitting in. 


Her reasoning about patriarchy is similar to when this lady (whose internet name may offend some of my readers) quoted a comment directed to this other lady

My feminist activism involves privileging women’s voices over men’s voices. I now only read books written by women. I try to get my main news from women’s news sites and women journalists like Soraya Chemaly, Samira Ahmed, Bidisha, Helen Lewis, Bim Adewunmi, and Sarah Smith. I follow only women journalists on Twitter and Facebook. I support organisations which are placing women’s experiences at the centre of public debate: Women Under Siege, The Everyday Sexism Project, and The Women’s Room UK.

In other words, “Barth is categorically not worth reading because he is a male.” I suppose utilizing Alternating Current in the electric grid is similar (thanks Tesla).
Tesla was a male-stream inventor…therefore it is supporting patriarchy to use his inventions. Q.E.D.

In case the analogy between Reese and the commenter quoted above is not apparent Reese opts out of reading Barth because people who read Barth don’t read other voices (which I can’t speak on out of my own experience which I’ll get to*). So, “Barth (who is dead) is used as an excuse to silence others, therefore I won’t read him regardless of what legitimate insights he offers into the gospel.” It is in effect silencing Barth’s voice (as it remains upon the page and is only heard by those who take up and read) in lament of those who allegedly silence others.** Simply saying, “I don’t care to read Barth” wouldn’t be silencing him but rather ignoring him. That seems more polite.


Thankfully we are not actually trapped in a world of bizarre logical dilemmas like the this: I can read Barth and be a sycophant to males who abuse power or I can resist in an admittedly measly fashion.

Here are other logical possibilities (not practical or true possibilities necessarily, I’m just stating other logical possibilities):

  1. Admit that you don’t want to read Barth because you want to read other things. Then it is pure honesty, not measly protest. I haven’t read Barth lately because I’m writing a paper on Matthew’s gospel, I’m teaching 8 classes at a private high school, I’m busy at my church, and my wife is more fun to spend time with than Karl Barth is. 
  2. Read Barth and critique Barth rather than rail against his followers. In other words, utilize dialectic (in the Aristotelian sense of careful argument). Understand Barth and the Barthians better than they understand their own arguments (which many of them never appear to make…they do just use a frightful amount of jargon). If you want to end the charade be the first to prove that the Emperor is Naked. 
  3. Protest in a bigger way than that. Hold a Barth-Free conference. I recommend against this though, it would be like refusing to be defined by sexuality by constantly referencing your sexual activities. Maybe hold a conference about post-colonial theology and only have one Barth session.
  4. Change majors at the last minute to New Testament. Barth was simply wrong about Romans and though he deserves to be read he can easily be marginalized at that point. 

* Here is note on my own experience with Barth and minority voices. I never finished the Dogmatics, though I’ve read three of the volumes and portions of the rest. I’ve also read most of Barth’s smaller books which are in English. But I’ve also read James Cone, Elizabeth Johnson, Elisabeth Fiorenza, Athanasius, Naomi Wolf, Gustavo Gutierrez, etc. Shoot, I’ve read stuff by atheists, Muslims, men, women, and mathematicians. One of my diversions is mathematics. The beauty of it is that your gender, socio-economic status, skin color, or religion hardly factor into things. If your a neo-nazi nobody can reject your conjecture if it is proven rigorously. You can even be a woman and do good math and people have to listen. I rarely meet people at theology or ministry conferences who are particularly good at mathematics or Greek syntax but that does not mean they do not appreciate the need for those things. Though I’m a theology major, I presented a piece on expertise, mathematics pedagogy, and Sherlock Holmes a year or so ago. My presence there did not mean that I do not care about the literacy, linguistics, and rhetoric meetings down the hall. I just didn’t present in those forums that day. I wasn’t asked to. Similarly, I imagine that people in the Barth session still read and have interest in the other topics or other authors on the same topics.

**I’m not sure how many published Western feminist theology professors qualify as silenced. I know people who are silenced. My friend Ryan and his wife Amanda are pastors of a church called the Station. The members who go there for the ministry of the Word and for food have been beaten, ignored, spit upon, arrested, mistreated by police, and judged by everybody else. Nobody cares about their opinion except for their pastors and our Lord. They’ve been silenced. Feminists with dissertations, published books, and tenure haven’t been silenced. Women are systematically silenced in places like Iran, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Peru (I’ve been there wife beating is ubiquitous). The rhetoric of women being silenced in Western Universities (Australia is in the east but you get the point) is tired and simply not comparable to the realities where that language has real social referents. I understand that sometimes it is hard to get a job with a theology degree, but that’s our fault for getting theology degrees (note how I mentioned I’m a math teacher), but that’s not necessarily because of gender. 


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