Booknotes: Shanghai Conspiracy, The Mission of Demythologizing

Some booknotes:

A. Major General Charles Willoughby. Shanghai Conspiracy: The Sorge Spy Ring. Western Islands, 1965.

This book was originally published in 1952. Charles Willoughby served as chief of intelligence under General Douglas MacArthur, who writes the introduction to this book.

This book is about the Communist spy ring of Richard Sorge, a Communist agent who was part of the Nazi government in Germany. The book focuses a lot, however, on his espionage towards Japan. Another figure in this book is Agnes Smedley. Willoughby argues that she was a Communist, her denials notwithstanding. Part of her job was as a propagandist for the Chinese Communists, portraying them to the West as agrarian reformers. A significant part of the book is Sorge’s own account, which includes how he became a Communist, effective techniques of espionage, and the goals of the espionage.

Some items of interest:

—-Sorge’s discussion of the techniques of espionage sounded like common sense. First, you want to be educated about the region where you are conducting the espionage. Sorge states that he was not particularly popular among his fellow Communists, but they still came to him because he knew a lot. Second, Sorge often used intermediaries in Japan. It would look suspicious to the Japanese if a white guy like him were going around asking questions. Consequently, he relied on native Japanese. Some of these native Japanese became Communists because they were discontent with the Japanese oligarchs. The Communist network, according to Sorge, was vast: one person would report to someone, who would report to someone else, and so on.

—-Some of the Japanese Communists whom Sorge profiles were interested in internal subversion, but the focus of this book is more on Russia’s geopolitical interests. One purpose of espionage towards Japan was to see what Japan would do so that Russia could act accordingly. Japan and Russia were enemies. When Russia learned that Japan was going against China or the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, it could breathe a sigh of relief, because at least Japan was not going after Russia at that time. Russia could then focus its resources on other goals. Sorge occasionally mentions his personal knowledge about Nazi deliberations. Nazis were debating, for example, whether to pursue an alliance with Japan or China.

This book is not as juicy as a lot of John Bircher-type books. Russia does not come across so much as a monster trying to care over the world but as a nation seeking to preserve its own interests; other reviewers on Amazon, however, arrived at a different impression, as might I were I ever to reread the book. Perhaps Willoughby’s point is that the Communist network does exist, and the very existence of such a network should be cause for alarm.

B. David W. Congdon. The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology. Fortress, 2015.

I bought this book for a low price in 2015. It was selling like hotcakes! I decided to read it years later.

As Congdon narrates, Barth and Bultmann were estranged from each other because they felt that their theological approaches were different. Barth thought that Bultmann’s demythologization was an attempt to keep Christianity up with the times. But Congdon argues that their approaches actually overlap and complement each other. Barth’s approach focuses on the divine side of the equation: God uses the Bible to act as the Word of God, challenging and transforming the hearer. Bultmann’s focus was on the human side of the equation: the person’s existential response to the revelation, after grasping its core.

Part of the problem, according to Congdon, is that people misunderstand what Bultmann’s demythologization was all about. It was not about keeping Christianity up with the times, as if modern science deserves a privileged status. Rather, it was about translating the Gospel for moderns and unveiling to them its essence. Many people today have a different worldview from the original historical audiences of the Gospel, due, in part, to new scientific knowledge. The message underneath the myth needs to be uncovered, both as a missionary and translation endeavor, but also so that Christianity can focus on its essence as opposed to idolizing and absolutizing its mythical trappings. This essence is an existential encounter with God’s grace, which frees people to live for others.

The book is over eight hundred pages. It was repetitive in making its points, but I still feel it was worthwhile to read. Perhaps this is because it came across as meaty and deep. The biographical aspect of the book is engaging, as it chronicles the views of Barth and Bultmann towards each other; the book also goes into the background and the influences on their thought. A brief appendix discusses examples of demythologization, for example, with the atonement. The book could have used more of this.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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