Celebrating Bibfeldt

Franz Bibfeldt was conceived in frustration on a Sunday afternoon by seminary students in Chicago many years ago. His conception was driven by the pernicious insistence on keeping the seminary library closed on weekends before Monday term papers. This led to students inventing their footnotes. One such footnote, fabricated and false, led to the birth of the infamous Franz Bibfeldt.

According to his biographers, "Franz Bibfeldt was born in the early morning hours of November 1, 1897, at Sage-Hast bei Groszenkneten, Oldenburg, Niedersaschsen, Germany, and was baptized the same day." His rapid baptism, of course, was to ensure all of the saints were appeased, which would set the course for Bibfeldt's life. "His birth was one day premature, since he was conceived on February 2 after a Candlemas party." There's just enough sex in his life story to make it interesting, but not enough to make it popular.

Like most of the great theologians of the 20th century, Bibfeldt was blessed with a funny name that starts with ‘B’. This has led many greater minds to stardom, like Brunner, Barth, Buber, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer. In fact, according to some sources, one reason Kierkegaard felt it necessary to publish pseudonymously was because he experienced a feeling of sickness unto death in his name’s unfortunate inadequate first initial. Kierkegaard never hit on the secret to success in his search for a marketable pseudonym; however, hindsight is 20/20.

Similar to most jokes told by theologians, Bibfeldt’s life story has a few groan-worthy punchlines buried in paragraphs of torturous reasoning. (What can you expect from people whose idea of fun is listening to papers being read about immutability, moral agency, and the problem of evil?) At the same time, part of the value a figure like Bibfeldt brings to theology is a critique of the theological enterprise.

Unlike books such as Wildlife in the Kingdom Come, that I reviewed here, or articles like the one on “New Directions in Pooh Studies,” that someone included in an academic journal years ago, Bibfelt is a figure of greater potential.

As Martin Marty describes it in the satirical book, The Unrelieved Paradox, Bibfeldt is a figure who is malleable to the needs of the day: ‘The Bibfeldt ideology has changed after twenty-five years; he embodies the principle of responding-although-he-will-be-changed gone awry. His coat of arms displays the ever-changing god Proteus atop a weathervane, and his motto is the Spanish line, “I dance to the tune that is played.”’

One of Bibfeldt’s most profound, hopeful, and representative theological statement is the inscription he left on a bathroom stall at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “God grades on a curve.”

He wrote his dissertation on the so-called Year Zero problem. After all, we went from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. What happened to the year in the middle? As a result of this confusion, Bibfeldt has very rarely been physically seen; he tends to show up exactly one year early or one year late. Though artifacts like the scrawl on the stall door described above tend to attest to his reality. Or, at least the possibility of his reality.

There is enough to the story of Bibfeldt (may he live forever) to encourage otherwise respected scholars to publish a book of essays about him. There is sufficient humor in the concept that a known publisher would print said book and even, to the surprise of literally everyone involved, publish a second edition of said book. Of course, it came out as the “18th perhaps 19th anniversary edition.” Whichever it is, it is worth the money. Maybe. If you need a joke.

One of the things that makes Bibfeldt funny is that it is written by people who are making fun of themselves. Too much humor these days is focused on trying to shame people in the outgroup. Viewers only have to look at late night TV and the way that the left uses humor to express their hatred of the right to see this. The one line “gotcha” against the other side’s strawmen is the order of the day.

(Of course, there is some of that on the right, too. The Babylon Bee sometimes takes cheap shots. They also dig in pretty heartily to their own conservative, Reformed foibles, contrary to the complaints of offended liberals.)

Bibfeldt is a figure that is useful for lightly mocking one’s own camp and maybe the other guy, too. However, because Bibfeldt is written in a long form scholarly format, it lends itself to a bit more consideration given to actually being funny and actually presenting the position being critiqued more carefully.

While you’ve probably never heard of Bibfeldt, and probably shouldn’t have, you could stand to read (of) him if you do theology. He’s worthy of a late night guffaw among a group of professional theologians. He’s also worth resurrecting from time to time to highlight some of the errors of the Zeitgeist. The world would be a better place if Bibfeldt studies continue among both conservative and liberal scholars and, from time to time, if new manuscripts are discovered.

Bibfeldt is a man of all seasons and a master of none. He’s an ever present goat in times of trouble, though he tends to be regularly late to dinner when called. The world needs a little more Bibfeldt. Perhaps Bibfeldt, and not more cowbell, is the prescription for the fever of the world today.