Documentary. Running time: c. 1 hour. Our star rating: 5
NOTE TO VIEWERS—This thought-provoking documentary is available on DVD via a link to Journey Films, at the end of this review—however, it also will be airing on public television’s WORLD Channel on April 16, 2017. Check your cable listings to see if the channel is available to you. There also is a paperback book, from Eerdmans Publishing and Amazon, that is a companion volume to the documentary.
I always look forward to a new Martin Doblmeier documentary, so many of which, like his Bonhoeffer, first being offered to the public on PBS. His latest is on the American mid-20th century theologian who is still read today, and not just by theologians, but by politicians as well. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were avid readers of his works, and a prominent political analyst, the New York Times writer David Brooks, also appreciates Niebuhr’s keen insights into group and individual behavior and ethics. This is a fine documentary that combines archival stills, news clips, various experts, many of them well-known, commenting upon the man and his writings. By the end of the film the average person who knows Niebuhr only as the author of the famous Serenity Prayer will have a much fuller appreciation of this major influence upon American life ever since he came into prominence in the 1930s.
Through visuals and words, we follow Niebuhr from his birth in the Midwest to his time as a prophetic pastor in an urban Detroit church (which under his leadership grew from under 100 to 700 members) to his call to teach at New York City’s prestigious Union Theological Seminary, despite the fact that he did not possess a Ph. D. This lack created some raised eyebrows and disdain among his faculty peers, but the theology he gained through the experience of working in a city environment was so perceptive that he gained the respect of all who heard or read him, especially when his Moral Man and Immoral Society was published in 1932. Keenly aware of what was going on in Germany, he was responsible for bringing Paul Tillich to Union, and also for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short stay.
Many of those associated with President Roosevelt were influenced by Niebuhr, as well as JFK. Dr. King credits him with leading him out of the naïve liberalism of his seminary days, though disagreeing with him concerning pacifism. His insight from the Scriptures and his experience that an individual person is apt to be more loving than when in a group, and that our goal in society is to bring justice as close to love as possible, still resonates today.
We also learn from the film what a great companion his wife Ursula Kepple-Compton was, herself a scholar and teacher who helped him write several of his books. His brother Helmut Richard Niebuhr also was quite famous, and still is, thanks to his book Christ and Culture. As a result of inter-faith activities Niebuhr became friends with the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, so much so that before his death he asked for him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The widowed Mrs. Heschel is one of those who are interviewed in the film.
The film’s many other contributors include the already mentioned David Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, theologian Cornel West, civil rights leader Andrew Young, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Ron Stone, Niebuhr’s daughter Elizabeth Sifton, and many scholars and political activists.
Director Doblmeier clearly has done his homework, providing us with a picture of a man living in challenging times who lives on in his important writings and the careers of so many who readily admit their indebtedness to him.
This highly entertaining film would make a for a fine study for an adult church school class. Were I to use it, I would have the group watch the entire film during the first class, and then watch & discuss it in 10 to 15 minute segments for another 3 to 5 class sessions.
The DVD is available for $19.95 from Journey Films (https://journeyfilms.com/) or Amazon.com.