Backhouse, Stephen. Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. 301 pp. $24.99
Biography, Philosophers, Denmark
Many approach Soren Kierkegaard with fear and trembling. What are we to make of the Great Dane that inspired some to want his brain studied after his death? In Kierkegaard: A Single Life, Stephen Backhouse offers a rousing telling of Kierkegaard’s life that may make you appreciate the attempt. Since the family chose a normal burial, we should be thankful that Backhouse offers a postmortem examination of Kierkegaard’s life that opens up the lived influences that shaped Kierkegaard’s thought.
If you are looking for an exhaustive biography this is not for you. If you are looking for a Cliff Notes for Kierkegaard’s writing life, Backhouse writes, “A word of confession and warning: Kierkegaard himself was disdainful of the practice of overviews. He wrote specifically to avoid summarization and is all the better for it. If you use these overviews to avoid engaging with the real thing, then it may be small comfort to know the only person Kierkegaard dislikes more than you is me.” Many will come away from Kierkegaard: A Single Life not content with overviews but will likely sink themselves into the real thing.
Backhouse takes the daunting out of the task of this on ramp to Kierkegaard’s life and thought. The selections will immediately grab the readers as contemporary with the human experience. For instance, some mistakenly think Kierkegaard became completely contemptible with Christianity. Instead he calls out the unholy alliances that have dotted church history when the Church becomes too enamored and connected with the State.
When family discovered his note about his own burial they found a poem he wanted on his headstone. The last three lines betrayed his scathing attacks on the State Church, “and unceasingly, and unceasingly, speak with my Jesus.” Confusing to some that he would at once criticize the State Church but think fondly of chatting with Jesus.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Facing trial Socrates is credited with the dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Often in the throes of pastoral responsibilities there is little time for the examined life beyond admitting to a curt reply, a sharp retort and missed opportunities. Kierkegaard: A Single Life could well provide more than inspiration to dig deeper into the wealth of the thought life of this giant. The reader may be moved to consider his or her own life experiences as they relate to the thoughts and ideas held under the rubric of belief(s). Rather than reject the influences of our experience, the reader might find the Spirit at work and be encouraged.
Human experiences are interrelated. Backhouse breaks out what would be traditional segments of the lived experience—family life, private life, public life, love life, etc.—and rather than keep them separate illustrates the interplay and its impact on Kierkegaard’s thought and life. Pastors sometimes find it hard to see their way to integrate the various areas that categorize human experiences. They are often kept in their respective silos. The pastor may find encouragement to break out of those silos, those narrow categories, and embrace fully the human lived experience of faith in Jesus.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
Recommendation: Kierkegaard: A Single Life makes accessible a great thinker, a controversial figure, a man who loved and, most importantly, wrestled with the meaning of our living with faith.