The Mysterious Franz Bibfeldt: The man, the myth, the legend

Stool, by Sam Bowman

“F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This line, written in an early exegesis of Franz Bibfeldt’s work by the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Martin E. Marty, describes one of our University’s brightest intellectual lights, and one of the most important theologians in its history.

Bibfeldt’s personal motto is “I dance to the tune that is played,” but his proteanism goes even deeper than this pithy line suggests. His theology is infinitely adaptable: “His is known as the theology of the ‘Both/And’ based on the suggestion that it is possible for the contemporary theologian to be relevant to everything and to adapt to anything.”

To this end, Bibfeldt will enthusiastically embrace all sides of a conflict. According to Marty, if asked if the current Iraq war was just or unjust, Bibfeldt’s answer would be a resounding “yes.”

Bibfeldt’s doctoral dissertation focused on the theological and philosophical problems posed by the Romans’ use of a calendar counting down to the birth of Christ (BC numbering), and of their calendar’s skipping the year zero. These problems with the calendar have extended into Bibfeldt’s own life. In his early essay on Bibfeldt, Marty remarked that, “In the course of this work he became so adapted to thinking in terms of ‘one year earlier,’ that he has been one year off for many events.”

In part because of this, and in part because of an unforgivable lack of concern from University of Chicago administration, the genius of this middle-way theology has been allowed to slip into obscurity at a time when his school of ecologically progressive theology (and of course his environmental nay-saying) is especially relevant to public discourse.

Franz Bibfeldt has been a significant and publishing member of the Divinity School community for more than forty years, and yet he has never been officially recognized with a position or title. Despite ignoring the man himself, the University allowed the creation in the Divinity School of the Donnelley Stool of Bibfeldt Studies to fund the study of his work.

The University of Chicago Chronicle quoted Notre Dame historian and Chicago graduate R. Scott Appleby on Bibfeldt: “Never officially connected with one particular institution or even a specific doctrine, his whereabouts have long been shrouded…‘less in a veil of secrecy than in a fog of apathy.’”

Marty is Bibfeldt’s longtime acolyte and previously the holder of the Donnelley Stool, and he keeps a full-sized statue of Bibfeldt in his study, yet even he can’t track down the neglected pastor and theologian. In the same 1995 article Marty is quoted as saying, “I haven’t seen him for a while…. Remember, he was born in 1897.”

While there will be no lunch or prepared lectern, our best hope of tracking down the elusive Bibfeldt will be at noon this Friday in the Swift Hall common room–precisely one year after a lunch given in his honor at which he was scheduled to appear.

Regardless of his lamentable absence from the University, he has left a substantial written legacy for future generations of theologians. He is cited as the author or co-author of nearly fifty scholarly works–all of which are out of print and as hard to find as the scholar himself–including “Magnum Opus” and the aptly named “Long discourse on the Study of Theology, Philosophy of Religion, Scripture, Church History, Liturgy, Hymnody, Folk Music, Interpretive Dance, Pastoral Care, Parish Administration, Haberdashery and Etiquette.”

Given the $29.95 annual salary of the endowed stool, it is regrettably doubtful that any Bibfeldt scholar has yet read, much less understood, his full body of work.

Professor Bibfeldt was born in a fictional citation by a student at Concordia Seminary before Marty transplanted him to Chicago, and does not exist. You can read more about the scholar in Marty and Brauer’s “The Unrelieved Paradox,” a real published compilation of papers on Bibfeldt.