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Bonhoeffer for Today: A Q&A with Biographer Eric Metaxas

posted by Jana Riess
FINAL cover - hi res Bonhoeffer.jpgFlunking Sainthood is delighted to talk today with author Eric Metaxas, whose study of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets a new standard for popular biography. It’s well-written! It’s fascinating! And it’s large enough to insulate your home!

Eric, when Thomas Nelson sent me your book, I thought there must be two or three books in the package, it was so thick. Then I opened it to find a single doorstopper. Wow! How long did it take to research and write this biography?

Yes, it’s a big book, much longer than the one I thought I would write. But I’m extremely happy to report that a huge number of people all have said they were initially daunted by its size, but once they started it they just couldn’t put it down. Publishers Weekly even called it “riveting”! It’s in extremely bad taste for an author to quote his own reviews, but when you’ve written a long book, it means everything that so many people are really enjoying it. The previous big biography, by Eberhard Bethge, is actually twice as long and weighs five pounds, so compared to that, my book is a dime-store paperback… I wanted my book to be definitive, but also accessible, and I hope I’ve succeeded in both of those things.

I wrote it during a period of the most concentrated effort I’ve ever made in my life. It was as if I were sprinting a marathon and praying that God would give me the strength not to collapse. He did; so I didn’t.

Why did you want to write a life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the first major biography to be published in 40 years? How does his life speak to you?

I first heard the story of Bonhoeffer in 1988 and was simply staggered. The idea that a devout Christian in Germany would stand up to Hitler and get involved in the plot to kill Hitler and be killed in a concentration camp was just amazing. My mother grew up in Germany during those awful years and my grandfather was killed in the war (I dedicate the book to him), so that period of history has always haunted me. Still, I never thought I would write a biography on Bonhoeffer. But after the success of Amazing Grace, my biography of Wilberforce, everyone kept asking whom I would write about next. There’s only one person whose life captivates me as much as Wilberforce’s life did, and that man is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s about as authentic a person as I’ve ever encountered and I know that his life speaks powerfully to us in a number of ways. He’s sort of the ultimate hero and his story is so inspiring I just had to tell it to a new generation of readers.

One of the coolest things about your biography is that you’re drawing on letters and journal entries that have never been published before. What were some of these, and what do they add to the story you’re telling?

There is an extraordinary 16-volume series of Bonhoeffer’s works published by Augsburg Fortress Press. It contains every letter and journal entry and everything else he ever wrote and most of the volumes have finally been translated into English, so I had access to everything.

Read more: http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/flunkingsainthood/2010/07/bonhoeffer-for-today-a-qa-with-biographer-eric-metaxas.html#ixzz3kcp5Xyh4

Bonhoeffer in 1939

I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.

Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.

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In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….” What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.

Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.” But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society. This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?” Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong. And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.

In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.

The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close. But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.

For the rest of the post…

’Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’: The spiritual growth and struggles of the celebrated German martyr

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (Deckle Edge/Knopf, $35), the definitive biography of the German martyr, grew from Charles Marsh’s dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s philosophy. His previous books “Reclaiming Bonhoeffer” and “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights,” his award-winning study of faith and the civil rights movement shaped social justice, display his disciplined reflection on theology and society.

The theme of the relationship of faith to society unifies the story of Bonhoeffer’s changing perspective as he evolves and society erupts. Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, “Sacred Community,” studied social theory and grounded theology in the social reality of the church.

Bonhoeffer’s attraction to Roman Catholicism rested in the social/religious mystery of the church. His second dissertation focused on the reality of God in the human social experience. The journey of his life through academic brilliance, youth ministry, and German congregations in England and Spain failed to ground him in the regular responsibilities of parish life in his German Lutheran community.

Bonhoeffer continued to dream of a disciplined Christian community as reflected in his early books “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.”

Mr. Marsh proves that Bonhoeffer abandoned the theology of these early works as he moved into the deep conspiracy to murder Hitler and establish a new government in thought similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

The author credits Bonhoeffer with deeper theology than Niebuhr but Niebuhr could not agree with Bonhoeffer’s more neo-orthodox affirmations. The author mistakenly identifies Niebuhr as a Lutheran rather than an Evangelical Synod theologian and he misidentifies Paul Lehman as later a professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary when he was a professor of theology.

The argument of the book emphasizes how much his year at Union Theological Seminary changed Bonhoeffer. In Niebuhr’s class he read Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen’s poem about lynching, and comprehended “the many trees on which God should swing world without end in suffering.”

Mr. Marsh credits American social theology, at first despised by Bonhoeffer, with setting Bonhoeffer on a track of concrete action from which he would never retreat. His African-American friend Franklin Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to Harlem, Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the rich musical-liturgical life of Black culture.

He read Gunnar Myrdal, W.E.B. DuBois and black literature in Niebuhr’s classes, but he gained deeper insight and experience from his friend Fisher who later founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwald, the Confessing Church, the German Evangelical Church, and the Ecumenical Church would all fail him. The story of the Church’s fight with the Nazis, as Mr. Marsh tells it, provides some of the more fascinating pages of the book.

In the end Bonhoeffer found community in alliance with his family, believers, and non-believers to subvert the Nazi government which enslaved the German people and threatened the world.

He was imprisoned for suspicion of aiding Jews fleeing Germany and for avoiding military service. His service in Military Intelligence under the supervision of clandestine anti-Nazis involved him in a complicated three-way deception.

Officially Bonhoeffer was assigned as a pastor to inform Germany’s Military Intelligence of developments within the Ecumenical Church movement.

For the rest of the post…

In the Summer 2014 Edition of the publication, International Bonhoeffer Society Newsletter, there is a review of Charles Marsh’s book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The reviewer is Javier Alejandro Garcia (Doctoral Student at the University of Cambridge, England). Garcia began his review with: “This new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer promises to please readers on a number of different levels.” Garcia explained…

  • Marsh’s talent for storytelling…
  • New material, ranging from anecdotes, pictures, and postcards to additional contextual information that lend greater shape to the world he inhabited.
  • Marsh’s veteran handling of theological concepts.
  • Most welcome is Marsh’s effort to discover Bonhoeffer’s personality. In contrast to common hagiography, this biographer presents the less desirable characteristics of his subject along with the good. Unexpected moments of immaturity, loneliness, indecisiveness, as well as arrogance, fear, and a “volcanic temper, are coupled with the conviction, faithfulness, which came to define him.
  • Marsh’s doses of realism demonstrate Bonhoeffer’s incredible capacity to adapt to intractable situations that surrounded him.

 

 

Bonhoeffer Against the World

Image: Mike Benny
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Title:

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has always been one of my great heroes of the faith. Such appreciation, of course, hardly makes me distinct. Bonhoeffer, the German pastor-theologian who opposed the Nazis and was executed in a concentration camp, is passionately admired by millions of Christians.

One could even compare him to Athanasius, the defender of Christ’s divinity whose brave stance also drew state persecution. The fourth-century bishop’s unflinching willingness to defy even emperors and their armies was honored with the title “Athanasius contra mundum” (against the world).

Charles Marsh’s welcome biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf), paints a painstaking portrait of a faithful disciple every bit as resolute against Aryanism as Athanasius was against Arians. Marsh’s exquisite eye for detail reveals the sheer unlikelihood of Bonhoeffer’s emergence as the boldest opponent of efforts to Nazify the German church.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria, the most powerful ecclesiastical figure in the Eastern empire. He wielded so much influence that emperors were afraid of opposing him too forcefully, lest they provoke a popular uprising.

But what power did Bonhoeffer wield in 1933? He was 27 years old, financially dependent on his parents, and virtually bereft of experience in the working world. His sole professional appointment was an unpaid, non-tenure-track position as a voluntary lecturer. Adjunct professors don’t normally stand athwart emperors.

Yet Bonhoeffer did. Within weeks of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer declared in public that the Führer was offering a false path to salvation—and, in private, that Hitler was an antichrist. When the Nazis called for ethnically Jewish Christians to be expelled from the churches, he alone insisted that the gospel was at stake. (Initially even Karl Barth, like other anti-Nazi dissenters who founded the Confessing Church, claimed that this was merely a question of church order, not a theological issue.) Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, makes a convincing case that by 1933, Bonhoeffer was the most radical and outspoken opponent of Nazi church policy.

Quirky Humanity

I have read numerous books on Bonhoeffer. I have also seen documentaries and dramatizations and visited commemorative sites in Germany. For me, one of Marsh’s greatest contributions is putting on display the quirky humanity of his subject. If you are used to accounts that emphasize the mythic Bonhoeffer of faith, this one will help you grapple with the eccentric Bonhoeffer of history.

To take a trivial example, Bonhoeffer was endearingly preoccupied with dressing well. You could illustrate almost every momentous turning point in his life with sartorial commentary. When he takes a pastoral internship in Spain, he bombards the senior minister with written inquiries regarding the proper formal wear for dinner parties. The poor, overworked man eventually remarked sarcastically that the new intern should bring his preaching robe.

For the rest of the post…

The Journey of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

BonhoefferTegelThere are a number of very important biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, none more complete or significant than the one by Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography). Bethge’s biography is complete though not exhaustive (even if at times a bit exhausting) and takes serious commitment to finish. The prose is not captivating. Alongside Bethge is F. Schlingensiepen’s solid and recent biography (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Those two describe a similar journey for Bonhoeffer (see below) while Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer) told a different story, a more evangelical one, which is why so many evangelicals have found Bonhoeffer in the last five years. Mark Thiessen Nation provides in his study (Bonhoeffer the Assassin?) a different journey for Bonhoeffer.

But the best written description of Bonhoeffer’s journey is now by Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Why use the word “journey”? Because people have made meaning out of Bonhoeffer’s life and theological development according to the scheme they find in his story. The fork in the road or the place of decision is right here: When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after that aborted visit to Union Theological Seminary in the summer of 1939, did his theology shift from a pacifist Discipleship and Life Together direction toward a more Niebuhrian realism/responsibility vision? That is, did he enter into the Abwehr (double agent) in Hitler’s National Socialist party as one who was seeking the downfall, assassination and replacement of Hitler or was his life as a double agent a ruse for his continued life in the ministry of the ecumenical movement?

The standard journey is the journey from a rather naive and optimistic hope for church renewal through intense commitment to discipleship toward a more realistic, even compromising, assumption of responsibility (this term is big in this discussion and must be connected to Reinhold Niebuhr at Union) all reshaped in his decision that the best way to act as a responsible Christian under Hitler was to assume the guilt of the nation and seek his country’s collapse. Maybe the best way of all to frame this is to say Bonhoeffer took leave of Discipleship by the time he was writing Ethics. That, at any rate, is the most common journey told of Bonhoeffer’s theological development. I have already covered Mark Thiessen Nation’s proposal and this post is about Marsh’s study, but it appears to me Bonhoeffer’s pacifism can remain in tact in spite of his realism since he saw entrance into the resistance as guilt (personal and national).

Bonhoeffer did come by his ecclesial faith naturally: his father was not a believer, his mother was and led family devotions in the evening, the family did not attend church frequently though he went through confirmation and was both spiritually and theologically curious when young, most of his siblings were not Christians, and even having completed his theology degree at Berlin (where as a liberal he encountered Barth) Bonhoeffer still was not much a church goer. His position as assistant pastor in Barcelona engaged him for the first time in serious church work. After his return to Germany he was committed to the church — but as much to the ecumenical church, to conferences, as he was to local parish ministry.

Bonhoeffer embraced Barth’s theology deeply and this is one reason for Marsh’s general approach to Bonhoeffer’s journey: Barth is present in his dissertation on the communion of the saints, in his habilitation on German philosophical history (Marsh thinks this book was “one of the great theological achievements of the twentieth century”), but it is profoundly present in Ethics. The first “chapter” of that book could be taken from Barth’s theory of revelation in dialectical thinking (and unfortunately dialectical method in writing!) in its unifocal concentration on God in Christ as the true revelation by which all things are measured — including the world. Furthermore, Bonhoeffer here has embraced some of Barth’s universalism for the thematic center of that first chapter is about the reconciliation (ontologically) of the world in Christ already. Marsh keeps Barth before the readers of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, married a Jewish man (who had been baptized).  That fact opens up a window that tosses light deep into Bonhoeffer’s theology: he was deeply committed to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the church and Judaism, of Christians and Jews, and therefore of Jews and Germans. When most were circling the wagons or wondering what was really going on, DB saw through to the heart of what Hitler and the National Socialists were setting up to accomplish in Germany and beyond. If he was anything, he was highly principled and so he refused to budge or surrender an inch to the National Socialists. Bonhoeffer’s balking at both The Bethel Confession and The Barmen Declaration, the former he had an early hand in, concerned their lack of commitment to solidarity with Jews — believers or not. Seemingly ahead of everyone else in theological circles, including Barth, Bonhoeffer saw the Jewish Question as the Christian Problem. He helped his sister and brother in law escape from Germany to England through Switzerland. They survived the war Dietrich didn’t. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is probing pluralism in affirmative terms, and Marsh is accurate.

Marsh has exceptional sections on Bonhoeffer in the USA fascinated by African Americans, their theology and spirituality (and songs), and this experience (at Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem) shaped Bonhoeffer’s thinking about what it takes to be a gospel Christian and what racism does to a people and nation. He not only introduced his students in Zingst and Finkenwalde to Negro spirituals, but he saw racism in Germany more intensively than others because of his time in NYC. No one is more attuned to racism’s impact on theology and the need to combat it than Charles Marsh, so his sections here are more sensitive and insightful than other sketches of Bonhoeffer.

Marsh, in my view, downplays Discipleship and Life Together because, again in my view, he sees a different journey for Bonhoeffer: it is one that sees the highlight years in DB’s life not in the outside-the-system seminary (they weren’t underground until the end) writings and spirituality but in the more “responsible” political theology of the Ethics and his Letters and Papers from Prison. His sketches of DB’s theology after his return to Germany and while in prison were a highlight for me.

In fact, Marsh has all but convinced me of the Christian realism move of Bonhoeffer. But before I will go on board officially I want to re-read Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, which I’m doing now. One thing has become clear to me: the conspirators were profoundly naive in planning to be those who would run Germany when Hitler was removed. Profoundly naive, if not delusional. I need to read more on this plot but that’s how it strikes me.

Marsh has complete control of the sources of Bonhoeffer’s life: he has obviously read them in German as well as in English (in fact I saw one or two mistakes in footnotes because he was referring to the German editions and not the English translations). Detail after details is pressed from the original sources, in a historically chronological manner, and for this reason alone Marsh’s Strange Glory stands among the best of Bonhoeffer biographies.

I must mention one feature of this book because if I don’t it will emerge in the comments and this short explanation allows me a bit of more accurate expression. Marsh’s biography is undoubtedly the best biography to read (though nothing can replace Bethge’s fullness) but it will be remembered as the biography that suggested Bonhoeffer was gay or was romantically attracted to Eberhard Bethge. There is no explicit evidence; the relationship remained chaste; Bethge was engaged and then married and Bonhoeffer himself was engaged; there is Hitler’s extermination system that included homosexuals. There are suggestions according to Marsh: they shared a bank account, they shared Christmas presents, they spent constant time together, Bonhoeffer’s (not Bethge’s) endearing language in letters, Bonhoeffer’s getting engaged not long after Bethge got engaged, and Bonhoeffer’s obsessiveness with Bethge. OK, but it’s all suggestion, and this is complicated by Bonhoeffer’s obsession with clothing and appearance. [For a Marsh interview, see this.] Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but  it seems their relationship could at least be explored in another context: male friendships among German intellectuals of this era, which maybe needs the reminder that friendships have been between same sexes for most of Western history. I quote here from Wesley Hill’s exceptional post on this topic about DB:

But, second, it also seems to me there’s an opposite danger that, in our effort to articulate and defend the existence of something like “close, non-sexual friendships between men” in past eras, we may overlook the importance of homosexual feelings in shaping those friendships. Yes, of course, “homosexuality” as we know it didn’t exist as a social construct until relatively recently, but that doesn’t mean the reality of persistent, predominant same-sex sexual desire didn’t exist and that it didn’t have a friendship-deepening effect for those who experienced it. Sure, Bonhoeffer wasn’t “gay” in our post-Stonewall sense. But what Marsh’s biography tries to explore is whether Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attractions and how those attractions may have led him to look for ways to love his friend Bethge. Bonhoeffer evidently didn’t—and maybe didn’t even wantto—have sex with Bethge (and presumably Bethge himself wouldn’t have consented anyway). But did Bonhoeffer’s romantic feelings for his friend, if indeed they existed (as Marsh believes they did), lead him into a pursuit of emotional and spiritual intimacy with Bethge that he wouldn’t otherwise have sought? I think there’s a danger in avoiding that question, too, even as there’s a danger in jumping to the conclusion “Bonhoeffer was gay.” [Wes has a very good review of Marsh’s biography in the most recent edition of Books & Culture.]

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/01/the-journey-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer/#ixzz3ESv8xgSJ

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/01/the-journey-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer/#ixzz3ESuMYfGR

A good post on Bonhoeffer and preaching…

Rick and Linda Reed

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Detrich Bonhoffer, you should change that.

Bonhoffer’s Bon Metexample of standing for Christ under the Nazi regime will inspire fresh courage in you (I’d recommend Eric Metaxas’ book: Bonhoffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy).

A lesser-known part of Bonhoffer’s ministry centers on the two years he headed up an underground seminary in Finkenwalde (1935-1937). During these years he trained future pastors—preparing them for ministry in a turbulent, hostile society.

Bon 14Some of his lectures from Finkenwalde are preserved in Volume 14 of The Detrich Bonhoffer Works. I found his lecture on preaching to be fascinating. While I differ with some of his views (for example, he dismissed the need for sermon introductions, conclusions or applications), I’m convinced Bonhoffer has much pastoral and homiletical wisdom to pass on to all who preach or teach God’s Word:

Here are a few of his insights that I…

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1924. CreditArt Resource, N.Y.

Coming to terms with the genocidal century just past, especially the unvarnished evil of Nazi Germany, has prompted theologians and philosophers to adjust and recalibrate much of what they thought they knew. Writers as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Pawlikowski, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel — some more successfully than others — have all struggled to reconcile the existence of the divine with unspeakable atrocities, many of them carried out in the name of God.

Few theologians witnessed the juggernaut of Nazi depravity at closer range than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Strange Glory,” Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding, and in the course of more than 500 pages, we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.

Born the sixth of eight children in Breslau, Prussia, in 1906 to a psychiatrist and his wife, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged environment but one that was not especially religious. When Dietrich announced at age 13 his intention to become a theologian, his siblings questioned and even belittled his choice, arguing that the church was hopelessly irrelevant. “In that case,” the undeterred teenager replied, “I shall reform it!”

After his family moved to Berlin, Bonhoeffer attended the Grunewald Gymnasium, graduating at the precocious age of 17, and in 1923 settled in for a year of study at Tübingen University, while the Weimar Republic continued its downward economic spiral. Insulated by his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer barely noticed. The following year, he set off on an aesthetic summer in Italy. Whereas Martin Luther had been repulsed by the opulence and corruption he witnessed on his visit to Rome four centuries earlier, Bonhoeffer was rather enchanted with the Eternal City and even, in Marsh’s telling, lured by the “beauty, exuberance and grandeur” of Roman Catholicism.

Bonhoeffer’s theological training began in earnest under the tutelage of Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf von Harnack at Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1924. These were tempestuous times, not only politically but theologically. Although the eminent theologian Karl Barth had also studied with Harnack, he rejected what he saw as Harnack’s enervated liberalism, tethered as it was to nationalism and reduced to social utility. Barth sought a fresh understanding of divine transcendence.

Bonhoeffer was entranced, and in ensuing years he would seek to embellish Barth’s insights by emphasizing the ethical and communal ramifications of doctrine, insisting that the Christian Gospel unfolds most authentically within community, “not through individual social or ethical experience.” Bonhoeffer was searching, Marsh writes, “for a more embodied, vital and dynamic Protestantism.” The danger in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Marsh acknowledges, is that his notion of the kingdom of God, in the context of rising nationalism, could be commandeered in the service of Germany, especially when the German theological establishment “presumed the providential blessings of the warrior God.”

Bonhoeffer’s brief stint as an assistant pastor to the German Lutheran congregation in Barcelona provided a respite from the growing crisis in Germany and also exposed him to those less fortunate (although he continued to live comfortably). Even more formative was his year in the United States for postgraduate study in 1930. Although he was underwhelmed by his courses at Union Theological Seminary — and found that among his fellow students everyone “just blabs away so frightfully” — he responded to the Gospel he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he became a pastoral assistant. And a road and rail trip through the South and into Mexico allowed him to see firsthand the effects of poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer came to admire the social conscience of Union students, although he found no more sustenance in the preaching of liberal Protestants in the United States than he had in Germany. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he lamented.

Back in Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer continued his engagement with the poor in parish work, but the Lutheran church in Germany was quickly capitulating to Hitler’s regime. Nazi banners ornamented the churches; one minister declared, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s initial protest centered on the so-called Aryan paragraph, passed by the Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It mandated the removal of all Jews, even baptized Jews, from civil service, which included the churches.

The protests were unavailing. As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, “the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously.” It was also where Bonhoeffer developed a lifelong, homoerotic relationship with a student, Eberhard Bethge, although Marsh insists it was chaste.

Marsh is a bit less persuasive in making the case that Bonhoeffer in no way cooperated with the Nazi regime. An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.

For the rest of the review…

Chapter 6 of Jon Walker’s book, Breakfast with Bonhoefferis called “Jesus Defines”. 

Bonhoeffer teaches “that Jesus must be central to our lives. He is the mediator between God and us, but he also is the mediator between us and others. When we become believers, we can never look at anyone the same. We have to look at them through the lens of Jesus and interact with them according to our relationship with Jesus.” (75).

Bonhoeffer said, “Our hearts have room only for one all-embracing devotion, and we can only  cleave to one Lord. Every competitor to that devotion must be hated” (75).

Jesus…will not tolerate wishy-washy disciples (77).

Following Jesus means we must stay in the present and cooperate with him as he works through our circumstance no matter how difficult they seem (79).

 

Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy

A standard reading of Bonhoeffer, one I have believed most of my academic life, is that Bonhoeffer shifted from a kind of traditional socially conservative, fairly nationalistic approach to church-state relations to a pacifist-Sermon-on-the-Mount stance but that, once he returned to Hitler’s Germany after a brief spell at Union Theological Seminary, he shifted to a kind of (Niebuhrian) realism and abandoned his former pacifist stance.

But a new book is out, by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, called Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (BakerAcademic, 2013), and this book challenges front to center this standard reading of Bonhoeffer. There’s already a bit of a dustup about the proposals in that Roger Olson thinks Nation et al have overcooked their theory, and already Mark Nation has responded back (on Roger Olson’s blog’s comments).

I want to summarize their theories in brief compass and not drag this post on and on.

1. There is no evidence from Bonhoeffer himself — in writing — that he was involved in any conspiracy to kill Hitler. Yes, his brother in law and friends were conspirators, but there’s nothing from Bonhoeffer’s own hand that proves it.

2. Yes, Bonhoeffer was involved in the Third Reich’s Abwehr, their military intelligence agency, and this could have had as its purpose participation in the conspiracy against Hitler, since a fraction there were conspirators, but the evidence we have suggests Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the Abwehr was prompted in order to prevent him from having to serve in the military on the front lines and in the killing in the name of Hitler. The evidence further suggests he used his Abwehr work to further his ecumenical work and to pass on insider information about the atrocities of Hitler to outsiders and foreigners.

3. The evidence that Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy comes exclusively from his biographer, Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography), by far the best biography and done by one who personally worked with and knew well Bonhoeffer himself. Bethge says Bonhoeffer was a conspirator and that his conspiracy work involved him in “boundary work” — that is in doing things that were on the border of his ethical beliefs. The evidence, then, is based on Bethge’s memory. Roger Olson presses this point hard to argue that he trusts Bethge.

4. But Nation et al are arguing their case on a profoundly informed basis: they have mapped carefully the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics from his early period (Barcelona in the late 1920s), the most influential Discipleship book in the late 30s when he was leading the underground seminary, and then in the later Ethics where we encounter his “worldliness.” What this book does in the middle chapters, chapters harder to read than the others, is to demonstrate that there is a decisive break between Barcelona and Discipleship, one in which Bonhoeffer shifts from anti-pacifism to pacifism on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings. What the book also demonstrates is that there is no such break or significant shift between Discipleship and Ethics, but that once one understands the role both Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being (his dissertation and habilitation) plays in his development, one sees much more continuity — a Jesus based and christologically shaped ethic — than discontinuity. To argue that Bonhoeffer changed his mind requires that he significantly changed his mind and abandoned his Discipleship themes. Bonhoeffer himself denies this and affirms that he stands by his Discipleship. Without that evidence of shift between Discipleship and Ethics, the argument about Bonhoeffer shifting just doesn’t gain traction.

Put differently, the issue can’t be reduced to Bethge’s words but the pro-conspiracy folks must also show that there is evidence for a clear diminishment of the ethical theories at work Discipleship in the later Ethics. So, to argue Bethge got it right one must prove that Bonhoeffer changed his mind on how to do Christian ethics. Bonhoeffer himself says he stood by Discipleship late in his life.

For the rest of the post…

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