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Jim Gray: The Best Book I Read Last Year

I have just finished reading “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. The book is superb. It is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor of the “Church of Luther” during the rise and reign of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

This man of Christ conducted a principled fight against what Hitler and the corrupted Church of Germany were doing, and eventually was imprisoned and executed for his efforts and beliefs. But he was unafraid, because he was doing what knew his God wanted him to do. Regardless of our religious faith or beliefs, how many of us can genuinely say that we are standing up for our principles and Liberty for ourselves and others anywhere near to this degree? This is an inspirational book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone.

There are many lessons from the book for liberty lovers

Many insightful comments permeate the book, which all people who treasure Liberty should be aware of – today and every day. Here are some of them:

  • For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy, a great sin. This was Christianity’s chief difficulty, that it advocated meekness. (Meekness has its place but, as stated in the musical Camelot: “I find humility means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.”)
  • Bonhoeffer believed it was the role of the church to “speak for those who could not speak.” (Thus he saw Jesus Christ as a “man for others.”)
  • One of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts was “Absolute seriousness is never without a dash of humor.“ (We should never lose the ability to laugh at ourselves.)
  • The Nazi regime always cast their aggressions as defensive responses to actions against them and the German people. (Virtually always the justification for war.)
  • Bonhoeffer was the principal point of connection between his new “Confessing Church” and the Ecumenical movement, seeing the best and the worst in both. But each saw the best in itself and the worst in the other.  (Is this not how the various politically “warring groups” see themselves and others in our country today?)

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The Plot to Kill Hitler; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick; HarperCollins, 192 pages, $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

28594377Patricia McCormick, a two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the fascinating true story of the German pastor and theologian who was executed for his role in the plot to kill Hitler in this suspenseful, beautifully written and meticulously researched book. McCormick paints a vivid picture of “a big rambunctious family,” a happy household of eight children, in a home in Breslau, the family’s pet goat with free run of the house. Dietrich was the dreamer in a family of overachievers (his father was a psychiatrist, his oldest brother a genius at physics).

The death of his brother Walter in World War I was the driving force in Dietrich’s interest in theology and big questions about Christianity and the meaning of life. McCormick offers a clear explanation of Bonhoeffer’s theology and his belief that the church was not a building or a dead institution but a living force for good in the world, a belief that would later involve him – despite his pacifist beliefs – in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

McCormick brilliantly combines the “big picture” historic and political backdrop with the anecdotal, as Bonhoeffer struggles in vain to convince his fellow Lutheran pastors of the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and then his role in establishing the breakaway Confessing Church. A particularly interesting chapter documents Bonhoeffer’s study at Union Theological Seminary in New York and his friendship with African-American classmate Frank Fisher, who took the young German to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. (McCormick notes that Winston Churchill, alerted to the possibility of an effective plot against Hitler, dismissed Bonhoeffer with “I see no reason whatever to encourage this pestilent priest.”)

For the rest of the review…

Summary:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer died a martyr’s death at the age of 39 but remains one of the most influential and challenging theologians of our time. His writings teach us the value of cross-centered theology, and his courageous actions against the Nazi regime compel us to consider the cost of discipleship.

To purchase the book…

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 wrote that “a distinctive feature of this biography is its closer examination of Bonhoeffer’s close friendship with Eberhard Bethge…Marsh inquires further, however, into the exact nature of Bonhoeffer’s feelings for Bethge. Although tactfully never putting a name to such feelings, he nevertheless insists on the question.”

Since the publication of Strange Glory, there has much speculation of the sexuality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Garcia’s words are helpful in this regard…

Despite Marsh’s implicating interpretation of the facts and correspondence, the matter remains complex. For one, it must be recognized that our modern conception of homosexuality cannot be superimposed onto  Bonhoeffer’s time, where the norms of male relationships, would have been entirely different. Certain behaviors, such as sharing a bedroom or bank account (only two of the many examples provided), would not have raised the questions then that they may now. Our intensified cultural sensitivity to this topic should not provoke assumptions about a culture and time significantly distinct from our own.

Moreover, several factors in Bonhoeffer’s life complicate this claim. Whether actively, as in the case of his eventual fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer, or passively, as in his epistolary exchange with Elizabeth Zinn, Bonhoeffer pursued romantic relationships with women. His love letters to Maria contain such moving affection that renders the authenticity of his emotion undeniable. In the same vein, Bethge maintained a clear platonic stance towards his friend. Although ever a faithful and obliging companion, Bethge resisted Bonhoeffer’s possessiveness and prioritized his marriage over friendship. Ultimately, such retrospective speculation proves futile, as we will never know what exactly Bonhoeffer felt for Bethge, except for the obvious fact of close friendship. Indeed, it would behoove us to heed Bonhoeffer’s warning against such prying psychological curiosity.

What then are the readers to make of this possibility? Nothing much, in this author’s opinion. The conjecture changes nothing of the enduring impact of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.   

Three contrarians with the courage of their convictions

  • Bishop Henry Benajamin Whipple (Newscom/Picture History/Mathew Brady)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the prison in Berlin-Tegel in 1944 (Newscom/akg-images)
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As Margery Kempe, Henry Benjamin Whipple, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, silence in the face of evil was just plain wrong. None of them has been declared a saint. But as these three biographies attest, when you’re speaking out against the prevailing culture, you shouldn’t expect honorifics.

ss10102014p12pha.jpgSKIRTING HERESY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MARGERY KEMPE
By Elizabeth MacDonald
Published by Franciscan Media, $16.99

Margery Kempe (circa 1373-1438) was willful, inner-directed and self-determined — many would say to a fault. Some called her a scold and a troublemaker. Some in the Roman Catholic hierarchy called her a heretic — a Lollard. (The Lollards, who were prevalent during Kempe’s era, questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation.) Still others considered Kempe a saint.

Elizabeth MacDonald portrays Kempe as a feminist before her time. Writing in a clear, no-nonsense style, MacDonald, a business reporter, weaves medieval history with material from Kempe’s memoir, dictated in approximately 1436. This memoir, The Book of Margery Kempe, is considered the first English autobiography. That it was fashioned by a woman is another first.

Kempe, a Roman Catholic, lived in the town of Bishop’s Lynn and led an unexceptional life until she became gravely ill for eight months after the birth of the first of her 14 children. During this time, she experienced, as MacDonald tells it, visions from the divine as well as the demonic, in which she was commanded to forsake her faith and to commit suicide.

Before she was driven to do either, she claimed she heard the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to her. Thus began the mystical phase of Kempe’s life that continued until her death. Kempe’s mysticism was characterized by frequent visits from and conversations with Jesus, as well as with some of the saints. Kempe also had moments of ecstasy in which she sobbed loudly, while believing herself to be present during the crucifixion.

Kempe lived in an age when religious hypocrisy à la The Canterbury Tales was rampant. Reformers like John Wycliffe questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic church and its teachings regarding indulgences, relics and the Eucharist. They also advocated for an English translation of the Bible.

At this time, women were not allowed to preach the Gospel and couldn’t travel without men. Yet Kempe managed to do both. She made several pilgrimages and traveled to the Holy Land. She chastised her neighbors’ wrongdoings as well as that of town and church leaders. If she saw fault with the actions of mayors, priests and bishops, she let them know about it. She was never one to keep her thoughts to herself, and as seen in this entertaining biography, that was a good thing.

ss10102014p12phb.jpgLINCOLN’S BISHOP: A PRESIDENT, A PRIEST, AND THE FATE OF 300 DAKOTA SIOUX WARRIORS
By Gustav Niebuhr
Published by HarperOne, $26.99

During the Dakota War of 1862, Indian tribes killed 800 or more Minnesota settlers, some of them women and children. How could anyone — let alone the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota — excuse their actions?

The question informs Lincoln’s Bishop, Gustav Niebuhr’s revealing biography of Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901). Niebuhr looks at the massacre and what led up to it, as well as several key players, including Whipple and President Abraham Lincoln. Although Niebuhr’s writing tends to be circuitous and wordy, it paints a convincing portrait of both a man and an era.

The central action concerns the punishment by hanging of more than 300 Indians who were involved in the war and Whipple’s campaign against the mass hanging. When the war, which lasted only a few months, ended, most Americans wanted to punish the Dakotas, even tribal members who had tried to help the white settlers. It was determined that all 300 Indians would be put to death.

As Niebuhr explains it, Whipple didn’t excuse the Indian attacks on white settlers of Minnesota so much as he tried to explain the Indians’ rationale. Whipple, who sympathized with those who were less fortunate, had been trained to observe the golden rule. According to Niebuhr, he had also been influenced by an elderly neighbor raised by an Indian family.

Whipple had come to know individual Indians as human beings and as part of his Episcopal congregation. He argued that the Indians were not bloody savages. They were angry human beings who realized the extent of the injustices committed against them.

Whipple launched a public relations effort on behalf of the Indians, sending numerous petitions and letters to political leaders, including Lincoln. He published articles in newspapers and traveled around the country preaching about the injustice visited on the Indians.

Whipple’s campaign exposed the corruption in the federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs. He showed how the Indians had been swindled out of their land and then were not given the annuities they had been promised. Forced into reservations and with a dwindling supply of food, the Indians were desperate. They were hungry and afraid for their well-being.

Whipple had an independent streak and a strong sense of right and wrong. He argued his point convincingly. And despite the country’s negative feelings toward the Indians, he convinced Lincoln to spare the lives of 275 Dakota Indians. Later, Whipple’s life was threatened by angry whites. Today, Whipple is little known, his actions overshadowed by the Civil War and issues regarding slavery. But at a time when most clerics — Protestants and Roman Catholics — avoided taking sides in anything that seemed political, Whipple was one of the few who stood up for his convictions. And, according to Niebuhr, if that’s not memorable, it should be.

ss10102014p12phc.jpgSTRANGE GLORY: A LIFE OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
By Charles Marsh
Published by Knopf, $35

A Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) joined the Nazi resistance and spoke up for the Jews when almost no one else — including Roman Catholic bishops — had the courage to do so. Bonhoeffer stood against Nazism and Aryanism while German Protestant churches of the time accepted both as part of their belief system. He also insisted that Christ was the head of Christianity — not Adolf Hitler, as the Nazis claimed.

Beginning with the halcyon days of Bonhoeffer’s youth, Charles Marsh’s scrupulously written biography opens with his undergraduate and graduate studies and the influence of his mentors, including Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. He covers Bonhoeffer’s postgraduate studies in the United States, where he was deeply affected by Negro spirituals and the plight of minorities, as well as by his work as seminary professor in underground seminaries. Also included is a controversial section on his possibly romantic relationship with Eberhard Bethge.

The biography concludes with Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and final writings (which Marsh considers his finest), and his ultimate martyrdom that, according to Marsh, wasn’t as painless as is often portrayed.

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’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.

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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.

 

 

Two New Books: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

I’d like to mention two new books on Bonhoeffer.

I haven’t read Reggie Williams’s book, Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, but I did hear him speak at a Bonhoeffer Conference in November 2011 at Union Theological Seminary and have little doubt this will be a fascinating read. As I remember, both he and John de Gruchy talked about how blacks in both the US and South Africa, de Gruchy’s home, already understood Bonhoeffer’s theology of a view from below: it was whites who needed to understand this perspective. de Gruchy and Williams theorized that whites could absorb this theology from a well-heeled German male schooled in a European theological traditional in a way they couldn’t from blacks or other marginalized groups. In addition, the influence of Harlem on Bonhoeffer is an area that deserves more focus. Bonhoeffer immersed himself in black literature and culture while in the US, and clearly made a connection between American oppression of blacks in the 1930s and the National Socialist treatment of Jews.  I have included the Amazon blurb below:

“Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.”

I have read Andrew Root’s Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together and can recommend it as a solid, well written book with a strong focus on a ministry that helped lay the groundwork for Bonhoeffer’s seminaries.

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.

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Why Can't Men Be Friends?

In January 1944, several months after he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, he reflected on what their relationship meant to each of them. Bonhoeffer wrote that, in contrast to marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”

As he penned those lines, Bonhoeffer must have had his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in mind. With Maria, Bonhoeffer knew where he stood. They were pledged to be married, and all their family and acquaintances recognized their love and were prepared to witness their wedding ceremony, provided Bonhoeffer was released. With Eberhard, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer admitted there wasn’t a similarly public recognition. That led to a question: What were Eberhard and Dietrich to one another, and how might their love be preserved and sustained?

Years later, Eberhard addressed an audience member who had come to hear him speak about his friendship with Bonhoeffer (one explored in depth by Charles Marsh in the acclaimed biography Strange Glory). Surely, the questioner said, theirs “must [have been] a homosexual partnership.” What else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters to Eberhard have signaled?

We wonder how much we can expect from friendship, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is it a weaker tie than marriage or family?

Bonhoeffer was aware that his friendship with Eberhard was breakable—that no public ceremony or vow kept them tied. That awareness that friendship is fragile has grown more pronounced since Bonhoeffer wrote his letters from prison. Words like suspicion, unsettledness, and doubt best describe our instincts about friendship. We are uncertain about it—perhaps especially between people of the same sex. And, like Bonhoeffer, we wonder how much we can expect from it, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is friendship a weaker tie than marriage or family? Further, many of us doubt that we can attain intimacy without there being deep down some sexual element to the friendship.

An Eclipse of Friendship?

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