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April 10, 2017 by

Between my own blog, this one, and a couple others, I’ve written about 1,500 posts in the last six years. I try to do it well, with a less formal tone and much greater pace than typical academic writing but still reflecting a reasonably careful degree of prior research. But I’m afraid that my haste sometimes leads me to sloppiness — worse yet, sloppiness on topics where I’m writing outside of my fields of direct expertise and already at risk of stepping heedlessly into scholarly minefields.

As in the case of something I wrote over the weekend…

On Saturday I encouraged readers to seek out Come Before Winter, a new movie about the last days of the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I mentioned that it featured clips of an interview with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German scholar whose 2006 biography of Bonhoeffer was published in English in 2010. At least among American readers, I noted, that work “was overshadowed by those written by Charles Marsh and Eric Metaxas….”

But then I went on (unnecessarily, I fear) to point out that Schlingensiepen has criticized both Metaxas and Marsh “for wrenching the German martyr out of his historical and theological context.” I quoted the following passage from Schlingensiepen’s dual review of Marsh’s Strange Glory and Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer:

Metaxas, BonhoefferMarsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

In retrospect, I think I did wrong to include this quotation — or, at least, to include it without adding any kind of critical comment. Here’s why:

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was many things — poet, scholar, teacher, spy and more.

The German Lutheran pastor was hanged at Sachsenhausen concentration camp April 9, 1945. At just 39, he had published a considerable and diverse body of work.

Many have learned Bonhoeffer was a conspirator who plotted to kill Adolph Hitler in July 1944.

That’s untrue, according to “Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking,” by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel.

“There is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to … attempts on Hitler’s life,” they write.

It’s a persistent fiction nonetheless.

Bonhoeffer could have been fodder for Nazi propaganda: He was attractive, smart, hardworking, personable and came from an influential, well-known family. Instead, he believed the Aryan nationalism that swept through post World War I Germany was offensive.

For the rest of the post…

Recasting the Movie: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edition

Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.

Westminster Abbey's 20th Century Martyrs. (By photographer- T.Taylor - Public sculpture, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.)

Westminster Abbey’s 20th-century martyrs.

The Hero They Wanted.

In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.

He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.

You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.

Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.

Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.

You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.

His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.

Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.

I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.

The Movie in Their Heads.

Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.

For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”

We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)

In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.

For the rest of the article…

This debate will not go away…

Bonhoeffer – A Reliable Guide?

Date September 23, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is increasingly being quoted by evangelical writers and theologians. Eric Metaxas’ recent highly-acclaimed biography presents him as an evangelical martyr of the twentieth century. Stephen Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College, with a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary, in his book, Bonhoeffer on the Christian life, states: ‘We can even lay claim to Bonhoeffer as an evangelical’. Bonhoeffer’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, is being read by many Christians and is widely described as a modern Christian classic. There is no doubting the brilliance of Bonhoeffer’s mind, nor his passion for the oppressed, nor the original way that he had of stating his beliefs. However, his theology is very different from orthodox evangelical theology and he is certainly far from being a reliable guide in presenting the Christian faith and in interpreting the Scriptures. This editorial is a warning. Don’t take Bonhoeffer as your teacher!

His life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in liberal, theological circles in Germany in a relatively-wealthy, intellectual family. His father was a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology. His oldest brother became a famous scientist and another brother a top lawyer. His mother, a grand-daughter of liberal theologian Karl von Hasse, was a teacher and insisted on family religion though they were not regular in their attendance in church. It was a surprise to all when, at the age of fourteen, Dietrich announced his decision to devote his life to theology. He studied in Berlin under the famous liberal, Professor Adolf von Harnack, but rejected liberalism. The great influence in his thinking was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth who developed what became known as neo-orthodox theology. Far from being an evangelical, Bonhoeffer was more liberal than Barth. He considered himself a ‘modern theologian who still carries the heritage of liberal theology within himself’.

Having completed his studies in Berlin, including his Doctor of Theology, and still too young to be ordained, he went to Union Seminary in New York and did post-graduate studies under Reinhold Niebuhr. Returning to Germany in 1931, he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in the University of Berlin. The rise of Hitler brought a dramatic change in his life. He rejected Nazism with its antisemitism. One of his sisters was married to a Jew. He helped form the Confessing Church as a protest against the germanisation (nazification) of the national Church. An underground seminary was set up in Finkenwalde and Bonhoeffer taught students for the Confessing Church there. Eventually it was closed by the Nazis. He was involved in helping Jews to escape from Germany and later in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After spending some time in prison he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 just before the end of the war.

Was he a martyr?

When we think of Christian martyrs we think of the early Christians thrown to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar. We think of Reformers like Patrick Hamilton and William Tyndale burnt at the stake for preaching the gospel and for translating the Scriptures into the language of the people. In no sense were these men involved in conspiracies against the state. Bonhoeffer died for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Now, one might rightly argue that he was justified in resisting the evils of Nazism, but his death was not because of his beliefs, but rather for his ‘crime’ of conspiracy to murder. So, if we regard him as a martyr it is in a very different sense from the usual Christian martyrs. We admire his love for the Jews and for all who were oppressed and down-trodden, and his willingness to lay down his life for others.

View of the Bible

Critical to evangelicalism is our view of the Bible. The word of God was certainly very important to Bonhoeffer but in a very different sense from evangelicalism. He rejected the liberalism of Harnack with its idea of Scripture as merely man’s thoughts about God. Bonhoeffer believed in revelation and that God speaks through the word. However he did not believe in the Bible as scientific (empirical) truth and he certainly did not believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. His view, like that of Barth, was that the word can become the word of God to you when you are reading it. It is not in itself the word of God but God can speak through it. So, for example, he taught his students to spend a half hour each day meditating on a verse of Scripture, not looking at it in the original, not consulting commentaries, not concerned about what it literally meant in the Bible, but simply concentrating on what God had to say to them at that point that day. It can become the word of God to the meditating individual.

Bonhoeffer stated, ‘The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation, which occurred as a one-time, unrepeatable and self-contained history of salvation’. There is a huge difference between the Scriptures being a witness to divine revelation and being divine revelation. He happily accepts the so called ‘findings’ of higher (destructive) criticism. He rejects for example the biblical account of creation in favour of evolution. Bonhoeffer on one occasion told his congregation unequivocally that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable. Even the life of Jesus, he said, is ‘overgrown with legends’ (myths) so that we have scant knowledge about the historical Jesus. Bonhoeffer concluded that the life of Jesus cannot be written. He followed Rudolf Bultmann in finding the New Testament full of myths which have to be ‘demythologised’. Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘My opinion of it today would be that he (Bultmann) went not “too far” as most people thought, but rather not far enough. It’s not only “mythological” concepts like miracles, ascension, and so on … that are problematic, but “religious” concepts as such’.

The Cross

For evangelicals the cross is at the centre of their faith. Bonhoeffer did not believe in substitutionary atonement – Christ suffering as a substitute for our sins, dying in our place to earn eternal life for us. The cross of Christ certainly is important to him, but in a very different way – it is as an example and an inspiration. He is concerned that we live cross-centred lives and by that he means that we take up our cross and follow Christ, living lives of self-denial. Yes, as with Barth, there is a great emphasis on grace, but the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God taking away our sins by his suffering hell for us is missing. To evangelicalism that is a critical omission. Indeed Bonhoeffer would argue that we are saved by the incarnation – Christ taking our nature – rather than by His atoning death. He taught that in the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humanity, all of humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled with God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took upon Himself the sin of the whole world and bore it.

Conversion

As a Lutheran he embraced the doctrine of baptismal regeneration – you are automatically born again when you are baptised. Around 1931 Bonhoeffer experienced a ‘conversion’, when he, as he puts it, discovered the Bible. From then on he began to read it daily and meditate upon it. Yet it was not what evangelicals normally call conversion, or what the Scriptures describe as the new birth. He rarely referred to it. He criticises conversion testimonies and sees the New Testament as not being about individual salvation. He wrote, ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul’.

Universalism

Bonhoeffer was a universalist, believing in the eventual salvation of all.

For the rest of the post…

Todd Starnes: You Did Not Paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer When You Said Not to Vote is to Vote

Fox News columnist and pundit Todd Starnes is the latest religious right figure to claim Bonhoeffer said

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

In his speech to the Values Voter Summit yesterday, Starnes misattributed this quote to German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Here are the relevant references in Starnes’ speech:

To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer – not to vote — is to vote.

and then down the page a bit:

Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I believe this is a Bonhoeffer moment for ever Bible-believing Christian in America.

We can no longer be silent. We are to be civil but not silent. We must roar like lions.

The problem is these words cannot be found in Bonhoeffer’s works. The experts at the Bonhoeffer Society can’t find it in his writings, and no one who uses the quote (not even Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas) has been able to supply a source for it. I traced it back to a 1998 exhibit in Philadelphia’s Liberty Museum, but now the Museum staff cannot locate a source for the quote. There is no source for the quote in Bonhoeffer’s works and no evidence that he ever said it.

For the rest of the post…

by

Bonhoeffer picDietrich Bonhoeffer is a modern day hero among evangelical Christians. Killed by the Nazis in 1945 for resisting the regime, Bonhoeffer’s fame among evangelicals increased after the publication of Eric Metaxas’ acclaimed biography of the Lutheran pastor. For many Christians who feel compelled to take a stand on principle, Bonhoeffer has become an inspiration and guiding light. On that point, perhaps the most repeated and celebrated quote attributed to Bonhoeffer is

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

These are bold words and together they have helped strengthen the conclusion of many persuasive appeals. Though they are powerful, they are not from Bonhoeffer. According to my research and the Bonhoeffer scholars I consulted, these sentences can’t be found in any of his writings or speeches.

This may come as a shock to countless (really, I stopped counting) Twitter and Facebook users who have posted a picture of Bonhoeffer with that quote attributed to him. The quote is on many lists of essential Bonhoeffer quotes (e.g., see Relevant Magazine’s list). Many politicians and authors have used it to make their many points.

I became interested in the quote while researching this May 22, 2016 tweet from Eric Metaxas:

As Bonhoeffer said “Not to cast a vote for the two majors IS to cast a vote for one of them.” – Ethics, pp. 265-6

Although it wasn’t obvious to me at first, this was a joke based on “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Metaxas posted this in response to a Twitter user who described people who plan not to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

At the time, his Twitter followers didn’t get the joke. Here are some of their tweets in response: “sounds like Bonhoeffer made a boo boo,” “Mr Bonhoeffer was right about many things but still a mere mortal!” and “Sorry, but I think the great Bonhoeffer whiffed on this one.” I couldn’t find anyone who questioned the authenticity of the modified quote.

For the rest of the post..

No, he was not but read on…

The Mormon Bonhoeffer

In the 1970s, Latter-day Saint leaders began to quote C.S. Lewis in the semi-annual General Conference talks.

20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey

20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey (Bonhoeffer is on the right; Martin Luther King, Jr. is second from the left)

Earlier this month, Mormon Apostle D. Todd Cristofferson made a rather striking reference to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a discussion of marriage.

Cristofferson quoted at length from a May 19, 1943 sermon that Bonhoeffer wrote while incarcerated in a high-security Gestapo prison:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. … In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.

What a beautiful message. One can readily see why Cristofferson appropriated it for his discussion of the significance of marriage for Latter-day Saints. For Mormons, marriage a divine institution, an ordinance connected with with the exaltation of men and women to become kings and queens unto God. Marriage is the crowning ordinance that exalts human beings back into the presence of a Father they had once known prior to their mortality. It binds together the generations.

As one would expect, there are many things in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of marriage that do not accord with Cristofferson’s. Most obviously, for Bonhoeffer, it is marriage until death, probably not eternity. Nor does Bonhoeffer connect marriage with salvation or exaltation.

For the rest of the post…

Earlier this month, I post that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. Bethge wrote:

The people around the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arms, they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horse Wessel song. We stood up, too Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”  

This was a turning point for DB! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

Wow! I have had numerous discussions with people over the years about why a Christian like Bonhoeffer could take an active role in the resistance. Many are troubled because Jesus said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).

I have struggled other it was well. Yet, we were not there. DB was! And somehow, he joined the resistance to stop a mad-man from murdering innocent people. Somehow, DB reconciled being a disciple of Jesus and plotting to kill Hitler.

WEBCommentary Contributor
Author:  Frederick Meekins
Bio: Frederick Meekins
Date:  August 30, 2015
 
Topic category:  Religion & Philosophy in the News

In a column regarding Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shouldn’t Cal Thomas have been a bit more reserved in his praise of the theologian executed by the Nazis?

Bonhoeffer should be honored for his stand against tyranny and for modeling many of the values Christians strive to incorporate into their own lives such as standing up for what they believe to be right even when it is not the popular thing to do.

But in terms of belief and doctrine, Bonhoeffer is far from being the ideal Christian many of our religious leaders uplift him to be.

According to Biblical Discernment Ministries, Bonehoffer undermined the sinlessness of Jesus, downplayed individual salvation (instead equating that eternal state with church membership), and suggested that Christ’s Resurrection was not so much an historical event but rather a mythological one (a fancy way of saying that the event is probably just a story from which we can draw inspiration but not likely one that actually transpired).

In the Christian life, one’s profession of faith must be backed by more than mere words.

For the rest of the post…

From the beginning, then, I was associated with Bonhoeffer’s training of ministers for the Confessing church. A close friendship resulted, and I accompanied him wherever he lived and worked. In 1940 I followed him him to Berlin, where I often stayed at his parents’ house, and in 1943 I married Renate Schleicher, the daughter of Bonhoeffer’s sister Ursula, who lived next door. Finally, he and I conducted an illegal correspondence that began after Bonhoeffer had survived the first dangerous series of interrogations in Tegel military prison. Eventually, this correspondence led to worldwide discussion. I also saw him several times in Tegel prison, until our contact was finally broken off as a result of my own arrest in October 1944. The Gestapo explored my relation with the Schleicher family, but neglected to investigate my ties to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Thus, I survived!

~ Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Preface to the First English Edition), xv.

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