Archive for February, 2014

This brief story, published in 2001 and subtitled “Radical Integrity,” has not attracted much attention in the years since its publication. It suffers from a certain lack of focus. It is in story form but is not sufficiently imaginative to be called a novel. It is a biography but too centered on Bonhoeffer’s last years to be very broadly informative about the man. Bonhoeffer was an extremely complex person and thinker but the book is simplified to about a 10th grade level.

Nonetheless, as an introduction to Bonhoeffer the book is not without some value. Unlike the biography by Eric Metaxas, who is a better story teller but is quite incompetent when discussing theology, Van Dyke has not sought to evaluate the theology of Bonhoeffer. He simply reports what Bonhoeffer said and thus avoids the trap into which Metaxas stumbles, that of completely misreading Bonhoeffer’s theology.

No one can write an historical novel, of course, without making up details about conversations and thoughts. Van Dyke does this in a restrained way so that he does not end up creating a whole new portrait of Bonhoeffer. His imaginative details seem not to distract from the story or from its fairly accurate reflection of Bonhoeffer.

Another biography written at a similar level is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God” by Elizabeth Raum. The author does a good job of simplifying Bonhoeffer’s story but includes enough detail that the reader gains a slightly fuller understanding of the personality, life, and work of her subject.


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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though very strongly attracted to pacifism, found that the personification of evil — known as Adolph Hitler– put him in an awful situation. The key to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the moral life was his sense of responsibility: We are responsible, answerable to God for our decisions. In that light, he chose to participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, believing that if he did nothing to stop Hitler he would be sharing in the responsibility for the deaths of Hitler’s victims.

Dietrich died for his choice, being hanged in April of 1945, just three weeks before Hitler took his own life. Not all of Hitler’s victims died during those years, however. This past week, two of those victims have passed away at very advanced ages. One was Maria von Trapp, not the Maria played by Julie Andrews but one of the daughters, renamed in the movie as Louisa. Her family escaped the Nazi war machine barely in time and lived long in America. They were victims in only a minor sense, compared to millions of others.

One of those millions was Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived two years in a concentration camp and lived until last week, dying in London at age 110. during Hitler’s years Herz-Sommer lost her husband at Dachau and her mother at Treblinka. Her death has special meaning, however little notice it seems to have received. She was the last surviving victim of Hitler’s terrible plan to imprison, enslave, and murder all Jews. Her time would have come to a close in 1945, along with those other millions, had not the Russian army liberated her camp before the Nazi plans could be fully executed.

She was, according to the BBC, “an accomplished pianist and music teacher and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London.” She is quoted as saying, “Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive.”  A website devoted to a film about her life (“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”) includes this line: “I am Jewish but Beethoven is my religion.”

There are two ways the memory of Herz-Sommer and her fellow victims of the Holocaust can be desecrated. First, we can forget the Holocaust and get on with the modern notion that all humans are inherently good. Second, more pernicious, we can deny altogether that the Holocaust even occurred.

We honor those victims when we remember the Holocaust and its sparkling clear lesson that human goodness battles with human evil and often loses. We have great cause for humility and great cause for gratitude that our Creator does not allow our evil to go unbridled. By the grace of God, human goodness survives all our human-caused Holocausts.

And what is our goodness? Just this: The response of the human heart to the love of God, often unconscious but real nonetheless. We are valuable because God values us. We are beautiful because God delights in beholding us. We are loving because God loves us. May we all become people of gratitude and graciousness in response to our loving Lord. . .

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The snow is falling in large, lazy clusters. No breeze pushes them. They simply drift down in silent peace. The quiet is something more than an absence of noise — It is restful, calming, comforting.

I sit at my desk, windows constantly pulling my eyes to the beautiful snowfall, a warm candle to one side, and the ancient choral music of Hildegard of Bingen softly filling all the nooks and crannies of my library.

I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his last weeks and days before his execution at the hands of the Nazis. Oddly, there is a certain peace that I find in Dietrich up to the very day of his death. Shortly before Christmas of 1944, for example, he wrote a poem called “By the powers of good.” The last verse reveals the heart of a man whose deepest reality was not his impending murder but the love and faithfulness of his Lord.

By powers of good so wondrously protected, / we wait with confidence, befall what may. / God is with us at night and in the morning / and oh, most certainly on each new day.

The powers of evil, embodied in Adolf Hitler, were only a minor threat to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The powers of death did not frighten him. His was, in the words of St. Paul, “a peace that passes all understanding.” Only those whose lives and hearts are entrusted to our Lord can know such peace. . .

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One theme that ties together much of Bonhoeffer’s thinking is his rejection of the radical individualism espoused by the Enlightenment. We are who we are in relationship, not in isolation. In such ideas, he is being very Hebraic.

1.    Bonhoeffer says  “. . .we can know about the original human beings [in the Garden] only if we start from Christ.”  Introspection will never lead us to say truthfully, Now I know myself. We are who we are in relationship, not in isolation. Primarily – but not solely – that means relationship with Jesus Christ.
    Bonhoeffer is here taking a surprisingly strong stand against the exaltation of the individual that marked Enlightenment thinking and has dominated the Western mind even to our own day. He is also taking a stand against our own inclinations to see ourselves as the center of our own little universe. “It’s my life and I can do whatever I want with it” – that might be the theme song of our day but it is not biblical.
    Bonhoeffer stays within the bounds of the story as told in Genesis but we can easily see that the theme “We are who we are in relationship” is captured nicely in Jesus’ insistence that what the Father most expects of us is to love Him and one another.

2.    For Bonhoeffer the key distinction between us and the animal kingdom is that we are free. This is the primary implication of our creation in God’s image. Again, however, he opposes the modern Western concept of freedom as a negation of responsibility. We are not free from but free to, free to love God and one another; not free from demands and obligations but free for others.

    “Freedom is not a quality of the human person. . .Rather, it is a relationship; otherwise, it is nothing. Indeed it is a relationship between two persons. Being free means ‘being free for the other,’ because the other has bound me to himself or herself. Only in relationship with the other am I free. No substantial or individualistic concept of freedom has the ability to encompass freedom.”

    We cannot deny relationships without denying our very identity. If we are bound neither by love for God nor for our brothers and sisters, we are not even bound to ourselves. When we break the relationship between ourselves and God and that between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, we have broken our own identity.

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