Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I have recently returned to an older book for a second reading. I appreciate it more than ever! The book is Friendship and Resistance, by Eberhard Bethge, the one person most responsible for helping us to know the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The subtitle is “Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” though that was likely added by the publisher (Eerdmans, 1995) just to attract attention. The important parts of the book are the essays which help us understand the ethical complexities of living in Germany in the 1930s.


Most difficult for today’s American readers is that political resistance was almost unimaginable even for those who recognized Hitler as evil. The first barrier was that Luther’s teaching about the Two Kingdoms, patterned after the thinking of St. Augustine in the 5th century, had become in the German mind an almost absolute barrier between church and state. Each, it was commonly thought, had its own responsibility before God and neither had responsibility to or for the other.


Thus, when it became clear within a couple of months that the newly appointed Chancellor Hitler was going to seek control of the church, the Christians — if they saw any problem at all — saw themselves as facing a choice between the Nazification of the church and the insistence on a singular loyalty not to Hitler but to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer was one of only a handful of those who knew from the very beginning that resistance was necessary, though even he did not yet imagine that political resistance would be required. The first battle cry of the resistors, Bethge tells us, was simply, “Let the church be the church.” They could not yet conceive of a concern for civil “justice and righteousness” being a church concern.

When the anti-Semintism of the Nazis became obvious after just two months, Bonhoeffer wrote in an essay that the church must call the state to accountability before God, must bind up the wounds of those injured by the state, and must even stop the wheels of the state from crushing the weak and defenseless. But the essay was not well known even among those who appreciated the young theologian.

And, five years later when the Nazis ordered the destruction of Jewish businesses and synagogues on the infamous Crystal Night of November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer was almost alone in seeing that there must be solidarity between Christians and Jews. “If the synagogues burn today,” said Bonhoeffer, “the churches will be on fire tomorrow.” He saw, in other words, that the world had moved beyond “mere” anti-Semitism to a more openly anti-God stance. “A rejection of the Jews from the West,” he said, “must bring after it a rejection of Christ, for Christ was a Jew.” Even more strongly insistent upon Jewish-Christian solidarity was his statement that, “The church. . .has become responsible for destroying the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”

It was always a deeply discouraging reality that even among those who listened to him most carefully, there was only the slowest of transitions toward an understanding of the responsibility of the church to hold the state accountable for justice. His voice barely overcame the centuries of tradition which had insisted not that faith and obedience required one another but that all that was required of a Christian was faith, not necessarily obedience.  If they did not hold themselves accountable for being persons of justice, how could they imagine holding the state accountable?

Conservative Christians in America, especially those who have become aligned with conservative political views, have an idea of justice that has withered from under-use.  Bethge’s book can help us recognize our own difficulties in forming a clear idea of our responsibility, especially in a democracy in which the state is avowedly answerable to its citizens.


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One of the two most popular books by Bonhoeffer is The Cost of Discipleship (now called simply Discipleship). It is a spiritual challenge to read the book because he calls us to recognize that grace does not mean we get a free ride through life. Grace frees us to be responsible to our Lord and costs us our very lives. “If any would follow me,” said Jesus, “they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and come after me.”

Seven years after writing the book, Bonhoeffer is in prison for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He reflects back on the book and says he now recognizes the dangers of the book, though he still stands by it.

We Evangelicals are sometimes puzzled by that odd line. What could be the dangers of a book that calls us to walk more fully with Jesus Christ? Bonhoeffer didn’t answer that question, leaving us each to seek our own understanding. My thought is that Bonhoeffer looked back over the seven intervening years and realized that the book was incomplete: He expressed very well one dimension of our life with Christ but left out many.

Perhaps most importantly, Discipleship speaks of a very private, inner commitment to Jesus Christ but does little to develop at least three other dimensions: the formation of our spiritual life, the communal nature of our life with Christ, and the love of public  justice as well as personal righteousness.

His second most popular book, Life Together, goes far to correct the neglect of our life in communion with one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ. (His third and fourth most popular books, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, go far to help us see what it means to work for justice.)

Life Together is not a difficult read. . .unless you stop to dwell on any of the large number of deep, challenging insights. I’ll point out just one for now:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Idealists have a way of making us feel guilty for not being spiritual enough. Those who are more mature tend instead to simply show us by example the way toward spiritual maturity. The idealists want to push us, poke us, prod us to be more faithful. I cannot escape the feeling, when I’m around such folk, that the driving force behind the pressure they put on us is their desire for us to grow in Christ so that we can carry them.

Those who convey judgment toward us for our spiritual immaturity are themselves spiritually immature. Bonhoeffer recognizes such people as a threat to the fellowship. The spirit of judgment will pollute the spirit of the community.

Faith, said a friend of mine in Hawaii years ago, is marked first of all by an acceptance of reality. Idealists don’t like today’s reality and want to jump ahead – or push the rest of us ahead – to tomorrow’s reality. The problem, of course, is that we can’t get from yesterday’s Point A to tomorrow’s Point C without passing through today’s Point B.

God loves you today just as you are. He’ll guide you into whatever he wants for you tomorrow. Rest in his love, wisdom, power, and perfect timing!

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The most popular of several biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that by Eric Metaxas, who proves himself to be a good storyteller. . .but an inept theologian. The book is a pleasant read but shows that Metaxas has grasped the thinking neither of Bonhoeffer nor of the liberal theology against which the author portrays Bonhoeffer. He is apparently unaware, for example, that the “Death of God” theology never represented mainstream liberalism and, at any rate, has itself been dead for nearly half a century.

At several points in the first half of the book, Metaxas rightly observes that in Bonhoeffer’s early writings we find the seeds of all the most radical thinking which came later. When he actually gets to the later thought, however, he calls it inchoate (which means undeveloped, premature) and says Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find anyone taking his ideas seriously today. Pages 465 and 466 show Metaxas at his most blundering foolishness and make one wonder whether a heavy-handed editor has interfered.

There are four major books by Bonhoeffer: Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison. Evangelicals have long appreciated the first two because they tend to reinforce what we already believe. We’ve not liked the second two because they push us out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, Metaxas simply follows this Evangelical mindset and doesn’t even grapple with Bonhoeffer’s mature thinking.

Mark Noll (in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) observed that, “The trouble with the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Metaxas proves Noll right.

There are also some less serious misunderstanding in the book, such as the idea that Hitler was elected to be Chancellor when in fact he was appointed by President Hindenburg.  Metaxas’ title suggests he hasn’t even understood Bonhoeffer’s own history: Contrary to the title, Bonhoeffer was never a spy. These are less serious than Metaxas’ theological errors but are misleading nonetheless.

One of Metaxas’ more serious failings is his failure to take advantage of the superb set of Bonhoeffer’s entire writing, the Fortress series called Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, with its excellent and very educational Forewords (by English scholars) and Afterwords (by German scholars). Because these books are so good, even one as theologically unlettered as Metaxas has no excuse for not finding Bonhoeffer accessible.

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Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, 15 volumes (with a final two to be published soon), Fortress Press.

This is an outstanding set of books with excellent translations, invaluable Introductions by English speaking scholars and Afterwords by German scholars.  As a set, it is too extensive and too expensive for the casual reader of Bonhoeffer but for those who are truly drawn to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is a treasure chest of riches. At the least, it belongs in every academic and public library.

Bonhoeffer is known for at least three reasons. First, his theological convictions led him to participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, whose danger to the world Dietrich had recognized even before Hitler came to power in 1933. For his role in the plot, Dietrich was hanged on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler killed himself and just two months after his 39th birthday.

Second, his two early books, Discipleship (formerly called in English editions The Cost of Discipleship) and Life Together, spell out the foundations of personal faith in Christ and of communal life together in Christian fellowship. These have long been appreciated by evangelicals, particularly Bonhoeffer’s strong challenge for us to move beyond “cheap grace” to an understanding and acceptance of “costly grace.” These books are volumes 4 and 5 in the Fortress series.

Third, his writings from his prison cell (volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison) offer a bracing and sometimes surprisingly fresh way of expressing a mature, responsible faith in Christ. His phrases sound controversial but when read thoughtfully and in the context of his whole body of writing, are more obviously valuable than they may first appear.

In addition to these fundamental writings, the series contains hundreds of personal letters, shorter books and essays, and reports from a wide variety of conferences and tasks Bonhoeffer enjoyed in his few years. Some of his most exciting ideas are first explored in these shorter writings, making them invaluable for tracing the development of his thinking and putting his mature ideas into context.

The quality of the translations and the comments by the scholars makes Bonhoeffer, even at his most radical, much more easily grasped than many have found him in past years. There are more good books to be written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer but this Fortress Series will make new translations of his own writing unneeded for a great many decades to come.

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