Posts Tagged ‘Integrity’

A few months ago someone gave me a copy of a literary journal called Image. In it was an article by Kathleen Housley called Daring to do the Good: the Knight and the Theologian.”  I glanced at it, put it on my Stack of Good Intentions, and forgot about it.

I declared yesterday a Stack Day, one of those days when I attack the Stack of Good Intentions and try to whittle it down to a reasonable bulk. I discovered the journal and read the article. And it’s good!

Bonhoeffer mentioned in Finkenwalde lectures and then again in Letters and Papers an 19th century novel by the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, in in the US — if at all — by his novel Rock Crystal. The book to which Bonhoeffer is drawn is a long, slow-developing novel called Witiko. It is about a real 14th century Bohemian knight and traces his long and arduous battle to become a man of integrity, a “whole man,” in Bonhoeffer’s words.

Housley notes that Bonhoeffer read a great deal of Stifter and found great comfort and encouragement in his writings. She surmises that Witiko may have appealed to Bonhoeffer in large part because he so identified with the knight. When Bonhoeffer’s fiancee Maria read the book, she made the same comment. The book “reminds me of you,” she wrote to Bonhoeffer, “that’s why I can’t help liking it too. . .”

To be a whole person o0ne must be able to recognize one’s center. That is no small task. We have to sort out both ideas and feelings, both private and relational. We have to recognize the distinction between a conviction and a hope, both of which can be covered with murky clouds of doubt.

For Bonhoeffer, it became increasingly clear that his center lay in relationship with Jesus Christ or, more precisely, in Jesus Christ himself. There is something humbling but strengthening about such a realization. It means recognizing that we are not whole within ourselves but only within our communion with Christ.

Bonhoeffer wanted to believe that communion with Jesus Christ brought with it a communion with brothers and sisters in Christ but the painful irony of his life was that, once imprisoned, Bonhoeffer was increasingly isolated from any kind of fellowship. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer’s sense of being joined center-to-center with Christ gave substance to his own center. He knew who he was because he knew who Jesus was.


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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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