Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Book Review - Bonhoeffer an illustrated introduction by Eberhard Bethge

Bonhoeffer : an illustrated introduction in documents and photographs presented by Eberhard Bethge, translated by Rosaleen Ockenden

London: Collins, 1979             ISBN 0006252443

There has been much written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer since his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. Many people have looked to his surviving works, such as the Ethics, as a signpost on how to live a moral life in the modern world. His Letters and papers from prison saw him moving towards an idea of "religionless" Christianity - where the forms and rituals of the Church fade away into action in the community and a personal encounter with Christ.

The book under review deals with Bonhoeffer's theology only in its last section, with the majority of the book given over to a brief life of the man. Bethge was a close friend of Bonhoeffer and if they were both Roman Catholics rather than Lutherans I'd call this work a hagiography rather than a biography.

The things I find interesting in this book are the things that seem to get passed over - such as why Bonhoeffer chose the Church as a career, as Bethge hasn't produced much evidence as to how Bonhoeffer came to this decision. Bonhoeffer later in his short life came to support living in community in a new type of monasticism, but Bethge in this book does not elaborate on how Bonhoeffer came to this idea, or whether he looked to the Catholic tradition to develop his thoughts on monasticism. There is no mention of the Roman Catholic Church at all in this book, which I find interesting. Once the Nazis took power, the Lutheran Church was split in two, rent by the issue of being a state church, and how supporting a Nazi state could be reconciled with Christianity. The problem of working with the Nazis was one which the Roman Catholics also faced, and yet, looking at this book, it would seem that Bonhoeffer had no communication with any members of that Church.

In fact for those of us who are not Lutheran some of this book can be hard to follow, as Bethge takes for granted that a reader will have some knowledge of Lutheran theology and church governance. This may well have been the case for the readers of the original German language edition of this text, but some explanatory notes may have been helpful in this English edition.

Bonhoeffer's religious life, before the Nazis took power, looked to be one of study, writing learned tracts on obscure points of theology, and comfort. On the ascent of the Nazis, his theology took a more practical turn - he couldn't support a church that supported such a regime, and set about assisting in creating a new church. This led in turn to Bonhoeffer understanding that it would be wrong to serve the state in a military capacity, which led to him losing even more legitimacy in the eyes of some of his supporters. Eventually he came to the position that it was the right thing to do to oppose the state directly, and he became involved, via members of his family, in the plotting to overthrow Hitler, which led to his imprisonment and demise.

It was in prison where Bonhoeffer began to develop his idea of a Christianity stripped of the trappings of "religion", and to come to the realisation that it was the weakness and suffering of Christ and God that were meaningful for us in our lives today (another concept that features strongly in Roman Catholic theology). The thinking of Bonhoeffer in prison was leading to a new concept of Lutheranism, and indeed of Protestantism, but his death put an end to all that, and many of his final papers were never found.

One is left at the end of this book with a feeling of "what might have been" if Bonhoeffer had survived. His life, especially the final years, focused his thought on what living a Christian life meant, and his thinking about Christ in his last years had changed quite a bit from his early theological days, and would have tested many in the Lutheran communion after the War.

It would be interesting to read more about Bonhoeffer's relationship, if any, with Catholic theology and whether his thinking was influenced at all by that. His ideas have moved from his small circle of admirers into the wider world - helped by the proselytising of Bethge - to the extent that a former Prime Minister of Australia cited Bonhoeffer as one of his inspirations.

His life and work form a part of current Christian thinking, and this book is a useful introduction to the man and the outline of his thought.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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