Monday, 21 June 2010

On reading Bonhoeffer

This weekend, I'll be preaching a sermon about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (I was asked to preach on any historical saint or theologian, so I immediately replied, "Only if it's Bonhoeffer!")

The new edition of Bonoheffer's complete works has been my most enriching, challenging and disturbing theological experience over the past couple of years. Since I moved to Sydney, my teaching and writing have been hugely influenced by these books. Sometimes Bonhoeffer has even made me (seriously) consider quitting theology and finding an honest job – like Jeffrey Stout, who stopped going to church when he read Karl Barth's dogmatics (Barth made an honest man of him). I'm still undecided on this point.

Anyway, I'm really excited about giving a sermon on Bonhoeffer. The lives of saints are a text – or rather, they are exegesis of the biblical text. As Hans Urs von Balthasar says, it's the ones who love God that really know something about God, so we ought to listen to the witness of their lives. In any case, the timing couldn't be better for a sermon on Bonoheffer. I've got three new Bonhoeffer books sitting by my bedside – you should try it sometime, it's like going to sleep with a stick of dynamite under your pillow:

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 8; Fortress 2010), 750 pp. – This whole series of volumes has rocked my world. So my hands trembled with anticipation when the latest volume arrived: the complete collection of Bonhoeffer's momentous and terrifying prison writings.
  • Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (T&T Clark 2010), 439 pp. – This looks like a great biography, the fruit of decades of work and reflection. It's premised on the fact that "Bonhoeffer did not want to be venerated; he wanted to be heard. Anyone who puts him up on a lonely pedestal is defusing that which, to this day, makes a thoughtful encounter with him worthwhile."
  • Joel Lawrence, Bonhoeffer: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark), 134 pp. – This one looks quite good too. I'm glad to see he emphasises the centrality of Bonhoeffer's christological understanding of the church: "The church [is] the place where the life of Christ is being created in history by the work of the Holy Spirit."
There's also a new popularly written biography, which I haven't seen yet: Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson 2010). If Amazon sales are anything to go by, it looks like it's a big success. Anyone read it?

24 Comments:

John H said...

"The church [is] the place where the life of Christ is being created in history by the work of the Holy Spirit."

Love it. Is that a direct quote from Bonhoeffer, or Lawrence's distillation?

Adam Shields said...

It is a good but not perfect biography. Could use a little editing, but overall it was a good bio. I hadn't heard of the other bio you mentioned. I will pick it up too.

jamespedlar said...

Bonhoeffer is definitely a very preachable saint!

I haven't read the Metaxas bio, but a friend of mine put up a quick review here:

http://imclaren.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/bonhoeffer-by-eric-metaxas/

Adam Shields said...

I get so irritated at publishers. I have several of Bonhoeffer's books, but none of the new Fortress ones. I had been waiting to buy them until I finished Metaxas book. I know Amazon had them all for kindle a couple weeks ago. Now only Discipleship and Ethics are available for Kindle. Looked at Barnes and Noble and they have three others, but not Discipleship or Ethics. Why publishers play around with books like this? I am even willing to pay the ridiculous ebook prices of $14.99 for the ebook (when I can get paper for the same price.)

Ben Myers said...

John, that quote is from Lawrence.

Mike B said...

I know it's not the point, but why exactly did reading Barth make Jeffrey Stout stop going to church?

Anonymous said...

I would be curious to hear what your take on Metaxas’s efforts rescue Bonheoffer from the “Liberals”. Was Bonheoffer a “confessional Lutheran”? or (as I suspect) does he transcend these categories.
Cheers
Steve in Toronto

Andy Rowell said...

Ben,
Good to hear you are enjoying Bonhoeffer.

I wrote a review for Christianity Today's Books & Culture periodical (geared toward evangelical academic types).

Books & Culture online review of Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer—see also University of Virginia's Charles Marsh’s comment.

and before that I wrote on my blog
Some initial informal comments on Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer and Bonhoeffer's corpus.

Joe McGarry said...

I'm a doctoral student working in Bonhoeffer's theology and am spending the summer reading all of those texts as well. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the Metaxas volume and I can see what everyone’s on about. It’s a comprehensive biography but it's not written for the academy. Which, I'm guessing, is why it's not been received particularly well as an academic text (the Schlingensiepen text has been very well received). Metaxas's effect is subtle, mostly in his adjective use, but he’s definitely not concerned about sounding unbiased. It’s also quite interesting to see ‘how’ he’s writing it with the public in mind and not the scholar. Various words are randomly left in German (it’s always impressive!) and he doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason as to what gets left in German and what gets translated into English.

Metaxas also seems to place a lot of emphasis on Bonhoeffer’s visit to Rome for his theology (specifically his ecclesiology), and he seems to see a lot of influences very early on in his life. As it is now, he seems to be rooting an awful lot in his childhood. I guess it'll be interesting to see how he develops the "picture" of Bonhoeffer through the rest of his life.

Geoff Dargan said...

I've read several reviews of Metaxas' book, and they seem to be mixed. For those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer, it's a great place to start, but the impression seems to be that - even though its over 500 pages - the book focuses more on the aspects of Bonhoeffer's life that the author resonates with, and is somewhat less nuanced than it should be. (Nothing can touch Bethge's bio!) Still, it seems that it has created a lot of new interest in Bonhoeffer's life and thought, and for that I am thankful!

G.

Brad said...

You've probably read it, but I really enjoyed McClendon's treatment of Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, particularly his account of the "tragedy" of Bonhoeffer's choice in the end in relation to the lack of any coherent or real alternative community.

Kevin said...

Right now I'm reading Letters and Papers From Prison, and I have these in a stack: the Ethics, complementary writing on Ethics, and Fiction From Prison.

If you manage to write up your Bonhoeffer sermon, please post it!

Martyn J Smith said...

Should be working so I'll keep it brief...

I can still remember the very first time I read Bonhoeffer's letters from prison. They bristled with a vitality, intellect, passion and relevance that I have very rarely encountered since.

His religionless Christianity is still something that inspires and challenges me.

Good for you, encouraging others to engage with him.

I am LOVING this site...

Adrian said...

I'm also curious about the Stout reference. Where does he say this? I'd be curious to find out the context.

Julia said...

And I'm curious to know what kind of "honest job" you consider finding after reading Bonhoeffer. Did no one else trip over that line? I must admit I've read very little Bonhoeffer. Could you expand on how he makes you question the honesty of your current profession?

beyondunknowing said...

Ben, you can't leave us dangling like that. What does Bonhoeffer say that makes you think about quitting theology?

Ben Myers said...

The Jeffrey Stout anecdote is just something I've heard from people who know Stout. Apparently he was a good church-going liberal Protestant, but as a student he read Karl Barth's dogmatics, and realised that he wasn't really a Christian. So he had the honesty to stop going to church. I reckon it's one of the most impressive stories about Barth's theology that I've ever heard — it's exactly the right response to Barth's theology (the other possible response would be conversion).

So I guess I find Bonhoeffer confronting in a similar way: reading him (a real theologian), I realise that I'm not really fit to teach theology. Maybe I'm just not as honest or as morally serious as Stout.

Fat said...

Perhaps "JESUS, THOU JOY OF LOVING HEARTS" is about pursuing theology.
If you turn people to God (unfilled though they be) then you've done your job.

beyondunknowing said...

I'd wondered something similar in relation to St. Symeon, who, crudely, says that one shouldn't talk about God without experiencing God (rather a good trump card for him, of course). But we can't all be like Symeon (and maybe Bonhoeffer), or at least, we are not even if we could be. So maybe there's space for lesser theologians. Signs pointing to signs pointing to God...

kim fabricius said...

I'm Stout's Other: I read Barth's Romans during the autumn of 1976 and - KABOOM! - I'm a Christian. I also have a date penned (about a year later) on p. 448, next to the commentary on Perhaps there is one that preacheth - "The theme of the clergy is the disturbance which has been prepared by God for men, and the promise which He has given them" - and KABOOM II - I could no longer ignore the pestering of my local church. Then in 1978 I bought and read Letters and Papers from Prison (John Godsey wrote that "almost everything Bonhoeffer wrote was written with Barth in mind") - KABOOM III. The two books are my personal ad fontes - and the pebbles I can't seem to dislodge from my shoes.

Mind, I'm still pissed off that God didn't call me to the Major Leagues. Instead he sent me to the home of cricket. You couldn't make it up.

Finally, I could really use some valium, as rictus is now setting in over the concept of the "fitness" to teach theology.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah Kim, yours is my other favourite Barth story. I've often thought about your story alongside Stout's, as the two legitimate responses to reading Barth.

The only thing that ought to be ruled out is the "bored and pious" attitude described by Rowan Williams (in his poem "The Great Sabbath"):

And, bored and pious, talk of mystery,
When weeds are choking up his tomb.

Anonymous said...

Just this last year I had the experience of realizing that I was probably not a Christian while reading Fear and Trembling. Shortly afterwards I started Barth's Romans and it has been the only thing to shake me into understanding how truly tragic and condemned the world is, but how we truly worship a God who will redeem this creation.

Jon

The Goat's Opinion said...

I'm currently working my way through Bethge's biography of Bonhoeffer. I find myself continually fixated by how little separation there is between his theology and his life.

James Chaousis said...

Regarding the recent Metexas bio of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I stumbled across the international DB scholar Clifford Green's scathing review of Metaxas'book. The Review is entitled "Hijacking Bonhoeffer", October 05, 2010. Green affirms the positive in the book but then highlights some serious concerns. I do have the Metaxas book but am working my way through Schlingensiepen's bio of DB. Check it out!

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