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Bonhoeffer: Book Review

Four years ago, as I was nearing the completion of my coursework at Regent College, I somewhat naively signed up for a seminar on the life and thought of German pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My only exposure to him to that point had been his famous book The Cost of Discipleship (a book whose title in German, I would soon discover was simply Nachfolge, or Discipleship. The change has been made in Augsburg Fortress’s republishing of the definitive collection of Bonhoeffer’s works). I had read this book in my early twenties, but my recollection of its themes was unimpressive, to put it mildly.

When I signed up for the course, I knew very little about Bonhoeffer the man or the theologian. I knew little of his involvement in the resistance against the evils of Nazi Germany including his support of Operation Valkyrie (the attempt to assassinate Hitler), nothing of his theological pedigree forged in the halls of (and often in opposition to) the theological liberalism of the early-twentieth century German academy (one of Bonhoeffer’s instructors was the famous Adolf von Harnack). Perhaps most importantly, I had little conception of the rare combination of theological and philosophical sophistication, devotion to Christ and his church, and commitment to action that characterized this towering figure.

Each of these deficiencies was duly corrected over the course of the four months we spend going through each of Bonhoeffer’s four most well-known works (Discipleship, Life Together, Letters and Papers from Prison, and his never-completed magnum opus, Ethics). I came to deeply admire and appreciate Bonhoeffer as a thinker and, more importantly, as a disciple of Jesus Christ who was committed to live his life in response to the question of what Jesus would have him do, at this point in history.

This admiration and appreciation of Bonhoeffer has only deepened by reading Eric Metaxas’s excellent biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Metaxas is a gifted storyteller who skillfully weaves together biography, history, and theology into a coherent and compelling narrative, not only of Bonhoeffer’s own life but of the historical events that so profoundly shaped him.

A complex and fascinating figure emerges. Metaxas masterfully brings together the various strands of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, and shows how they all played a role in leading to the events for which he would later become most famous. From Bonhoeffer’s determination to study theology (despite the wishes of his family, who, while supportive, thought this course to be unworthy of his intellectual gifts) to his earning of his PhD from the University of Berlin at age 21 (his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, was described as a “theological miracle” by none other than Karl Barth) to his time spent studying in America (where he found the theological climate insipid, to put it mildly) to his pastoral work in Barcelona, London, and parts of Germany to training pastors in the Confessing Church (the name for the church that separated itself from the state church in opposition to their capitulation to Nazi ideology), to his written work, all contributed to the formation of the formidable intellect and courageous personal character that were the source of  the written work and the actions for which Bonhoeffer would become most well-known.

Readers of this book will get a good sense of how difficult Bonhoeffer was to pin down, theologically. He was neither “conservative” nor “liberal” in the traditional understandings of these terms. He puzzled liberals with his insistence on reading Scripture not as a historical artifact, but as the living and active word of God that was meant to be applied to life today. His involvement in the ecumenical church movement and his adoption of near-monastic rules at the Confessing Church seminaries he led in Zingst and Finkenwalde raised conservative eyebrows. His insistence that the voice of Christ must be sought and obeyed in the concrete reality of everyday life as opposed to taking refuge in philosophical or ethical “principles” was difficult to accept for many—especially when, as Bonhoeffer would demonstrate in his involvement in an assassination attempt on Hitler despite his near-pacifist convictions, obedience to Christ could mean going against your own principles. Bonhoeffer didn’t fit well into existing categories.

Most of all, though, Metaxas gives us a picture of the man, Bonhoeffer. We see a man who is profoundly devoted to his family and his country, who misses both terribly when he is away. We see a man who loved music and was a tremendously gifted pianist, who appreciated movies and novels, who played soccer with his seminary students. We read numerous diary entries, letters (many from a cell at Tegel Prison) to family members, friends, colleagues, and his fiancé that give us a window into his personal joys, hopes, fears, and concerns. We see a man of unshakeable conviction and devotion to Christ, whose daily life is guided by Scripture reading and prayer, and who is constantly asking the question of what discipleship entails. Perhaps the greatest gift of Metaxas’s book is the way in which we come to know the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The guiding question of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was, “what does obedience to Jesus Christ demand of us here and now?” It was a question that led him to become actively involved in direct resistance to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. His reasons for resisting were profoundly theological in that he abhorred the Nazi views of non-Aryans, the elderly, the handicapped, etc. and their naked lust for power. His reasons were also deeply personal; his twin sister Sabine was married to Gerhard Leibholz who, while a baptized Christian, was of Jewish extraction. From the beginning of Hitler’s reign, Bonhoeffer loudly and consistently spoke out against the German church’s capitulation to the nationalistic sloganeering and blatant evil of the Third Reich. Obedience to Christ trumped allegiance to the state, and Bonhoeffer was contemptuous of the state church’s failure to realize and act upon this truth. For Bonhoeffer, the evils of the Nazism demanded an unambiguous response of resistance as obedience from the church of Christ.

Ultimately, of course, Bonhoeffer’s actions would lead to his execution on April 8, 1945 at a concentration camp in Flossenburg, just a month before the fall of Nazi Germany. He was 39 years old.

Despite knowing how the story would end, I found Metaxas’s description of Bonhoeffer’s last days to be profoundly moving. Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the book for me was Flossenburg camp doctor H. Fischer Hüllstrung’s account of Bonhoeffer’s last minutes:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

I enthusiastically recommend this fine biography of a man who no only died, but lived “entirely submissive to the will of God.”

This book was provided for review courtesy of Authentic Media and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.

51 Comments Post a comment
  1. LarryS #

    Ryan , Thanks for the book review.

    Since we are both Anabaptists I’m curious about your take on Bonhoeffer’s participation in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. The Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ hard sayings (love your enemy, turn the other cheek etc.) “traditionally” have been quite “literal.” For example: my father was a conscientious objector during WW2 and was in the medical corp. The tradition (pacifism or non-resistance) seeks to bind wounds rather than cause them.

    So how does your Anabaptism theology/practise impact your understanding of Bonhoeffer’s active participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler?

    January 31, 2011
    • Good question, Larry—I suspected this issue might come up ☺. The issue of pacifism is one I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. Members of my family were CO’s, as well, and I was raised on stories of those who refused to take up arms. The short answer is that I don’t have the issue nicely resolved (surprise, surprise!). I can quite easily read the Gospels and conclude that pacifism is what is required of us, just as I can conclude that love of neighbour demands that we protect the weak and the vulnerable.

      At some level, monsters like Hitler have to be stopped. The real world requires compromises, I suppose (as Stackhouse argues in Making the Best of It). Sometimes less evil is better than no evil. No sooner do I say that, though, than I wonder if this is not much different than advocating some kind of just war-theory, and I don’t want to go there… There are problems at every turn.

      Based on my reading of Bonhoeffer, it seems quite clear that this was no easy decision for him. He quite clearly thought that the exceptional circumstances and the exceptional evil of represented by Hitler required a willingness to go beyond his conscience for the sake of others (i.e., those being crushed by the Third Reich). He believed that obedience to Christ, in this situation, called for a radical response. He would “sin boldly,” to quote Luther, and throw himself upon the mercy of God. I can’t fault him on this, of course. I think until we are in the same position facing the same circumstances, our words are destined to remain comfortably abstract.

      January 31, 2011
  2. Ken #

    re: “He puzzled liberals with his insistence on reading Scripture not as a historical artifact, but as the living and active word of God that was meant to be applied to life today.”

    He still does. This idea that we get directions from God is frightening to liberals, for as you say, “obedience to Christ could mean going against your own principles,” or against liberal values. It often leads to oppressive behavior.

    I share the liberal fear of Christians and Muslims who justify their political behavior as obedience to God. In addition, when I consider Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to the overall patterns of Christian thought over the centuries, I believe he overemphasized obedience and submission at the expense of faith and grace.

    I don’t think of his attempt to assassinate Hitler as remarkable at all. It was normal. Many Americans, Canadians and Europeans died just as he did to stop Hitler, just as bravely and composed as he did. They did it mainly for the sake of liberal values. What is remarkable is that so few Germans felt the way those Americans, Canadians and Europeans did or Bonhoeffer did.

    Re: “The guiding question of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was, “what does obedience to Jesus Christ demand of us here and now?””

    Obedience. Demand. These words are part of an authoritarian vocabulary.

    January 31, 2011
    • James #

      “Obedience. Demand. These words are part of an authoritarian vocabulary.”
      I don’t think that is a valid critique of obedience and demand but just guilt by association, Ken. The question should be, “What is right?” If there is a God, then it would seem logical that obedience to Him is not optional. That of course does not mean every person who claims to obey God is doing so. They may be deluded- and frankly I think most who make that claim are.
      But discounting obedience because tyrants demand it doesn’t make sense to me.

      January 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        All authoritarians are not tyrants. But they are not liberal either. The liberal critique of Bonhoeffer is just that: a liberal critique. He was no liberal. Demand and obedience are not the vocabulary of free people.

        Liberal theology has weaknesses, but its vision of God is yet good, and its disdain for authoritarian ways on earth and in heaven is not just disdain for tyranny. A liberal vision of God is worth treasuring. Grace and mercy are the ways of God and of a free people, not demand and obedience.

        January 31, 2011
  3. “Demand and obedience are not the vocabulary of free people.”

    I guess by that definition Jesus was not a free person. Grace and mercy are not the opposite of obedience. Obedience can be an expression of love. Defending a straw man isn’t an argument.

    I agree with James. Ken, I think you are just making a broad generalization that equates “liberal” with good and anything “not liberal” with bad.

    January 31, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: Obedience can be an expression of love.

      I see that perspective in certain conservative and evangelical theologies, as in Bonhoeffer’s, and in patriarchal theologies especially. I don’t see that perspective in liberal theology.

      I think it is dangerous to associate obedience with love. Reminds me of a master/slave relationship.

      January 31, 2011
      • Or, perhaps, a parent/child relationship. It is not loving to demand nothing.

        January 31, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        “I think it is dangerous to associate obedience with love. Reminds me of a master/slave relationship.”

        Reminds me of stockholm syndrome.

        February 1, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps Ken is inferring the dangers associated with blind obedience. It would seem to me if we are to regard obedience as a virtue it ought to be an informed choice, made freely. Though I’m not sure how that statement is reconciled in a parent/child context.

    February 1, 2011
  5. I would argue that liberals, by necessity, accept obedience (even require it) certain contexts. What differentiates is the word “demands”, which is coercive. There is a difference between “demands” and “requires”. There are many things implicitly required of us to live in a free society, but not all of them are demanded of us. Requiring suggests responsibility to exercise freedom amidst shared & mutual expectations, whereas demanding suggests the threat of reprisal should we not adhere.

    That God requires obedience from us should not be offensive to us. What should be offensive is people demanding obedience to themselves in God’s name. To God we can choose to be obedient- for we do embrace the paradox of an allegiance as singular as a slave, yet the relationship as intimate as a child (or even lover). To one another we exercise a mutual submission which, when understood, is not merely a semantic difference, but a powerful subversion of power dynamics.

    Much good discussion here!

    February 1, 2011
  6. Ken #

    It is tough for a Christian to not speak of obedience to God. “Obey” is a common word in the Bible. It is common in tradition too.

    A feminist Bible professor in seminary said she thought we should get rid of 95% of the Bible because that much is harmful to women. Same must be true of tradition. Obedience was part of the problem. The problem was patriarchy.

    Bonhoeffer leaned against liberal theology. I think he leaned too far. He advocated a theology that involves sacrificial obedience and costly discipleship. No parent should demand or expect that from a child. It would be abuse.

    By the way, Tyler, I had heard of the Stockholm Syndrome, but did not know its name. Good analogy. Amor fati.

    Jamie is right about liberalism. We consent to be governed. The relationship between liberalism and government is difficult. We try to protect freedom by limiting the power of government, using government to preserve freedoms, and structuring our democracies in ways that provide power to minorities as well as majorities. While liberal, we prefer order to chaos.

    Coming from a liberal background, obedience is a word I rarely heard in a theological or political context and rarely heard praised. It is a word that I distrust.

    February 1, 2011
    • “A feminist Bible professor in seminary said she thought we should get rid of 95% of the Bible because that much is harmful to women. Same must be true of tradition. Obedience was part of the problem. The problem was patriarchy.”

      While I agree that patriarchy significantly coloured the text (and our subsequent religious & social cultures), I think there is also the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is fair enough for someone to conclude that we should get rid of 95% of the Bible (and/or tradition), but I would argue that the remaining 5% (while valid) has little reason to identify with Christianity at all. I say this not in an exclusionary way, to be clear. I would guess that most would not anyway.

      I do not see how sacrificial obedience and costly discipleship is abusive to adult children. Especially when you consider what is at stake. We might call certain behaviour abusive from a parent in one context, yet necessary (even heroic) in another. There are alternative hermeneutics that allow us to approach the requirements of discipleship as invitations to something greater (and liberty from something far worse) rather than the typical retributive interpretations all too common in some circles.

      February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Re: last paragraph

        As in John 3:36, for example.

        February 1, 2011
      • Like I said, Ken, there are interpretive means to understand that apart from your conclusion that God is abusive. However, I suspect that reaching them would require us agree on some presuppositions (which is probably unlikely on a few points). Further, I don’t think that God’s wrath is immediately an indictment of his character.

        Thanks for the push back.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Actually, I did not mean to push back or to say that I think God is abusive or that his wrath is an indictment of his character. Even if we have different reactions to the word “obedience,” neither of us thinks God is abusive. At the same time, we probably do understand God and the Bible differently.

        Re: presuppositions

        I think I get past the words and passages that sound troubling to liberal ears by regarding the Bible as myth – a common way in liberal theology.

        I think the feminist professor saw the Bible as myth too, but believed that hermeneutic alone was not sufficient to overcome the Bible’s power to promote patriarchy and harm women. She believed the words themselves must be stricken from the text.

        February 1, 2011
  7. I’ve had less time than usual to participate in this conversation, but I do appreciate the insights and questions provoked by the comments thus far.

    Re: Stockholm Syndrome, abuse, master/slave, etc, I think the ontological gap between God and humanity is worth at least some consideration. We resist the language of “demand” and “obedience” because we are familiar with the abuses that it can and does lead to in human relationships. But if God is someone who is qualitatively different from us (indeed, is responsible for our existence, our purpose, and our end), presumably the language of “obedience” and “requirement” (even “demand”) is appropriate—even when we are asked to do what we don’t necessarily want to do (as Jesus is so prone to doing). Speaking as a parent, I know that there are some things that I demand of my children in the hopes that one day they will come to see its value and embrace it with joy and freedom and an understanding of why it was demanded of them in the first place.

    I wonder, if we decide that “obedience” or “demand” language is immoral/inappropriate, could God ever tell us something we didn’t want to hear? Could God ever be more than simply a projection of our own selves?

    As an aside, it’s interesting to me how a post about a man who gave his life in response to a God who sacrifices himself for others has led to a discussion about topics like wrath, authority, and abuse of power. Perhaps this says more about us, and what we want/fear/resist, than it does about God (or Bonhoeffer, for that matter).

    February 1, 2011
    • Well said on all counts, Ryan. I have been moved by how many of the women & men who willingly embraced radical obedience to Christ paid for it with their lives, most often in the service of others.

      February 1, 2011
    • Ken #

      re: could God ever tell us something we didn’t want to hear?

      If you believe God expects or demands obedience, then I think the answer is no. Otherwise, the answer is yes, assuming one has a way of “hearing” God, whatever that may mean.

      re: Could God ever be more than simply a projection of our own selves?

      If you believe God expects or demands obedience, then the answer may be yes. God, or the voice of God, could be a projection of a parent, as Freud observed, for example. It could be need for security or a need to escape freedom.

      re: “it’s interesting to me how a post about a man who gave his life in response to a God who sacrifices himself for others…”

      It is just that: the idea that a man needs to sacrifice his life to a God. It is a hideous idea.

      I know you don’t see it that way.

      February 1, 2011
      • Ken, I always appreciate your insights, questions, etc. So please do not take this question as anything but a genuine curiosity: If it is such a hideous idea and so much of it must be rejected in your mind, why are you so frequently involved & invested in a conversation here where the convictions are so deeply otherwise? Again, that may sound like I am saying “Why the hell are you here? Go away!” That is NOT at all my intention. Genuinely interested in your answer.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        I guess I am not seeking concurrence.

        I think Ryan is unusually analytical for a pastor. He raises quite interesting topics, even if they seem accidental sometimes to him.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken, I am really glad you do hang around here. You help us see what is too familiar to us. I appreciate it big time.

        For what it is worth, the idea that God demanded a blood sacrifice of His Son to ease His wrath against is offensive to me too. It is not something I believe to be the message of the cross. Too complex to get into here, but wanted to say I resonate with some of what you were sharing.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, this idea of the atonement is related.

        Seeing it only as myth, it has no sting to me. But I know that in other contexts, this atonement idea carries a great sting, just as patriarchy in the Bible stung the professor I mentioned.

        For me, Pilate killed Jesus. The idea of the atonement came afterwards or through theological interpretation. Similarly, in 2Kings, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and burned it down along with God’s temple. In Ezekiel’s vision, it was the angels of God who set the fires as God ascended into the heavens in his chariot. Of such visions and interpretations our theology was made. For me, liberal theology is the bridge from then to now. Atonement does not receive the same emphasis in liberal theology as it does in orthodox Christian thought. Nor does obedience.

        February 1, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Ryan, that is an excellent point about God being qualitatively different form us and this should weigh into our decision. Personally, I have no problem with obedience to a set up of principles.

      But, as Ken stated “a theology that involves sacrificial obedience and costly discipleship” can be highly problematic. Your original post expressed that tension. Bonhoeffer made the right choice. As you suggest we are in a position of comfortably abstract, but sometimes to turn the other cheek is to make allowance for great evil. Where is the sense of virtue and justice in that?

      February 1, 2011
      • I am not sure I agree with you, Tyler. I am not convinced that turning the other cheek is a circumstantial command nor do I believe, done right, it makes allowance for great evil. The implications of that are worrisome for me.

        February 1, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        If everyone turned the other cheek who would take a stand?

        I do not underestimate the power of turning the other cheek and I by no means wish to take away from that. However, life experience has shown me that people do bad things, and rarely do they stop until someone puts them in their place.

        February 1, 2011
      • First, turning the other cheek is not a passive as some assume it is (see Walter Wink). Turning the other cheek does not suggest silently enduring. That interpretation is handed down from Christendom to placate the masses. History is filled with figures who “turned the other cheek” and helped topple empires.

        Second, turning the other cheek is not meant to be primarily pragmatic. We don’t do it just because it works (because sometimes it doesn’t), but because it is always right.

        Finally, again not affirming just silently taking it, we do need to remember that it is clearly not our role to put people in their ultimate place- judgment is God’s.

        At any rate, I feel the tensions you speak of living in a very violent inner city neighbourhood. And it is too complex to explore here in detail. Just felt the need to push back a little.

        February 1, 2011
  8. James #

    It sounds like obedience itself is a de facto evil, in your view, Ken. I struggle with the logic of that. Surely evil is evil because of who and what we obey- not the mere fact that we obey.

    February 1, 2011
    • Ken #

      I would not call obedience a de facto evil. As we discussed above, for example, it is important for a child to obey a parent when growing up and obedience can be used, in a sense, to describe consent of the governed in a democracy.

      The evil, if you will, is something different. Ryan named it: the idea that a man needs to sacrifice his life to a God.

      February 1, 2011
      • Ryan named it: the idea that a man needs to sacrifice his life to a God.

        That’s not actually what I said, Ken. I said that Bonhoeffer sacrificed himself “in response to a God who sacrifices himself for others.” The important part of this is the “others” part. Bonhoeffer very clearly understood the life of discipleship (and the existence of the church) as being for the sake of others and it was because of how this understanding worked out in his life that he was killed.

        Of course you may think that this, too, is an evil and there our understandings would certainly diverge. But I think that it’s always helpful to understand as best we can what, exactly, we are disagreeing about and why.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        I do understand what you are saying, and that “in response to a God who sacrifices himself for others” is an important part of what you wrote. And it is true that this does not make it any more palatable to me.

        February 1, 2011
      • Okay, lets take your statement above about how Bonhoeffer’s sacrifice was unremarkable because all kinds of people were doing it for “liberal values.” Why is a humanism grounded in “liberal values” more palatable than a humanism grounded in the God who became human for humanity? Is it “hideous” to offer one’s life for humanism?

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        It would be hideous to offer one’s life for humanism, or more accurately perhaps, to say that humanism expects or demands such sacrifice. At the same time, there is a fierceness to liberal values – give me liberty or give me death, as Patrick Henry said.

        But I don’t personally argue for or defend humanism. I do admire liberal theology, but it too has its limitations.

        I think Bonhoeffer went too far in his advocacy of radical discipleship. The argument that God wants us to sacrifice ourselves to him or for the sake of others is not widely made in theology. In Reformed theology generally, for example, the sacrifice Jesus made was unique and not for us to repeat. In Reformed theology and in Judaism, a lesson is drawn from Genesis 22 in this regard. Luther wrote about angels standing by to make sure Abraham would not harm Isaac. It is interpreted to mean that God realized that obedience and trust in God could get out of hand, to mean that God wants no human sacrifice, not of anyone, not ourselves, not others, not for any reason.

        February 1, 2011
      • I guess what I was trying to get at was the question of the underlying motivation to offer one’s life for others (as opposed to for “humanism” in general). Would you agree that there are some situations in which it is acceptable/appropriate/obligatory to do what one can to save the lives of others (i.e., the victims of Nazism)?

        Could any belief structure compel such action, in your view? I guess I’m wondering if your problem is mainly with the idea of “God” requiring something or with the idea that anything (liberal values, humanism, Marxism, whatever) might require us to act on behalf of others.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, certainly. I think everyone is willing to risk injury and life for others.

        It is the idea that God demands this that I disagree with.

        February 1, 2011
      • So if Bonhoeffer would have done what he did order to act consistently with “liberal values,” you would have no problem with that?

        February 1, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: “So if Bonhoeffer would have done what he did order to act consistently with “liberal values,” you would have no problem with that?”

      I guess I don’t know, even though I think they are great.

      When I referred to liberal values in the first comment I posted above, I did not mean to say that they justified or required the actions of the many people who risked or incurred injuries or death, or that love for others was an insufficient justification.

      As I wrote there, many Americans, Canadians and Europeans died just as Bonhoeffer did to stop Hitler, just as bravely and composed as he did. They did it mainly for the sake of liberal values. What is remarkable is that so few Germans felt the way those Americans, Canadians and Europeans did or Bonhoeffer did.

      My reference to liberal values just meant they generally did not do it for God. I guess my reference was just a lead up to the baffling behavior of the Germans who were and are very much like the rest of us in the West.

      Perhaps Bonhoeffer wrote as he did because of his commitment to nonviolence and he needed a theological reason to break that commitment.

      I have no problem with what he did, trying to kill Hitler. My objection is to his theology. Even if people take risks for others or for the sake of freedom or whatever, I find it abhorrent to say that this is something God demands of us.

      If pressed to take a stand, I guess I would say that I am with those who believe God wants nonviolence and with that great majority who does not want to fight in wars whether or not there is a God. Nevertheless, I imagine I would have done what so many people did in that War, and would have joined in the battle. I don’t imagine it would have been easy to kill anyone – I think it would hurt forever. My father told me he was fortunate in that he never did.

      Theologically, I would say that our hope lies in an eschaton, whatever that will be. Perhaps, as the nature writers that I admire believe, it lies in a return to the green world. Loren Eiseley said that therein lies our sacred center. I find I am increasing believing that. If God is there, then I don’t imagine God demands anything. He is, if anything, the giver of life – not a king, not a father, not a warrior, not a moralist or law giver, not a judge – just the giver of life.

      February 1, 2011
      • I don’t want to misrepresent you, Ken, but it seems like the most important thing in your view is that actions not be done out of obedience to God. The actual content of the behaviour isn’t as important as whether or not its source or legitimation is external to the one performing the action. To me, this still sounds like obedience as a de facto evil.

        If God is there, then I don’t imagine God demands anything. He is, if anything, the giver of life – not a king, not a father, not a warrior, not a moralist or law giver, not a judge – just the giver of life.

        Why might God go to the trouble of giving life? It seems like an odd thing for God to do if he has no expectations of the life he has given.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Re: “it seems like the most important thing in your view is that actions not be done out of obedience to God. The actual content of the behaviour isn’t as important as whether or not its source or legitimation is external to the one performing the action.”

        Somehow that sounds a little different to me than what I said sounded to me. I criticized Bonhoeffer’s theology, not his behavior. I think his behavior is normal. I think his theology is hideous. God does not demand sacrifices from us and I think the idea that he does is hideous in the way the feminist professor finds the patriarchy hideous.

        Re: “It seems like an odd thing for God to do if he has no expectations of the life he has given.”

        It does not seem odd to me.

        My impression is that we are stuck here. I think we have, nevertheless, discussed a number of interesting questions on the way to this point.

        So, we don’t agree. That’s okay.

        February 1, 2011
      • Well, I guess I’m just trying to work from the other end (i.e., from behaviour to belief) to isolate why we might have such radically different views on the beliefs that underwrite a set of behaviours that we largely admire (or at least understand). It seems strange to me that words like “abhorrent” and “hideous” could be used to describe a theology that resonates with me in many ways.

        At any rate, there is probably no need to belabour things here. As you say, lots of interesting ground covered…

        February 1, 2011
      • EDH #

        RE: “not a king, not a father, not a warrior, not a moralist or law giver, not a judge – just the giver of life”

        By that token he would also certainly not be the Loving Saviour who rescues from death and decay, and urges us to life and repentance. IMO this liberalism seems perfectly fine with a God who is perfectly fine with death – which is no freedom at all. The fact that God demands things reveals that he suffers to be rejected.

        In the parent/child relationship, if a parent demands the life of their child willy nilly, it would in fact be abuse because the result would be a total separation and a dissolving of the relationship. A parent can only bring about life and help it. But God creates it and sustains it. When God requires such obedience from his children the result is different: ultimate unification and life.

        Repentance and obedience goes to the core of who we are. Perhaps that is why it so abhorrent.

        February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Ryan,

        Re: It seems strange to me that words like “abhorrent” and “hideous” could be used to describe a theology that resonates with me in many ways.

        I wish I had been more sensitive to this in this conversation, and yet still transparent. The fact that it resonates with you surely means to me that it is worthy of positive words that I have been unable to find. Perhaps by saying this, I can affirm your testimony in words comfortable to me: the love of God inspires in us a passion that makes us more likely to give ourselves to others, even to give our lives. Such love is like the love of God for us.

        Ken

        February 1, 2011
      • Yes, that sounds very good and worthy of affirmation to me.

        February 2, 2011
  9. Ryan and everyone,

    I think that way the conversation went does say a lot about us. We distrust because that it is in our nature to fear/distrust/resist. We see abuses in human relationships and in the way some portray God and we distrust even more.

    I am reminded of the Hard-Bitten Ghost in the Great Divorce. When we look at an act of sacrifice and courage and want to talk about wrath, authority and abuse of power then we may just be too clever by half.

    February 1, 2011
    • Well said, Steve. I appreciate the analogy.

      February 1, 2011
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Profound conversation. Ken, what if Bonhoeffer gave his life? No demand, no sacrifice.

    February 2, 2011
    • Ken #

      Bonhoeffer gave his life for a worthy cause. Radical discipleship held central importance in his faith and life. It was his Eucharist.

      February 2, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        I think that a true understanding and acceptance of the Eucharist can only be viewed, from a purely humanistic perspective, as radical discipleship. Permanent mutation of the self through the immutable being of God. The question then becomes how does this transformation occur. By God’s demand, through our blind obedience? Or as an act of free will, a consequence of our love for God?

        God is not the author of the grotesque. He is, however, the only means by which we may transcend it.

        February 2, 2011
  11. Ryan,

    Finally read this from a while back (too many posts crowd my RSS feeds these days.) I appreciated your review – it makes me want to read more Bonhoeffer! Would you agree with those who suggest Metaxas imposes a bit of an ‘American conservative evangelical bias’? Or are they overstating things? (I’m thinking specifically of Andy Rowell’s review round-up at http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2011/02/reviews-of-bonhoeffer-by-eric-metaxas.html )

    February 28, 2011
    • Thanks for the link, Michael. I’ve received a few emails about these reviews as well, so it was a good reminder to take a closer look.

      The short answer to your question, is that I would probably agree that Metaxas imposes the bias you suggest. In reading these reviews and thinking back to my own reading of the book, I find myself wondering if I was critical enough. I certainly agree that Metaxas demonstrates an inadequate understanding of the theological milieu Bonhoeffer was a part of and which shaped his theological understanding. I also think Metaxas’s interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s time in America somewhat anachronistically reads current evangelical concerns into that context. I’m not sure if I would say that Metaxas is “hijacking” Bonhoeffer as much as offering a somewhat biased interpretation of his theology.

      As far as the historical inaccuracies pointed out in some of these reviews (specifically the ones by Bonhoeffer experts), I would simply defer to their authority. I am no Bonhoeffer scholar and am happy to learn from those who know more about these things than me.

      I still think there is much that is commendable about this book, though, even if there are problems. Metaxas gives us a portrait of a very compelling figure. As I read my own review again, it occurs to me that I spent a lot more time talking about Bonhoeffer than Mextaxas’s book! That’s probably the sign of a problematic book review, on one level… I suppose my admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself (based on the seminar at Regent, among other things) may have transferred to an insufficiently critical recommendation of this biography.

      March 1, 2011
      • Fair enough. At the same time, that may be the sign of a good biography: to direct attention to the subject instead of the biographer!

        March 5, 2011

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