Monday, 20 October 2014

In search of the historical Bonhoeffer

In the past few months, I purchased two recent biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that are high on my to-be-read list, and which I've glanced at so far to preview them.

Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010) is a standard biography, which some reviewers have criticised as bordering on hagiography.  Metaxas writes from an evangelical viewpoint and many evangelicals, and other conservative Christians, have seen Bonhoeffer as somewhat of an icon of faith in recent years.

Charles Marsh's Strange Glory (2014) is no hagiography but, if anything, goes to the other extreme (as far as the reviewers are concerned) with details on the foibles of Bonhoeffer's personal life such as his taste for luxury in his food, drink, clothing, and creature comforts, and his capacity, even in his thirties, for unconsummated adolescent romantic "crushes" toward individuals of both genders. 

As I said, I haven't really read either book yet, but I'll let y'all know if I find either book any less tedious than I expect them both to be on the basis of the reviews.

But, there's a great deal of interest in Bonhoeffer these days and, surprisingly, much of it comes from evangelicals and other conservative Christians.  There is a strand of thought among many conservative Christians today that declares that Christians in western societies are facing a period of future persecution, largely because we are losing the religious monopoly we once had.   Candida Moss's recent book The Myth of Persecution (2013), while focussing on the extent of persecution against Christians in the early centuries of Christianity, was at least partly a response to the (at times) hysterical comments about persecution among some Christians in western societies.

The events of Bonhoeffer's execution by the Nazi regime fits into this mind-set, even if it does create difficulties for many right-wing evangelicals thinking of an iconic 20th century Christian martyr being executed by a government, not of the political far "Left" but one of the far "Right".

In all this, however, Bonhoeffer's early death also means that he never had the chance to synthesise his work.  He never wrote a systematic theology like his contemporaries Barth or Tillich, or like Calvin or Aquinas in previous centuries.  Bonhoeffer wrote his theology "on the run", at times literally.

As a result, Bonhoeffer enthusiasts are often enthusiastic about some aspects of Bonhoeffer's writing, but not other aspects.
  • For example, many evangelicals and other conservative Christians are very enthusiastic about the Bonhoeffer of The Cost of Discipleship.  In this work, Bonhoeffer argued forcefully against what he called "cheap grace".  This appeals to many conservative Christians who get uncomfortable with the idea of grace, preferring instead to call people to rely on holding the "proper" set of beliefs or maintaining the "proper" lifestyle to enjoy God's favour.
  • But then, many people who hold to a "minimalist" Christian faith (whether they call it "progressive", "radical", "liberal", or anything else) prefer the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  Here, Bonhoeffer speaks of "religionless Christianity", "a world come of age", and other ideas that suit the sort of Christians who seek a "minimalist" approach to their faith.
  • Then, there's the Bonhoeffer of Life Together.  This suits those of us (and this is definitely my own "tribe" of which I'm speaking here) who are of a more ecumenical bent in our approach to faith, worship, and spirituality.  This is a Bonhoeffer for those of us who believe that the future health of the churches of the Reformation is based on our being able to embrace a range of more "Catholic" and "Orthodox" practices in our own life of worship and spirituality.
In a sense, there's a Bonhoeffer for almost everyone, and that may well be why he's been so popular lately.

1 comment:

  1. During my recent holidays, I read both the Marsh and Metaxas biographies of Bonhoeffer.

    Marsh's biography of Bonhoeffer is far less "gossipy" than I was led to assume by some reviewers.

    Metaxas's biography of Bonhoeffer seemed to be an attempt to turn Bonhoeffer from a person of the early 20th century, dealing with the concerns of his own era, into an early 21st century "culture warrior". My response to the Metaxas book is similar to that of Dorothy Parker, when she once reviewed a book with "This is not a book to be laid aside lightly. Rather it should be thrown with great force,"

    I continue to make the comment in my original post about there being "a Bonhoeffer for almost everyone", depending on your theology and spirituality.


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