Monday, June 28, 2010

Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas

I read this book about a month back and reviewed it over at 5 Minutes for Books.

I planned some follow-up thoughts which I wanted to share over here, but unfortunately got sidetracked and am just making my way back to it!

There is simply so much in this 600 page book to cover and discuss concerning the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that it's hard to limit one's self to a simple review of the book. What I said over at 5 Minutes for Books still stands, of course. I just wanted to share some quotes from this book which make Bonhoeffer stand out, to me, as someone to be admired.

First off, to help you understand Bonhoeffer a little bit better, you should know that he is from a family of eight children. His father was a prominent psychiatrist/neurologist in Germany and his mother was a German countess. Their family was well-connected in Germany and their home a happy one. They loved Germany fiercely and proudly and it broke their hearts when Hitler came into power and destroyed the country that they loved so well.

It was rather shocking when young Dietrich declared that he meant to grow up and be a theologian. His father was not a Christian and his mother was more religious, I think, being the daughter of a theologian herself. What I loved hearing about was how serious German seminaries took their doctrine and theology. There was nothing "fluffy" about saying that you wanted to become a minister. Becoming one involved an in depth study of the scripture, constant argument and proving of one's belief system, and whole hearted devotion. This is the seminary system that Dietrich was educated in. In fact, when he came to America he was rather appalled at how loosely Americans held to their faith. He felt that this country did not take their faith very seriously. So said one who essentially laid down his life for what he believed in. Bonhoeffer took his beliefs very seriously.

His family was less than pleased with his choice to study theology. Metaxas writes:

"His brother Karl-Friedrich was the least pleased with Dietrich's decision. Karl-Friedrich had already distinguished himself as a brilliant scientist. He felt Dietrich was turning his back on scientifically verifiable reality and escaping into the fog of metaphysics. In one of their arguments on this subject, Dietrich said, "Dass es einen Gott gibt, dafur lass ich mir den Kofp abschlagen." which means something like, "Even if you were to knock my head off, God would still exist." (Chapter 1, Family and Childhood)
For anyone who has ever had to go up against their family on a matter of faith, you know how truly difficult this can be. Dietrich believed in God though and there was no turning back for him. He was consistent in his beliefs and his statement throughout his lifetime.

Bonhoeffer wrote a few books, one of which is entitled Life Together. Bonhoeffer had a rather unique view at the time that in order to be a Christian, one must live among them. He believed that the best way to understand the faith is to model it to one another. (Fancy the thought, hmm?) I agree with this idea for the most part. I don't think it should lead to things like communes, where we only fellowship with those we agree with in total. (For the record, Dietrich wasn't a fan of the commune idea either.) He did live with groups of seminary students and they remarked at how they came to understand the concepts of guilt and grace from the way that Bonhoeffer treated them. (Chapter 8, Berlin)

I think too often today we think that our faith is a private thing. It's something that should be lived internally and not externally. We don't feel like we want to go around rocking anyone's boat and so we keep our opinions to ourselves and try not to create conflict. Certainly 'in as much as is possible' (Romans 12:8) we should live in peace with all men, but that verse does not command silence or faith to be confined within the four walls of your home.

Furthermore, Christians today are less open with one another. Potlucks are a chore. Inviting people into your home to fellowship with them is almost unheard of! We've forgotten to live alongside one another, sharing our faith and making it real. We segregate ourselves into denominations or, when we can't find a church to suit ourselves, we go and create churches of one. We live alone. That's not living by faith and Dietrich became a proponent of living in fellowship and community with other Christians so that the gospel message would be more fully realized.

Bonhoeffer certainly was not one to be concerned about rocking the boat or creating unrest. What he most desired was that people would think through their belief system and choices to understand God and God's will for their lives. He lived rather fearlessly, actually, making the following statement at twenty-eight years of age:

"There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself complete to God's commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross." (Chapter 16, The Conference at Fano)

That is a pretty powerful statement. I think it stands alone so I'll not comment on it.

Bonhoeffer does get in to the how's and why's of why Dietrich decided to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Certainly he wrestled over the question. In actuality, he was involved in a lesser way than I had previously thought. He did consider Hitler a risk and an evil that needed to be stopped. That is for sure and certain. It is very hard to fathom all that Hitler managed to accomplish during his dastardly reign. Metaxas details some of the Nazi horrors and at one point I had to stop reading because I was overwhelmed with the horror and sorrow of what went on in German concentration camps. The crimes against humanity were atrocious, and the Bonhoeffers were aware of what they were at the time. It's rather easy to see why Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to participate in the attempted demise of Hitler in the manner that he did. He wrote the following statement:

"If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ's large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered." (Chapter 28, Cell 92 at Tegel Prison)

I think, given the circumstances and historical situation that Dietrich found himself in, it's hard to judge. I'm adamantly opposed to the idea that Christians would take matters in their own hands and try to carry out justice single-handedly. For example, I'm 150% against the idea of individuals killing abortionists for the sake of the unborn. True, I am also 150% against abortions. But we must respect the authority structure put into place. The state has the right to enact justice. Not individuals who think they know best. As a Christian - the best thing we can do when we dislike a situation is to pray over it and follow any legal means to change situations that we don't agree with (i.e., call your congressman, go out and vote, etc.)

In any case, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his choices and I struggle with them to some degree. So did he.

That said, he went ahead and he died convinced that his death on earth was the beginning of life in Heaven. His faith was firm and strong unto the end. His fellow Nazi prisoners noted his calm acceptance when he was called forth to be hung for his actions against Hitler. One of the prisoners said of Bonhoeffer, ". . . He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him." (Chapter 30, Buchenwald)

The camp doctor at Flossenburg gave the following account of Bonhoeffer's last moments:

"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 steps to the gallows, brave and composed." (Chapter 31, On the Road to Freedom)
At the memorial service which was held for Bonhoeffer in England, they sang the hymn "For All the Saints" which, having taken a peek at the full lyrics, I think is quite fitting.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Certainly there is a lot to think about in reading about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For my part, I walked away inspired, touched and moved by the conviction and belief that this man lived his life by. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read this biography and learn more about a rather remarkable man who lived during a remarkable period in history.


Stephanie Kay said...

I did not realize he was involved in an assassination attempt. He was a remarkable man. Sounds like a great book to read if you want to know more about Bonhoeffer.

Barbara H. said...

I have always wanted to learn more about him as I have heard him mentioned here and there. The size of this book makes it a little daunting, but I will keep it in mind.

I am 150% in agreement with you about not killing abortionists or anyone else by taking matters into our own hands outside the governmental authority structure.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I believe Cal Thomas (?) reviewed this book in an editorial last week. (I'm not sure it was Cal Thomas, but I think it was.) I thought it was the same book you read. I wrote a paper on Bonhoeffer in college. I'll definitely have to try to find this book and read it!

Annette W. said...

You give your readers so much to think about...without even reading the book for ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Despite all the reading I've done about WWII, I never heard of Bonhoeffer until reading your thoughts on this book. This sounds fascinating, and I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

youngbibliophile said...

Thanks for the review. I have read Life Together and was very challenged by it. I think I might have to check this bio out because I'm very interested in learning more about this remarkable man.

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