Why read Bonhoeffer? Part One

Why are we interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  After all, he was a German intellectual in an age and culture far different from our own. He never got established in any career, though he was drawn toward being both a professor and a pastor. He was killed in World War II but so were many millions of others. True, he was somewhat exceptional because he was executed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler but so were hundreds of others and, at any rate, his role was both minor and unsuccessful.
Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer is of growing importance for us. Biographies are still being written and are selling well. He entire corpus, down to the most minor letters to his friends, has now been published in both German and English. The International Bonhoeffer Society publishes each year a list of hundreds of books and articles about him.
What makes Bonhoeffer of even greater importance now than in his own day? The answer can come from many directions.
Those who like to read biographies find Bonhoeffer’s story to be fascinating. He was born into an exceptional family, showed great intellect even as a youth, worked to undermine the Nazis, spoke and wrote with unusually deep insights into theology and spirituality. In the end, he was hanged for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He was an answer to the challenge Carl Sandburg had given to Billy Sunday in 1915: “I ask you to come through and show me where you’re pouring out the blood of your life.”
Those who read history find that his life in the Germany of the early twentieth century provides an excellent window through which to gain insight into what it was like to be German in the midst of a catastrophic cultural and moral upheaval. Through following Bonhoeffer’s story, we begin to understand Hitler’s dominance of the university and church, two of his earliest and most consequential conquests. Bonhoeffer’s experiences help us to see how hard it was for the German people, including the German Jews, to resist the power and terror of Adolf Hitler.
Those who want to explore theology find Bonhoeffer important because of the creativity of what he said, because of what he resisted in contemporary theologies, and because of the strength of his intellectual integrity. He spoke truth with such directness that we still find his thinking to be a bracing challenge.
Adding to all this, we find Bonhoeffer fascinating because we cannot categorize him. He was a living set of paradoxes. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran yet he was greatly drawn to the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. He was grounded in the twin foundations of Pietism – devotion to Jesus Christ and deep trust in Scripture – while being skeptical about Pietism. He strongly resisted the theological liberalism of his day but found nothing of interest in fundamentalism. His personality was marked by the stereotypical German reserve, yet during his year of study in the United States, he was delighted by the emotional depth of worship he found in the black churches, particularly at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Because he fits none of our preconceived categories, no one can lay claim to him and say, “He was just like us.” He wasn’t quite like any of us.
Speaking personally, I dwell on Bonhoeffer for all those reasons, yet what most makes the man so important to me is something quite different. I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer because he has so very much to teach me about being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.
For all that I thank God for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. May this blog help you to do the same.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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One Response to Why read Bonhoeffer? Part One

  1. Ben says:

    Well said. It motivates me to learn more about Bonhoeffer’s theological perspective.
    -Ben

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