Book Review: John Matthews: “Anxious Souls Will Ask. . .The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, Eerdmans, 2005.
Matthews is Lutheran pastor and long-time student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His years of study are a great benefit for the reader because he does a remarkable job of covering a great deal of complex material in a seemingly simple way. This is an excellent book for those new to Bonhoeffer and for those still struggling with the complexity of his thought.
The title comes from one of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, written on July 16, 1944, as he awaited word of the impending assassination attempt on Hitler. That attempt was made on July 20 but it failed, leaving Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators with little hope of getting out of prison alive.
This period of several months intensified Bonhoeffer’s quest for new levels of understanding who Jesus is for us today and what it means for us to be followers of Jesus. We can find the roots of his most creative ideas in his writings as far back as his university days. Those ideas now come to fruition, though of necessity (he was writing on scraps of paper and often in code) they are not carefully developed.
Matthews begins with Bonhoeffer’s observation on July 16 that “anxious souls will ask what room is left for God” in the modern “world come of age” (to use a phrase from another of Bonhoeffer’s letters). What room is left for God in the lives of those who think of themselves as autonomous? What room is left for God in the institutions which seem to base their authority on purely secular grounds?
To hear Bonhoeffer’s answer to the question, we need to roam back and forth through Bonhoeffer’s writings over a 15 year period of tumultuous political and economic times. Matthews has done much of that roaming for us, showing that Bonhoeffer was consistent in the direction of his growth and that his idea of “living before God and with God as if there were no God,” which sounds nonsensical at first, grew out of his commitment to taking Scripture seriously but not religiously.
No one has done a better job of making Bonhoeffer’s mature thought accessible than Matthews does here. The book is very highly recommended.