Another Bonhoeffer Biography

I don’t know if we need another one, but here is a review of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Evidently Charles Marsh indulges in a little speculative psychoanalysis about Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge, suggesting a latent homosexual attraction.  This speculation, based on no evidence other than reading between the lines in the letters, of course could be neither proven nor refuted.

I think it does show a pretty serious failure to understand Bonhoeffer.  First of all, he had no use for psychoanalysis; he described it as a secular version of religious fanaticism.  Revivalist preachers tried to convince decent, honest people that they were miserable sinners, and psychoanalysts tried to convince happy, well-adjusted folk that they are inwardly miserable.  Bonhoeffer believed private matters should be kept private and one should not speak in public about sexuelle Dinge.  Aha, proof of repression?  I think rather it reflects his aristocratic upbringing and some honest convictions about propriety and ethics.

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer followed traditional categories of duty, vocation, family, work, government.  But He also said there is another realm where ethical behavior is realized, and that is the area of freedom.  To this area he assigned friendship.  He recognized a failure in previous attempts to define and describe ethical behavior without recognizing the importance of deep and abiding friendships not confined by categories of duty but developed in the realm of freedom.

One of the failures of a lot of our thinking today is a lack of imagination and vocabulary to appreciate the value of friendship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge certainly did love one another.  It was a deep human and Christian friendship.

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WWDD?

Nearly everyone admires Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and nearly everyone wants to claim him for their cause.  He is the only theologian Richard Dawkins has every quoted, with approval, as far as I know.  In the 60’s the theologians of the “God is dead” fad appealed to him for his remarks on “religionless Christianity.”  Elton John sang about that fad in the song “Levon” (I think that was the song: “and the NY Times say ‘God is dead’ and the war’s begun . . .)

The new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas is attracting a lot of attention and selling well.  Metaxas claims Bonhoeffer for American evangelicals.

Bonhoeffer did part with German liberal theology–but not without a sympathetic respect for what it attempted to accomplish.  He was impatient with those who would simply dismiss it.

Clifford Green, editor of the authoritative “Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition” project, doesn’t care for Metaxas’ interpretation of Bonhoeffer.  (Review here)

Victoria Barnett, another editor of the Bonhoeffer Works, also finds Metaxas’ portrait one-sided.  She has an interesting insight on why Bonhoeffer appeals to people at opposite ends of the theological spectrum:

Bonhoeffer was deeply pious in a way that some liberal Christians (again, in the contemporary U.S. sense of that word) might find hard to connect with and it’s that piety that speaks directly to evangelicals around the world. At the same time, he was a highly intellectual and critical Christian, and therein lies his appeal for Christians on other points of the spectrum. More importantly, Bonhoeffer had witnessed firsthand what happens when faith and ideology converge.

I haven’t read Metaxas’ new biography yet, but it is on my list, along with one  by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, newly translated from the German.  (Reviewed by Bob Cornwall)

New Bonhoeffer Biography

Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is getting good reviews.  My friend David Chicaguala, who works with homeless folk in New York City knows Eric, and says he will introduce me when I get up there again.

You can see a video of Eric discussing his new book here.

I plan to read the book by the end of May–as soon as I’m done grading papers and final exams.  I’ll pass on my reactions then.

Government Takeover of Textbooks?

OK, not really–but there are new federal regulations that require colleges to list their textbooks with the course listing.  Since our line schedule comes out next week, I have to select books now for fall classes.  Here’s what I will be using:

For a new course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life, Thought, and Influence, I will require the following:

  1. Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8).
  2. Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6).
  3. Stephen Haynes, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians.
  4. Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World.

The new edition of Letters and Papers is due out this June.  It is nearly twice as long as the prior English edition–and will unfortunately be much more expensive.  But the Bonhoeffer Works volumes are magnificent editions, carefully edited and translated with helpful introductions and annotations.  The English series is nearing completion, following the German editions which appeared throughout the decade of the nineties.

The book by Stephen Haynes is also new and I haven’t seen it yet–I’m walking by faith here–but I assume it is of the same quality as his two prior books on Bonhoeffer.  Finally, I am using one of Moltmann’s little volumes because the course deals with Bonhoeffer’s influence.

Professor Moltmann spoke in 2008 at the Prague Bonhoeffer congress on Bonhoeffer’s influence on his own life and theology.  He mentioned that he was originally a bit put off by the formal and “churchy” language–Moltmann himself was brought up in a secular household and came to faith as a prisoner of war after an American army chaplain gave him a New Testament and Psalms.  He joked that his first reaction to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together was that after his years in prison camp, he had had quite enough of life together.

The book Jesus Christ Today is professor Moltmann’s attempt, some forty years later, to answer a question Bonhoeffer raised in one of his prison letters,

Wer ist Jesus Christus für uns heute?  Who is Jesus Christ for us today.

One answer is given in a chapter on Jesus Christ and Torture.  Jesus Christ is the brother of the tortured and the judge of the torturer.

Who Am I?

Whoops!  I meant to post the following comment on “Theological German,” but accidentally placed it here.  Oh well, I guess I’ll leave it here.  If you are interested, the book is in English.

Dave Black recommends a new book on Bonhoeffer’s Poetry, due out in June from T&T Clark.

For a sample, see “Christen und Heiden” posted earlier here in three installments (1, 2, and 3).

By the way, Dave also says he is not opposed to Greek students using helps, if that’s what they need.  I assume the same would apply to German.

Things to Read in Prison

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison, hoping to be released but-as it turned out-waiting to die, he kept himself busy by reading and writing.  One of the books that captured his attention was The Worldview of Physics by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker.

Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943, initially on relatively minor charges after helping a Jewish family escape to Switzerland.  The Nazis did not yet suspect him of involvement in a plot against Hitler, and he hoped to be cleared of the lesser charges.  After a year, by May of 1944, he must have seen it becoming less likely that he would be released, but still he maintained hope.

Bonhoeffer continued reading and writing as a way of occupying the time-but also for a more serious purpose.  He was planning to participate in rebuilding Germany and Europe after the war. He was thinking about serious issues affecting the church and the world.

While reading Weiszäcker he expressed the view that we can no longer think of God as the answer to the gaps in our understanding and abilities.

We should seek God in the middle of our lives and activity, not out on the boundaries.

We should see God in our success, health, and strength, not only in our weakness, sin, and failure.

Weiszäcker himself was an interesting figure. He was a brilliant young scientist, working alongside of Heisenberg, Bohr and others on nuclear research during the war.  He later claimed that they had deliberately avoided developing the bomb, though that has been disputed.  Nevertheless, after the war he did devote himself to banning nuclear weapons.

Weiszäcker was a committed Christian who taught philosophy in German universities for a second career after teaching physics.  I wonder if he read Bonhoeffer after the war, and if the influence was mutual.  Carl Weiszäcker lived to be 94.  He died just last year, in April of 2007.

(More here, here, here, or here.)

What’s a Pro-Life Voter to Do?

The archbishop of Denver criticized Nancy Pelosi for misrepresenting catholic teaching on abortion (here).  She claimed that the church was ambiguous on the question of when life begins.  Archbishop Chaput answered that the church has never been ambiguous about abortion–it has always condemned the practice.  Archbishop Chaput even quotes the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said,

“the destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”  (From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics)

Candidate Obama has voted against restrictions on late-term abortions and even against a law protecting infants who survive unsuccessful abortion procedures.  A nurse from Chicago has testified under oath several times that she has witnessed this phenomenon several times.  Babies (that’s what everyone calls fetuses after they are born) have been left to die after surviving induced abortions (here).

We are not talking about subtle nuances here–whether a fertilized egg is a person–we are talking about near-term fetuses or even babies surviving outside the womb.

So how can a pro-life voter support a candidate who opposes any restrictions on late-term abortions?

But there is another life-issue–war.  The other candidate says he will keep us in Iraq for one hundred years, if necessary.

Looking back on these two issues, we are really talking about elective abortion and elective war.  No one on the pro-life side wishes to deny abortion when it is medically necessary to save the life of the mother. What bothers so many is when abortion is not necessary, but a choice, an elective option.

The same is true of George Bush’s war in Iraq.  It was an elective war.  We were not under attack, nor were we in imminent danger of attack from Iraq.  Even had it been true that Saddam Hussein was still trying to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction, no one believed he had a missile ready to launch.  So this was an optional war–not a war forced upon us but a war chosen to accomplish a good cause–eliminating a tyrant, bringing democracy to the Middle East–but not a war undertaken for immediate self-defense.

Only one candidate had the judgment or courage to vote against that war.

Help me out readers.  Am I being selfish to think of my own family? In sixteen years my grandson could be sent to Iraq.  Maybe he will be told that the Iraqi government is almost ready to stand on its own–they just need a little more time.  Right now we don’t have a draft–but the current system is unfair to those who enlisted, and there have been senators calling for a reinstatement of conscription.

I assume that all those who enlist for active duty or in the reserves are motivated by the desire to serve their country.  I assume they believe they will not been sent into optional or elective wars.  They will not be called upon to enter harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary.  In that case we will want a president with a proven record of good judgment.

So here is my problem.  How can I vote for a candidate who supports elective, optional late-term abortion?  How can I vote for a candidate who supports elective, optional war?

You might say the answer is either don’t vote or vote for a third party candidate.

The problem with that for me is that it would be avoiding my responsibility.  Barack Obama or John McCain will be our next president (of course, barring unforseen tragedies or divine intervention).  I have a responsibility to choose one of these candidates.  Which pro-life issue is more important?  Or do I call it a draw and vote on the other issues?  In that case, the choice to me is clear enough.