“Who is Christ for Us Today?”
A review of
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters
and Papers from Prison: A Biography
by Martin Marty.
Review by Jess Hale.
In a digital age, many fear the practice of letter writing is dying at the hands of the technological innovations of email and Twitter. Not only that but commercial publishers continually offer us celebrity and political memoirs, frequently polished and ghostwritten, that provide us with a superabundance of information about many who have not lived rich or significant lives. Still a German pastor from a Nazi prison cell in Berlin asks a friend in a letter “who is Christ actually for us today?” (4/30/1944) and a host of readers since then cannot put that book of letters down because the pastor’s words matter to how many of today’s readers answer that question. Letters, correspondence between two people, can still matter.
Historians still edit occasional volumes of some notable’s literary remains, but those efforts seldom have a wide audience. Fortunately, Martin Marty, a scholar now retired from the University of Chicago, ably reminds us of the power of private correspondence to provoke substantive debates about important matters – in this case, the place of Christian faith in the world in which we actually live. Marty has written a book that tells us the story of a book – a quite momentous book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison (LPP). In telling this story, we learn something of the gripping life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian who died at the hand of the Nazis at the end World War II for his role in the German resistance to Hitler and its failed plot to kill the dictator, but we learn more of the making of a classic that made readers across the globe grapple with the meaning of Christian faith in this world from the prison writings of a condemned pastor. Marty reminds us that these writings spiritually “served readers everywhere as a testimony to openness, possibility, and hope.” (4)
Marty begins LPP’s biography by physically locating Bonhoeffer in his Tegel prison cell and providing some historical context before he recounts how Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend and shepherd of his legacy, edited these writings into the classic volume that LPP has become. Then picking up the image of a “conjured” reader who buys a copy of LPP in a used bookstore, Marty commences relating the story of the book’s reception by various audiences of readers throughout the world over the last 60 years. Focusing on secondary sources of “landmark quality”, Marty limits himself to responses to LPP rather than interpretations of Bonhoeffer more generally. (For that also rewarding endeavor, one could examine Stephen Haynes’ The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon.) Marty takes us around the globe to interact with Communists, evangelicals, liberals and radicals, and many others.
We meet Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, South Africans struggling with apartheid and South Americans living out liberation theology, as well as conservatives and Death of God theologians. Whether in East Germany or Latin America, Marty puts flesh on those who read LPP under vastly different circumstances. Many early reactions take Bonhoeffer too literally or out of context as the theologian questions the traditional metaphysical God of theism. Marty helps readers understand something of the creative (mis)interpretation of LPP by a Cold War communist or by Bishop Robinson in his provocative Honest to God. Marty closes with a pulling together of LPP’s themes–a world come of age, Christology and the question of who is Jesus for us, the arcane disciplines of prayer and worship–with an eye toward the conversations, if not arguments, those still relevant themes naturally elicit in 2011.
Realizing that religion does not seem to dying out in the twenty-first century, Marty acknowledges that many find Bonhoeffer mistaken, but I believe that it is still important that Bonhoeffer’s larger point about the end of religion calls for human responsibility be affirmed. For instance, I wish that Marty had gone beyond relating just relating the work of Harvey Cox in The Secular City to acknowledge that this aspect of a Christologically-based human responsibilty was reflected in Bonhoeffer’s participation in the conspiracy against Hitler and in the whole of Cox’s appropriation of Bonhoeffer over his career.
Marty does helpfully identify two schools of interpretation of Bonhoeffer and LPP: the ecclessiolgical school with its emphasis on continuity in Bonhoeffer’s thought and the hermeneutical with it’s emphasis on discontinuity. This “biography” expresses well the dynamic tension in LPP in which Bonhoeffer pushes boundaries out toward an almost dangerous newness as he thinks about religion and metaphysics while remaining grounded in a Jesus-centered faith found in the arcane disciplines of Christian community.
LPP’s initial reception in Germany and elsewhere, in either Prisoner for God or the original German edition, was eye opening. Bonhoeffer was initially discounted as a substantive theologian as this book appeared when many Germans still viewed him as a traitor. Today’s reader may wish to contemplate LPP’s implications for one’s national loyalties in relation to Christian faith. While Bonhoeffer’s rich and tragic life amply justify this entry of a new genre of theology mixed with memoir or autobiography, it is good to realize that it took time for Christians across the globe, as well as theologians and scholars to make LPP into the classic that it has become— in part because reading LPP invites the reader into a risky conversation.
Evangelicals have developed into a receptive audience for receiving Bonhoeffer in general even if they usually ignore or have ambivalence toward LPP’s religionless Christianity. Attending to this evangelical appropriation, Marty acknowledges the spectrum of evangelicals from James Dobson to David Gushee who have warmed to Bonhoeffer while focusing on a hardline conservative response of Georg Huntemann to LPP. As helpful as this snapshot of evangelicals is, I had hoped for a broader picture that picked up more of the witness to Bonhoeffer of progressive Sojourners-types and emerging church voices.
In light of current movements toward missional Christianity across continents and traditions, Marty’s final reflections on the role of community worship in relation to Bonhoeffer’s concern for expressing the faith through the arcane disciplines, through “prayer and righteous action”, merit considerable attention. Marty notes that Bonhoeffer “advocated that the church seek new patterns of communication–including silence!–new postures–including diffidence–and new forms, including disciplina arcani“(242) and maybe we are still seeking for them as foundations for today’s public faith. In a religious age, as well as an irreligious one, the arcanum represent fruitful ground for furthering conversation about a vital Christian discipleship in a world that still may come of age.
Why read this book? First, one answers as to why one should read LPP itself. Marty shows us why LPP is a “classic” of Christian literature in both the popular sense of the word and in David Tracy’s more theologically technical sense of a work that puts the reader in a serious conversation. For me, LPP has been that kind of classic since I first read it in college. In the context of real life lived responsibly in the modern world, Bonhoeffer’s words grasp the reader and put forward a serious account of questions for life in this world that grounds itself in Jesus Christ. Now, why should one read Marty’s biography of this book? Reading Marty’s book about this classic book will bring the reader into a broader conversation. Many new voices will be heard and the questions raised by Bonhoeffer deserve to be engaged by a broad circle of would be disciples and those who would live in our own world. Bonhoeffer’s letters are still worth sharing.
Jess Hale is an attorney in public service working in Nashville, Tennessee where he worships with Eastwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).