[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0830827161″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519NlJ7ueeL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Bonhoeffer” ]Wrestling with the Place of the Church in the World
A Feature Review of
Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture
Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, Editors.
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2013
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Reviewed by Todd Edmondson
As Keith Johnson and Timothy Larsen state in their introduction to Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture, “Bonhoeffer’s works at times can seem almost a kind of Rohrschach test, telling us primarily something about what the people encountering them stand for and believe rather than something about Bonhoeffer himself.” Such a quality is not unique to Bonhoeffer, of course—Albert Schweitzer famously employed a similar metaphor when talking about the elusive “Historical Jesus”—but one would be hard-pressed to find another figure in modern Western Christianity (with the possible exception of C.S. Lewis) who means more things to more people than Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian whose execution at the hands of the Nazis forever enshrined him as a courageous hero of the faith. To many evangelicals, including recent biographer Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer is an ally to the cause of truth and moral conviction in a relativistic age. To more liberal readers, especially those who identified with the “Death of God” theology of the mid-twentieth century, Bonhoeffer was adopted as a conversation partner due to the (admittedly ambiguous) category of “religionless Christianity” advanced in his influential Letters and Papers from Prison. For countless believers in the last half-century, Bonhoeffer’s writings on the Christian life, particularly The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together have been admitted into the canon of devotional classics, and his “theology of sociality” has contributed to ecclesiological discussion across both generational and denominational divides.
Among the more notable characteristics of this recent collection of essays, which has its roots in the 2012 Annual Wheaton Theology Conference, is the manner in which the authors here posit Bonhoeffer as a theologian with much to offer to the evangelical conversation, while at the same time refusing to co-opt either his life or his work uncritically for the evangelical cause. In the book’s first essay Philip Ziegler describes Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God,” a designation that locates him firmly in a Pauline, Lutheran, and finally Barthian heritage of Christ-centered, gospel-affirming Christianity, in contrast to the strains of Liberal Protestantism that would have shaped Bonhoeffer’s early training, and provided the theological foundation of the German church in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Yet both Ziegler and Larsen, who authored the collection’s second offering, “The Evangelical Reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” acknowledge an awareness of the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s witness, eschewing easy answers for a deeper level of engagement with Bonhoeffer the theologian and more significantly Bonhoeffer the disciple of Jesus Christ living in the world. This is an approach that shapes the remainder of the collection, as the authors explore the manifold ways in which the life and work of Bonhoeffer might address the larger culture.
The range of topics broached by the authors here is vast, unsurprising for a collection focused on a thinker as versatile and as widely engaged as Bonhoeffer was. Consequently, some of the essays here will likely venture into new territory even for those somewhat familiar with Bonhoeffer’s work. Reggie Williams’ contribution, for example, entitled, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Christ,” explores the formative influence on Bonhoeffer of the time he spent in Harlem during the school year of 1930-31. While studying at Union Seminary, Bonhoeffer lived, worked, and worshiped within a largely African-American culture, and Williams argues that his experiences during that time, together with his exposure to the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, profoundly shaped Bonhoeffer’s perspectives on race in a way that would continue to impact his story after he returned to Germany. For readers who are more well-acquainted with the end of Bonhoeffer’s life, Williams’ treatment of these pivotal encounters from an earlier part of his career will prove illuminating.
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