So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
"I fear that Christians who stand with only one leg upon earth also stand with only one leg in heaven."
"The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from everyday Christian life in community…may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door."
"Since ethical thinking in terms of realms is overcome by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ . . . there is no real Christian existence outside the reality of the world."
"People who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator."
|Andreas Steinhoff [Attribution], |
via Wikimedia Commons
While I’ll be sure to reflect more on some of the things I learned the last month here, that is not what I want to write about at the moment. Instead, inspired after (a) hanging out with an old and dear friend who is a Lutheran minister, who also happened to be working at DYA this summer, and (b) hearing news that an essay I wrote on Bonhoeffer and Foucault (“Ethics Beyond Biopower: Bonhoeffer and Foucault on the Problem of Race”) will be finally getting published in a collected volume, Ontology and Ethics: Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Scholarship later this year with Pickwick, I felt inspired to write about one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of all time - and one of the greatest theologians of all time, period, in my humble opinion - Dietrich Bonhoeffer!
So, time to get on my Bonhoeffer soapbox for a little bit, and contribute a Bonhoeffer entry to the DET “So You Want To Read . . .” series (indexed at the top of the recommended reading page).
Why Should I Read Bonhoeffer?
While this should, in theory, be the lengthiest and most detailed section of this blog post, I think that, in many ways, Bonhoeffer’s work speaks for itself - not to mention, I drop hints on why I think you should read Bonhoeffer throughout this lengthy post. Nevertheless, here is a short list of a few of the many, many reasons I think Bonhoeffer is well worth reading:
- He was a theologian who lived his theology - actively working against the Third Reich, risking his life (and eventually loosing it) through embodying what he believed.
- His theology itself reflects an engagement with ‘the social.’ While it is systematically rigorous, Bonhoeffer doesn’t separate systematics from sociality, which (a) makes for theology that is relevant and practical, not just abstract, (b) makes for more interesting reading material, and (c) is, I think enormously important when thinking about the theological enterprise itself - what the task and purpose of theology is/should be.
- Many people on this blog, myself included, really like Barth, for many reasons that I’m not going to go into here. I see their projects as very, very similar, and, while saying this is going to likely get me in trouble with all you Barthians, I find Bonhoeffer to basically be a more bad-ass - albeit less prolific - version of Barth in that he more directly engages with social issues in both his life and his work. Bonhoeffer’s work, I think, actively resists a disembodied, abstract account of theology that is often present in academic theology today.
- Bonhoeffer’s work, highly impacted by his time in New York - particularly in Harlem and at Abyssinian Baptist Church, has a lot to say to the highly racialized time and place many of us find ourselves in the contemporary U.S.
- Bonhoeffer’s work, especially the later stuff, calls us to resist simple dichotomization and categorization - an important reminder in our polarized society, especially for those of us who easily turn to black-and-white thinking. Moreover, Bonhoeffer does so in such a way that doesn’t conversely encourage or endorse complicity as the antidote to such polarization. Bonhoeffer calls instead for an ethic of risk, grounded in the person and work of Christ.
What Should I Read First?
I thought it might be good to start by suggesting what not to read first:
- First, I would recommend not starting with either Sanctorum Communio or Act and Being. While I think that these are both excellent texts, they are his dissertations (yeah, he wrote two - gotta love the whole German habilitation thing) so they are a bit more technical then the rest of his oeuvre, and also a bit less developed than his later stuff.
- For entirely different reasons, I want to suggest not beginning with Discipleship (what many still call Cost of Discipleship). While I disagree with some of my peers who have called it one of the most overrated theology texts of the 20th century, I do think it is a bit overdone, and is best read after one is already swimming in Bonhoeffer.
So, then, what to read first?
- Ethics! This is by far my favorite Bonhoeffer text. I mean, it’s basically spy theology - he wrote the majority of the essays that comprise this text while traveling as part of his duties as basically a double agent while he was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. So you get some really, really good reflections on the possibilities, limits, demands of ethics. In particular, the essay that opens up the volume, "Christ, Reality, and Good: Christ, Church, and World" has been, perhaps, the most influential single thing I've read, for both my personal and academic theological development. His account of the relationship between the church and the world has helped me grapple with notions of belonging and theological anthropology as they relate to ecclesiology and ethics. More on that later, to be sure . . . Also, the same could be said of the essay "History and Good .
- His Christology lectures! Such rich material, especially when one considers the context in which Bonhoeffer wrote and delivered these lectures - during the rise of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer presents a Christology that fundamentally rejects and disrupts the theo-logic of mastery, control, and domination that undergirded support for Nazi policies. At the center of Bonhoeffer’s theology is the figure of Christ as the Counter-Logos, rejecting the “ultimate deceit” of the classifying project of the human logos that has at its center the aim of domination, and shifts our question from ‘how’ to ‘who’ (29). You can find the Christology lectures in a newer translation/transcription, in Berlin: 1932-1933, which I would recommend if you’re doing anything scholarly with the text, but they’re also available in a nifty little paperback that is handy for traveling and such: Christ the Center.
- Life Together. In many ways, I feel like this text is a sort of sequel of his christology lectures, exploring the communal implications of this Christology. The first chapter in particular lays out a theological argument for how we should live in community that is both poetic and theologically profound.
What about Secondary Literature?
Here I want to start again by suggesting what not to read. It seems as though there has been a bit of a resurgence of interest in Bonhoeffer lately, both in the academy as well as in popular culture [read: the real world]. This resurgence has ostensibly been stimulated / heightened by the recent biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxes, which - I think - spent a good deal of time on the New York Times bestseller list. In my oh so humble opinion, I think Metaxes gets Bonhoeffer really wrong in a lot of ways, and that this book is an attempt to abdicate Bonhoeffer for a conservative political ideology. Metaxes actually says something along these lines in an interview with the Catholic News Agency, calling Bonhoeffer a man of staggering relevance for our time, too often hijacked by liberal theologians. For Metaxes, Bonhoeffer is helpful in that he offers us a "primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are" (source). Yeah, not exactly how I would read Bonhoeffer, and luckily, I’m not alone in that. Clifford Green, a renowned Bonhoeffer scholar who is actually the executive director and English editor of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection, writes a brilliant—and quite critical—review of it in The Christian Century. If you had thought about reading Metaxes’ book, or, even if you hadn’t, you should definitely read Green’s review. It is delightful.
Likewise, I would also recommend picking up Green’s book on Bonhoeffer’s social thought, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Also, along the same vein, I’d recommend checking out Charles Marsh’s Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. Both of these books do an excellent job at locating Bonhoeffer within his social and philosophical context. And Green’s book in particular is especially helpful in thinking through and making sense of Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, if / when you do delve into those texts…
One of the things I find most fascinating and promising about Bonhoeffer is how he was impacted by his time in New York - at Union Theological Seminary and, in particular, at Abissynian Baptist Church. How did Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the black church, and with the Harlem Renaissance, impact his thinking? What might Bonhoeffer’s thought have to say to contemporary questions about race? There has, unfortunately, not been a lot of scholarship thus far that has engaged this aspect of Bonhoeffer studies. Two books worth looking at, however, are No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism by Josiah Ulysses Young, and Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought edited by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer Mcbride. Also, I am not sure if he has (yet) published anything in this regard, but I know Reggie Williams has done some really important and interesting work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Harlem Renaissance, and I would definitely recommend keeping an eye on what he has to say in this regard.
In terms of learning about Bonhoeffer’s life, there are biographies other than Metaxes’ that you can turn to. There are two in particular that I would recommend:
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, by Eberhard Bethge. This is the place to turn for a pretty solid and thorough introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. Bethge was actually a good friend of Bonhoeffer, and spent many years assisting him at the preacher’s seminary in Finkenwalde, and this comes through in the text itself. One indication of that is its sheer length, over 1000 pages. Definitely a great place to turn if you want to get serious with Bonhoeffer’s work. Mind you, this is one of my soapboxes - that it is indelibly important to know the life and context of a scholar to grasp their work. I think this is especially the case when it comes to theological texts, and even more so when it comes to Bonhoeffer.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. This, perhaps, is a good biography to start with, for those who want a bit of a briefer introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. It is also a a more recent one. Green actually gives a shout out to this bio in his Christian Century piece for its addressing new insights that have been discovered about Bonhoeffer’s life.
Bonhoeffer on the Interwebs
The internet also has some great things about Bonhoeffer floating around it. Here are some that I would recommend:
- J. Kameron Carter on "Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Meaning ofChristmas."
- Tim McGee’s blog is one of my favorite theology blogs these days. He writes about Bonhoeffer quite a bit. Here are two of my favorites of his posts:
- Not to keep bringing attention to my participation in that ‘other blog’ but a few months ago I participated in a book event on Adam Kotsko’s book The Politics of Redemption. Kotsko engages with Bonhoeffer in some ways that I both found interesting and resisted. I wrote a bit about it here and would actually love to hear some of y’all’s thoughts on how Bonhoeffer gets deployed for different ends and in different ways and in what that means, etc.
- Faith & Theology
- Inhabitatio Dei
- And, oh, ya know, there is some good stuff on Bonhoeffer right here, at this very blog. Two great posts, in particular, on the connections between Bonhoeffer and Barth: