Tietz’s approach is to track Bonhoeffer from birth to death while documenting how his life and thought fit his historical context. She deftly pulls three threads with equal tightness to give the reader a complete picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the historical facts of Bonhoeffer’s life, the socio-political events of Germany from 1933-1945 (the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich), and Bonhoeffer’s intellectual / theological development. Bonhoeffer in Tietz’s hands does not float free from his particular place and time. As a scholar, she rightly refuses to twist Bonhoeffer to fit a certain agenda. Her concise historically sensitive treatment of Bonhoeffer is refreshing.
Apart from chapter one--which is a fly-by overview of the first 17 years of his life covering: his family of origin, relatively happy childhood, and education up to deciding to study theology--the bulk of the book is broken in to brief time periods that have significance for Bonhoeffer personal and intellectual development. Here are the chapter titles:
Chapter Two: The Return from Tübingen to Berlin, 1923-1927Chapters two through four describe Bonhoeffer’s coming of age as a theologian: he earns his doctorate and post doctorate degrees, travels abroad (to Barcelona and New York), and begins his professional career (in the pastorate and the university) in 1931/2. Concurrently, the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) also comes of age: “in the July and November 1932 elections it reached 37.4 and 33.1 percent becoming the strongest force in the parliament” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer’s early adulthood and career are formed against the backdrop of the burgeoning NSDAP. Thus, chapter five is the hinge chapter of the book. Covering just one year, 1933, we see Hitler named Reich Chancellor, the state begin to put pressure on the church, the church divide under tension, and Bonhoeffer start to speak out. Chapters six through ten tease out the rest of Bonhoeffer’s life, which he increasingly lives as a theologian of resistance in direct conflict with the NSDAP. Notably, it’s during this latter part of his life that he produces the works, Discipleship (1937), Life Together (1939), Ethics (published posthumously by Eberhard Bethge in conjunction with his letters from prison, in 1949), Resistance and Submission (or Letters and Papers from Prison, also published posthumously by Bethge, in 1951), and Love Letters from Cell 92 (1992 in Germany and 1995 in the US). Bonhoeffer died on April 9, 1945, “only one month before the end of the war” (p. 110).
Chapter Three: Wider Horizons, 1928-1931
Chapter Four: Beginnings, 1931-1932
Chapter Five: The Beginning Church Struggle, 1933
Chapter Six: Pastor in London, 1933-1935
Chapter Seven: Director of a Preacher’s Seminary, 1935-1937
Chapter Eight: The Path into Illegality, 1937-1940
Chapter Nine: The Conspiracy Period, 1940-1943
Chapter Ten: Prisoner in Tegel, 1943-1945
Bonhoeffer’s time-line mirrors the NSDAP’s timeline so perfectly that it is hard to resist the suspicion that he intentionally constructed his life to that end. Was it Bonhoeffer’s purpose to come of age personally and intellectually in the crucible of the tension between the State (the NSDAP) and the church in order that he would be the theologian of the not so distant past who demands that we, theologians of the present, not be seduced by the warm water that is our theological and political contentment? Such thoughts are undoubtedly selfish, and I know that the answer is a substantial: No. His life and thought certainly did have a significant purpose for his place in history. However, I can’t shake the feeling that his life and his thought—his voice—was one that was intended to have a timeless quality so that he would forever have something to say to us in our present, whenever that present may be. As Tietz writes in the Epilogue:
Faith and theology, for [Bonhoeffer], were not private or academic mental games; they had existential significance and immediate effects on action. The reverse was also true: Bonhoeffer constantly allowed his own faith and theology to be challenged by the circumstances of his life. He reexamined his own ideas and convictions when they no longer seemed suited for new situations. It was more important to him that his thought corresponded to reality than that he maintain some theological system. (p. 118)While, Bonhoeffer’s example primarily demands that we be better theologians, it also demands that we be better neighbors in community as the church together and also as the church that is “‘there for others,’” also in no small part by “[reminding] the state of its duty to care for justice, order (and peace)” (p. 119).
Because its primary task stand outside the political realities, the church is able to remind the state of its own task. The Church should “keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder…. This does not mean interfering in the state’s responsibility for its actions; on the contrary, it is thrusting the entire burden of responsibility upon the state itself for the actions proper to it.” (p. 119–20)Bonhoeffer is not a weapon to be wielded in our contemporary political battles. His life and his thought affirm neither mainstream American liberal politics nor mainstream American conservative politics (and especially not evangelical conservative politics). Rather, his life and his thought is that splash in the face of very cold water that jerks us back into reality, causing us to look around and ask questions (of the state, of the church, of others, and of ourselves). According to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theological and political contentment is no longer a viable option for us. It’s time to wake up.
Maybe now’s a good time to say, “Just go read this book. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
[Ed. note: Lauren R. E. Larkin is a doctoral candidate at Universität Zürich in Systematic Theology and Social Ethics. She regularly contributes to theological blogs: Mockingbird, Key Life, and LaurenRELarkin.com. She is one half of EzerUncaged.]
Subscribe to Die Evangelischen Theologen