Monthly Archives: November 2006

Review of Bonhoeffer as Martyr by Craig J. Slane

Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment by Craig J. Slane, Brazos Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Chris Rice

(Cross Posted on A Desperate Kind of Faithful)

The notion of Martyrdom is a foreign one in our post-modern world. It certainly has more negative connotations when understood as someone willing to off themselves for a political cause. We think of religious martyrdom in the news in terms of fiery blasts and falling buildings in the headlines. How could death for a cause be inspirational in this day and age? Craig Slane guides us through the Christian history of witness from its earliest days to the present, demonstrating how the change in our own times have blurred the lines between dogmatic and ideological witness.

Perhaps just when we need it most Slane introduces us to the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as follower of Jesus unto death. Martyrdom, he points out, for the Christian is not recognized or claimed for one’s self prior to death, rather it is bestowed by the believer’s faith community. This separates Bonhoeffer and all believers from those who would off themselves purposely as a suicidal act. Still, is it true that we are called to identify our faith with death as much as life? Can our faith be a death affirming activity–and why would you want to read a book about that? In an age and for a country wherein Christianity has become more about our best, victorious, and most successful living the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of a costly Christianity that daily identifies with a humiliated and hidden Savior. He reminds us of the Church as a radical community wherein we practice individual confession and repentance, and relationships with Christ as mediator. These things, of course, are all a part of a life well lived following Jesus—to the Cross.

I haven’t had a reading experience like this one since I can remember. Those with abstract thought handicaps beware, and if you develop a skin rash at the mention of Heidegger or A.N. Whitehead consider yourself warned. This work is not for the academic faint of heart. But if you’ve got guts and curiosity I dare you to read this book. It is intended as a step forward for Bonhoeffer studies, but also as an interpretation of martyrdom. Bonhoeffer’s final works, Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics are set in the light of his decision to join the Abwehr and be hung along with Hitler’s conspirators. So reading this book has set my readings of these books in a whole new light. There are many selections from rather obscure letters and texts that help set the right context. As I point out in my review of Stephen Haynes’ The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, Bonhoeffer is used constantly out of his context. Its only in setting the scene that we can fully appreciate his witness, and then appropriate his example to our own setting.

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Review of “Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

Kbinthetheologyofdbby Andreas Pangritz, Eerdmans, (2000). ISBN: 080284281x.

Reviewed by Richard Gillingham

If the commentators are to be believed Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth had an ambiguous theological relationship. After initially being firmly in Barth’s camp particularly in their mutual roles in the Confessing Church. However, in his letter work, especially Letters and Papers it has been asserted that a fissure opened up over Barth’s positivism of revelation. The applicable passage from Bonhoeffer’s prison letters is from the letter dated 30 April 1944 immediately following a discussion of ‘religionless Christianity’:

Barth, who is the only one to have started along this line of thought, did not carry it to completion, but arrived at a positivism of revelation, which in the last analysis is essentially a restoration. For the religionless working man (or any other man) nothing decisive is gained here. The questions to be answered wouldsurely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God -without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak(or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular”way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians,in what way are we the ek-klisia, those who are called forth,not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quitedifferent, really the Lord of the world. (text copied from online version here).

Throughout this text Pangritz asserts that the criticisms of Barth, which were present as early as his Act and Being, are more specifically related to some of Barth’s more conservative followers (such as Hans Asmussen). Pangritz rather argues that the lines of similarity between Barth and Bonhoeffer are more substantive than is sometimes supposed. In particular, Pangritz in a study of Barth’s theology after Bonhoeffer’s death shows that some of the ambiguity that caused some concern for Bonhoeffer is made more explicit. That is not to say that there are no differences. Most notable according to Pangritz is the Bonhoeffer who wrote Letters and Papers was less opposed to some aspects of liberal theology than Barth, a legacy that he seems to have suppressed in the Confessing Church period.

Review of “The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives”

BonhoefferlegacyBy Stephen R Haynes. Fortress, (2006). ISBN: 0800638158.

Reviewed by Richard

The Bonhoeffer Legacy is a follow up to Haynes’ 2004 The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon (reviewed here). Like this earlier work the strength of this work is its survey of the secondary literature. The focus in this case is to relate the variety of interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s relation to Judaism and specifically the anti-semitic sentiments that has plagued the history to theological thought.

Haynes begins with a survey of Bonhoeffer in the popular (primarily Christian) memory. With the gravity of the murderous scope of the holocaust and the Church’s acquiescence there is a need for moral heroes and, in the mind of many, Bonhoeffer fits the bill excellently. It enables us to see that in spite of all its failings the Church “did something” to say no to the persecution of Jews. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in “Operation 7” is cited in support of this assertion. In contrast, in his second chapter Haynes focuses on the response of Jewish scholars to Bonhoeffer’s thought and actions. This Jewish reading is never the wholehearted elevation of Bonhoeffer as moral paradigm the Christian (and primarily evangelical) popular memory; the most benevolent position was to consider Bonhoeffer “the best of a bad lot”. Why? Bonhoeffer’s writings early on, particularly in the 1933 essay “The Church and Jewish Question” displayed not only a supercessionism but also echoed themes of anti-Jewish rhetoric common in the Nazi and pre-Nazi era. For example, Bonhoeffer repeats the “witness people” myth that affirms the charge of deicide on the Jewish people and their historic sufferings as retribution for this sin. Hayne’s study is an attempt to steer a middle course between the rejection of Bonhoeffer by some Jewish Scholars and the Christian ‘spin control’ of his defenders.

Fundamentally, The Bonhoeffer Legacy while certainly meeting a lacuna in Bonhoeffer Studies fails to really satisfy focusing too much on context and Bonhoefferian historiography over the work and rescue-work of Bonhoeffer. I consider this to be a disappointment because as his previous publication Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology makes clear Haynes has the expertise to have made this the definitive account of Bonhoeffer’s theological relationship to Judaism and the holocaust.

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Review of “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance”

Realityby Larry L Rasmussen. Westminster John Knox Press, (2005). ISBN: 0664230113.

Reviewed by Richard

I purchased this book on the recommendation of Chris who stated that this was the premier work on understanding Bonhoeffer’s entry into both the work of resistance but also tyrannicide. Having read it I think he is right.

Larry Rasmussen who is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary writes with the stated aim to answer the question “what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his momentous decision to be involved in the plot to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944?” In seeking to answer this question Rasmussen offers a superb, if occasionally tough-going, theological exposition of the whole corpus of Bonhoeffer’s work.

In order to address this question Rasmussen begins by analysing the theme of resistance and it develops and demonstrates the exclusively christological character this takes in Bonhoeffer’s thought, particularly in the conception of Christ-for other and the idea of Christian responsibility. In particular, Rasmussen highlights the continuity but also marked development between The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics; a development that was to form the “wedge” that opened up tyrannicide as a viable theological option.

In the second section of the book Rasmussen turn his directly to Bonhoeffer’s direct theology of violence. Rasmussen begins by assessing whether Bonhoeffer can rightly be considered a pacifist. His conclusion is probably best described as “almost, but not quite” although even here Rasmussen notes that Bonhoeffer can oscillate between a ‘sectarian’ pacifism and a just war position. This just war tendency also informed Bonhoeffer’s move towards tyrannicide although again in the context of christological justification.

Are there weaknesses in this Book? If there are they are few in number. I would perhaps suggest the differences between Bonhoeffer’s move to active resistance to the majority of the Confessing Church as well as the wider legacy of Lutheran ethical dualism would be one. Nonetheless it is not often that having read through a quarter of the book I have already decided that it will not be too long before I return to reread the same book, this is what happened reading this. It is in my opinion the best account of Bonhoeffer’s political ethic (resistance and conspiracy) that I have to date come across.

For anyone interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology then they should have this book in their library. enough said?

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Review of Waiting for the Word: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Speaking about God

by Frits De Lange, Eerdmans, (1995).

Reviewed by Richard

Frits De Lange’s slim volume is as the book’s subtitle indicates is a study of Bonhoeffer’s approach to theology understood in its basic form of God-talk. From the start while this is a short book I never really got into it and am not sure if i was just not in the mood or because I found the text difficult to read (it is a translated text from Dutch), The main argument of this book is that Bonhoeffer’s theology while becoming more radicalised (and arguably less ecclesiocentric) over time still maintained a strong degree of continuity with his earlier work. Therefore, De Lange claims that the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers are a different Bonhoeffer to Life Together and the earlier Act and Being are wide off the mark. In arguing his case de Lange makes some interesting excursions into Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Barth, the influence of his upper middle class upbringing and especially the influence of his father Karl Bonhoeffer on his understanding of the silence of the Word as well as the relation of modern literary theory to Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of the word. I am not sure the book is worth the cover price but it is a interesting read if you ever discover it going cheaply second hand.

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Review of “The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint”

by Stephen R Haynes, Fortress, (2004).

Reviewed by Richard Gillingham

The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon is best described as a book about books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Stephen Haynes is an author I have come across before in his very good (if somewhat heavy-going) Prospects for Post Holocaust Theology.

In the first part of the book Haynes offers a survey of four different faces of Bonhoeffer; the seer, prophet, apostle and bridge. The Seer-Bonhoeffer represents the radical Bonhoeffer and his adoption by the Death of God theologies of the 1960s that drew in particular from Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published Letters and Papers. The prophet-Bonhoeffer is a cousin to the radical Bonhoeffer and represents the Liberal interpretation of Bonhoeffer. The liberal Bonhoeffer highlights the critical patriotism of Bonhoeffer and his search for Justice (both for Jews, Blacks and socially deprived). In contrast the Apostle-Bonhoeffer is the Bonhoeffer of (primarily) conservative evangelicalism. This manifestation of Bonhoeffer reads his denunciations of abortion in Ethics in tandem with his revolutionary acts against an anti-christian government. The final portrait Haynes offers is Bonhoeffer as bridge. This Bonhoeffer is a universal Bonhoeffer whose emphasis was on a ‘spiritual’ moral leader emphasising Justice and universal human rights but in doing so often limiting the relevance of his adherence to broadly classical christian thought.

In the second part of the book Haynes adds a fifth Bonhoeffer, this is Bonhoeffer the Protestant saint. To establish the case Haynes offers an approach to sainthood that emphasises the choice of the believing community (rather than contemporary Catholicism’s papal decision). Overall Haynes book is a interesting survey of historiography and hagiography and offers a challenge to anyone who would adopt Bonhoeffer for their causes irrespective of whether that be an anti-war liberal or pro-life conservative.

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