Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, by Renate Wind
Eerdmans, 2002.
Reviewed by Chris Rice

Renate Wind, a teacher of theology, biblical studies, and church history has written the most approachable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer available today. Leave it to a woman to make an early twentieth century German scholar fresh, vibrant, and alive for this generation! In this little paperback we are introduced to our hero as if for the first time. We learn of what it was like to grow up in the home of Karl Bonhoeffer, a father “both sensitive and detached,” and what effect this had on Dietrich’s desire to know God.
Diary entries of his visit to Rome in April of 1924 provide a window into his first encounter with the church in a Catholic mass. “The whole thing was so fresh, and made an unprecedented impression of the deepest piety. . . I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of the ‘church.’” (p. 29)

Another of my favorite moments in the book takes place in “The Prophet’s Chamber” at Union Theological Seminary occupied successively by four theologians whose nations were getting ready for war. (Japan, Canada, the US, and Germany) “The German was Dietrich Bonhoeffer: he spent the most difficult and most tormenting weeks of his life in the Prophet’s Chamber. In June 1939 he was admitted and given a teaching post for the coming semester. At the beginning of July he packed his bag again and went back to Germany on the last ship before the outbreak of war. In the Prophet’s Chamber his successor found piles of cigarette butts and illegible notes. A diary has also been preserved from these weeks which indicates how much Dietrich fought with himself and his conflicting ideas and feelings.”(p. 127)</p>
In an earlier letter he had written “We ought to be found only where He is. We can non longer, in fact, be anywhere else than where He is. Whether it is you working over there or I working in America, we are all only where He is. He takes us with him. Or have I, after all avoided the place where He is? The place where He is for me?” (p. 137)

Each of the chapters in this book are short enough to make the story easy to follow. The writing provides a special sense of involvement that transcends the period. It would seem that Renate is taking liberties with her subject with the way his story becomes so personable, but all her references are verifiable with notes. She is bringing us close to Bonhoeffer with her prose and this is a real gift. A book of this type can’t really be compared with Eberhard Bethge’s larger biography except to say that somehow she has successfully brought those of us less willing to wade through the enormity of the available material into closer relation with the man himself.

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