Review of “Anxious Souls Will Ask …”

Review of John W Matthews, Anxious Souls Will Ask … The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eerdmans, (2005). ISBN: 0802828418.

Bonhoeffer’s prison diary Letters and Papers from Prison was the first writing of his that I had read. More than anything else what first attracted me to his thought was its honesty; the faith that was so important to him was also for Bonhoeffer a source of much doubt and questioning. However, no doubt because of the honesty with which Letters and Papers was written it was also, for me at least, a profoundly unsettling experience. How is one to read Bonhoeffer’s call for a religion-less Christianity in a world come of age, for example.

John W Matthews, a Lutheran Minister in Minnesota, attempts in this short book (it only runs to 80 pages). Matthews argument is that Bonhoeffer theology has strong continuities with his earlier work and that Bonhoeffer’s prison reflections are an important resource in spurring contemporary Christianity to a more authentic faith. In the prison writings of Bonhoeffer Matthews identifies 5 “pillars” which, if appropriated by the contemporary church, will enhance its witness and mission. I will not outline each of these here (the book’s short enough for you to pick these up in one sitting, in any case) other than to say that a key theme that runs through all is the need to the Church to take a ‘reality-check’ and be honest about its own context and vision and, mirroring the mission of God as incarnated in Jesus, take an approach in which suffering and vulnerability are to, if not welcomed then accepted so that, like Jesus, the church may become authentically human.

In the her endorsement printed on the back cover Jean Bethke Elshtain writes that this book is “a powerful and poignant companion to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Newcomers to Bonhoeffer’s text and Bonhoeffer scholars alike will benefit from the fruits of John Matthews’s pilgrimage alongside Bonhoeffer”. There is no doubt that Anxious Souls will Ask … does have some merit but I am afraid that, contrary to Elshtain’s opinion, it is not anything like a “must-read”.

I am not at all sure anyone ho has read even a moderate amount of Bonhoeffer (whether in primary or secondary literature) will find anything of real value. However, for the genuinely beginning reader, particularly one in the immediate cunsettling aftermath of reading the Letters and Papers, then the albeit brief forays into Bonhoeffer’s other theological work will be of assistance even if Matthews is more confident than me of the clear line of continuity that exist between, for example, Life Together and Discipleship with Letters and Papers.

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