The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Interview with Charles Marsh
By Tiffany Stanley | July 30, 2014
On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian who opposed the Nazis, was hanged by the regime on the grounds of a concentration camp. Nearly seven decades later, his theological writings and work continue to engage and inspire readers. In a comprehensive new biography, scholar Charles Marsh reconstructs the pastor’s life, providing intimate details using documents that recently have been made available. Earlier this month, Marsh spoke with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley about the book, titled Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was published in April of this year by Alfred A. Knopf.
Marsh is a professor of religious studies and director of the Project of Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the University of Virginia. He is author of seven previous books, including God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and a memoir, The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South. He serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: We’re excited to talk about your book on Bonhoeffer, which is getting a lot of attention, so thank you. I know many years of work went into it.
CM: I initially signed a contract with Knopf to do a much shorter book that would have focused mainly on Bonhoeffer’s American experiences. It was actually a project called Bonhoeffer in America and, if I had known then that the project would have evolved into a cradle-to-grave treatment and taken eight years, I would have politely bowed out. I saw my editor a few weeks ago in Washington, and he confessed to having tricked me into writing about a full life. But yes, eight years is a long time.
R&P: After reading the book, I was struck because I had heard you say that originally it was going to be just his time in America and it’s so much broader than that.
CM: It’s a cradle-to-grave treatment. And what happened was that from my editor’s perspective and maybe my agent’s, it was inevitable. I didn’t know at the time because I had never written a full-length biography. There are these interesting biographies—of Einstein in Berlin, or Nietzsche in Turin, or Adorno in California. But in my estimation, to really set the stage meaningfully for Bonhoeffer’s year in America in 1930-1931, you have to do a lot of work on experiences that preceded that and fill in the gaps between the 1931 visit and the 1939 visit and by the time you’ve done that, you’ve started moving in the direction of a full life. Also, the other thing that really inspired the decision more was the availability of new documents and historical archives that made it possible, really for the first time, to write a biography of Bonhoeffer relying primarily on primary documents rather than on the great 1300-page biography that Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge wrote in the late 60s.
R&P: That was something I wanted to ask about because Bethge’s book has been the seminal biography. There have been a few other Bonhoeffer biographies, notably two in 2010: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and Eric Metaxas’ bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Was it the new documents that really spurred you on? Or what context or information did you feel like you could add to your volume that previous books had missed?
CM: Bethge’s biography is, you know, a, magisterial work and has been for nearly five decades the touchstone of all Bonhoeffer scholarship. But, if you’re writing a biography about your best friend, moreover your best friend who was murdered by the Nazis, you’re going to be protective about certain aspects of his character, of his life, of your relationship. Eberhard is a dear friend of mine and has been very generous to me over the years in sharing documents. I would not regard his biography as at all hagiographic. I think he writes quite courageously in some of his interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life. But, nonetheless, that basic narrative of Eberhard’s book is a grand narrative and it’s a narrative that shaped not only Bonhoeffer biographies but also Bonhoeffer scholarship as well. This includes Metaxas’s biography. Metaxas was using the basic script and applying his flair to that narrative in a way that really connected with a wide readership. But I had access to just a treasure of newly obtained documents through the library in Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek, and the documents appearing in published form in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, which is now translated into English. The translation was just completed this past fall, the sixteen-volume, complete writings of Bonhoeffer. This is someone who died when he was 39 years old and whose complete writings come to well over ten thousand pages. As a discipline and in terms of my own creative process, I took all the biographies, including Bethge’s, and I hid them away and made myself, or told myself, I wouldn’t look at any biographical writing until I finished with my complete draft of my book, using only the primary materials and documents.
I remember that spring in 2007 when I was a visiting professor in Berlin, having access to what must have been 20 to 25 cases of documents that had just been sold to the Staatsbibliothek from the family of Eberhard Bethge. Bethge had died around 2000. And, just how every day brought discoveries. These were very personal documents, intimate documents, but also the kind of materials you need just to make a life vivid and give it a certain kind of cinematic clarity. Like I didn’t know how tall he was. And then, in a driver’s license or something, you see, oh, he’s 6’1”. And then the documents from his shared bank account with Eberhard or inventories of his library and his wardrobe, tickets to the theatre, or journals about his walk in the park, and shopping sprees and salon knowledge and just all of these aspects of character that begin to reveal—to me, at least—a fascinatingly different kind of portrait than the one of Bonhoeffer that I had carried with me for 25 years since writing a doctoral dissertation on his philosophical thought.
I had a friend who was one of the translators of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer works and I think one of the most brilliant of Bonhoeffer’s scholars in the world. Victoria Barnett is her name, and she’s the director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. She tells me around the same time, “You know, I have translated Bonhoeffer, I have read Bonhoeffer, I’ve given much of my life to Bonhoeffer scholarship and history, and I still don’t know who he was.” I didn’t really know who he was either, and so I wanted to look directly at this new body of more intimate documents and let that unfamiliar picture of this Protestant saint and martyr and theologian develop in narrative form. I would say that while Strange Glory’s not the first biography written, it’s the first one that’s relied solely on primary documents, other than Bethge’s book. It’s the first one that’s really shaped by the new treasure of documents and materials that are available in archives and this volume of complete works.
R&P: As you mentioned, this isn’t your first book on Bonhoeffer. More than 20 years ago, your doctoral dissertation and subsequent book also covered the theologian. Why return to him now? And what was that like, coming back to him and learning so much more personal information about him?
CM: That’s a really interesting question. Thanks for asking that. As a child of the church, I certainly heard about Bonhoeffer by the time I reached college. In college, I was an English and philosophy major, and I read some passages of his more popular works, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together. But I was late coming to Bonhoeffer’s, theology as a whole and it was the sort of the more philosophical writings that comprised his body of academic work from 1927 to 1933.
All my graduate studies were very much a part of the theory-separated branch of 1980s postmodern culture, and that was exciting in its own way. But in the summers throughout my graduate years, I went to Atlanta and I worked in an inner-city community center for minority youth in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I was living in these two worlds. In the summers I was teaching my “Body and Soul” workshop, which was poetry, basketball, Bible study, and then just doing the things of a community worker, and equally fulfilled by this practical work. Then in the fall, I would drive back to school, whether it was in Cambridge or Charlottesville, and be excited about the new year, but I would be reading my German philosophy and feeling a million miles away from the community I served. It was liberating for me to discover Bonhoeffer, as a grad student himself and as a young professor himself who struggled with the same kinds of tensions, which are the tensions of many young scholars. He tried to think through classical German philosophical tradition to locate a more socially conscious, engaged, and relational conception of self and the self as an entity. That was helpful and then I wrote the dissertation and the book.
In the early 90s, rather than to pursue my second, more technical academic and theological project, I began having all of these questions related to my upbringing in the Deep South and inquiries about my childhood and the white evangelical church throughout the last years of the segregated South. I ended up with almost no skills in historical research or certainly in ethnography. I remember, I guess it was 20 years ago this summer, getting in my car in Baltimore where I was teaching at the time, and heading South with my credit card and my microcassette recorder and a list of questions. What were we thinking about Jesus in those churches that made us think we were both the most holy and pure out of all of the Christian churches in the United States while also being completely indifferent, if not complicit, toward African Americans in the Jim Crow South?
I tried to sort a lot of these questions out theologically, and in the course of what became not only God’s Long Summer but also three books on the civil rights movement, I found myself learning how to write theology as narrative, or theology as story. Over the years I taught Bonhoeffer to undergraduates and graduate students. I have a graduate seminar on Bonhoeffer and King. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was sort of standing there, waiting patiently, saying, “You’ve written these theological narratives, these stories, and theological accounts of Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis and others. Now it’s my turn.”
I think it was helpful, obviously, to have read all of Bonhoeffer’s writings because I had a sense of his intellectual importance and place in the modern story. Then that kind of decades-long tutelage in writing narrative nonfiction was what I finally needed to come back to him with the hope and the goal of creating a kind of storied and hopefully vivid and engaging narrative of this original, brilliant theologian, this dissident, this leader/activist in the German resistance and conspiracy.
R&P: The beginning of Strange Glory portrays Bonhoeffer’s childhood and early life as one with a lot of privilege and opportunity and accomplishments. It seems like he’s sheltered and shielded from a lot of the political turmoil going on in Germany at the time. I wondered if you could place that in context. What factors later galvanized him into the activist that he became?
CM: That is true, but he wasn’t altogether indifferent to politics. His older brothers were quite astute, and students of contemporary political and legal affairs, and so there was probably some sense in which he heard Klaus and Karl Friedrich, and then Walter before he died in the war, and his father, and other members of the extended family, many of whom where legal scholars and historians, ponder all these issues. But Bonhoeffer was himself a child of much more aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, and showed kind of a very early predilection for metaphysical speculation. The way I tell the story is in a way that’s true to Bonhoeffer’s later observations of his journey. When in prison he writes to Eberhard, and he recalls that there were only two times in his life that he could observe, from the vantage point of 1943, profound personal growth and transformation. One, he said, was “a strong impression of my father.” His father was a prominent psychiatrist, director for the center of nervous diseases at the University of Berlin. The other, he said, was “the experiences of my first journey abroad, my first experiences abroad.” He meant trips to Italy, and to Barcelona and to Spain, but more than anything else a year spent in the United States in 1930-31. On the eve of that trip to America, in August of 1930, Bonhoeffer is only 24 years old, and he has by now two doctorates, and he is a straight-arrow academic primed for academic fame within the very demanding German scene. He came to America as a visiting student at Union Theological Seminary, thinking that it would be yet another chapter in his privileged life. It ended up being an experience, a kind of immersion if you will, that gave him a wholly new way of thinking about his vocation as a pastor and theologian.
People who know Bonhoeffer’s story and have read his life know that he found plenty of things to criticize in the manner of theological education, and the theological education that defined Union Theological Seminary, really the Protestant mainline in the 1930s. He found the level of education sophomoric; he thought all Protestant, liberal theology was just all sort of indistinguishable from pragmatism, that American Protestant thought was really traded on the laziest aspects of German nineteenth-century liberalism. He thought that Reinhold Niebuhr was more interested in creating a center for labor organizers than really engaging theological education seriously. Beyond his sort of grumblings and mumblings and kind of pompous criticism, he was seeing theology in a strange new light. He’d never in his life seen a professor in a theology faculty at Berlin take a group of students out of the classroom into some blighted neighborhood of the city where there were families who are going through unemployment. It just wasn’t part of the German academic scene or theological world. That ultimately excited him and broadened his imagination. I think that in fact the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Bonhoeffer has been understated over the years. One of Bonhoeffer’s first encounters with Niebuhr—he took both of the classes at Union—Bonhoeffer turned in a paper that was a fairly straightforward, tedious exhibition of Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was a fairly typical early twentieth-century Lutheran account and Niebuhr objected. He apparently wrote in margins of the paper, “There are no ethics here. Where is the ethical dimension in your account? A concept of faith without ethics is an empty concept.” Bonhoeffer was mortified by this, but in five years he was writing a book called Cost of Discipleship, and coining a phrase that’s become perhaps the most common phrase in the Bonhoeffer lexicon— “cheap grace.” And “cheap grace” is about obedience and exactly what Niebuhr was telling him in 1930 in response to that essay on Luther.
Bonhoeffer also met a largely vanished generation of mainline Protestant social organizers. It was also the golden age of the American organizing tradition. There were students going off to do labor organizing after they finished Union or during the summers. Bonhoeffer was introduced to members of the ACLU, NAACP, all sorts of labor organizations, and he spoke very favorably. He told his brother in a letter, “We’re going to need to organize an ACLU in Germany.”
Finally, it was Bonhoeffer’s immersion in the African American church that I think inspired what Bonhoeffer said in that same letter I mentioned earlier, in 1943, which he described as his turning from the phraseological to the real. I just love that expression. A black seminarian from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father was pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church church, where three decades later, four beautiful Sunday school girls would be murdered by a Klan bombing—from that same church, this young seminarian Frank Fisher invited Bonhoeffer in the fall to join him one Sunday morning at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the great Clayton Powell Sr. was senior minister. This really began Bonhoeffer’s intense immersion in the African American church. He became obsessed with race relations in America, with the story of African American Christianity, and also with all of the extraordinary kinds of writings and compositions and artistic expressions of the Harlem renaissance, which was in full flower at the time.
I remember one of my first days sitting in the library in Berlin, holding up a box of papers and seeing a file, larger than any of Bonhoeffer’s files from those years, of research documents on the Negro question—files of studies of lynchings, of writings, of early NAACP field reports of conditions in the South. In the spring of that year, after, for him, the extraordinary experience of becoming an active parishioner at Abyssinian, Clayton Powell Sr. invited Bonhoeffer to preach once in the pulpit, which is a huge honor of any Baptist minister to yield the pulpit to another person, and in this case a sort of erudite Berliner whose sermons were not marked, shall we say, by great exuberance. He also taught Sunday school every week to a group of young boys, and he taught frequently in the WMU, or the women’s missionary union.
At the end of the year, he and some other students took a road trip. It ended up being just Bonhoeffer and a Frenchman because they let the other students off in Chicago and New Orleans. This is one of those research areas in the book where I invested a lot of time early in hopes of finding more primary documents. Bonhoeffer was a very committed journaler—he kept diaries and journals throughout his life. I was hoping to find the journal of this road trip, when in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer and this Frenchman named Jean Lasserre, who was a pacifist and would become a member of the French resistance, ended up driving 4,000 miles in an old beat-up car, an Oldsmobile, and then logging another 1,200 miles on a Mexican train. We probably don’t have this in writing because Bonhoeffer was driving; they were up and driving for over 14 hours a day.
But there are observations that conclude that when they were returning, instead of going back the way they came, which would have been through New Orleans and up north to Chicago, they pointed the car east and headed right into the Jim Crow South. Bonhoeffer wanted to see, to traverse this strange landscape he had read about in his courses. I worked with a geographer and I was able to reconstruct the route. They traveled from New Orleans and they went through Hattiesburg and Laurel and Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. They drove within 20 miles of Scottsboro, Alabama, where that same month the Scottsboro boys’ trial was beginning, and then they drove back up the East Coast. It appears that somewhere south of Scottsboro and west of New Orleans the two men stopped on a Sunday morning and worshipped in a rural black church. When Bonhoeffer got back to New York he wrote a paragraph to his supervisor—and this from a theologian who, when he arrived in New York and America eight months earlier, had just been completely contentious toward American Protestant life and culture and didn’t think he had anything to learn—and now was saying that he heard the gospel preached for the first time. And he did not mean the first time in America, he meant the first time for him.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany with a dramatically different perspective on his vocation as pastor and theologian. He also returned to Germany with a love of the Bible. He had studied the Bible, he’d taught classes on the Bible, he’d written essays on the Bible, but he had never read the Bible devotionally. Now he began to just pour over the gospel narratives and become similarly obsessed with the Sermon on the Mount and what for him became the peacemaking mandates of these writings. He started going to church. He’d never really gone to church. He also asked if he could serve a parish in a city section of Berlin. Maybe Bonhoeffer had seen some unemployment or poverty in Germany, but I doubt it had ever really registered with him. Now he’s moving into the inner city in Berlin to work in a parish that is really the most devastated parish of the industrial layoff in Berlin. And he carried with him a collection of recordings of Negro spirituals and gospel standards. One of my favorite images of the German resistance movement as it clusters around the Bonhoeffer story is that of a group of seminarians at a semi-abandoned estate in northeast Germany, in an area called Pomerania. They’re gathered around a piano and Bonhoeffer is playing, rather theatrically, as he was wont to do. These are seminarians who are taking part now in 1935-36 as part of an experiment in creating a seminary of non-Nazi, anti-Nazi pastors. Bonhoeffer referred to this experiment as “an experiment in new monasticism.” That’s where the phrase the “new monastics” comes from and the new monastic movement that’s been happening here in the past 15 or 20 years. That’s the phrase that Bonhoeffer used in a letter to his brother. His brother was an atheist who was trying to figure out why his baby brother was such a fanatic. And he’s saying that what we need in such a time of deception and great propaganda and lies within the now-Nazified German Protestant church is a new kind of monasticism.
And anyway, they’re drinking their beers and smoking their cigars, and they’re singing, “Go Down, Moses.” The discovery that many of the same songs and spirituals that inundated and energized the black freedom struggle in the South 20-something years later were in the 1930s at the heart of the German church resistance movement that Bonhoeffer led was just wonderful.
R&P: Given with your own work how extensively you’ve written about the civil rights movement, was it a very moving experience to see Bonhoeffer travel similar roads through the South?
CM: Yes. It blew my mind to see Bonhoeffer traversing and visiting the American South really at the bleakest years of Jim Crow. These are the years depicted in Richard Wright’s memoirs, the long, iron years of Jim Crow. He’s asking questions and making notes. There’s a passage where he says, “I had spoken with some of the Negro intellectuals,” and he is referring to intellectuals not only in New York and in Washington, which he also visited in his travels, but also throughout the South, and he says, “It appears that there is a great revolution coming, if not immediately, soon enough.” And his observations of the white southern ministers, who he found—he used the word despicable. He described some of the white pastors he apparently conversed with, who—and this has to be conjecture—were explaining to him why they did not see a contradiction between their profession of the Christian faith and their adherence to the dictates of white supremacy.
There are probably 20 pages of direct observation of the American South. I’m drawn to narrative written by outsiders, or observations by outsiders, of very familiar places. Some southerners of my generation and of my parents’ generation would refer to that as just outside agitation or the critical scrutiny of someone who really doesn’t understand our manners and habits. But I’ve always been really intrigued and fascinated, and I’ve learned a whole lot, probably more from outsider accounts than from insider accounts, of familiar landscapes. To see Bonhoeffer—I had no idea that he had made this trip.
It was a transformative trip. Within two years of returning, the Nuremburg laws had passed in 1933. And Bonhoeffer is within weeks of the passage of the Nuremburg laws and the codification of anti-Jewish church policies in the so-called Aryan paragraph, or the Aryan clause, Bonhoeffer was telling a group of Lutheran pastors—whose jaws dropped—that the victims of state violence, whether these victims are Christian or not, that it was the obligation of the church not simply to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to crush the wheel itself.
There are a number of ways of understanding Bonhoeffer’s prescience, his clarity. I mean, he wasn’t always clear, and he very often made some serious mistakes of judgment. Often throughout the years of resistance and conspiracy, he did not know what the next steps should be, and he lacked clarity, and he fled to the margins to try to mull over options and many times he left Germany thinking he would never return again. But nonetheless he saw the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933 as the emergence of this great masquerade of evil. He saw that with great prescience and clarity that very few, if any, of his fellow churchmen had. Bonhoeffer was raised to have an independent and critical mind, and he had a native distrust of anyone who presumed to speak authoritatively about matters of the state or matters of the heart. I think really the heart of Bonhoeffer’s prescience was that by 1933, he understood that the God of Jesus Christ could not in any way be identified with the voice of the Fuhrer.
R&P: Once he returned to Germany from the United States, he began speaking out against Hitler quickly. You note that on a radio broadcast two days after Hitler took power, he’s already denouncing the Fuhrer. By contrast, how were the majority of German ministers and theologians reacting to Hitler at that time and shortly thereafter?
CM: With great enthusiasm. He was offering the nation redemption from the shame of the Versailles Treaty and from its humiliation after the First World War and the attribution of guilt placed solely on Germany’s shoulders. He was offering the nation redemption and salvation from the kinds of moral torpor that many of the conservatives attributed to the Weimar licentiousness and sexual and political experimentation. Bonhoeffer understood that the so-called Fuhrer could see that there was a huge spiritual void in the lives of the country, and that the Protestant churches, which had been moribund and had no kind of theologically potent resources for distinguishing between the voice of the Fuhrer and the voice of God, had been complicit in this. I think he understood very clearly why this moment was received with such widespread enthusiasm. This is a moment that offers the nation a new identity, a new way of thinking about itself.
R&P: I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?
CM: It wasn’t a surprise, this observation of Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Eberhard. Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged. They wrote when they were apart during those seven years of their partnership. To be sure, I was intrigued when I found in those archives in Berlin a statement from a joint bank account. I did not realize that their partnership had that kind of formality about it as well. So Bonhoeffer and Eberhard began giving gifts together as a pair, Christmas presents and the like. They traveled and shared a room. They were soul mates of a sort. Bethge never reciprocated the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections. I don’t think Eberhard was gay; I simply don’t have any reason at all to think that. I think that Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was one that he, Bonhoeffer, wanted to define as a kind of spiritual marriage, but Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was also deeply romantic.
The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it. And yes, Bonhoeffer also was in love with Eberhard, and wanted in some fashion to secure a spiritual marriage of sorts, and Eberhard could not and did not want to finally accept that.
Of course, Bonhoeffer became engaged after Eberhard became engaged. The engagement was formalized only when Bonhoeffer was in prison. Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, “Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.”
I’m not surprised by the response. I’m really grateful for having the resources, the documents, and an opportunity to offer such detail because there’s great beauty and poignancy to this relationship. It does annoy me when someone critical of my treatment says, “Well, this is just like Jonathan and David in the Bible.” Or, “This is just revisionist, and you’re just superimposing contemporary categories on a friendship that in the 1930s and 40s had a very different cast.” But the thing is it did have a different cast; it was different in 1935 and 1936 in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s family was liberal and open yet was initially surprised by the sudden entrance of Eberhard into the family—but accepted him and accepted their relationship. Whatever it was, it wasn’t discussed or put in any particular terms, but they were surprised nonetheless. Once they understood that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard were together, they accepted them fully into the family. Even the recollections of some of Bonhoeffer’s students made it clear that some of them thought that he was gay. So this is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard. Bethge’s letters back, I should make clear, were always more perfunctory, and the romantic quality, the quality of enthrallment and enchantment, this sort of romantic love, were not part of Bethge’s responses to Bonhoeffer. But for Bonhoeffer, they weren’t just letters, but beautiful love letters.
R&P: The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer when he was only 39. Seven decades later, why do you think his life and writings continue to have such resonance among Christians and non-Christians alike?
CM: I think there’s the power of his story and the authenticity of his example. I think that one of the aspects of his legacy that I wanted to highlight is his originality as a thinker. I do think his writings, early and late, are marked by originality and genius and also by exquisite beauty. He was a theologian who could write about holy matters in a manner that is both accessible and artful. The heart of Bonhoeffer’s deep devotion to Christ is an equally great generosity. Such generosity is in fact enabled by his full devotion to Christ.
I think one of the things, too, that brought people to Bonhoeffer’s story, aside from his life and the power of his life and the drama of his story and his conscience, was the way he wrote with such attention and out of a particular context. He used to raise as many questions as he answered. He was always willing to ask the hard questions that the scholars and the academy would often be reluctant to pursue.
When he is in prison, he’s observing the ruin of Lutheran Christendom. The resistance church he served, it’s decimated now. The Nazi ideologues were referring to the pogroms and deportations and the death camps as finishing the work of Martin Luther, which is how some of the Nazi propaganda described the architecture of genocide. So Bonhoeffer’s reckoning seriously with the collapse of Western Christendom and wondering what, if anything, might be done. In prison, he’s not afraid to say that the language of the Christian faith has been so profaned and domesticated and misused that it has lost its meaningfulness. In one of this last theological writings in prison, he asks, what should the church do now? These are powerful, and undeniably urgent, meditations.
R&P: I really appreciate you taking time to chat with me today about the book.
CM: Thanks so much for your great work.
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