This is a book that I had not known about until Peter at Slow Reads gave it to me as a recent birthday gift. I had not heard about it beforehand and was a bit intimidated by its large number of pages. That being said, I’m really glad that I started reading it and had no trouble staying motivated enough to complete this biography all the way through to its end.

The book by Eric Metaxas starts slowly, offering a detailed look into Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s family, even touching upon his great grandfather and great uncle. This first chapter’s detailed look at Bonhoeffer’s ancestry exceeds what is normal for most biographies. However, extended family connections would prove to be important for him throughout his life, and this chapter provides some of the needed context for this. Bonhoeffer’s upper-middle class parents taught their children to come to their own conclusions after a careful consideration of the facts at hand. They also instructed them to eschew emotionalism of any kind. These character traits would later, of course, put the family at odds with the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

The pace of the book quickens when Bonhoeffer begins his theological studies. Even though his professors were strongly in the camp of the 19th century German revisionist and liberal theologians, Bonhoeffer oriented his own thinking towards the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer would befriend a few years later. The end of Bonhoffer’s period as a young adult student would end with him finding his first best friend, Franz Hildebrandt.

Much of the middle part of the book centers on the split between the “German Christians“, those Lutherans in Germany who acceded to the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies, and the “Confessing Church“, which made several futile attempts at reconciliation but eventually ended up as a partially underground church movement. Since Germany followed the continental European model of funding church pastors and buildings via state funds, Lutheran pastors were reluctant to speak out too boldly against the Nazi state. The Confessing Church would not move fast enough for Bonhoeffer away from Nazism; he always seemed to be a few steps ahead when it came to realizing the seriousness of the evil of Hitler and his rule.

The middle part of Bonhoeffer’s short life was taken up with several foreign travels and assignments. Bonhoeffer worked as a pastor for German expatriates in Spain and England. He also spent some time in post-doctoral studies at Union seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, intrigued by the community-life that he had heard about with Mohandas Gandhi, even made plans to visit India. Yet fate would permanently postpone Bonhoeffer’s trip to India, and the meeting of two of the 20th centuries great religious figures would never take place.

In the mid-1930’s, Bonhoeffer would return to Germany, and begin running the underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania in eastern Germany (now in western Poland). Here, Bonhoeffer would begin breaking down the usual barriers that separated a professor from his students. He would emphasize personal scripture meditation and servant-leadership and even a revival of Martin Luther’s injunction for Protestant Christians to confess their sins one to another. The Nazi state would eventually discover and shut down Finkenwalde, but the short two years that it was opened produced deep and lasting friendships, including Bonhoffer’s friendship with his second best friend Ebehard Bethge. Rural Pomerania was steadfastly anti-Nazi, so Bonhoeffer found many supporters for Finkenwalde in that region, including especially the grandmother of his future fiancee. Many of the members of Pomerania’s old aristocracy would lead the failed July 1944 assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was drafted into the resistance by his brother-in-law in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence operation that was filled with prominent resistance members. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent, and the Abwehr gave him a means of resistance and the ability to escape being drafted into the military. Eventually, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law were arrested on a minor charge of helping to smuggle Jews out of the country. For many months, the Gestapo did not realize the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities, and, since Bonhoeffer’s uncle had authority over the prison warden, Bonhoeffer was given favorable treatment. All of this changed after the aborted July 1944 coup attempt. Eventually, Bonhoeffer’s activities were exposed and he was ordered executed by Hitler just before the end of the war.

The book only mentions in passing the later controversies over Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially the meaning of the Bonhoeffer’s term “religionless Christianity”. Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned when he coined this phrase and died before he had had a chance to expound upon it in any detail. The author offers passing criticism of more the liberal views of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but a more detailed analysis of post-mortem theological arguments are left to other books.

The author also clearly comes down on the side of being in favor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to involve himself in the plot to kill and overthrow Hitler. The decision to undertake regicide is one that many of Bonhoeffer’s fellow Christians would disagree with. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of how Bonhoeffer weighed the pros and cons of this fateful decision, you will need to look at other books and sources.

The surprising parts of this book for me: Bonhoeffer’s deep sense of connectedness to family and friends. Bonhoeffer, a bachelor for most of his life until his engagement just before his imprisonment, believed in fully integrating his life between his family and his friends. Bonhoeffer’s friends often became closely linked to his parents and other family members. Bonhoeffer treated his former students like family. Bethge helped Bonhoeffer with the particularly sensitive mission of helping get Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, her Jewish husband, and their daughters out of Germany, and Bethge eventually married his niece. Bonhoeffer’s lifelong struggle with depression is also a surprise. Additionally, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to explore forms of community life in Protestant Christianity, including New Monasticism, make Bonhoeffer a man who was 50 or 60 years ahead of his time.

The book includes extensive excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with family and friends. Some readers may not like switching between the narrative and these letters. Others may appreciate reading from these important original source materials.

All in all, this is a great book and one that I would highly recommend reading.


Posted in: history by bill-o on March 14, 2010

This month is the 80th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi‘s March to the Sea or Salt March, which occurred March 12 to April 5, 1930. Gandhi and 78 other men made the historic 390-km or 240-mile march down to the ocean in order to perform a simple act: To boil off salt from sea water. Gandhi’s act of mass civil disobedience eventually led to the arrest of 60,000 people on charges of failing to pay the British salt tax. In spite of the skepticism of other leaders for Indian independence, Gandhi chose to initiate the protest against the salt tax because (1) everyone in India used salt and (2) this tax hurt poor Indians the most.

Salt is a symbol that everyone can understand. It is everywhere and used by everyone. The chemistry of salt is so simple that it is the one chemical molecule, along with water, that most of us will remember from chemistry class: NaCl. Unlike precious metals and jewels, like gold or diamonds, salt is for everyday use. And unlike water, a very small portion of salt (i.e. a “pinch of salt”) is useful, whereas water is heavy and cumbersome to transport.

Take a closer look at the phrase “table salt”: Salt is so common, it is found on every dining table, the place of communion for family and friends. Is there any other substance that is given such an honor? Even the word “table” here implies that the grade of salt is good enough to be eaten by people. And to further the symbolism of communion: Unlike the plate, knife, spoon, and fork, the salt shaker is shared by everyone at the table.

Eighty years later, salt is still a potent symbol: To free something that is shared by everyone is a symbol of bringing freedom to everyone.