Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction To His Thought

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction To His Thought, by Sabine Dramm

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Hendrickson Publishers.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

As someone who has read a fair amount by and about the noted German theologian and anti-Hitler conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer and who will likely read much more by and about him in the future [1], I found this book to be a highly quotable and thoughtful introduction to his thinking concerning matters of theology, philosophy, and culture.  The author of this book wonders aloud about the various factors that could keep Bonhoeffer’s thought and practice, some of which is admittedly radical and much of it is rather deeply complicated and even paradoxical and conflicted, on the sidelines and in the ghettos of Christian thought.  However, as biased a reader as I am, I think that these worries are overblown, because as long as Christians are struggling in a post-Christian culture and as long as there is the threat of corrupt anti-Christian totalitarian political leadership, Bonhoeffer will continue to set a challenging standard for principled opposition to such corrupt and ungodly regimes.  For those of us who, like Bonhoeffer, combine a strong intellectual interest in theology and philosophy with a tendency to oppose wicked authorities in our midst, as long as there is a threat that others will act like Hitler and other dictators, there will be a need for people to be like Bonhoeffer, despite his tragic end and the complicated nature of his life.  This book gives a worthy introduction to that complexity insofar as it relates to Bonhoeffer as a Christian thinker, not as the fiance of a bright and charming German teenager while dealing with the abuses of Hitler’s regime in prison before his untimely death before the age of 40, which is another story for another time.

Although this book is not particularly sizable at 230 pages of core material and a fairly sizable bibliography, it manages to deal with a great deal of the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts.  Part of the complexity results from the fact that Bonhoeffer wrote such a diverse body of work ranging from academic studies at the beginning of his career when he was still in his 20’s, to works of practical theology on discipleship and living together as believers in the Christian community while engaged in efforts at opposing Hitler’s regime by serving the interests of the Confessing Church and simultaneously helping to found the ecumenical movement and engaging in the promotion of Christian pacifism that did not prevent him from being a supporter of conspiracies to overthrow Hitler in an attempt to save Germany from destruction that landed him in jail and then to an early grave as a decidedly complex martyr.  The fact that much of Bonhoeffer’s work is fragmentary and was written in the not ideal circumstances of being a political prisoner in Hitler’s Germany also gives a great deal of difficulty to understanding Bonhoeffer’s meaning.  Besides the complexity in genre and focus of Bonhoeffer’s writing, though, Dramm does a good job at capturing the characteristically paradoxical nature of much of what Bonhoeffer said, and gives the reader excellent caution about not taking his statements out of context or failing to understand the larger conversation of German Lutheran thought in which his writing was an exciting and worthwhile part.  And by writing a fairly large amount of somewhat short chapters, the author manages to capture the breadth of Bonhoeffer’s religious thought across a range from his family background to his thoughts on post-Christian Western Civilization to his unusual concern for the Jews as well as his sympathies for at least some aspects of Roman Catholicism which were striking and unusual for his time, or any time within mainstream German Lutheranism.

This is not to say that the book is perfect.  Though the book is highly quotable [2], the author clearly engages in some begging of questions, by stating that things ‘must be’ a certain way and also engages in some unfortunately antinomian arguments.  That said, the author makes no pretense about being unbiased and freely admits that the very act of writing an introduction to a subject, particularly one as complicated as Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, inevitably involves interpretation.  Reasonable people may quibble if the author always interprets Bonhoeffer’s thoughts correctly, and given the fragmentary nature of some of his writings (his Ethics and prison writings come particularly to mind here) does not help matters.  Nevertheless, this is an excellent book about an excellent subject, and Bonhoeffer continues to have a lot to say to contemporary Christianity in complex ways.  Had he lived longer, or lived in less dangerous times, he would likely have engaged his world in far different ways.  To the extent that we face the threat of prison, exile, or death for being decent people in an indecent world, understanding the thought and practice of Bonhoeffer is important in helping to inspire our own responses to our own social, cultural, political, and religious context.  This book is a worthy help for that difficult and important task.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/28/book-review-the-life-and-death-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/11/10/book-review-bonhoeffer-abridged/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/05/11/what-would-dietrich-bonhoeffer-do/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/28/book-review-discipleship/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/13/book-review-letters-papers-from-prison/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/13/book-review-voices-in-the-night/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/10/my-prime-of-youth-is-but-a-frost-of-cares/

[2] See, for example:

“The spoken and written word must have been unusually important to Bonhoeffer.  He read extensively and widely, and as frequently as possible during his months in prison.  Indeed it was during this time, when he was driven to psychological and physical limits, that the activity of writing became an inner, and apparently a successful, attempt at self-rescue (16).”

“Just as for him faith could not exist without understanding, so also faith could not be mute.  Faith for Bonhoeffer always involved two things: putting faith into words and making faith understandable, both to oneself and to others.  The spoken and written word played an eminently important role in his life and theology, and this all the more so with regard to faith.  It was the primary vehicle by which faith expressed itself and poured itself out.  This is the only possible explanation for his viewpoint that silence plays a role of major importance, namely, as a contrast to the written and spoken word (33).”

“Viewed generally, the church has a number of alternatives in choosing its behavior toward the State.  The first is to ask the question already mentioned, regarding the responsibility of the State.  Here Bonhoeffer presents a sort of “three-stage plan” that bears a peculiar resemblance to his own biography.  Stage 1: question the humanity and legitimacy of the State’s actions (the key idea here is the church’s mission as a watchman of society).  Stage 2: help the victims of State despotism (the key idea here is political diaconate).  And Stage 3: as ultima ratio, exercise direct political intervention (the key idea is active resistance). (166).”

About nathanalbright

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11 Responses to Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction To His Thought

  1. Reblogged this on Hendrickson Publishers Blog and commented:
    Nathan Albright’s excellent review on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction To His Thought by Sabine Dramm.

    A quote from his review: “Nevertheless, this is an excellent book about an excellent subject, and Bonhoeffer continues to have a lot to say to contemporary Christianity in complex ways. Had he lived longer, or lived in less dangerous times, he would likely have engaged his world in far different ways. To the extent that we face the threat of prison, exile, or death for being decent people in an indecent world, understanding the thought and practice of Bonhoeffer is important in helping to inspire our own responses to our own social, cultural, political, and religious context. This book is a worthy help for that difficult and important task.”

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