Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

" The first call which every Christian experiences is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.” 
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

My Alternate Title:
The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Abandoned to Christ

Do you have any idea who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was? He was a German theologian and pastor who lived from 1906-1945. He had something to do with a plot against the Nazis, and his death was decidedly from unnatural causes. That was about all I knew when I embarked upon reading his biography.

One of my new year goals was to read some biographies of famous Christians. As I searched the internet for titles I came across this one, found that our library had the unabridged audiobook, and checked it out. I knew so little of this man’s life and legacy, and now my view of the Christian walk has been changed forever.

Bonhoeffer was born into a decent, upper-class German family at the turn of the twentieth century. He had all the advantages of a good upbringing, fine education, and close friendships. His father was an areligious man, his mother a devoted Christian, and Dietrich decided to study theology in school. His doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (which he wrote at age 21), concerned the theology of the church and delved into the complex subjects of authority, freedom, ritual, and eschatology. His career would only climb from there.

Becoming a pastor and mentor to many, Dietrich seemed poised for a life of academic and religious achievement—when the unthinkable happened. Hitler came to power and the church began to buckle. German Christians had just as much patriotic fervor as their neighbors and began backing the Fuhrer (a man gifted in speaking “Christian-ese” at appropriate times). Dietrich saw trouble and began gathering together men who were dedicated first of all to Christ, not Germany.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story is the story of the church in Germany during the period of the second world war. What he did was far from easy. He was patriotic too, and recently engaged to the love of his life, Maria von Wedemeyer. As things progressed, however, he found himself fighting against his country and going into more and more danger. “Christians” were caving in all around him, the rotten girders of their theology giving way under the pressure of escalating hostilities. Bonhoeffer wrote of his identification with Jeremiah, who “was upbraided as a disturber of the peace, an enemy of the people, just like all those, throughout the ages until the present day, who have been possessed and seized by God, for whom God had become too strong . . . how gladly would he have shouted peace and Heil with the rest.”

His friends became heavily involved in the resistance against Hitler, and Dietrich joined the fray. Making contacts, sending urgent letters, signing petitions, organizing secret seminaries, and becoming a double agent—he did what he could to combat evil in God’s name. It was exceedingly dangerous work, but he knew that this was where The Lord wanted him.

As the hazards increased and he was almost forced into the Nazi military, Dietrich went to America He intended to stay there for a long while—perhaps until the time came to help rebuild the shattered German church after Hitler’s demise. But he felt no peace there. He longed for his brethren back in Germany. Knowing full well what kind of perils threatened him, Dietrich threw away the safety net and followed his conscience, acting out of allegiance to God and the living truth.

Things went rather well until the fatal failure of the Valkyrie plot against the Fuhrer’s life, which had involved some of Dietrich’s closest associates. Bonhoeffer was arrested, and intentionally rejected the chance of escape in order to protect those he loved most. During his time in prison he labored ceaselessly, both as a pastor to his fellow prisoners and as an author and theologian. He trusted solely in a God whom he believed to be much bigger than others imagined. To Bonhoeffer, He was more than a God of the “gaps,” or “the unexplained;” He was God of everything.

As I read this book, I kept feeling that God certainly meant for Dietrich to be a martyr, even going out of His way to ensure it. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong; there were numerous miscommunications and precious opportunities were lost. There were so many times when it would have been easy for Bonhoeffer to have escaped the Nazis and left the country to marry Maria, returning to help bring German Christianity back around again after the war. Instead, he was hanged without trial about one month before Germany’s surrender.

The message of Bonhoeffer’s life could never have been conveyed with the same impact if he had lived. He sacrificed everything to Jesus—everything. His death and his legacy are inextricable. He was a man who fully embraced his humanity and joy on this earth, at the same time fully embracing complete submission to Christ and His Will. As it is with so many other great people, Dietrich did more in his one short lifetime than many do in full ones.

I came away from this book with a deeper conviction about what it means to be a true disciple of Christ. It is more than going to church on Sundays, voting for the right politicians, tithing a portion of your income, and sharing the gospel, then leaving the serious sacrifice to dedicated pastors and missionaries. Discipleship is not for only a few Christians—it is for all of us—and it is intensely difficult. But it is all worth it all in the end, when we can hear Jesus Christ say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


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