Started 11th June 2012
Finished 10th September 2012
I dislike Metaxas’ penchant for reducing a person’s name to a nickname without clearly defining the situation. Is frustrating. Also disliking his “start a chapter with a quote out of context because it’s shiny” thing where he then uses the quote in context in the chapter (or the next chapter) and I read the quote in context and am suddenly struck with the ugliest feeling of deja vu I’ve encountered yet in my life.
But those things aside, the book is an amazing testament to the life and times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I started reading this book shortly after my wife devoured it as we both prepared for/participated in a production of Tim Jorgenson’s play, “Bonhoeffer”. Not only was being a part of the play a deep and meaningful experiences, but this book helped bring some much more depth and clarity to the characters I was listening to each night (even in retrospect as the play ended well before I finished the book).
In the notes section, Metaxas explains something that I was fascinated by in the references section. How he not only gained access to (and consequently permission to quote) cut footage from Martin Doblmeier’s documentary, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resistor, but through this relationship he founded with Doblmeier, he got private introductions to (and later interviews with) Bonhoeffer’s “sister-in-law” (one of the sisters of his fiancée Maria Von Wedemeyer) as well as Bonhoeffer’s niece Renata (who married his best friend and personal confessor Eberhard Bethge).
Here are some portions of the biography that I found truly stunning.
“[From the conclusion of German poet Henrich Heine’s 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany] Christianity – and that is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. . . . Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. . . . [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll” (pg 163-164).
“How the German Christians justified twisting and bending the traditionally accepted meaning of the Scriptures and the doctrines of the church is complicated. . . . There’s little question that the liberal theological school of Schleiermacher and Harnack helped push things along in this direction. But the other piece of this puzzle has to do with the confusion that inevitably arises when the Christian faith becomes too closely related to a cultural or national identity. For many Germans, their national identity had become so melted together with whatever Lutheran Christian faith they had that it was impossible to see either clearly. After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was anymore” (pg 174).
“[Dietrich] often mentioned the Tower of Babel in his sermons as a picture of man’s ‘religious’ attempt to reach heaven on his own strength, and he had probably picked it up from Barth. But here he linked it with the Nazis’ Nietzschean worldview in which strength was exalted and weakness was crushed and eliminated. One was about works, and the other was about grace” (pg 184).
“On September 7 [a group of the opposition to the state church] met at [Confessing Church leader Martin] NiemÃÂ¶ller’s. For Bonhoeffer and [Bonhoeffer’s good friend Franz] Hildebrandt, the time for schism had arrived. A church synod had officially voted to exclude a group of persons from Christian ministry simply because of their ethnic background. The German Christians had clearly broken away from the true and historical faith. Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt called for the pastors to stand up and be counted by resigning from office. But Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt were voices crying in the wilderness. No one else was willing to go that far just yet” (pg 187).
> This felt to me like a vague allusion to Joshua and Caleb?
“In 1932 Bonhoeffer told Hildebrandt: ‘A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?’ At Finkenwalde he effectively said the same thing: ‘We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them. . . . Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. . . . Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it. . . . Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!'” (pg 272).
“Bonhoeffer felt comfortable sharing with Bethge what he called acedia or tristizia – a ‘sadness of the heart’ that we might typically call depreession. He suffered from it but rarely showed it, except among close friends” (pg 273).
> No! Not depression, melancholy! Grrrrrr. At least I presume that’s what’s really at the heart of this. Or maybe I just get riled up when depression gets tossed around with all it’s negative implications? *shrug*
“There was little question that Bonhoeffer was sometimes extremely intense, that his brilliant and overactive mind could lead him into temporary cul-de-sacs of agitation. But in Bethge, he had a friend to whom he could show this worst side. Bethge was a naturally sunny as Bonhoeffer could be intense. Bonhoeffer mentioned it in another letter from Tegel: ‘I don’t know anyone who does not like you, whereas I know a great many people who do not like me. I don’t take this at all hardly for myself; wherever I find enemies I also find friends, and that satisfies me. But the reason is probably that you are by nature open and modest, whereas I am reticent and rather demanding'” (pg 274).
> What Bonhoeffer is describing in Bethge reminds me somewhat of myself.
“[Ruth von Kleist-Retzow] even cajoled [Bonhoeffer] into considering overseeing the confirmation of four of her grandchildren. . . . In the end he took on only three. Maria [von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer’s future fiancée], who was twelve, didn’t seem mature enough for such a serious undertaking” (pg 277).
“Like some Houdini from hell, Hitler again wriggled free. But how? As usual, it was the fumfering inaction of the German army officer corps, bound and gagged by their misplaced scruples. In time the bloodthirsty devils with whom they were playing patty-cake would strangle them with the guts of their quaint scruples” (pg 306).
“Many years later Marianne [one of Sabine and Gerhard’s daughters] recalled that day [when the Leibholzes fled Germany for the last time]: ‘The roof of our car was open, the sky was deep blue, the countryside looked marvelous in the hot sunshine. I felt there was complete solidarity between the four grown-ups. I knew that unaccustomed things would be asked of us children from now on but felt proud of now being allowed to share the real troubles of the adults. I thought if I could do nothing against the Nazis myself I must at the very least co-operate with the grown-ups who could” (pg 311).
“What Is Truth? Bonhoeffer obviously meant that those opposed to Hitler must rethink their approach to the new situation in Germany. Bonhoeffer was quite willing to do this, to forgo his previous position of outward opposition to the regime and suddenly pretend to be in step with it. But of course it was only so that he could be in opposition to it on another, more fundamental level. This involved deception. Many of the serious Christians of Bonhoeffer’s day were theologically unable to follow him to this point, nor did he ask them to. For many of them, such deception as Bonhoeffer would soon be involved in was no different from lying. Bonhoeffer’s willingness to engage in deception stemmed not from a cavalier attitude toward the truth, but from a respect for the truth that was so deep, it forced him beyond the easy legalism of truth telling. In Tegel prison several years later, Bonhoeffer wrote the essay ‘What Does It Mean To Tell The Truth?’ in which he explored the subject. ‘From the moment of our lives in which we become capable of speech,’ it begins, ‘we are taught that our words must be true. What does this mean? What does telling the truth mean? Who requires this of us?’ God’s standard of truth entailed more than merely ‘not lying.’ In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.’ Jesus took the Old Testament laws to a deeper level of meaning and obedience, from the ‘letter of the Law’ to the ‘Spirit of the Law.’ Following the letter of the law was the dead ‘religion’ of which [Karl] Barth, among others, had written. It was man’s attempt to deceive God into thinking one was being obedient, which was a far greater deception. God always required something deeper than religious legalism. In the essay Bonhoeffer gave the example of a girl whose teacher asks in front of the class whether her father is a drunkard. She says no. ‘Of course,’ Bonhoeffer said, ‘one could call the child’s answer a lie; all the same, this lie contains more truth – i.e., it corresponds more closely to the truth – than if the child had revealed the father’s weakness before the class.’ One cannot demand ‘the truth’ at any cost, and for this girl to admit in front of the class that her father is a drunkard is to dishonor him. How one tells the truth depends on circumstances. Bonhoeffer was aware that what he called the ‘living truth’ was dangerous and ‘arouses the suspicion that the truth can and may be adapted to the given situation, so that the concept of truth utterly dissolves, and falsehood and truth draw indistinguishably close to each other.’ Bonhoeffer knew that the flip side of the easy religious legalism of ‘never telling a lie’ was the cynical notion that there is no such thing as truth, only sense of propriety or discernment, that decorum or reserve was ‘hypocrisy’ and a kind of lie. He wrote of that in his Ethics too: It is only the cynic who claims ‘to speak the truth’ at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. . . . He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which ‘cannot bear the truth.’ For Bonhoeffer, the relationship with God ordered everything else around it. A number of times he referred to the relationship with Jesus Christ as being like the cantus firmus (a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition) of a piece of music. All the other parts of the music referred to it, and it held them together. To be true to God in the deepest way meant having such a relationship with him that one did not live legalistically by ‘rules’ or ‘principles.’ One could never separate one’s mature level of obedience, and Bonhoeffer had come to see that the evil of Hitler was forcing Christians to go deeper in their obedience, to think harder about what God was asking. Legalistic religion was being shown to be utterly inadequate. Dohnanyi’s boss, General Oster, had said that National Socialism was ‘an ideology of such sinister immorality that traditional values and loyalties no longer applied.’ Bonhoeffer knew that God had the answer to every difficulty, and he was trying to understand what God was saying to him about his situation. He had moved past mere ‘confession’ and into conspiracy, which involved a measure of deception that many of his colleagues in the Confessing Church would not have understood. Soon, when he became a double agent for Military Intelligence under the command of Admiral Canaris, he had moved into a very lonely place indeed” (pg 365-367).
“Obeying God by publishing this pro-Jewish book – and cannily pretending that he had no inkling the National Socialists would object to its contents – was being true. He knew that if he had sent the manuscript to them beforehand, it would never have seen the light of day. Bonhoeffer had little doubt that God wished him to publish the truth in the book. He did not owe the Nazis the truth about the manuscript any more than the hypothetical little girl in his essay owed her class the truth about her father’s vices” (pg 368).
“If the Gestapo thought it odd that a Confessing Church pastor should be used on Abwehr [military intelligence] business, they could say that the Abwehr used Communists and Jews, too, which they did” (pg 370).
> This was referenced in the Bonhoeffer play.
“His role in the conspiracy was between him and God alone; that much he knew. And he knew that being chosen by God, as the Jews were chosen, and as the prophets were chosen, was something unfathomable. It was the highest honor, but a terrible one, one that none would ever seek” (pg 388).
“When their death sentences were finally handed down in 1945, and they could speak without endangering others, both Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and his brother-in-law RÃÂ¼diger Schleicher shocked their captors by telling them boldly that they had entered the conspiracy primarily for the sake of the Jews” (pg 389).
“The extermination of ‘world Jewry’ under the Orwellian aegis of the Final Solution had begun” (pg 391).
> The Nazi character who interrogates Bonhoeffer in the play makes use of the word “Jewry” which is why I reference it here – I’d never heard it before now and here it is twice (in the play and in the book)!
“But when [British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s reply] came, four days later, the news was very bad: ‘Without casting any reflection on the bona fides of your informants, I am satisfied that it would not be in the national interest for any reply whatever to be sent to them. I realize that this decision may cause you some disappointment, but in view of the delicacy of the issues involved I feel that I must ask you to accept it'” (pg 402).
> Tee hee! I played Anthony Eden in the play and read this letter in the opening scene. Tim Jorgenson (the author of the play) almost got it right.
“Diplomatic decorum prevented Eden from expressing his true sentiments, but he jotted them in the margin of Bell’s letter for posterity: ‘I see no reason whatsoever to encourage this pestilent priest!'” (pg 404).
“And it’s very responsible of [Bonhoeffer] to seek out the genuinely right course of action. It’s so easy to become a grumbler, a person who condemns and carps at everything on principle and sees an ulterior motive behind it” (pg 413).
“Ten days [after Major Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff’s attempt to kill Hitler], the occasion of Karl Bonhoeffer’s seventy-fifth birthday was grandly celebrated. Though none of them knew it that day, this was the last, magnificent performance the Bonhoeffer family would give. … With exquisite irony, Hitler was represented too. For Karl Bonhoeffer’s lifetime of service to Germany, an official from the Reich’s Ministry of Culture showed up to award him the nation’s coveted Goethe medal. It was presented to him in front the of the assemblage, along with a special certificate: ‘In the name of the German people I bestow on Professor Emeritus Bonhoeffer the Goethe medal for art and science, instituted by the late ReichsprÃÂ¤sident Hindenburg. The FÃÂ¼hrer, Adolf Hitler'” (pg 431).
> I played the “Chancellery Rep” who presents the medal to Karl Bonhoeffer.
“[Bonhoeffer in a letter to his fiancée Maria] You do, of course, know from the little we’ve said to each other that danger exists not only out there [on the battlefronts] but here at home as well, sometimes rather less so, sometimes rather more. What man of today has the right to shun it and shrink from it? And what woman of today should not share it, however gladly the man would relieve her of that burden? And how indescribably happy it makes the man if the woman he loves stands by him with courage, patience, and above all-prayer” (pg 435).
“[Maria] even brought [Bonhoeffer] a huge Christmas tree in December , though it was too large to put in his cell and remained in the guards’ room. She brought him an Advent wreath instead” (pg 439).
> Scene from the play.
“[Bonhoeffer] was not a ‘worldly’ or ‘compromised’ pastor, but a pastor whose very devotion to God depended on his deceiving the evil powers ranged against him. He was serving God by taking them all for a long ride” (pg 445).
“[Bonhoeffer] had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom – that was what it was to obey God” (pg 446).
“One of [the guards that Bonhoeffer counseled while at Tegel], Knoblauch, became so enamored of Bonhoeffer that he eventually went to great lengths to help him escape” (pg 448).
> This character was among the ones whom Tim Jorgensen’s character Andreas Rechter was molded.
“When their time together was over, [Judge Advocate Manfred] Roeder took Maria in one direction, while Bonhoeffer had to leave by another door. They hadn’t seen each other since November. Now they’d been given these precious moments, and suddenly the visit was over. But just as Maria was about to leave the room, she manifested the independent spirit and strong will for which she was famous: when she looked back and saw her beloved Dietrich leaving through the door across the room, she impetuously, and obviously against the wishes of Roeder, ran back across the room and hugged her fiancé one last time” (pg 453).
“Months before, [Bonhoeffer] wanted to read Adalbert Stifter’s medieval epic Witiko and had been pestering his parents about finding a copy, but they could not. To his amazement, he found one in the prison library. (pg 460).
> I’m wasting time scolding the playwright, but I’m annoying like that. In the play Maria brings the book to Bonhoeffer from his parents.
“Because Bonhoeffer was not afraid to share his weaknesses and fears with Bethge, the courage he expressed can be seen as real. He seems genuinely to have entrusted himself to God and therefore had no regrets or real fears” (pg 463).
“To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human” (pg 463).
“Many outre theological fashions have subsequently tried to claim Bonhoeffer as their own* and have ignored much of his oeuvre to do so. * It seems likely someone will eventually claim that Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge partook of more than philos and storge” (pg 466).
> What do these words mean?
> outre = bizarre
> oeuvre = the collected works of an author
> philos = a friend; someone dearly loved (prized) in a personal, intimate way
> storge = natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring
> Small flair-up here of disapproval for Metaxas’ use of words like we know what they mean. But whatever.
“Bonhoeffer’s theology had always leaned toward the incarnational view that did not eschew ‘the world,’ but saw it as God’s good creation to be enjoyed and celebrated, not merely transcended” (pg 468).
“[Bonhoeffer discussing how people deal with evil in his magnum opus Ethics] Finally there are some who retreat to a ‘private virtuousness.’ … In all that they do, what they fail to do will not let them rest. They will either be destroyed by this unrest, or they will become the most hypocritical of all pharisees” (pg 470).
“At the end of July , he sent Bethge some ‘Miscellaneous Thoughts’: ‘Please excuse these rather pretentious ‘pensées.’ They are fragments of conversations that have never taken place, and to that extent they belong to you. One who is forced, as I am, to live entirely in his thoughts, has the silliest things come into his mind – writing down his odd thoughts!’ Appropriately enough, one of them reads, ‘Absolute seriousness is never without a dash of humor.’ Another one reiterates his theme that being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin that about courageously and actively doing God’s will: ‘The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust, but the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Without such a goal, chastity is bound to become ridiculous. Chastity is the sine qua non of lucidy and concentration'” (pg 486).
> Oh my God. Bonhoeffer just changed my life. Being pure and chaste is something I’ve struggled with most of my life, but as I look back at that struggle, I see it now as mostly a struggle with self-imposed religious legalism and me trying to “suppress lust” as it were.
“The next day, April 8, was the first Sunday after Easter. In Germany it is called Quasimodo Sunday. * The term Quasimodo Sunday comes from the two Latin words (quasi meaning ‘as if’ and modo meaning ‘in the manner of’) that begin the introit of the Roman Catholic Mass for that day” (pg 527).
> And here all this time I thought Quasimodo meant half-formed. Darn you Disney! 😉