Book Review: Interpreting Bonhoeffer

interpretingbonTitle: Interpreting Bonhoeffer: Historical Perspectives, Emerging Issues

Editors: Clifford Green and Guy Carter

Bibliographic info: 250 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

This book contains the proceedings from a conference held at Union Theological Seminary in 2011 in celebration of the completion of the sixteen-volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works (also published by Fortress Press).

The contents of this volume are as follows:

  • Inspiration, Controversy, Legacy: Responses to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Three Germanys (Wolfgang Huber)
  • Bonhoeffer and Public Ethics (John W. de Gruchy)
  • Public Ethics and the Reception of Bonhoeffer in Britain (Keith Clements)
  • Bonhoeffer and Public Ethics in the USA (Larry Rasmussen)
  • Bonhoeffer and Public Ethics from the Perspective of Brazil (Carlos Ribeiro Caldas)
  • Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics and Its Influences in Japan (Kazuaki Yamasaki)
  • Cultural Elements in Theology and and Langauge: Translation as Interpretation (Hans Pfeifer)
  • Discovering Bonhoeffer as Translation (Reinhard Krauss)
  • Bringing Voice to Life: Bonhoeffer’s Spirituality in Translation (Lisa Dahill)
  • The Bonhoeffer Legacy as Work-in-Progress (Victoria Barnett)
  • The American Protestant Theology Bonhoeffer Encountered (Gary Dorrien)
  • Contextualizing Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Nazism, the Churches, and the Question of Silence (Doris Bergen)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer in History: Does Our Bonhoeffer Still Offend? (Robert Ericksen)
  • Bonhoeffer and Coming to Terms with Protestant Complicity in the Holocaust (Matthew Hockenos)
  • Reading Discipleship and Ethics Together: Implications for Ethics and Public Life (Florian Schmitz)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Harlem Resistance, and the Black Christ (Reggie Williams)
  • Church for Others: Bonhoeffer, Paul, and the Critique of Empire (Brigitte Kahl)
  • Bonhoeffer’s Strong Christology in the Context of Religious Pluralism (Christiane Tietz)
  • Bonhoeffer from the Perspective of Intellectual History (Michael DeJonge)
  • Bonhoeffer’s Contribution to a New Christian Paradigm (Clifford Green)
  • Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Activist, Educator: Challenges for the Church of the Coming Generation (Samuel Wells)

All of the chapters had something interesting to say about the man Bonhoeffer, his context, his theology, and his legacy. I particularly enjoyed the contributions that discussed Christianity’s relationship to Nazi Germany and Christian’s complicity in the Holocaust such as Doris Bergen’s contribution on Nazism, the Churches, and the Question of Silence. Instead of focusing upon why a large part of the German church was quiet and barely protested against the Nazi’s and their crimes, she thinks that the real issue is instead the enthusiastic support for the Nazi government. How could the church support the anti-semitic propaganda, cast out Jewish-Christians from churches, and support the Nazi’s clear war-policy of aggressive offense? These are great questions that can not, and should not, be swept under the carpet of church history with an “oops”. Robert Ericksen’s essay also discusses similar topics, though with more of a focus on Bonhoeffer.

Matthew Hockenos discusses this topic as well, but from the perspective of how are we meant to come to terms with Protestant complicity in the Holocaust. I liked his discussion on how it is not entirely clear what exactly Bonhoeffer’s view on the place of Jews in Christian history was (i.e. what evidence is there that he changed his supersessionist theology of the early 30s). Something Hockenos points out is how many leaders of the German Evangelical Church (post-1945) considered Bonhoeffer’s willingness to engage in a plot to overthrow Hitler should make him be viewed as a traitor rather than a martyr! I know there is some debate over what exactly was Bonhoeffer’s role in the resistance, but assuming that he was directly (rather than indirectly) involved in the planning of an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life (and that he vocally supported the use of such violence to take out Hitler), I can see how that would make one question whether Bonhoeffer was standing on solid theological ground, but to go the next step and say that his actions meant he was only a national traitor and not a Christian martyr seems quite bizarre to me! But, alas, it appears the Confessing Church was not completely divorced from nationalism as it should have been.

Some of the other essays in the volume explore Bonhoeffer from completely different angles, such as his reception in Brazil, Britain, the USA, and Japan. There are also a few very interesting essays on the task of translating Bonhoeffer’s works into English.

To sum up, if you are interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology then this is definitely a must-read book. It provides an actual global view of the legacy of Bonhoeffer and his theology, and actually engages with the all-important context of Nazi Germany (I’ve read stuff on Bonhoeffer before that seemingly thinks his theology was created in a vacuum, or that at least approach his theology as if that were true!).

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