Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s
Letters and Papers from Prison
By Martin E. Marty
Princeton University Press – £16.95

It’s been said that for fascination, influence, inspiration, and controversy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison is ‘’unmatched by any other book of Christian reflection written in the twentieth century.’’ To be sure, this might be considered something of a slight exaggeration, as many words on the road to enlightenment and self-introspection have been espoused, written and shared. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain comes to mind, as does The Diary of Anne Frank and Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning – although the latter might be questioned within the sphere of so-called Christian credibility.

Either way, many great words of fascination and influence, inspiration and controversy have been written during the last century – not least because of the trajectory of appalling human behaviour as a direct result of two World Wars – among them, the most forthright and considered words of the Lutheran pastor and ultimate theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Having spent two years in Nazi prisons for his involvement to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was executed at the age of thirty-nine, a mere month before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Such was his influence – substantiated by some his final letters in which he questioned the role of Christianity along with the role of the church within that of an ever increasing secular world – that Hitler, his own fate sealed, absolutely insisted that Bonhoeffer be put to death.

To ultimately silence him one would suppose. To ensure that his words would never be heard. Or read. Let alone acted upon. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison evocatively illustrates, Hitler was not to have his way. For as fate would have it, Bonhoeffer was not silenced. His words have been heard. Acted upon even, for throughout this book, author Martin E. Marty shows how during the 1960s and the ensuing decades, Bonhoeffer’s provocative writings initiated a wide range of thinkers and activists; among them civil rights and antiapartheid campaigners, ‘’death-of-God’’ theologians and East German Marxists.

For instance, in the chapter ‘The Birth of a Book,’ Marty substantiates how Bonhoeffer would confront ‘’sometimes unclear, often paradoxical themes’’ by quoting: ‘’Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says,’ however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it. There are merely some generic rules for questioning. As good rules, they are worth keeping in mind in case the questioning does begin to break down. In a sense they are merely variations of the transcendental imperative elegantly articulated by Bernard Lonergan: ‘’Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.’’

One can clearly ascertain from such valuable words alone, that Bonhoeffer’s dogma and logic, was entirely polar to that of the madness espoused by the Nazi regime. So much so, that it ultimately cost him his life.

Although not his vision and belief(s).

To say we are all somewhat indebted to Marty for allowing us to ultimately share, learn, participate, and as mentioned above, perhaps ‘’change,’’ might be considered a tad trivial (and trite). Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison is everything but trivial.

As Stephen Haynes – author of The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint – has written: ‘’Martin Marty writes with equal clarity and empathy of the Socialist, Catholic, Evangelical, and liberal Protestant receptions of the book. And Marty’s book has an autobiographical dimension that others cannot match because he has been an informed observer – and sometimes participant – in many of the theological movements and controversies he describes.’’

David Marx

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