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The Journey with Jesus: Book Notes

Reviews By Dan Clendenin

Martin E. Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers From Prison": A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 275pp.Martin E. Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers From Prison": A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 275pp.

           This is a book about a book, which was never a book in the first place, but rather a collection of letters, sermons, poems, and reflections by a German pastor written from his ten-foot by seven-foot prison cell 92 where he was incarcerated for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. But "from that cramped space designed to kill creativity and bury hope," writes Martin Marty, "there issued letters and papers that became the substance of one of the great testimonial books of the twentieth century."

           Some of Bonhoeffer's papers were smuggled out of prison, others made it through the censors as personal letters to his fiance, some were buried in gardens by family and friends, a few were saved by Nazi guards loyal to Bonhoeffer, and still others were hidden in roof beams. Many papers were lost, and some were burned to protect the identity of people. After two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, only a month before the war ended. In the ensuing years, the papers were collected, organized and edited by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's best friend and eventual biographer. Today the 2010 critical edition of Letters and Papers runs to 800 pages and has been translated into at least twenty languages.

           The German title of the original 1951 edition was Resistance and Submission. Bonhoeffer wrote, "I have often wondered here where we are to draw the line between necessary resistance to 'fate,' and equally necessary submission." For many readers Letters and Papers is thus a remarkably courageous witness to the gospel. For many others, though, there is sharp disagreement about how to interpret Bonhoeffer's explicitly theological reflections. His earlier letters are characterized by a classical Lutheran piety, whereas later papers contain what even Bethge admits are "explosive" questions. What is Christianity and who is Christ for us today? What did Bonhoeffer mean by a "world come of age," Jesus as a "man for others," and "religionless Christianity?" Marty traces the widely differing interpretations of these complex questions, from communist atheists in East Germany (Luther's home land!) and radical "death of God" theologians in Britain and the United States, to Catholic, evangelical, African, South American, and Asian thinkers.

           This volume is one of the first in a series of eighteen "biographies" of great religious books by Princeton University Press. The "Lives of Great Religious Books" is a "series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world" (dust jacket). The volumes pair leading experts with classic texts and are written for a general audience. In a previous review in Journey with Jesus, I've reviewed Augustine's "Confessions" by Garry Wills.