My Bromance with a Young German Theologian

You probably know me well enough by now to say, Wow, he really talks a lot about Bonhoeffer. I do.

That’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course; the extraordinary, unrepeatable, young, brilliant, deeply spiritual, enigmatic, courageous, dedicated, diplomatic, could-sometimes-be-caustic, but always-in-the-end gracious Christian witness murdered by the Nazis at the end of World War II, only days before the allies liberated the camp where he was hanged naked on April 9, 1945. He was 39.

I’ve got such a bromance going with “DB” (as I affectionately call him) that I have a wall-mounted twice-than-life-sized charcoal portrait of the young German staring down at me as I write this. Books by him and about him also line my bookshelves.

Most people who know of Bonhoeffer admire him because he suffered a martyr’s death. But that last, gruesome, inhuman moment at the non-descript yard in the Flossenbürg concentration camp was just a few minutes in an otherwise very productive, mostly happy life. DB had been breathlessly active for almost 20 years before his sudden execution. He completed a doctorate, did pastoral work, preached countless sermons, lectured in the universities and at major international conferences, published a few books, founded a seminary (an illegal one at that), and, of course, organized the clergy in opposition to Adolph Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the political cooptation of the church.

Although he died 13 years before I was born, in a strange way, I feel as if I personally knew Bonhoeffer. I am, after all, reading my seventh biography of the man—Strange Glory by Charles Marsh—a very good examination of the familiar story, but with twists from hitherto unexamined aspects of D.B.’s work and life (most importantly, his intimate relationships). I started my investigation on Bonhoeffer years ago with the best life history yet, a great telling by his real-time pal and unmatched confidant, Eberhard Bethge, in the latter’s 941-page Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. (BTW: In building your Bonhoeffer library, please consider buying through Amazon Smile—the charitable program—and picking as your charity, P&R Schenck, Associates in Evangelism, Inc.)

My next read was the much shorter, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Mary Bosanquet, then Memo for a Movie: A Short Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by GillIn Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by KuhnsThe Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Van Dyke, and the blockbuster by my friend Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. My closest experience with the Lutheran wunderkind came when I literally walked in DB’s footsteps.

It was during a combination academic research project and spiritual pilgrimage that I traveled in his large shadow. In 2010, at the behest of my wife, Cheryl, I signed up for a study tour entitled, “Bonhoeffer: Life and Legacy Travel/Study Program.” Despite it’s bland title, the experience proved revolutionary for me. It resulted in what I call my “other conversion.” Surrounding myself with Bonhoeffer, his life and times, his places and even mementoes, and, meeting someone that actually knew him—Franz von Hammerstein—then 89, but 17 when he shared a prisoner transport truck with Dietrich (see my video here)—deconstructed and reconstructed my interior life.

The 10-day odyssey took our small group of 15 through sites in Berlin, Zingst on the Baltic, Stettin and Koszalin, Wroclaw and Krakow, Poland (“Breslau” in DB’s time), Prague, Ettal in the Alps, and, a sober terminus at Flossenbürg. On that trip I discovered the Bonhoeffer scholar that would advise me in my doctoral work, the inimitable Professor Peter Frick of St. Paul’s College at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). Peter became my ongoing living link to the long-dead DB. He is German by birth and upbringing, studied at Tübingen University (where DB attended for a year) and has read all 10,000 pages of Bonhoeffer works in his native German—not to mention having translated some of it for the authoritative Bonhoeffer Works in English. Peter has published several books on DB, some heady and some simply inspirational (like his Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Meditation and Prayer). Do yourself a favor and search Amazon Smile for “Bonhoeffer, Frick.” This soft-spoken Lutheran-turned-Mennonite unlocked the depth of DB for me and he likely will for you, too.

What turns me on the most about the amazing Bonhoeffer is his deeply spiritual nature that combines with his astounding intellect to produce unique insights into the application of the heavenly gospel for the real nitty-gritty of life on earth—including when conditions are “in extremis.” Bohoeffer didn’t just theorize about what it is to follow Christ in trying times and amidst deep temptations, he lived his devotion to His Lord consistently—in the very best of circumstances—and during utterly unimaginable hardship, deprivation, and terror. His most public and most private experiences, insights, victories, failures, joys, faith, doubt, and disappointments are incomparably instructive for Christians in our day. If nothing else, the situation in which Dietrich lived out his Christian witness makes most of our circumstances look luxurious in comparison.

If you’re interested in what DB might have to say to you—and to Christians in general in our day—I suggest you get to know both the simplicity of his life and the complexity of his thought. For that, you need to read both biography and commentary. (If you don’t want to get obsessed with him, like I am, then just read Marsh or Bosanquet, followed by The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. )

The Great Apostle Paul directed the struggling Christians at Corinth to, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). When I first read that passage as a new believer I thought it was strange and wondered why I wouldn’t simply follow Christ and not a surrogate. Over time I came to appreciate how incredulous I could be on whether anyone—least of all myself—could actually mimic the perfection of Jesus. So, like so many, I tend to naturally look to something closer to myself—someone very human, like me—who has actually done it, at least the degree it can be done. For the Corinthians, that model was Paul—the “worst” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Today, even St. Paul may seem too distant, or too “perfected” to offer proof that we, faulty, weak, even miserable sinners, can actually reflect Jesus in our ordinary lives. Into that contemporary vacuum walks a very real, very creaturely, utterly human figure that, despite his many fears and his many struggles, lives out the gospel he preached, taught, prayed, and came to know saved him and prepared him for the unthinkable.

Just reading a little of DB will, I’m convinced, prove to you just how indispensable he is for Christians today. Before long, you may be putting Dietrich on your wall, too.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks over to my writing desk in my home study.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks over to my writing desk in my home study.