Yesterday I finished reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I had read selections in the past, but never had I read the whole book. My methodology was steady. I began reading it back in February and I read small snippets every day as a part of my regular devotion plan. That is why it took me so long to read it. For me this was very difficult because my instinct was to devour it.
The book is a compilation from Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment by the Nazi’s from 1943 to 1945. The letters are primarily between him and his parents, his fiance, and Eberhard Bethge. The letters to his parents reveal the portrait of a devoted son who is annoyed that his parents are living in such troubled and violent times. His writings to Maria, his fiance, are harder to follow, at least for me. They lack the emotional zeal one might expect for unrequited love. Don’t get me wrong, he clearly loves her, but he doesn’t speak of it in the emotive way.
The letters to Eberhard Bethge, however, which are the most numerous and the longest, are fascinating. Bonhoeffer speaks more of his soul and heart to Bethge than anyone. Bethge was a student of his at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde and later married his niece Renate. It is to Bethge that he discusses theology, philosophy, and his view of where the world was, is and is going.
The letters humanize Bonhoeffer for me in a way that Life Together or Cost of Discipleship, or even Metaxas wonderful biography do not. He is constantly asking for his family to bring writing paper, tobacco, and in one letter he even asks for a laxative. In letter after letter he insists that his family not send him food; that they should eat it and he gives instructions on what to do with his things or even, most frequently, which books he’d like them to bring for him to read.
The coded spy language also stood out to me. The edition of the book I have has great notes at the end of each section that detailed what was really meant. Some of the letters were smuggled illegally, and you can tell which those were by the tone, but many went through the hand of censor and Bonhoeffer and Bethge used careful allusions and codes to refer to their secret work of trying to assassinate Hitler. I also found clever, especially early on, how his letters were written more to the censor than to others, hoping to convince his captors that it was all a mistake that he was imprisoned. However, by later all of this pretense is dropped as Bonhoeffer knows the end is coming.
In his theological reflections Bonhoeffer was working on a hypothesis that the human race was “growing up” out of adolescence and into a spiritual and intellectual adulthood. He seemed to view the war, the Nazi’s and the present evil he lived in as the last gasp of teenage type angst. The adulthood would be a Christian community which was more mature and that had grown past the trappings of “religion.” Because he never had time to properly work through his ideas it is hard to know exactly what he had in mind, but to me it seemed he thought Christ-followers had come to a place where “religion” and “church” had become so co-opted by people not interested in following Christ at all that something new was needed–something that was “religion-less”.
There were several times that I broke down and wept while reading, or that I would find myself praying backwards–“Lord, comfort this man in his imprisonment and in his affliction.” On April 9, 1945 at the concentration camp in Flossenburg he was executed.