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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.

Maria Von Wedemeyer

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.


One of the kind women in our church somehow spied my reading wish list and saw Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas on it so she bought it for me.  That is no small thing, as this is a fairly expensive book.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and told the author so by sending him an email.  He actually wrote me back, which was pretty cool.  I do this for most authors I read who are living, as I’ve found it difficult to do for those who are dead (oddly, much of what I read was written by dead people.)  I find it interesting how a lot of authors never write back.

I’ve studied Bonhoeffer’s works in seminary and on my own, so I was familiar with his theology but I did not know that much about his life other than he resisted the Nazi’s, spent some time in America, and was eventually executed by the Nazi’s because of his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazis.  Metaxas’ thorough book filled in so many gaps.  I learned much.

  • I did not know that Bonhoeffer had such a negative view of the church in the United States.  He seemed to think of us as a shallow cesspool of lazy theology.  Metaxas paints the portrait of him barely able to stomach the preaching of Fosdick or those like him.  I was aware that Bonhoeffer was moved by the Black churches he attended, but I did not know they played such a pivotal role in his spiritual development.  It was only amongst the Black brothers that Bonhoeffer was able to have authentic Christ-centered spirituality.
  • The way I always understood it, Bonhoeffer did not come to resist the Germans until late in their reign of tyranny.  I always thought this because of his late execution and that the failed assassination attempt was so late in the war.  However, Metaxas clears up the murky early years.  Bonhoeffer, as well as the rest of his family, resisted the Nazi’s from the outset.  They saw them for what they were—evil thugs spawned from Hell.  It was in this way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prophet—not just in the sense of speaking ethical truth but also in the way we usually think of.  Bonhoeffer saw it coming and somehow he knew it would cost him everything.
  • Pastor is a precious word to me—and it is loaded with meaning.  Before reading this book I thought of Bonhoeffer as a writer—professor—theologian and even a hero who resisted evil, but I’d never thought of him as a pastor.  That changed with this volume.  Now I see him not as a lecturer, but as one who pastored children in Barcelona, refugees in England, and prisoners in the death camp.  His last act before being executed was leading a worship service for the other prisoners.  Now when I think of Life Together or Cost of Discipleship some of the power of the words is made stronger when I think of them coming from a fellow pastor rather than a theologian.
  • I did not know about Bonhoeffer’s sweethearts.  Apparently he had two of them, one of whom he was engaged to when he was killed.  Not much to say on that front other than the extra added sadness it brings.

I may have to add Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s photo in my study to hang on the wall with the other heroes who watch me work.


See also:  Letters and Papers