For the past year or so, maybe more, I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer – A Biography, by Eberhard Bethge. Bethge was not only a friend and coworker of Bonhoeffer’s, but he was also married to Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate. At 941 pages this book requires an investment in time and attention. There are sections that are slow going for me, especially in Bethge’s extensive treatment of Bonhoeffer’s work in the German church and the ecumenical movement – unfamiliar names, at times unfamiliar issues, and detail after detail. However, to experience Bonhoeffer one must, I think, experience as much of his life as possible, and that includes experiencing the focus he had on theological and organizational matters in the German church and the ecumenical movement. Only by living with Bonhoeffer in these details can one sense the pain as Bethge describes Bonhoeffer’s increasing isolation from much of the German church and the ecumenical movement – pain for Bonhoeffer and pain, I think, for Bethge as he wrote the story.
In my reading I am approaching Bonhoeffer’s arrest in April 1943, I want to put it off for two reasons; I know what will happen and I don’t want the book to end. A couple of months ago I put the book down for a few weeks because I didn’t want it to end, I’ve been living with Bonhoeffer and Bethge for a long time. I do this with long books and with multi-volume books, I live with them so long that I don’t want to say “goodbye”.
I had this problem when I was reading three volumes of letters by C.S. Lewis, especially when I came to the last year of his life. I’d invested two or three years in reading the letters and Lewis through his letters had become a companion of sorts – I just didn’t want to say “goodbye”. When I was finishing the fifth volume of Sandberg’s Lincoln it was a similar experience. Well, it is a pilgrimage isn’t it? We have our own pilgrimage and there are times we can share pilgrimage with others, both contemporaries and those who have preceded us.
Of course I’ll keep reading Bonhoeffer. I’m still writing about his book Life Together, and I need to finish his Ethics, and I want to reread Discipleship and perhaps write some reflections on it. There is also much more material that he wrote, more letters beyond Letters and Papers from Prison – but we’ll see. I’ve been drawn to Bonhoeffer these past few years because he lived in turbulent times, he lived in a nation and in a church that was unraveling. He thought obedience to Christ mattered, he thought theology mattered, and he thought life together mattered. He also thought that the relationship of the church to the nation and world mattered. This is all both encouraging and challenging to me.
I first encountered Bonhoeffer’s writings when I was a teenager – he has been a good companion.