Review: Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture
Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture by Keith L Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you noticed the spate of Bonhoeffer books on the market? I wonder if this reflects our longing for genuine heroes, the kind who finish well and are people of substance and integrity. Perhaps his ideas of “religionless” Christianity resonate with those who prefer to consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What is more fascinating for me is the evangelical embrace of Bonhoeffer, who clearly loved and trusted Christ, but by no stretch embraced the wider spectrum of evangelical conviction. Particularly intriguing is the fact that this book represents the proceedings of a theology conference at Wheaton College, the citadel of evangelical conviction.

This collection of papers explores a gamut of concerns around Bonhoeffer. The book opens with an essay by Philip Ziegler on Bonhoeffer as a theologian of the Word of God, which is shorthand for the idea that Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us. This is followed by a paper by Timothy Larsen on the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer, which he would attribute both to Bonhoeffer’s life and death, and his more popular books. What I found neither dealing with is Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of scripture and its incompatibility with evangelical conviction, although Larsen does cite some of the early critiques of Bonhoeffer by evangelicals.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (, via Wikimedia Commons

Several essays illuminate what has always been a question for me, which is how Bonhoeffer, who articulates pacifist ideals in The Cost of Discipleship could decide to embrace active resistance to Hitler including participation (minor) to assassinate him. Reggie L Williams essay on Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the Harlem renaissance and the idea of a “black” Christ of resistance argues for how Bonhoeffer could part ways with the established church, and even his Confessing brethren to act against Hitler. Steven J Plant’s paper on Bonhoeffer’s politics introduces us to his ethic of responsibility for his life while being accountable to God. It seemed even clearer to me from this paper that there was a “double” character to his thinking that recognized both the necessity to act against Hitler and yet also recognized his accountability for the taking of life before God and that all he could do was cast himself on God’s grace. In Lori Brant Hale’s essay on vocation, we see that Bonhoeffer did not believe in an abstract ethic, but one worked out in concrete life and in social relations. The Reich changed all the conventions and to say “yes” to Christ and “no” to self in this context demanded some unusual choices.

Daniel Treier explores a connection I had never before made between Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul around their similar ideas about technology. Charles Marsh chronicles Bonhoeffer’s increasing estrangement from “academic” theology. Keith Johnson explores what we can gain from Bonhoeffer for the Christian academy. Joel Lawrence explores Bonhoeffer’s theology of the church as the community that exists for others, and that does so by practicing “death together” in its practices of confessing our sins to each other–one of the most challenging pieces of the book for me! Jim Belcher concludes the book by exploring the liturgies Bonhoeffer practiced at Finkenwalde, an illegal seminary training Confessing Church pastors, and how this sustained Bonhoeffer during his imprisonment and as he faced death.

This is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the life, work, and writing of Bonhoeffer. I found new insights for some of the questions I have about Bonhoeffer. However, I did find it curious that at an evangelical conference co-sponsored with an evangelical publisher, there was so little about the evangelical engagement with and appropriation of a theologian who was far from evangelical in some of his fundamental convictions.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

  1. Pingback: April 2014: The Month in Reviews « Bob on Books

  2. Thanks, Bob, for this helpful review. Yes, interest in Bonhoeffer seems to be surging here in metro DC, especially after last year’s Natl Prayer Breakfast, when Eric Metaxas handed his biography (riveting! readable!) to the uncomfortable POTUS. That book gets prominent display in store windows. An earnest-looking young fellow was standing on the Metro last week, his eyes fixed on the pages of B’s Ethics. I’ve read Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer twice, and am nearly finished with Gemeinsames Leben (see my review on Amazon). Best regards to you.


  3. Stevan, thanks for the comment. I looked at your Amazon review and wondered if you found the German superior to the English translation? I’ve always loved “Life Together” having read it five or six times and used it with groups several times. His idea of how we have fellowship “in Christ” is probably one of the most profound truths that has shaped my thinking about Christian community.


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