Geoffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson have written a timely introduction to the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their approach acknowledges a point that is importantly true in the case of Bonhoeffer, as Eberhard Bethge pointed out, namely, that the thoughts cannot be separated from the man and his times. One of the ironies of the enduring significance and appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he was not trying to write "for the ages." Instead, he was actively involved in trying to articulate, from within Nazi Germany, a Christian theology that took seriously the Church and its call to love enemies and neighbors, particularly when one's neighbor was one's enemy, that is, a Jew.
For all the excitement and drama of the life they tell, Kelly and Nelson should be praised for refusing to minimize the centrality of Jesus to everything that Bonhoeffer tried to embody in what they are calling his spirituality. As much as this tends to be a slippery concept in our times, the authors rightly show how, for Bonhoeffer, unconditional love and compassion are central to Bonhoeffer's spirituality only because Jesus, the exemplar of these things, was central. With Bonhoeffer's emphasis on discipleship, spirituality could never be reduced to aphorisms nor abstracted to a set of principles. The goal of spirituality for Bonhoeffer, likewise, was never enlightenment, but active engagement in the particular struggles of God's people in divine love for the world.
Readers who are new to Bonhoeffer may be surprised to learn that this allegedly Christian pacifist found himself involved with a resistance group plotting to assassinate Hitler. But it is not surprising that, for all the possible contradictions he exposed himself to, Bonhoeffer was consistently driven by an unshakable concern to see justice done on account of the poor and dispossessed. Kelly and Nelson tell the story of how Bonhoeffer resisted the advice of his teacher at Union Seminary, Reinhold Niebuhr, who attempted to dissuade him from a Gandhi-like pacifism which he claimed would not work in Germany. But Bonhoeffer's refusal of Niebuhrian realism was at least superficially ended when he joined the Abwehr and produced his Ethics. For the time, however, he was persuaded to return to Germany and serve, through nonviolence, the Church which had, by that time, almost entirely capitulated itself to the Reich. But Bonhoeffer never gave up on the church as the locus for spirituality since, as the authors observe, the spiritual life could not be separated from actively following Christ. The Confessing Church refused to let the Christian community vanish through privatization and political insignificance. Instead, it was emblematic of the visible reality that the kingdom of God cannot but issue forth in witness.
Kelly and Nelson have structured their book in ten chapters, the first being biographical and the remaining nine reflecting different aspects of a single spirituality (such as justice, discipleship, christocentrism, community, and preaching). The authors often point out clear and relevant parallels between Bonhoeffer's world and our own. In his response to injustice, Bonhoeffer is repeatedly compared to Oscar Romero and the struggles faced by that moral leader and fellow martyr in El Salvador closer to our own time. And the authors rightly draw our attention to parallels between Germany in the 1930's and contemporary America. Both nations found their churches, like the surrounding culture, obsessed with national security and willingly turning over to the governments personal freedoms and consent to wage secret wars.
For all of its many virtues, one suspects that this book would have benefited from more careful editing. Many of the key quotes appear more than once (e.g. 12, 89) and much of the biographical information is repeated throughout, often as though it is being introduced for the first time. This is certainly a symptom of the authors' unnecessary attempts to make the chapters stand alone thematically. Nevertheless, those who are looking for a fine, thorough introduction to the life and work of Bonhoeffer will be pleased and will likely return to it, not only for information, but also inspiration.