Wheaton College has a way of putting together fascinating theology conferences. Though I’ve never attended any of them, I admit that on more than one occasion I’ve more or less salivated from a distance.
This year’s theme was “Christian Political Witness” and reliable sources tell me it was a provocative, stimulating, and challenging event. A couple of years ago the theme was “Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective,” a topic that greatly interests me, to say the least. In years prior, the conference covered all kinds of ground, from racial reconciliation to the sometimes testy relationship between religion and science, and from ecclesiology to worship and the arts. One of the really cool things about these conferences – which have been taking place, from what I can gather, for more than twenty years – is that IVP Academic has published collections of the conference’s presentations-cum-essays, just about each year.
Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture is the book that emerged from the April 2012 gathering, focused on the theological mind of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps best known for his role in a botched assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler, as well as his own subsequent imprisonment and execution. It is edited by Keith Johnson and Timothy Larsen, who both teach at Wheaton, and features essays from a variety of scholars with different areas of research and expertise.
Anyone who has read Bonhoeffer’s work – or, perhaps more tellingly, anyone who has read the work of others regarding him – knows there were many sides to the German pastor and theologian. Indeed, many disparate (and at times contentious) parties claim Bonhoeffer as one of their own. Some closely identify with his deeply challenging call to count the cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Others latch onto his writings about deep Christian community. Still others think he was really showing his “true” (i.e., agnostic/atheist) colors when he famously wrote from prison about “religionless Christianity.”
One recent case in point in the Bonhoeffer “interpretation wars” was the much discussed biography by Eric Metaxas. While conservative evangelical leaders hailed the hefty 500+ page book as a “monumental” and “inspiring” work, a Bonhoeffer scholar who reviewed the book for the flagship publication of the Protestant Mainline, troubled by Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a “theologically conservative evangelical,” called it a “hijacking.”
Taken together, the essays in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture seem to truly capture the multifaceted nature of this debated Christian figure. To offer a glimpse of the book’s breadth, consider three of its essays in particular. Reggie Williams takes a look at the ways in which Bonhoeffer’s time at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a black congregation in Harlem, prepared him for the trials that were to come. Stephen Plant examines the political theology that underpinned Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazi regime. And Lori Hale explores the connection between Christology and vocation in Bonhoeffer’s thinking.
I was most intrigued, however, by two other essays in particular. One was Timothy Larsen’s essay about how evangelicals have historically evolved in their relationship to Bonhoeffer, which will be of particular interest to evangelicals interested in deciding whether Bonhoeffer was truly “one of us.” Bonhoeffer’s reception among folks like us has not always been as rosy as in recent days, suffice it to say.
The other chapter I especially appreciated was Jim Belcher’s semi-autobiographical essay on “liturgical treason.” In it, Belcher recounts his experience visiting some of Bonhoeffer’s old stomping grounds in Germany, while walking us through some pivotal moments of Bonhoeffer’s life at these various places. It was a great way to conclude the book, giving us a much more personal perspective on the subject than some of the more academic essays in the earlier pages. And as an aside, it sure whets my appetite for Belcher’s forthcoming book this fall, which will undoubtedly cover some of the same ground.
This book isn’t for everyone. If you don’t know much about Bonhoeffer, and if you’ve never read The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and even the posthumously published Ethics, please skip this book for now and start with those. But if you’ve cleared those hurdles and are hungry for more, you’ll find Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture to be a spiritual, theological, and historical feast.
This book was provided to me from the publisher for free in exchange for my honest thoughts.