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Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer

May 20, 2014

I’m a sucker for biblical and theological studies with an unapologetically doxological posture. So it was with excitement that I read John W. Matthews’s concluding sentence in his foreword to Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer: A Guide to His Spiritual Classics and Selected Writings on Peace. Matthews writes:

I believe both the author and the subject [Bonhoeffer] would be disappointed if this book did not somehow draw you, the readers, closer to Jesus Christ and to your neighbor.

Kelly’s short yet substantive book does very much that. His first encounter with Bonhoeffer is intertwined with a beautiful story of his own re-awakening to Jesus. He says in the Preface:

Through Bonhoeffer’s inspirational words Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seemed to be addressed to me personally for the first time. I was hooked.

Reading Bonhoeffer has four major sections:

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biographical Sketch
  2. On Reading Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Classic, Discipleship
  3. Life Together: Bonhoeffer on Christian Community
  4. Selected Writings on Peace: An Ecumenical Conference and Two Sermons

The Preface, after describing Kelly’s transformative first read of Discipleship, offers some helpful background information and resources for Bonhoeffer studies. Kelly mentions, for example, his involvement with the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section. He writes about the International Bonhoeffer Congress. And he discusses the genesis of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (English translation), published by Fortress Press.

1. A Riveting Biographical Sketch

Kelly’s “Biographical Sketch” is longer than Renate Bethge’s short work, and (obviously) a much quicker read than Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography. 28 pages follow Bonhoeffer through his life, writings, and ministry.

Reading BonhoefferThere are a few things that stand out about Kelly’s short biography. For one, though it’s scant on details of Bonhoeffer’s early life (to be expected, given its length), the overview is thorough and really orients the reader well to Bonhoeffer. Kelly has a knack for succinctly summarizing Bonhoeffer’s writings in understandable language–even Bonhoeffer’s challenging Sanctorum Communio!

Second, Kelly’s biography is itself a gripping narrative. There is real movement as he progress through the various pastoral and academic positions Bonhoeffer held, from Berlin to London, from the seminary at Finkenwalde to the church struggle, Bonhoeffer’s arrest, and his imprisonment. I found myself wanting more dates in places (e.g., “Once back in Berlin…”–when?), but perhaps this omission was deliberate to keep the narrative moving. I was not able to put the book down until I had finished the page-turner of a biography.

Third, Kelly describes many of Bonhoeffer’s key terms and concepts, both in this first section and throughout Reading Bonhoeffer. Even a reader with little or no Bonhoeffer background will walk away from the biographical sketch with confidence to read any of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

Fourth, Kelly is clearly in awe of his subject, and rightly so. This, in turn, allows the reader to be inspired by Bonhoeffer. Kelly includes a treasure trove of Bonhoeffer quotations, some familiar, and some more off-the-beaten path. To wit:

I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed…. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go.

2. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship

Kelly served as co-editor, with John D. Godsey, of Discipleship, volume 4 in the (English) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (DBWE). This second section of Reading Bonhoeffer offers more than 60 pages of commentary on that well-loved Bonhoeffer book, known also as The Cost of Discipleship.

After a brief “history of the text” Kelly proceeds section-by-section through Discipleship. In short, according to Kelly,

Discipleship is a book in which Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ own words as recorded in the gospels and the exhortations of the apostle Paul to confront readers with the uncushioned challenges to all their inaccurate ideas, falsified by Nazi propaganda, of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

DBWE DiscipleshipReaders of Discipleship will of course already know that much of the book exposits Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but Kelly’s unique contribution as a commentator here is in highlighting the historical context that makes Bonhoeffer’s writing even more remarkable. Not only does Kelly note a particular Nazi evil to which Bonhoeffer may have been alluding, he also points ahead in Bonhoeffer’s life to instances where he would live out the call of his own writings.

As Kelly was co-editor of the DBWE volume, to read his chapter-by-chapter commentary on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is to have a guided tour by a leading expert, complete with summary statements and key quotes from that book. It’s well-footnoted with reference to the page numbers in the DBWE edition, so following up in Bonhoeffer’s text is easy. It’s an essential companion.

3. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

The first Bonhoeffer book to be published in the DBWE series was Life Together, which appears as volume 5, bound together with Prayerbook of the Bible. Kelly served as editor of that volume, which includes an introduction and critical apparatus (i.e., lots of informative and orienting footnotes).

DBWE Life TogetherAs with the previous section of Reading Bonhoeffer, Kelly’s commentary on Life Together, although significantly briefer in its section-by-section analysis, serves as a really useful reader’s guide. Its introductory section in this book is thorough, drawing on Kelly’s introduction in the DBWE edition. This sets up the reader well to better understand Bonhoeffer’s important work on community life in the Church.

Kelly, for example, points to “Bonhoeffer’s distinction between being with and being for the others in community.” He traces Bonhoeffer’s interest in building a community, going back even to socio-theological themes in Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation. Kelly summarizes and comments on each of the five sections of Life Together in turn: Community, The Day Together, The Day Alone, Service, and Confession and the Lord’s Supper.

4. Peace Writings

Kelly notes the tension that many students and readers of Bonhoeffer experience when they realize a conspirator against Hitler was a peace activist. After tracing the development of Bonhoeffer’s concern for peace, via an overview of his friendship with pacificst Jean Lasserre, Kelly looks at “three texts in which Bonhoeffer reveals himself as an uncompromising advocate for peace on the troubled earth where Nazism ruled with tactics of fear, violence, and the promise of a return to German military glory.” These include a 1932 conference lecture in Switzerland (with excerpts), a 1932 sermon (also with excerpts), and Bonhoeffer’s address to the Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches at Fanø, Denmark in 1934.

Together these orations display Bonhoeffer’s boldness and even impatience at times with inaction around him. In the address in Denmark, for instance, Bonhoeffer says,

Why do we fear the fury of the world powers? Why don’t we take the power from them and give it back to Christ? We can still do it today. The Ecumenical Council is in session; it can send out to all believers this radical call to peace.

Kelly helps Bonhoeffer’s call to peace come alive for the reader many decades later.

Concluding Remarks

There is little to critique in Kelly’s book. However, I was distracted by a number of sentences that were long (multiple modifying prepositional phrases) and comma-less. For example:

[Bonhoeffer] recognizes the danger posted by abandonment of Christ’s vision for the world and the manner in which even basically good people can succumb to the temptations to fall into the compromises in morality for which worldly attitudes are particularly prone, business and government plaudits given to acts of avarice and violence serving as prime examples of why it is necessary to be single-minded in following Christ.

A re-read of every such sentence showed that it was generally clear enough. But additional punctuation or shorter sentences would have helped. If there are future printings of this fine book, perhaps this and a few other minor editorial oversights could be re-visited.

Woven throughout Reading Bonhoeffer are “the twin aspects of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy: scholarly expertise and pastoral care.” Kelly himself writes as one in the academy whose own pastoral sensitivity and concern is fully on display. I can only imagine how engaging and inspiring a Bonhoeffer course with him must be.

Reading Bonhoeffer would be a stimulating read for pastors, theologians, seminary students, and Christians who are intent to more faithfully follow Jesus in both individual and community contexts. The discussion questions at the end of each section will facilitate this book’s use in a small group, Sunday school, or classroom setting.

Kelly writes about Bonhoeffer, yes, but Bonhoeffer points so often and so clearly to Jesus, that a good commentary on Bonhoeffer (which this book is) will do the same. I am grateful for this short, hearty work that Kelly has written, and hope that more DBWE volumes receive similar treatment in the future.

By the way–I’m also grateful to Wipf and Stock Publishers for the review copy. They’ve provided a 40% off coupon code to readers of this blog, good toward the purchase of Reading Bonhoeffer or anything else on Wipf and Stock’s site. Simply use the code LETTERS at checkout. It’s good through the end of May.

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