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Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: A Review

September 1, 2014

A scroll through some of my recent Facebook statuses shows the quotability of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and its impact on me:

And:

Also, this one:

And, just for fun, here’s some Bonhoeffer from a letter quoted in Eberhard Bethge’s biography of him:

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is substantial evidence that this servant of God saw himself as belonging to the church. The short, powerful book is both a gift and a challenge to any Christian who will take the time to study it.

I have just finished reading it through all the way for the first time. Though it’s true that there is a focus on how one can be a faithful member of a Christian community, the application to the Christian-as-individual is rich, as well.
 

How Life Together is Structured

 
There are five main sections of Life Together:

  1. Community
  2. The Day Together
  3. The Day Alone
  4. Service
  5. Confession and the Lord’s Supper

Bonhoeffer was, in fact, writing with his own seminary community in mind (see “Benefits of the DBWE Critical Edition,” below), but he also intended with Life Together something more universal:

We are not dealing with a concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church. Because of this, we are not searching for more or less haphazard individual solutions to a problem. This is, rather, a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole.

Throughout each of the sections, the focus of the book is “life together under the Word” (my emphasis, but also an ongoing emphasis of Bonhoeffer). An editor’s footnote explains that “life together” can also be translated from German as “common life.”

Christians in community are a sort of sacrament to each other, a theme throughout Life Together:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. In their loneliness, both the visitor and the one visited recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body.

Through prayer and worship together, intentional solitude, service to each other, hearing confession of sins and–ultimately–through participation in the Lord’s Supper, the purpose and aim of Christian communities is “to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”
 

Bonhoeffer’s Dialectic of Solitude and Community

 
Throughout the book Bonhoeffer explores the dialectic between living in community (“The Day Together”) and the individual’s time alone (“The Day Alone”). He suggests that the ones who will do best living in community are those who already do well alone. Those who cannot already live at peace with themselves will not do well in community:

Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear.

On the other hand, “the reverse is also true.” Discipleship is best when not received, experienced, and lived just as a solitary endeavor. Bonhoeffer says, “Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (emphasis in original).

Both solitude and the company of others, then, are needed:

We recognize, then, that only as we stand within the community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. … It is not as if the one preceded the other; rather both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s characteristic and refreshing forthrightness brings the point to a head:

Those who want community without solitude [Alleinsein] plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.

 

Benefits of the DBWE Critical Edition

 
Bonhoeffer Life TogetherLife Together is Volume 5 of Fortress Press’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English Edition); it’s also the first one published (1995) in the series.

In addition to its being a new translation from Bonhoeffer’s German, there is an Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition, Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition [abridged], and an extensive (though not distractingly so) set of footnotes as part of an explanatory critical apparatus.

Though one could certainly read Life Together in its own right, editor Geffrey B. Kelly’s introduction is a great set-up. From the very beginning he highlights the fascinating history of the book:

It was because [the Gestapo] had shut down the preachers’ seminary at Finkenwalde that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was finally persuaded to compose his thoughts on the nature and sustaining structures of Christian community, based on the “life together” that he and his seminarians had sustained both at the seminary and in the Brothers’ House at Finkenwalde. … With the closing of the seminary at Finkenwalde and the dispersal of the seminarians, however, Bonhoeffer felt compelled not only to record for posterity the daily regimen and its rationale, but also to voice his conviction that the worldwide church itself needed to promote a sense of community like this if it was to have new life breathed into it.

Kelly brings to light more about the historical situation leading to Life Together (including the Finkenwalde seminary), as well as ties it in with some of Bonhoeffer’s earlier writing that undergirds the book. Kelly notes that Life Together is ultimately a highly Christocentric work. Indeed, Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

The critical footnotes are excellent and seem to be placed at just the right spots. They include biblical references, historical background, explanations of German-to-English translations, and descriptions, where needed, of the larger body of Bonhoeffer’s thought that informs a given passage.

For those wanting to read Life Together, there’s a nice bonus with the Fortress Press DBWE edition: it includes also Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms. Given his emphasis already in Life Together on the importance of the Psalms for the prayer life of the community (“The Psalter is the great school of prayer”), its inclusion in this volume is perfectly fitting. The text itself is just above 20 pages, with the addition of an English editor’s introduction and German editors’ afterword.
 

One More Bonhoeffer Quote,
and How to Get the Book

 
The last word of this review goes to Bonhoeffer. Here it is:

The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is “from outside ourselves” (extra nos). I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ—in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection—are with God and God with them.

If you don’t already own Life Together, you should. If you do own it in an old paperback edition, you should get the Fortress Press Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works edition, if possible, whether through purchase or library check-out.

If you really want to go in depth, Geffrey B. Kelly (lead English editor of DBWE 5) wrote Reading Bonhoeffer, which includes a reading companion to Life Together.

Many thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy, given to me with no expectation as to the content of my review. You can find Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible here on Amazon (affiliate link), or here at Fortress Press.

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