After several recommendations, I pushed this up my reading list, but that’s something I’m quite glad of. It’s now 5 years since I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer when I read The Cost of Discipleship whilst hiking around the Julian Alps of north-western Slovenia. Following up with Letters and Papers from Prison, probably no two books have had a greater influence on the direction of my discipleship in recent years.
This is a very short book, running to a little under 100 pages in the edition I read, made up of 5 chapters. From the off, as with The Cost of Discipleship and much of the later parts Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer metaphorically picks up the reader by the lapels and gives them a firm shake. One of the difficulties with reading Bonhoeffer is that he writes quite concisely. Each sentence packs a lot into it, but it is also of such a quality that one cannot help but be drawn in. You keep reading and want to keep reading, but at the same time you want to stop and ponder the points made. So even though it’s relatively brief, I had to force myself to take longer over reading it than I normally would.
He opens with a chapter on christian community where the key point is that this is life lived in Jesus, not just a life lived unto Jesus. So we are reminded of the participation we have in all aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is further expanded on later on and remains a running theme throughout the book. Bonhoeffer is keen to stress the difference between the christian community, what it means to be Church, from what it means to be any other gathering of people. In so doing, he is a strong advocate of community bound by spirit and has fairly short shrift for those who would try to view church community as any kind of social or anthropological construct.
Following up on this quite general opening, he moves onto some specifics when he writes about the day spent with others. Here, he is very family focused, almost to the extent of being assumptive that a christian’s life will be within a family, and that that family will have a fairly rigid routine. While I would recognise the great value that there can be in routine (what a friend of mine refers to as Holy Habits) I am sceptical about when a routine becomes a rule or goes even further and becomes a ritual. Nonconformists, myself included, will sometimes speak of a dichotomy between a living faith and a dead religion. What we mean by this is not that anything that could be spoken of as religious is inherently bad, but it is where the ceremonial has taken over and things are done for the sake of doing them. As one anglo-catholic friend of mine puts it, “You’ve got to have the dressing up, the chanting, the smells and bells. Otherwise it’s just not proper religion”. Now Bonhoeffer doesn’t go to that conservative extreme, but he is quite prescriptive.
He stresses the use of Psalms in worship, though he gets a bit tangled up at times. It’s noticeable that he takes a very “high” view of scripture – higher than mine, though I hope to have a piece written on this fairly soon. While he doesn’t venture into talking about inerrancy, one gets the impression that, were the question put to him, it’s a view that he might well endorse.
From the day with others he goes on to speak of the day alone. This is much more akin to the world I live in. Though he doesn’t make a huge about-turn from the previous chapter; it’s much more a continuation, noting that families are separated from one another by their work for most of the day. The main thing I got out of this chapter was the need for faithfulness in all that we do and what is meant by the phrase “pray without ceasing” – something I try to do in my work, but freely admit that I often fail in it. Although Bonhoeffer doesn’t speak of balance per se, there is a sense here that that is what he aiming for. Or maybe it’s rather that he is giving a model for a well-rounded, complete christian life.
The penultimate chapter is simply entitled ‘Ministry’. I had feared that this was just for those in church leadership roles and would have nothing for people like me whose employment is found in the secular arena, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this fear was unfounded. In fact, I could hardly have been more wrong. What Bonhoeffer does is to look at various ways in which members of a community can minister to one another. Though brief, it is a marvelous exposition of the Petrine principle of the priesthood of all believers. There is no restriction based on whether someone is ordained or not. The ministries he goes into include holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helpfulness, bearing with one another, proclaiming and authority. Without recapitulating the whole thing here, I found it refreshingly challenging, like a cold, strong wind on a hilltop shortly before the break of spring.
The book culminates with a chapter mostly about confession. Here, as throughout, Bonhoeffer remains faithfully reformed. He opposes the idea of one person bearing the load of hearing the confessions of a whole congregation, but rather that that whole congregation should listen, on a small scale, to the confessions of one another. Though he doesn’t use the modern term “accountability partner” it is a concept which fits snugly within Bonhoeffer’s view of church. All this is to prepare for what Bonhoeffer sees as the culmination, the ultimate expression of church: communion. He doesn’t go into the theology of communion so doesn’t state here whether he takes a functionalist or symbolic view.
It is a truly beautiful vision of church that Bonhoeffer presents here and one that many christians possibly ache for, even if their expression of that vision isn’t worded quite so eloquently. I would reiterate my point that it is possibly a bit prescriptive and my take would be that each church community may find their own tweaks to this model which are more helpful than a one size-fits-all approach. An interesting point to note is that the model is seemingly only very loosely based on a biblical model. While Bonhoeffer takes a high view of scripture, this isn’t an exegesis, but any biblical backup is rather piecemeal. I get the impression that much is borne out of experience, but his own background is well disguised in the writing. He doesn’t say what he has tried and found helpful or unhelpful. Instead, I may try that myself as I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer, consider his wisdom and perhaps try a renewed expression of christian community.