Monday of our last week in Nova Scotia---chore day, the need to wash clothes has come again so we are preparing for a trip to Digby to go to the Laundromat. While we are there we plan to browse their lineup of gift shops and see what they may have that we have not seen while here. We seem to have a need to find some reminders of our time here, maybe something nautical in nature since that is the theme of this area. I am finding boats of all kinds to be of interest and would like to find something to bring home that would remind me of Parker’s Cove and the fishing industry that is of great importance here.
I have almost finished reading my fifth book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. It is a new biography of the German theologian that has just come out in print. I have known a small amount about Bonhoeffer dating back to my days in seminary but have not known a great deal about him so I wanted to read more and this new biography has been receiving good reviews.
Bonhoeffer is a complex person. Reared in an affluent German family, his father a successful psychiatrist and his mother a socialite, with servants to care for the needs of all family members, he enjoyed an upbringing with all the advantages of the upper echelon of German society of the early part of the 20th century. Neither of his parents was extremely religious and church attendance was rare for him but he somehow developed an interest in spirituality at an early age and declared at the age of 15 that he wanted to become a theologian. His parents neither encouraged or discouraged his decision and sent him to an excellent school in preparation for this career decision.
He completed his advanced educational training with high marks and moved on to seminary, which was a very complex and complicated undertaking in his time. Before he had finished his seminary education, he had written two doctoral dissertations and had received his PhD in theology and had set his sights on a professorship at the University of Berlin.
In order to fulfill the requirements for being licensed as a pastor in addition to receiving his degree, he had to work in a church setting for a year. He chose to work in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood in Berlin with youth who had little religious training. At first he found this difficult but then he began to teach them Bible stories that they had never heard and to incorporate music and drama into his work and won them over to wanting to know more about the Christian life.
This experience opened the door to the desire in his life to be a pastor and, instead of immediately pursuing a professorship at the university, Bonhoeffer served as assistant to a pastor at a German Lutheran Church in Barcelona, Spain where many expatriates lived. He enjoyed being in Spain and found the time to travel to Italy and the Middle East while there. He had a great love for travel and took every opportunity to go places about which he had read as a youth.
The time he spent in Barcelona sparked his interest in the Roman Catholic faith especially after his trip to Rome and his worship experiences at some of the great cathedrals in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Bonhoeffer developed a great love for the monastic way of life which would become the basis for the way the Confessing Movement would be structured later in his life.
As Germany began to change with the imposition of Nazi rule under Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer became aware that he could no longer function as a pastor in the German Lutheran Church and he began a dissident church called the Confessing Church. At first it was tolerated by the Nazis but soon they began to order more and more restrictions on religious freedoms for Germans and all they ruled in the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church was outlawed and anyone who participated in it could be charged with treason and arrested. Hitler declared himself the new Messiah and demanded worship for him and his rule.
Friends that Bonhoeffer had made in the United States during a visit to Union Theological Seminary in New York in the early 1930s encouraged him to move to America to avoid being arrested and he did make a visit to New York in 1939 but felt so homesick that he could not stay so he returned to Germany to face whatever would happen there alongside his German friends who were being forced to serve in the military.
Bonhoeffer joined the underground movement and became a double spy, working for an agency where he was supposed to report on what was going on in England and the United States but at the same time he was reporting to the underground what he would learn about the Nazi plans during the war. Soon, he was caught up in a plan to assassinate Hitler and that would eventually lead to his arrest and execution just before the war ended.
Bonhoeffer is widely known as the author of the book The Cost of Discipleship which came about as a result of his experiences and suffering. He examined the biblical texts with Jesus’ words to “take up your cross, and follow me” and tried to explain what that means in our daily lives. He was very critical of Americans when he visited the US twice and declared that they had never experienced a Reformation such as Germany had with Luther. He thought of Americans as enjoying an individualism in religious thought and life that did not connect with his idea of community which he had written about in his doctoral dissertation. As life became harder and harder for him in his native Germany, he made the decision to know the sufferings of his fellow Germans in a personal way rather than to run away to the US and avoid it all. That decision cost him his life but his years in prison before his death left a legacy of writings that ask the modern reader to reflect upon what the cost of discipleship is for us in our world. Is our religious or Christian experience one that is very individualistic or do we feel connected to the worldwide Christian community and its sufferings? What does it mean to consider a “cost” to Christian discipleship today or is there a cost at all to modern American Christians? What do Jesus’ words from Mark mean to us today as we consider them?
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”