Spending the Holidays with Bonhoeffer

October 2nd, 2011

A review of God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

(Translated by O.C. Dean, Jr. Compiled and edited by Jana Reiss.)


“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is a deep hunger among us for more of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the once and future prophet. Bonhoeffer’s death in a Nazi prison camp in the waning days of World War II left the Christian community with one of its more evocative unfinished stories. The German theologian was deeply engaged with the challenges of his day, but there is so much that seems contemporary about him in the 21st century. As he watched the Christian church around him capitulate to Nazi ideology, Bonhoeffer foresaw the impotence and crumbling of the religious institutional structure. And when he wrote about a “world come of age” in which humanity had finally outgrown its need of religion, it was inevitable that later generations of Westerners would see it as a prescient observation of their own world.

Publishers are hastily trying to feed this hunger with a slate of books. 2010 saw the publication of a monumental, if flawed, biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson). Though Metaxas leaves the reader wanting more insight and less reporting, (and much less clichéd prose), his book does have the virtue of immersing us once more in the story of Bonhoeffer’s life and in large passages of his writing. Also last year, Fortress Press continued its slow rollout of volumes in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works with the publication of its 800-page volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison. Three significant films on his life in the last decade have also contributed to making Bonhoeffer one of the hottest theologians of the 21st century some 55 years after his death.

Into this scene comes God in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Cover art for most Bonhoeffer books tends toward archival photographs, but Westminster: John Knox Press has produced a devotional book of Bonhoeffer readings adorned with red poinsettias. Don’t be fooled. There is nothing sentimental about the well-chosen selections from Bonhoeffer’s writings inside. They offer tantalizing glimpses of the rich theological veins Bonhoeffer was mining.

O.C. Dean, Jr. has rendered a fresh translation of the original German and Jana Riess is credited with compiling and editing the collection. Their good work is appropriately understated but is evident in the clear and accessible way this material is presented. There were a couple of occasions when a footnote would have helped to clarify a particular person Bonhoeffer was referencing, but these would probably not be a concern to readers approaching the book for its intended purpose as an aid to prayer and journaling.

Because of his association with the struggle against the perversions of Christianity in Nazi Germany, many readers may be surprised to find Bonhoeffer addressing the liturgical seasons. His personal story does give added weight to the readings, as in the quote which begins this review. Knowing that his Advent waiting, for several years, was associated with imprisonment lifts up dimensions most of us have perhaps never considered. His attention to the incarnation as good news for the weak and a challenge for the powerful is also brought home in light of his situation. But non-incarcerated readers looking for new spiritual depth in the season will also find much to savor that feels very contemporary. He writes warmly of Christmas celebrations with his family and observes that “waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten” (4).

The book is structured around the four weeks of Advent with the themes of Waiting, Mystery, Redemption, and Incarnation. Additional daily readings take us through the twelve days of Christmas and Epiphany. The readings in this section are not themed and feel more like tidbits.

Each day’s devotional is presented as three readings. The first is always from Bonhoeffer, though this is not credited outside the introduction and confused me at first, since the second reading is also usually from Bonhoeffer and is given a source. These initial readings are more generic and homiletical in tone but offer some of the best expressions of Bonhoeffer’s theology, as when he observes about the incarnation that “God becomes human and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human – really human” (50).

The second readings are briefer, often a paragraph, and are taken mostly from more personal sources, Bonhoeffer’s letters and sermons. Other readings are chosen from the letters of Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer’s young fiancée, and from gifted writers whom the editor calls “heirs of Bonhoeffer.” These well-chosen nuggets come from the likes of Scott Cairns, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and Luci Shaw. Finally, a third reading each day offers Scripture texts that are generally very well-matched to the other readings. Most are familiar Advent and Christmas lections, but they are not haphazardly chosen.

Most of what we have from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is incomplete. Life Together and Discipleship (also known as The Cost of Discipleship) have become treasured works in the greater Christian community, but most of our other acquaintance with the man whom many regard as a modern-day martyr has come from fragmentary writings. Collections like God Is in the Manger will not sate the hunger we have for more of Bonhoeffer or for prophets like him who can discern the times with depth and theological grounding. The book may whet our appetite, however, for claiming our own responsibility for responding faithfully to the times in which we live. At the very least, it will challenge Christians who are used to gauzy, inconsequential Advent reflections. That can only make for a more interesting celebration of the incarnation.


This review originally appeared in a slightly altered form in The Englewood Review of Books www.erb.kingdom now.org.

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