Takeaway: While Bonhoeffer is treated by many as a Rorschach test, there actually was a real person that should be dealt with honestly.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most respected Christian figures of the 20th century. But it would not be surprising that his legacy is debated. Bonhoeffer’s works span 16 volumes in the complete works. Those complete works include letters, books, fiction, sermons, academic papers and more. It is unsurprising in the breadth of his work over time that there significant changes in thought, even in his short life.
What may be surprising for many is how recent the interest in Bonhoeffer is. There is a good chapter by Timothy Larson in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture that traces Evangelical reception to Bonhoeffer. And Martin Marty’s biography of the book Letters and Papers from Prison has a long section that traces the history of how Bonhoeffer was received as well.
The Battle for Bonhoeffer is really a book length expansion of the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer that both of the two mentioned book discuss in shorter sections. And for the most part is a scathing critique of the misuse while noting some of the better uses.
Bonhoeffer’s ideas have been controversially appropriated for different movements nearly from the start. John Robinson’s very controversial book Honest to God used Bonhoeffer’s concept of religion-less Christianity. But in 1963 when Honest to God was published, Bonhoeffer was not widely known and Bonhoeffer was tainted in conservative circles because of his attachment to Honest to God.
Haynes carefully walks through how different groups have used (and often misused or distorted) Bonhoeffer for their own purposes. This is a brief but helpful reminder that broader context of a person’s life and work is important to rightly understanding and using a person’s ideas. My largest take away from Battle for Bonhoeffer is the importance of actually understanding the subject before talking about it.