Takeaway: This is one of the classics that everyone should read.
Over the past few years there has been renewed interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is a very good documentary (available for streaming on Netflix). Then two biographies of Bonhoeffer have been published in the last two years (I reviewed Eric Metaxas’s and have now read
but have not read the Ferdinand Schlingensiepen biography, which has been much better received in the academic world and I think is a better biography.)
Much of the interest and resources for Bonhoeffer study is a result of a new 16 volume series of Bonhoeffer’s works. Previous, to this series that is published in English by Fortress Press, there were only limited editions of Bonhoeffer’s books that had significant translation issues.
I have purchased three of these volumes (they are not cheap, so many people are still purchasing older editions.) The volume that includes Life Together (Bonhoeffer’s most read book) also includes his book on the Psalms (Prayerbook of the Bible). I am not reviewing Prayerbook of the Bible here, but will later. There is a significant amount of extra material in these books to give context and understanding to these two short books. Life Together is only a bit over 100 pages, but page for page I think is one of the most useful books I have ever read about spiritual growth and the role of community within the church.
The book has only six chapters (Preface, Community, Day Together, Day Alone, Service, and Confession/Communion.)
One of the most useful things that I heard on this reading (I have read this at least twice previously, but not in the last 10 years) was Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the limits and strengths of community. These are two long quotes, but I think shows that Bonhoeffer is not being idealistic about his view of Christian community:
What persons are in themselves as Christians, in their inwardness and piety, cannot constitute the basis of our community, which is determined by what those persons are in terms of Christ. Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. That not only is true at the beginning, as if in the course of time something else were to be added to our community, but also remains so for all the future and into all eternity. I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.
And then soon after:
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, forgiveness, and promise. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: other believers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of God’s grace?
Most people reading Life Together probably are reading in order to find more of what can be done to build Christian community. It is not that Bonhoeffer does not think that anything can be done. But instead, he believes that everything we do is far less than what God can do. There is a lot of good advice about how to orient community and how to think about our own person relationship with God. But I think the most important parts are those that are about our dependence on God for our community.
I finished this book up right before I left to our church’s Good Friday service. The final chapter is about confession and communion. Our church always has communion as part of our Good Friday service so I paid special attention to that section. In many ways, it is communion more than any other thing we do that is a visible expression of the church as a whole body (both inside the local community and church universal). I always want to do communion more often because I believe it is so important to remind us that we are a part of a single body. Bonhoeffer certainly supported this.
I wish Bonhoeffer had been around to revise this. Certainly he did not live in an easy world. This book was written after the Nazi’s has closed down his underground seminary and he and his friend Burge were in hiding until they decided what they could do next. But community today is different. We have less political pressure, but more temporal pressure. We often live miles away from our work and our church. We often only see friends occasionally and most people have very few close friends (that would be very important in Bonhoeffer’s mind). Our 24/7 world leaves very little time for reflection, meditation or building relationships. The older I get, the more I think that community is the most important counter-cultural thing that we can do as the church. I highly recommend reading Life Together. The first two chapters are the densest and hardest to read. But push through it is worth the effort.