Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”: A Biography by Martin Marty

Summary: The history of how and why this Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison spread so widely and became so influential.

At this point I have read far more about Bonhoeffer than by Bonhoeffer. That is not to say I haven’t read Bonhoeffer, but to say I have read a lot about Bonhoeffer, especially over the past several years since writing on him seems to have exploded.

I read Letters and Papers from Prison in college soon after I first read Cost of Discipleship and somewhat before I read Love Letters from Cell 92.

It is actually the now out of print Love Letters from Cell 92 that really humanized Bonhoeffer for me and moved him from abstract theologian to real live human person. About the same time as I was reading Love Letters from Cell 92, I started University of Chicago Divinity School and had Martin Marty as a professor.

Marty is writing here with some personal involvement. He is Lutheran, he has met Eberhard Bethge (who is the friend of Bonhoeffer’s that compiled and edited the Letters and Papers from Prison) at least a couple of times when Bethge spoke at University of Chicago. And while he doesn’t directly say it, Marty hints that he was present at some of the conferences and events mentioned in the book.

Primarily this (and the rest of the series) is a history of the book, not of Bonhoeffer himself, and Marty works hard to keep it that way. What was most helpful about the book is that I really have not known much about how Bonhoeffer became popular. I have vaguely known that Bonhoeffer’s message was co-opted by liberals (I didn’t know that it was Robinson’s Honest to God book that started that movement.)

And I sort of knew that a lot of Evangelicals were hesitant about Bonhoeffer because of it. There is a good chapter by Timothy Larkin in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (my review) about how Evangelicals received Bonhoeffer over time. But Marty’s look is much broader and pays more attention to how Bonhoeffer has been misused by many for their own purposes. The historic reluctance to read Bonhoeffer by Evangelicals is as much about guilt by association as it is actual content.

The book as a whole is a bit on the dry side. I spent nearly a month working my way through it (although that was at least partially because I was reading some other really good books). I thought Alan Jacob’s biography of the Book of Common Prayer (my review) from the same series was better and more engaging.

If this had not been on Scribd, I would not have picked it up. Most of the series is nearly $15 on kindle and while the subject is interesting money doesn’t grow on trees. But since the series is included, I will probably eventually pick up Bernard McGinn’s biography of Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, Garry Wills’ biography of Augustine’s Confessions, Mark Larrimore’s Biography of the Book of Job and John C Collins’ biography of The Dead Sea Scrolls. These are exactly the type of books that make an ebook subscription plan make sense for me. I don’t really want to own these books, they are not going to show up at my local library, and if I can read one or two a month in addition to a couple of audiobooks, I feel the subscription is worth the money Because of changes to Scribd’s model, I no longer recommend it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”: A Biography by Martin Marty Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Scribd Edition

Letters and Papers from Prison 2011 Edition (448 Pages)Bonhoeffer Complete Works Edition (800 pages), Scribd Complete Works Edition (The Complete Works edition of Letters and Papers from Prison is $35 on kindle, but also included in Scribd)

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