Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, by Renate Wind
Eerdmans, 2002.
Reviewed by Chris Rice

Renate Wind, a teacher of theology, biblical studies, and church history has written the most approachable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer available today. Leave it to a woman to make an early twentieth century German scholar fresh, vibrant, and alive for this generation! In this little paperback we are introduced to our hero as if for the first time. We learn of what it was like to grow up in the home of Karl Bonhoeffer, a father “both sensitive and detached,” and what effect this had on Dietrich’s desire to know God.
Diary entries of his visit to Rome in April of 1924 provide a window into his first encounter with the church in a Catholic mass. “The whole thing was so fresh, and made an unprecedented impression of the deepest piety. . . I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of the ‘church.’” (p. 29)

Another of my favorite moments in the book takes place in “The Prophet’s Chamber” at Union Theological Seminary occupied successively by four theologians whose nations were getting ready for war. (Japan, Canada, the US, and Germany) “The German was Dietrich Bonhoeffer: he spent the most difficult and most tormenting weeks of his life in the Prophet’s Chamber. In June 1939 he was admitted and given a teaching post for the coming semester. At the beginning of July he packed his bag again and went back to Germany on the last ship before the outbreak of war. In the Prophet’s Chamber his successor found piles of cigarette butts and illegible notes. A diary has also been preserved from these weeks which indicates how much Dietrich fought with himself and his conflicting ideas and feelings.”(p. 127)</p>
In an earlier letter he had written “We ought to be found only where He is. We can non longer, in fact, be anywhere else than where He is. Whether it is you working over there or I working in America, we are all only where He is. He takes us with him. Or have I, after all avoided the place where He is? The place where He is for me?” (p. 137)

Each of the chapters in this book are short enough to make the story easy to follow. The writing provides a special sense of involvement that transcends the period. It would seem that Renate is taking liberties with her subject with the way his story becomes so personable, but all her references are verifiable with notes. She is bringing us close to Bonhoeffer with her prose and this is a real gift. A book of this type can’t really be compared with Eberhard Bethge’s larger biography except to say that somehow she has successfully brought those of us less willing to wade through the enormity of the available material into closer relation with the man himself.

5 responses to “Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind

  1. Pingback: Dietrich Bonhoeffer und die Weiße Rose « Evang. Pfarramt Jubilatekirche West Reutlingen

  2. Neat writing! I will visit again

  3. Rein Zeilstra

    There is now a great little book on Bonhoeffer by Keith Clements (SPCK Intro series- London 2010). Despite its brevity, the booklet brings out some further interesting facets of Bonhoeffer who was burdened and died with a conscience of ‘guilt by association’ on the way the Jews were treated; but at the very same time was seemingly more concerned about ensuing life for the Christian Church in Europe and Germany. It also puts the man into a clearer perspective in that he with his brilliant mind was always but a minor cog in the the Confessing Church that broke away from the State Lutheran Church primarily on account of the inclusion of the Aryan Paragraph into every facet of German and Austrian life; defensive therefore of the Lordship paradigm of Jesus Christ that stood in danger of being eclipsed by the Fuhrer/ Volksgeist syndrome- the latent but always present sociological status quo for a good half century earlier in Europe. Though there is no doubt his discipleship, ethical and prison writings as filtered through Bethge, came out with fitting cryptic assessments of modernity viz a viz God’s revelation in Jesus Christ; however his postwar writings beatified the man more than somewhat. While his catch- cries were apt, catching and illuminating, they deal primarily with the European Enlightenment condition where God can now no longer be “thought” (Heidegger et al) and where humanity is only allowed to think of itself within a pure human framework of a moment by moment life without guilt and blame for the past or undue concern for any futures. Any such historical (“ontological” read: “metaphysical’) recall or concerned thought is now dismissed as “inauthentic”, “inadmissable” and “scandalous” even. However Bonhoeffer died with the verdict of “guilty” in his own estimation yet at the same instance conscious of being a forgiven Christian; he pointed out thereby that the converse and dialectic direction of Christian antecedents ruled his life, the which most essentially philosophical existentialism had endeavoured to sideline and in that lack of ultimate accountability it had underpinned and legitimized Nazi totalitarian rule and genocide to proceed in unimaginable scale without any care or undue remorse. Therefore in retrospect being “guilty” was a medal of honour for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a decoration that he too had run the race of faith, and hadn’t caved in to human cleverness and the sin of excising God and opting for the only dreadful alternative: the inauguration of the kingdom of death.

  4. Melisa

    Where can I find this book in pdf free download so I can read it?

  5. walter Shepherd

    The title “the Spoke in the Wheel” is an outrageous mis-translation of Bonhoeffer’s words and the title in German, “Dem Rad in die Speichen Fallen.”

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