Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison": A Biography

Martin E. Marty
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rmsf
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  • Book Info
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison"
    Book Description:

    For fascination, influence, inspiration, and controversy,Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prisonis unmatched by any other book of Christian reflection written in the twentieth century. A Lutheran pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer spent two years in Nazi prisons before being executed at age thirty-nine, just a month before the German surrender, for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. The posthumousLetters and Papers from Prisonhas had a tremendous impact on both Christian and secular thought since it was first published in 1951, and has helped establish Bonhoeffer's reputation as one of the most important Protestant thinkers of the twentieth century. In this, the first history of the book's remarkable global career, National Book Award-winning author Martin Marty tells how and whyLetters and Papers from Prisonhas been read and used in such dramatically different ways, from the cold war to today.

    In his late letters, Bonhoeffer raised tantalizing questions about the role of Christianity and the church in an increasingly secular world. Marty tells the story of how, in the 1960s and the following decades, these provocative ideas stirred a wide range of thinkers and activists, including civil rights and antiapartheid campaigners, "death-of-God" theologians, and East German Marxists.

    In the process of tracing the eventful and contested history of Bonhoeffer's book, Marty provides a compelling new perspective on religious and secular life in the postwar era.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3803-5
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    M.E.M.
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Birth of a Book
    (pp. 1-30)

    An old photograph provides a glimpse into a dismal cell at a Nazi prison called Tegel. Wan light falls in from a tiny window that is too high for a prisoner to use to take in a landscape, but one who is alert and sensitive might glimpse the upper branches of a high tree or a low hanging cloud, and through that opening, hear a thrush. A standard-issue plank bed with a blanket drawn tight over it takes up most of the small space in the cell and in the picture, and a board to which one could attach notices...

  6. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  7. CHAPTER 2 The “Gradual” Editor
    (pp. 31-50)

    The reader of letters and papers that issue from the unpromising circumstances with which we are becoming familiar cannot fail to be curious about how the letters morphed into a book. Eberhard Bethge, who brought the book to life, devoted only the first pages of a preface to an enlarged edition in 1970 to detail the process. He told how in 1950–51 he had wanted to make available for a few friends some short, “specifically theological, meditations” from Tegel. Even before the war was over he transcribed a few extracts to circulate to these friends during a time when...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Decisive Turns
    (pp. 51-73)

    Readers who never would have bought books of systematic theology, for which there is a small market, may well have merely stumbled upon the book namedLetters and Papers from Prisonor had it recommended to them by a friend. It is likely that if they had opened and begun reading, they would very quickly have been drawn in to the human drama of the early pages. What they could not have anticipated is that after 278 pages in the familiar 1978 edition or 360 pages in the definitive version, which includes letters dated up to April 26, 1944, comes...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Travels East
    (pp. 74-102)

    The biography of the bookLetters and Papers from Prison, like most biographies of humans, takes account of its subject’s travels. While the book has “gone global,” the story of several places where it received controversial responses will provide readers with material on the basis of which they can do their own reckoning. For our purposes, three of these stand out.

    First the book traveled east, to the Bonhoeffer homeland, which between 1945 and 1989 became the “East Germany” of the Cold War. The experience there reveals the uses to which themes from the book were put by churches and...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Travels West
    (pp. 103-132)

    Biographies, life stories of humans, regularly deal with adolescence as a time of restlessness, rebellion, and the search for an identity. Biographies of books like Bonhoeffer’sLetter and Papers from Prisonmay by analogy follow similar trajectories and can represent parallel experiences in the same stage. The book enjoyed something like a time of innocence in which seminarians, seekers, and devotionalists, often in isolation from each other, mined it quite simply and perhaps somewhat naively for inspiration and spiritual sustenance. That period was brief. Only four years after its publication, readers who found each other gathered at Bethel in West...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Worlds of Two Strangers
    (pp. 133-177)

    Eberhard Bethge, the producer ofLetters and Papers from Prison, had to look on in frustration as Bonhoeffer’s late theology was subjected to what he called “creative misuse” by Marxists in East Germany and radicals in the Anglo-American world. By 1975 he and those of his outlook had outlasted both, so he could put perspective on them as he scanned the scene and offered his interpretation on current work that went in new paths. Some of it came from predictable and others from unanticipated directions.

    The anticipated, first: “the comprehensive theological study and appraisement of his work is just beginning,”...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Travels around the World
    (pp. 178-210)

    The biography of the bookLetters and Papers from Prisonquite naturally accents its travels. Librarians and booksellers catalog and remember it as one of the most traveled books in the field of religion. To discipline our tracking of the book’s biography, we have had to stay close to the prosaic ground, finding it difficult to do justice to the ways it took off and fed imaginations of fiction writers, film producers, and others who do not have to stay close to the trail that is often called “literal” or to tell stories once described as “objective.” This biography would...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Continuity and Change
    (pp. 211-246)

    Biographers look for turning points, basic decisions made, accidents, or other extraordinary events in the lives of their subjects. The biographers of classic books do not have to look for extraordinary events in the lives of such volumes. They present themselves, as if leaping out from the pages or the records of response to each, bidding for attention. Certainly, the story ofLetters and Papers from Prisonfeatures highlights that serve to illuminate the less dramatic aspects of the book. A biographer in the present case has to note the startling origins, the birth of a book in a Nazi...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 247-260)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 261-275)