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Books: The fictional Bonhoeffer

Books | A novel about the martyred theologian shows how Christians and books can be both righteous and sinful

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

This novel about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is both a very good book and a very bad book. Artistically, the author uses all the techniques of novel writing with considerable skill, creating a fictional depiction of a real person. Bonhoeffer, as most people know, was a rising young German Lutheran theologian who joined the Resistance and was imprisoned and later executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Despite some theological lapses, he has become something of a role model for today's Christians. His best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, with its condemnation of "cheap grace," that is, a Christian life that fails to produce good works, is a modern classic read widely by evangelicals. All the more reason to applaud Ms. Giardina for managing to take the familiar and make a good read out of it. She sticks closely to the facts, which are dramatic enough in themselves, adjusting events and inventing characters only where necessary for artistic purposes. The author's accelerated pacing of the final scenes in prison is particularly well done. The portrayal of Bonhoeffer himself is compelling. He was a shy man, given to books and music, who would have been content with a quiet career as an academic theologian-like Luther, who went before him. But Bonhoeffer found, as Luther had, that world events were arrayed against him. Thrust into the melee, he was forced by conscience to take a stand against evil. Bonhoeffer in the novel is no stained-glass image of piety. He is a flesh-and-blood human being. He sins and he repents. He makes mistakes and has to undergo painful correction. He wavers and backslides, then inches forward again. As his mentor Luther said, Christians are simul justus et peccator: at the same time, righteous and sinful. We are all sinners, and, in Christ, we are all saints. Yet, for him as for us, God is gracious and faithful and sustains him in the Christian faith unto the end. So, in its management of the problem of sainthood, this is a good book. At the same time, it is a very bad book. As a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church, Ms. Giardina insists on preaching. And her sermon is all about liberal politics. In the opening chapters, she depicts Bonhoeffer as being politicized during a stay in the United States. He goes to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary where he falls under the influence of the radical left-wing theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, who teaches his students that their religion is invalid unless expressed in political and social action. Then he travels to the South, where he is appalled at the treatment of blacks. Such things happened, but Ms. Giardina keeps drawing parallels between American blacks and German Jews, between American conservatives and the Nazis. Conversely, all liberals in the novel, from the ministers working with the World Council of Churches to the Communists fomenting political chaos, are portrayed in a positive light. Add to this her complete lack of reflection on the corruption of the Lutheran church in Germany through liberal theology in the 19th century, a corruption that allowed the Nazis to arise in the 20th. The moral, existing alongside Bonhoeffer's redemptive struggles, is that we in America, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, must rise up and fight against wicked right-wing fundamentalist conservatives. Hitler tried to make Bonhoeffer tell lies, and was rebuffed. Ms. Giardina harms her book by offering propaganda, not truth.

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