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Trade Paperback
272 pages
Apr 2004
Brazos Press

Bonhoeffer As Martyr

by Craig J. Slane

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Review:

In Bonhoeffer as Martyr, Craig J. Slane defends the thesis that Bonhoeffer was a Christian martyr and uses his view of martyrdom as a tool to interpret Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a figure that raises strong emotion in many that study him.  He is revered for his courage as an advocate for Jews in Nazi Germany.  He is considered suspect because of his involvement in the Abwehr and their attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Few are able to take a neutral approach to Bonhoeffer as a man or as a theologian.

Slane is no different.  He is unashamed of the admiration he feels for Bonhoeffer, but it is a calculated admiration.  Slane divides his study into three parts.  In the first he examines what it means to be a Christian martyr and applies this to Bonhoeffer’s life, defending the thesis that Bonhoeffer should be considered a martyr.  Second, Slane attempts to construct the tools he needs to interpret Bonhoeffer’s life and theology with martyrdom as the keystone.  Finally, he applies this key to Bonhoeffer, concentrating on the Finkenwalde experiment.

An associate professor of systematic theology at Simpson College in Redding, California, Slane approaches the problem of Bonhoeffer as martyr with theological baggage in hand.  His study of the theology of martyrdom is one of the gems of the book.  Beginning with a study of Ignatius, Polycarp, and the Lyons martyrdoms, Slane establishes a well-developed description of the view of martyrdom that prevailed in Christianity up until the modern period.  From here he identifies some interesting cultural differences that came on the scene in the twentieth century and argues for a more nuanced view of martyrdom. Having developed his definition, Slane defends his thesis that Bonhoeffer was a Christian martyr.

In the next section of the book, Slane delves headlong into a study of Heidegger’s concept of Sein zum Tode or Being-unto-Death.  He argues that human existence must be seen in light of death.  Further, he argues, one who is aware of and does not fear their mortality has a greater awareness of reality than one who is unaware of this.

In the final section of the book, Slane applies his hermeneutic to Bonhoeffer specifically.  His study of Bonhoeffer’s Christology is worth the price of the book.  Here he argues that for Bonhoeffer, it was natural for Christ’s self-giving love to manifest itself in the life of the Christian.

Slane’s study is in many points very well argued. It shows a significant affinity with Bonhoeffer as theologian.  However, there are weaknesses.  Slane’s theological tradition is with us throughout the book.  This isn’t necessarily a negative.  It would be hardly fair to expect him to leave it behind.  However, it does intrude on Slane’s reading of Bonhoeffer himself.  We like to see ourselves in those whom we admire.  Slane sometimes reads himself into Bonhoeffer in unwarranted ways.

An example will be helpful.  Beginning on page 180, Slane cites Bonhoeffer. “Baptism thus implies a break.  Christ invades the realm of Satan, and lays hold of those who belong to him, thereby creating his church-community. . . The break with the world is absolute.  It requires and causes our death.  In baptism we die together with our old world.”  Bonhoeffer is describing the classic Lutheran theology of baptism.  In baptism, God drowns the sinner and raises from the holy waters a new man, born as His child through new faith.  Baptism is God’s action.  This is not Slane’s theological approach.  In describing Bonhoeffer’s view, Slane writes, “Whether leading to martyrdom or not, baptism is a visible act of obedience by which one’s faith is moved into the public square.”  That’s just not what Bonhoeffer said, at least not in the passage Slane cites.

In an earlier chapter, Slane describes Bonhoeffer’s view that the Jews should be evangelized as “theological anti-Semitism.”  He also argues that the fall in Eden is not necessarily the cause of biological death, and, without persuasive citation, places this on the lips of Bonhoeffer.  These moments jarred me out of my reading of the book because they were so incongruous with the rest of the work.  They are unfortunate scars on the surface of a good study.

Ultimately the book is useful. It draws some elements of Bonhoeffer’s thought to the foreground in a way that allows the reader to have a greater appreciation for who Bonhoeffer was.  It is not a book to be read uncritically, but it is a book to be read by any who have scholarly interest in Bonhoeffer or the question of his martyrdom.  In Bonhoeffer as Martyr, Slane has added some helpful chapters to the conversation. -- Charles Lehmann, Christian Book Previews.com

Book Jacket:

Few twentieth-century Christian figures have sparked the level of discussion and disagreement that Dietrich Bonhoeffer has. And now, into the new millennium, his inspiring, sometimes bewildering life and writings continue to invite fresh reflections on Christian ethics and existence.

Craig J. Slane joins the conversation with Bonhoeffer as Martyr. This carefully researched yet attractively personal book argues for Bonhoeffer's historical status as "martyr." Advocating a more nuanced definition of martyrdom in modernity, Slane brings into view its relationship to Christian social responsibility.

Investigating Bonhoeffer's choices via the hermeneutic of martyrdom, he focuses more than any previous scholar on "the death-ward curvature" of Bonhoeffer's life. Indeed, he compounds Bonhoeffer's universal relevance and appeal by arguing that the "inherent interpretive powers of martyrdom" are central to Christian existence itself.

Bonhoeffer as Martyr is essential reading for Bonhoeffer scholars and enthusiasts, those interested in Christian ethics, and anyone intrigued by the broad theological implications of martyrdom for the Christian life.