Good booksLetters & Papers From Prison
Author: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Publisher: SCM (1970), The Enlarged Edition, 437pp.

In reviewing Jacque Ellul’s Prayer & Modern Man two weeks ago, an expression either attributed to or mentioned by Ellul really took its inspiration from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, while in prison for being implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, hammered out his philosophy of “religionless Christianity”. In Bonhoeffer’s mind, Christianity had taken on too much the trappings of religion, which might be roughly defined as seeking divine blessings. To Bonhoeffer, Christianity is not so much about seeking God’s blessings as pouring one’s life out for others – a value epitomized by Christ Whom Bonhoeffer calls “the Man for others”.

That, for me, is easily the most precious truth one could uncover from Letters & Papers from Prison.  Bonhoeffer had not, however, consciously set out to develop a theological concept. It was a thought that came from the crucible of experience. If it was from the mouths of babes that God had perfect praise, and the muck and filth of putrefying earth that the most beautiful flowers bloom, then too from the walls of prison cells might one catch the surest echoes of divinity.

My first encounter with Bonhoeffer was by way of a second-hand experience. I was a first-year student at theological school, and had read a conservative critique of Bonhoeffers’ “religionless Christianity”. In my theological naivete and brashness, I went to engage my New Testament lecturer (who was German) in debate.  Dr Rennstich told me curtly but graciously (yes, I know it’s an oxymoron, but you don’t know this German!) that if I were as pious as Bonhoeffer, he would fall down and worship me!

That comment stuck in my mind for quite a while.  Eventually I went and got myself a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. It did not seem to have made that much of an impression on me (except for bits like those on “cheap grace” already high-lighted by other commentators). But when I picked up Letters and Papers from Prison last year, the experience was different. Perhaps it was the artlessness of it all that gave the communication that stamp of authenticity.

Rather than follow the chronological structure of the book, I thought it more  useful in this review to pick out some insights that I had found at once surprising and  thrilling (yes, picking up a faint resonance of an echo of truth when it’s so rarely heard is for me immensely thrilling!).

The prologue itself (pp.3-17) is worth its weight in gold. Here Bonhoeffer offers his reminiscences on a range of issues, and his observations are as incisive as they are pertinent. He talks about how folly is more dangerous than evil (pp.8,9), how suffering, to be truly Christological, is essentially ignominious (p.14), and how optimism is true only when there is no basis for it (p.15)!  To me, Bonhoeffer is deliciously mind-blowing. 

For this reason, I find it incredibly hard to do justice to such a magnificient piece of work in 750 words. So what I have opted to do is to offer snippets of Bonhoeffer’s insights on issues that are either intriguing or enticing.

Those who enjoy poetry will be delighted. There are about nine or ten poems scattered all over the place, and all of them Bonhoeffer’s own compositions. No high-falutin stuff here. They are mostly in a free verse style that anyone without knowledge of rhythm and metre can appreciate. The most striking is, of course, his “Who Am I?” (pp.347,348) – a poem in which Bonhoeffer wrestles with his sense of destiny. How could people think him brave when in fact he felt like a coward most of the time? This piece alone I found therapeutic as I struggle with my own sense of identity.  Then there is the intriguing piece entitled “Christians & Pagans” (pp.348,349) which in a way encapsulates the essence of his “religionless” philosophy.

Bonhoeffer has interesting comments on smoking, too (being a smoker himself). He talks about how surprised he was at not experiencing any craving for cigarettes in his early days in prison (p.21).  His theory is that mental upheavals have a way of muting physical dependence. Later on, in a comment on Kant, he expresses appreciation for Kant’s exposition of smoking as a means of entertaining oneself (p.50). This may seem a prosaic issue to some. Yet to me, it is both intriguing and relevant.  As a non-smoker who grew up in nicotine environment lately sanitized by government sanction, I find myself in a curious position of sympathizing with smokers whom I try to reach with the Gospel of Christ, smokers deeply antagonized by both public and religious censure.

What does it mean to be in prison?  Bonhoeffer’s response to this is a veritable storehouse of sociological and spiritual insight. He tries to say that it is not very different from normal life, if only you focussed on what you could do, rather than on what you could not (p.38)!  (By that token, we are all prisoners alike!).  He gives the game away, though, when he talks about how receiving letters are akin to having the prison gates open which enabled him to share the life outside (p.49).

In prison, Bonhoeffer learned the meaning of simplicity (p.50), of ministry to  others in spite of his own suffering – writing prayers for prisoners’ use because none were available in published form.  Bonhoeffer also saw through the indignity of incarceration, and once observed that the Old Testament law never punished by depriving  a man of his freedom.

In recent months, I awoke to the realization of a vast spiritual heritage that we have in the hymns of the church.  I have begun to use the hymnal as part of my daily period of quiet reflection, and also started memorizing some of them.  In part, this impetus really came from Bonhoeffer. He spoke of Paul Gerhardt’s hymns, and how helpful he found it to memorize them (p.22). He also spoke of the art of hearing hymns “inwardly” (p.240), and drawing from them a greater sense of purity.  In one lengthy extract, he developed his theory of the “polyphony of life” (p.303).  In other words, life is like a complex line of orchestral music. Yet through it all runs a cantus firmus, a tune  (God’s voice?) to which all other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. In essence, this is Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of the sacredness of all life (including the passions) as enjoyed in tandem with a sensitivity to God’s sovereign grace.

What was it that sustained Bonhoeffer in his years in prison?  Many things.  He spoke of the strength that comes through the scriptures in a letter to his parents (p.53), citing Proverbs 24:10 – “If you faint in a day of adversity, your strength is small.”  He spoke of how gifts to visitors comforted him: “material things become the vehicles of spiritual realities” (pp.54f.). He spoke of a dawning gratitude for being forced to depend on others (p.109).  He spoke of how his suffering in prison should not be profaned by having it dramatized.  “Of course a great deal here is horrible, but where isn’t it?” (p.232)!

 * * * * *

There are countless passages one could cite to highlight the amazing tenacity of this very unique personality in the most awful of circumstances.

Yet in spite of it all, and despite the apparent cynicism, Letters & Papers from Prison is one of the most life-affirming books I have read. Towards the end of his life, he professes beginning to understand more and more “the profound this-worldliness of Christianity” (p.369).

On this basis, he calls the Church to emerge from its stagnation and “risk saying controversial things” (p.378). The secret to soul-survival is not to be consumed by the present moment, but to “foster calmness that comes from great thoughts” (p.384).  And we can do that only if we learn to move in the direction of simplicity which, for Bonhoeffer, is one of the greatest of intellectual achievements (p.385).

I emerged from reading and reviewing Bonhoeffer a little sober, feeling a little saner in spite of the insanity in which I often seem to have been engulfed, and wanting to resolve to live out the rest of my life as Christ did, and as Bonhoeffer attempted to do – as  “the man for others.”

(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)


The speaker last week was Dr James Christensen from the United States.

Dr Christensen began from the refrain of a Christian song – “The greatest thing in my life is … “ – and related it to Paul’s experience as spelt out in Phil. 3:13 & 14.  Dr Christensen saw four essential characteristics of Christian service and ministry.

First, there is honesty.  Hence the importance of taking spiritual inventory of one’s life.  Paul’s verdict was an honest one – “I do not consider that I have made it my own.”

Secondly, the ability to forget the past. We often carry excess baggage from sins of the past. But our past has been erased, yet erased not as in imprints on a chalkboard. In Dr Christensen’s analogy, the entire chalkboard has been replaced.

Thirdly, there is the need for focus. He cites an oft-used dictum: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Finally, we need to reach for the future, “the prize of the heavenly call”. And yet this was not to be a distant reward, but our experience of God’s transforming grace in the lives of those to whom we bear testimony.

The speaker ended with a challenge to finish well as Paul did (II Tim.4:7,8). And this would come as we seek to be sensitive to the call of God (Isa.6), and to stay true to the main thing.

Chapel next week on 26th November will be Mr Peter Lim. 


Ms Cherine Tan  17/11

Mr Peter Yeo  17/11

Mr Donald Ng  19/11

Ms Chua Chiew Lian  22/11

Ms Amy Fong  23/11

Ms Nellie Har  23/11

Ms Sherry Hua  23/11

Ms Joyce Tay  23/11 

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