Chris's Reviews > The Cost of Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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's review
Feb 21, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: theology

I really like this book because it has some interesting and challenging ideas but it also has some ideas that, especially when considered in light of Bonhoeffer's biography after writing this, are pretty problematic. I'll start with the good stuff. The critique of "cheap grace" and the insistence that a true grace puts one at odds with the world is very powerful and increasingly relevent in the current American theological climate where the prosperity gospel seems to becoming dominant. Bonhoeffer's suspicion of worldy causes is also useful to keep in mind, given the politicization of Christianity by both sides in the American debate.

This suspicion, though, is also at the root of what I find troubling in the book. Bonhoeffer asks us to devote ourselves to the Church in opposition to the world. But I think he's not giving enough weight to the distinction between the visible and invisible Church. The visible Church is a human institution that exists in the world and, it seems to me, is only marginally more worthy of our devotion than the state. I don't think the dichotomy between church and world holds up, and as a result I don't think we can turn our backs on the world to the extent he wishes.

Nor do I think we ought to. Bonhoeffer insists that Christians shouldn't try to change the world except by helping ourselves and others to extract ourselves from it. He inveighs against trusting in revolution, for example. He wants us to do good works, but always in a private capacity. This seems to restrictive. If feeding the hungry is a good thing, surely it has to be good to try to enact structural change to do it too. We have to keep the tension between worldly and Christian goals, of course. But I think we also have to try to bring the world in line with those goals, even knowing that we're going to mostly fail.

Bonhoeffer himself seems to have changed his mind on this point. In 1937, with The Costs of Discipleship, he felt the nature of the state's power was irrelevent to the Christian. By 1943 he was plotting to kill Hitler, and rightly so I believe. I know he wrote both the Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison during this period, and I'm interested in reading them, but this seems like a case of his actions contradicting his principles for the better.

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