JUNE 16, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Buber, Baillie, and Berdyaev were some of the "B" titans who towered fifty years ago, but my part of my generation cut our theological teeth on another, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As exemplars, Catholics then had Thomas Merton, the Jews had Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we Protestants had Bonhoeffer. New generations have to be told that he was a promising, early-matured theologian who could have come to and stayed in America during World War II. Instead, he went back and became part of the German resistance to Hitler.
We appreciated his complexity, a feature that makes him a voice for our own complex times. He was a martyr, but, as it was said, a guilty martyr; he did commit treason, after all. He was a hero, but a compromised one. His accents were evangelically orthodox, but he also ranged into some exploratory thinking about living "in a world come of age" -- his biggest bad guess -- and living with God as if not with God. He spoke Christianly, as in lectures on Christ the Center, but he dealt positively with those of other religions and of no religion, to the end.
Now the older and newer generations have a fresh visual means of checking on Bonhoeffer. I've seen (and sometimes consulted with the producers of) Bonhoeffer films for television, read scripts for never-filmed films, and watched stage performances -- not to mention slide show presentations, both carousel and PowerPoint. While I can't parade movie critic credentials, I have to say that for a synoptic view of his life, contribution, and ethical predicaments, I got the most out of the new documentary film, Bonhoeffer, by Martin Doblmeier.
We don't get very much into announcing forthcoming events in Sightings, but this time, for samplers: Bonhoeffer premiers in New York on June 20; Chicago, June 27; Indianapolis, July 11; Minneapolis, July 18; Seattle, July 25; Fort Lauderdale, July 30; and Cleveland, September 3. South Carolina ETV is the presenter, so we can all watch for it and anticipate a full-feature television presentation in due course. (A website has also been set up at http://www.bonhoeffer.com/.)
Bonhoeffer was a person of the church who knew when it had to withdraw to experience The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, two of his many book titles. But he also was very much a public person, existing at the crossroads of events in Europe between 1933 and his death, at the hands of Nazis, at age 39, days before the war in Europe ended. And while many religious films endeavor to do good service in the enclosures of church-sanctuaries, this exposure will let the public know that not all images in the religious mass-media revolution are of the sort that leave so many of us behind, such as the films and books in the wildly popular Left Behind series.
Some of the interviewed folks in the film whom I'd not seen for fifty years, now, because of their aging, reminded me that "forever young" Bonhoeffer would be 97 now. As we ponder the meaning of dissent and moral judgment in a time when issues seem to be more morally ambiguous than they were in 1933-1945, we still need exemplars. Maybe Bonhoeffer, thanks to this film, will have a new chance to reach a new generation.