Letters and Papers from Prison Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The son of a psychiatrist teaching at Berlin University, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided early to study theology. He served as pastor, lecturer, and theology professor in Spain, America, and England as well as Germany. Bonhoeffer became an outspoken critic of the Nazi government and an active member of the resistance movement. In 1943, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo and two years later was hanged. His other important works include Schöpfung und Fall (1933; Creation and Fall, 1959), Nachfolge (1937; The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), Gemeinsames Leben (1939; Life Together, 1954), and Ethik (1943; Ethics, 1955).

Letters and Papers from Prison is not specifically focused on the Holocaust, and the book is not intended to present a systematic set of ideas; rather, it posits questions and suggestive answers, or suggestive lines along which one may look for answers. As Bonhoeffer himself says, “I am led on more by an instinctive feeling for the questions which are bound to crop up rather than by any conclusions I have reached already.” However, one gets the feeling when reading this material that there was a book brewing in his mind. Just as one may think of Bonhoeffer’s previous work as a book on the theme of Christ as Lord of the Church, one could think of Letters and Papers from Prison as a work dealing with the theme of Christ as Lord of the world—for it is Christ and the world in the twentieth century and how one can be a disciple of Christ that seem to have been occupying Bonhoeffer’s mind. One of Bonhoeffer’s questions raised here, for example, and one that would greatly influence later theology, is “How do we speak . . . in secular fashion of God?”

It is the secularization of the world in the twentieth century that seems to preoccupy Bonhoeffer. He sees the world with its science and technology as having “come of age,” and the world and human beings as having become autonomous. We do not need God as the answer to problems as we once did. This he takes to be...

(The entire section is 857 words.)