If speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process, that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough.—Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?
When my partner and I traveled to Berlin a few summers past, one of the places I was eager to visit was the Bonhoeffer house. The first leg of our European journey had taken us through Paris and Rome, two cities with a rich Catholic history, and our day-to-day itinerary gave the impression of a pilgrimage. Our photos from that time are filled with the brilliant light of Sacré-Cœur, the Gothic grandeur of Notre Dame, the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica, the humble splendor of Saint John Lateran. These sacred sites seemed to us, as indeed they were meant to be, familiar symbols that granted continuity to our trek across space, time, and language. So when we got to the German capital it felt natural, obligatory even, to seek out its holy places. But unlike France and Italy, of course, Germany is deeply Protestant. This is the land of Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, G. W. F. Hegel, Adolf von Harnack, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Bonhoeffer house sits on the far west side of Berlin, about a twenty-five-minute train ride from the city center, at the edge of the Grunewald forest. In contrast to the sumptuous contours of the Catholic cathedrals that had marked our journey thus far, the house’s facade is modest and unassuming. The pitched roof, like nearly every other roof in Berlin, is the color of burnt clay. There is a simple waist-high gate that protects a small courtyard with a single tree. Ivy creeps up the cream-colored exterior but does not cover the many half-shuttered windows that look out onto a hushed street.
We sat on the mosaic sidewalk across the way, facing the house, and waited for our scheduled tour to begin. It was a Saturday, the only day the volunteers who run the house give tours, yet the only sign of life on the block was a middle-aged couple speaking to one another quietly by the gate. As I sat there, looking at the plain building, it struck me that the simplicity of this place—its unadorned architecture, its location on the outskirts of town, its limited tourist draw—reflected the austerity of Bonhoeffer’s work itself. He was a writer for whom the truth was almost always less baroque than it seemed, a writer who struggled for authenticity over ornamental syntax. Clarity, in word and deed, this was Bonhoeffer’s charism. That clarity is what I felt sitting there before his home.
But the peace of that morning quickly dissipated. Five or so minutes before the tour was set to begin, we heard the voices of a new group approaching from the corner street. I turned to see a small company of children, their parents in tow, rounding the turn toward Marienburger Allee. I knew this flock of tourists was bound for the Bonhoeffer house as soon as I saw the man’s Duck Dynasty T-shirt—the familiar southern drawl all but confirmed it. As we later discovered, sitting around a long table in what used to be the Bonhoeffers’ living room, this troupe included a large family from Texas in town to visit their friends—another large family of erstwhile Texans who were now living in Berlin as missionaries. The two families had met the man in the Duck Dynasty T-shirt on the train; he was an American expat living in Berlin—for Christ—as a campus minister at a local university. They had all come to see Bonhoeffer’s house.
Our tour guide, a local Lutheran seminarian, was accommodating of our motley sixteen-member crew, a fourth of whom were children under the age of ten. He patiently rehearsed to us the story of Bonhoeffer’s life, pausing for questions and, when he got to the parts about Bonhoeffer’s famous involvement in the plot against Hitler’s life during the Second World War, grunts of approval, the kind you hear from boisterous Baptist congregations during a powerful sermon. The man with the Duck Dynasty T-shirt was, visibly and audibly, the one most excited about this segment of the story.
To me, it seemed that the tour guide’s presentation was intentionally designed to place this one aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life, the plot to kill Hitler, in the much wider context of his life and work. For reference, only one quarter of one panel among the twelve or so large placards depicting scenes from Dietrich’s life included any images of the Buchenwald or Flossenbürg concentrations camps where he was held in his final years. But our group seemed less interested in Bonhoeffer’s teaching days at Finkenwalde Seminary and more intrigued by whether he may have known Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, whom Tom Cruise portrayed in the 2008 film Valkyrie.
The directed portion of the Bonhoeffer house tour culminates in a visit to Dietrich’s attic study, which also doubled as his bedroom. Because this space is so small, our guide requested that our group split its ranks and take the final leg in several units. My partner and I ended up in the attic with the middle-aged couple with whom we waited at the gate and the man in the Duck Dynasty T-shirt. Like the rest of the house, Dietrich’s room is humble and sparse. The ceiling is low. Bookshelves line the wall, surrounding a small and surely uncomfortable bed. An upright piano and wooden writing desk are the only other pieces of furniture. A single frame hangs on the wall, enclosing a gorgeous icon of the Madonna and Child. Unlike traditional depictions, the Blessed Virgin in this image is softly smiling.
Standing in Bonhoeffer’s study, the room in which he wrote the final pages of his unfinished Ethics and from which he was dragged and taken to prison, was a moving experience for me. Over the bulk of the last decade, Bonhoeffer’s work has been a companion to me in one way or another. I would like to think I’ve learned something from him by now, but his lessons are often challenging. His wisdom is the sort one must grow into. Nonetheless, he has always seemed to me a shining example of how to take the study of theology just seriously enough, without losing touch with the ground. If students of theology need to be reminded of anything, surely it’s this.
After some brief remarks from our faithful guide, I looked at the titles on the shelves. Some members of our breakaway group inspected the piano. We quietly took turns sitting at Bonhoeffer’s desk, looking out the same window he once looked out from. These felt like gestures of respect, movements of body and mind familiar from our pilgrim’s path. Finally, it was the man in the Duck Dynasty T-shirt who broke the silence. He wanted to know more about Bonhoeffer’s theology—a welcome trajectory of questions, I thought, considering his militant interest in the Abwehr plot earlier.
It was then, too, that the husband from the middle-aged pair spoke up for the first time. “Wasn’t Bonhoeffer a conservative?” he chimed in. These words hung in the air for a moment. It was the sort of question that sounds less like a genuine inquiry than a statement awaiting confirmation. I watched our seminarian docent struggle to even comprehend the interjection. I imagined him tackling the language barrier and then trying to calibrate Bonhoeffer’s ideological commitments to the implicitly American categories of the man’s question. “Err . . . uh,” the guide struggled in his thick German accent, “actually, uh, whatever is opposite of that.”
Both the man who asked the question and the man in the Duck Dynasty T-shirt appeared rebuffed and slightly puzzled. The guide laughed nervously. Caught somewhere between fascinated and dumbfounded, I held my tongue. The inquiring man took another pass: “But what I mean is that Bonhoeffer held to the inerrancy of Scripture and the like. I mean, he was a Bible-believing Christian, right?” His tone was skeptical and assured, as if it did not really matter what the seminarian was going to say. This man had brought his own version of Bonhoeffer with him, all the way to Berlin, and no intervention at Bonhoeffer’s house was going to change that. Our guide was clearly flabbergasted, unsure of how to continue the conversation.
At this point my partner looked at me as if I should intervene. I did not. Instead I tried to change the subject. What could I have said? These were the kinds of questions that do not really have answers. This man’s categories were neither intelligible nor exportable beyond the murky waters of his American Christianity. And there was nothing I could say, standing in Bonhoeffer’s little room, that would alter a lifetime of seeing the world in precisely this way. We headed back downstairs where the middle-aged man who asked the questions told us that he and his wife were evangelical missionaries, in Milan, somewhere near the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. He looked slightly concerned when he learned of our Catholicism.
I’ve been reminded of this scene in Bonhoeffer’s study many times over the past four years, especially whenever Eric Metaxas says something new in support of Donald Trump’s administration. Metaxas, of course, is the host of a conservative evangelical talk show and the author of numerous books, all on the topic of religion, civil or Christian. His early work includes several writing credits on the popular Christian cartoon series VeggieTales, which stars a talking tomato named Bob and a talking cucumber named Larry who impart moral lessons to their young audiences by retelling Bible stories with the aid of other talking fruits and vegetables. But Metaxas rose to national fame with a 2010 biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer with the flamboyant subtitle: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The revised and updated tenth-anniversary edition was released just this month. He is arguably the person most responsible for introducing Bonhoeffer to a wider, largely evangelical audience in the United States.
Metaxas reminds me of those moments in Bonhoeffer’s room because, as then, I feel a certain loss of words in the face of Trump surrogates like Metaxas who claim Christ as Lord. And, as in those moments with my American compatriots in the Berlin attic, it becomes increasingly unclear whether there actually is anything to say in response to men like Metaxas. If you cannot see the transparent horror and mind-numbing hypocrisy of a Bonhoeffer biographer openly supporting the immigration ban of a president who has been publicly backed by neo-Nazis, then there is probably nothing I or anyone else can say. If you cannot see the duplicity of chronicling the life of a Christian pastor whose life and death became an act of solidarity with persecuted Jews during the Second World War and then contributing to a piece of propaganda about the “spiritual voyage” of a president whose immigration policy mandates the encaging of migrant children, then my spade is turned.1 Either you see the contradictions or you don’t. Explanations come to an end somewhere.
Sometimes I sit in the car, masochistically tuned to Metaxas’s radio show. As I listen to him and his guests speak about Jesus and the church and the love of God, I feel an uncanny sense of alienation from my words, from Christian words. It’s the same feeling I had in Berlin, listening to those proudly American Christians revel in Bonhoeffer’s efforts to kill Hitler and then speak about him as a Bible-believing conservative. It’s a creeping feeling that these people don’t mean the same thing I do when I say the name “Jesus” or speak about “the church” or describe “the love of God.” It’s a sense of being shut out from my words, from those words I’ve learned to hold most dear.
I don’t mean these comments to come across as arrogant. They may, of course, be arrogant—we are rarely the final arbiters of what we say. Whatever my motive, however my words are interpreted, it’s something of a solace that Bonhoeffer himself confessed to similar feelings. In a letter sent from prison, he describes the peculiar shame of hearing other Christians speak: “I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people—because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable).”2 When such people speak, he continues, “it is always the deux ex machina that they bring on to the scene,” an idol to stop the gaps of an otherwise seamless ideology. The trump card God, a younger version of myself scrawled in the margin, unaware of the impending irony. With these passages in mind, I can’t help but wonder how Bonhoeffer might have handled that conversation I witnessed in his bedroom. Would he have stayed silent? Or would he have tried to clear up the confusion, redefine some terms, seek some common ground?
I recall here a few lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson that resonate with Bonhoeffer’s: “Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.”3 It was another unmistakably American philosopher, Stanley Cavell, who first called my attention to this passage; I learned from him to read these lines as a lament over the loss of an unattained community, an elegy for an as yet unrealized solidarity, something the United States has long promised but rarely achieved. It strikes me that Emerson’s words are also a bereaved meditation on the almost inarticulable sense of estrangement we feel upon finding our words in the mouth of someone with whom we refuse to come to terms. Like Bonhoeffer, it seems, Emerson also knew the profound risk of holding words in common with others.
Of course, the barely repressed underside of this sneaking suspicion that others are misusing our common stock of words is that it may be me whose language has lost its bearing, that it may be me who no longer speaks intelligibly, that my ownuse of words has deviated from publicly accepted criteria of meaning. Not in the sense that I ought to now consider conforming my own life and language to theirs but rather in the sense that it might be they who have faithfully carried on the tradition those words represent, that it might be they whose confessions of faith still make sense of our shared religious inheritance. Which would mean the burden of apostasy now falls on me, not them. Every word they say chagrins us.
But am I really prepared to consider that possibility? Are those of us who feel incapable of recognizing the Christ that men like Metaxas claim as Lord ready to entertain the idea that his confession of faith might not be a deviation from the Christian tradition but instead the logical conclusion of a peculiarly American, unmistakably Western form of religious life? And if that turns out to be true, will we then be brave enough to ask, “what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church?” Knowing full well that the answer will almost certainly deliver us well beyond the faith we’ve come to know, that is, will we still be capable of asking “who Christ really is for us today?”4
Enduring an imprisonment that ended with his execution, an imprisonment during which he often pondered the fate of Christianity in his own fascist country, Bonhoeffer asked these same kinds of questions. Reaching for an answer in his final days, he wrote infamously of a “religionless Christianity.” The phrase evokes the sort of spiritual-but-not-religious cant of so many in our ostensibly post-Christian age, but my sense is that Bonhoeffer meant the term as a placeholder for a condition he couldn’t yet imagine. It names a future in and for which “Christ is no longer the object of religion,” true, but this means only that the privileged subject of faith will then no longer be the ideologues who mistake speaking its language for the thing itself. In which case, Christ “becomes something quite different” as well, something more than the private property of those who know to say the right words: “really the Lord of the world,” for whose life the church is broken and shared even now.5
- Metaxas, foreword to The Faith of Donald J. Trump, by David Brody and Scott Lamb (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2018), ix–xi.
- Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, the enlarged edition, trans. Reginald Fuller, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 281.
- Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York, NY: Library of America, 1983), 264.
- Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 279–80.
- Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 281.