by Martin E. Marty
Seventy years ago this month Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the best-known and most-admired Christians in the modern world, he packed several lifetimes into his brief 39 years. Scholars own and use the 16 volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works. How do we know they “use” his writings? References to them show up in books, articles and footnotes all over the world. He was a person of many faces, roles and missions, but with a single vocation as servant of Jesus Christ.
Different people at different times study, magnify and often argue about the many Bonhoeffers. You will find him called a martyr, pastor, professor, theologian, friend and more.
Invite me into your library or your company and let me choose a distinctive word for him in this month when he is being especially recalled, and I will propose exemplar. If you listen as people tell about him and discuss him, whether in adult classes, youth camps and programs, or seminars, you will find him seen as such. So it is in place to take a moment to think of what that role can mean for new generations or newcomers to Bonhoeffer studies.
An exemplar is a personal representation of an exemplum, the Latin word from which we get words like example. In a medieval dictionary the definer would illustrate graphically: an exemplum is something “cut out” like “a clearing in the woods.” So?
Definer, enlightener, cultivator
Let that voice from the Middle Ages explain the functions of such a clearing. First, it defines. If you have been lost in dark woods and then stumbled into a clearing, the line of definition is decisive: here, on the left, woods; and here, on the right, clearing. Second, it is the place where light falls, and we see clearly. Finally, it was pointed out, a clearing is a place where cultivation and development can occur.
Wherever faith came into play, Bonhoeffer as exemplar was a definer, an enlightener and a cultivator. Here are some “exemplary” instances for our day. Of course, we are likely to start by pointing to the most vivid, celebrated and memorable role: that of a martyr. That title was controversial among many Germans who saw him dying as a political figure, not a purely religious one. This is because he was imprisoned and killed after being implicated in a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life, and in many other subversive acts against the government. Concede then, if we must, that from some viewpoints, he was a guilty martyr. His witness to Christ was bold, clear, and consistent; sufficient to make him an exemplar in our days of often muffled, cowardly and compromising talk about faith.
Martin E. Marty is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, author of many books, the last (!) of which is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (Princeton, 2011).
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