Book lovers, and theologians as book lovers, are prone to exaggerate. There's always some new benchmark publication, some indispensable volume, some publishing event of the decade. I do it myself. Lists of favourites, overstated reviews triggered by initial enthusiasm, positive appraisals of books that reflect our personal shopping list of theological essentials, selected books to be rescued in the event of fire - or a flood from an upstairs bath where the cold water tap has fallen to pieces...
But the point of all this is to say I am looking forward to what for me will be one of the very few really significant publishing events of the decade. On August 1, 2010, Volume 8 of the English Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be published, and I fully intend to plan several days in August around reading what is one of the most influential theological texts of the 20th Century. Bonhoeffer is one of the primary presences in my theological canon. As a Christian witness he remains definitive, enigmatic, complex, laden with integrity while weighed down also with controversy. And this volume of fragments, given unity mainly by the mind, heart and faith out of which they emerged, contains some of the most exciting and demanding theological statements ever written under real and intentional threat of life itself.
So a critical edition, with a full Introduction placing the Papers in their historical context, and in their relations to Bonhoeffer's other writings, is one of those greatly to be desired gifts that English speaking Bonhoeffer students with little facility in German, have prayed for and waited in vain. Till now. In these fragments Bonhoeffer explores his own mind and heart, probes at the sensitive core of his own faith, speaks with open heart about his loves and fears, the cost of being brave, the complexity and ambiguity of all attempts to be faithful to Christ in the midst of war, politicised evil, and a world convulsed with violence in the name of state, nation and conflicting visions of the human future.
I wrote some weeks ago about the importance of primary sources in theology, and the relative importance of the secondary. This volume, and others in the series, is primary theology in two senses. It is Bonhoeffer, the distilled essence, and written in hearts blood. And second, it is theology articulated through the specific experience of one whose life focus and vocational certainty centred on Christ as the final and absolute authority. And whatever else Christian witness is, it is when a still young man faces death for his decisions as a Christian and as a man, and did so having written the uncompromising words that told the world, when Christ calls a man to follow him he says come and die.
When I have my copy of this book, I will feel I have in my hands that rarest of gifts to the Christian heart - testimony to Christ, forged in suffering, glimpses elusive yet persuasive, of a soul triumphing by a grace that overpowers power, witnessing to what is true in the face of all that is false, living the costliness at the heart of all redemptive action, and enduring death while affirming the promise of life.