Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

Bonhoeffer’s Books

by Doug Reynolds, Head of School

 

At a classical, Christian school like Clapham (unlike modern US style education), we love the things that were written, painted, sung and invented before the 20th century. While we don’t ignore current events and insights from the modern era, we look at them through a worldview and lens that is informed by the classical, Christian traditions of the centuries.

The Cost of Discipleship

 

I’d like to illustrate the difference that this model can make by reminding you about a man who was educated in this way, whose life demonstrated an intentional service to Christ, and who cultivated truth, goodness, and beauty in the world. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and he was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the time leading up to and during World War II. There is an outstanding biography that came out two years ago that I would recommend to all of you.

 

Bonhoeffer was a voracious reader and writer, and wrote The Cost of Discipleship, Letters from Prison, and Life Together, among other profound works. As part of the leadership of the church that stood up to the pressures of Nazi Germany, he was ultimately imprisoned as a result of his faith-influenced resistance to Hitler.

 

Letters and Papers from Prison

In the end, he was executed for his leadership in the resistance – just two weeks before the US army liberated the prison where he was being held. During his time in prison he wrote extensively and served his fellow prisoners, acting in many ways as their pastor.

 

What enabled Bonhoeffer to serve in this way? To serve so sacrificially under such great strain physically and emotionally, particularly in prison? I think we can get a sense of what sustained him not only by reading his writings, but also by knowing what he was reading during this time. He wasn’t allowed to bring much into prison with him, yet we know that he had just a few books with him. What did he make sure to bring? His Greek New Testament and a copy of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

 

I’d like to suggest that his choice of these two books is significant. For obvious reasons to those of us who are Christians, a copy of God’s Word helped encourage and sustain him. The stories of faith and courage from those in the early church were of great encouragement to him. But why Plutarch’s Lives? This was a book written in Greek in the late 1st and early 2nd century depicting the lives of 50 famous Greek and Roman men. It highlighted their courage, virtue, duty and honor (and also when they failed to live that way).

 

Life Together

Plutarch told stories that were meant to encourage his readers to live lives of courage, duty, and honor. Bonhoeffer read these over and over again and no doubt found great inspiration from them. But he also read the Bible and drew strength from what the Scriptures say: namely, that duty and honor alone weren’t enough to save him and weren’t enough to compel him to live a life of sacrifice for God. He needed the Gospel, not just inspiration.

 

What do we do here at Clapham? We tell stories. We read about Greek and Roman heroes, we read great works of literature, epic poetry, and fairy tales—all things that can inspire us toward what is virtuous, excellent, and praiseworthy. But we also read the Bible, we pray for mercy through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and then we seek to apply what we learn from the Great Story of Scripture. This is a classical, Christian education: one where we integrate the life of virtue and honor with deep, abiding dependence on Christ.

 

As I close, I’d like to direct your attention to one of Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison, called “Who stands fast?” This convicting thought was written weeks before he was killed:

 

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God — the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?”

 

Bonheoffer got it. How did he get it? He read stories. He learned from them. He inbibed deep truths from them and then lived his life accordingly.

 

We need more Bonhoeffers. We need more schools like Clapham that tell stories to children and help them grow up to “stand fast” in the day of adversity.

 

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