Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Sacred Rhetoric: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Participatory Tradition” by Justin Mandela Roberts

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s influence stretches far and wide, and his concept of “worldly” or “religionless” Christianity is one of his most enduring traditions. That notion of the concreteness of his theology has led some to think that he rejected metaphysical aspects of the faith altogether. In Sacred Rhetoric: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Participatory Tradition, Justin Mandela Roberts pushes back against that thinking and argues that Bonhoeffer’s theology is, instead, one that stands alongside that of doxology, sacrament, and metaphysics.

The book is slim, but offers a wealth of detailed analysis of Bonhoeffer’s works from a number of angles that seem less common in Bonhoeffer scholarship. Bonhoeffer’s view of worship is analyzed, for example, as going beyond Barth while also integrating much of sacred tradition. Roberts’ analysis of Bonhoeffer’s thought on metanoia–the conversion or dark night of the soul–was a fascinating, personable read. The “Sacramental Interpretation” integrates Bonhoeffer’s sacramental theology with a view of the Word of God. Indeed, if there is a downside to reading the book, it may be found in the flurry of citations, musings, quotes, and ideas thrust at the reader in quick succession, making it difficult to absorb any one idea before moving swiftly onto the next. That said, Roberts’ analysis is helpful in many ways, both opening new interpretive lenses and new paths to explore for those interested in seeing how Bonhoeffer’s work may have opened up had he developed it further.

It was strange that Roberts opted to begin the book with a slight of Bonhoeffer. The second sentence of the introduction states “His academic pieces, including Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, and Creation and Fall, offer nothing particularly remarkable as scholarly resources for the theological and philosophical traditions” (1). Given the fact that Creation and Fall is essentially the bulk of chapter 5’s focus is largely on Creation and Fall and each of the other works is cited as well, it seems Roberts would disagree with himself here, as he evidently finds these works quite remarkable indeed! Contextually, Roberts is opining on what it is that has made Bonhoeffer such an impactful figure on modern thought, possibly as an attempt to make him more real or down to earth for the average reader, but reading it was jarring in a book dedicated entirely to an interpretation of this apparently unremarkable figure.

Roberts’s work helps integrate Bonhoeffer’s thought into a broader Christian theology and practice. Sacred Rhetoric is an interesting, challenging read recommended for those looking to dig deeply into Bonhoeffer’s theological practices and metaphysics.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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