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The Christian at Play by Robert K. Johnston

Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 1983. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.


Among those who had the privilege of knowing him personally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is remembered not first of all for his theology but for his humanity. It is his life that has given import to his thought.1 This assessment is also true for many people like me, who never knew him but have read both his theology and his biography. It is his life which speaks with almost singular force.

When one thinks of Bonhoeffer, the story of his martyrdom under Hitler immediately comes to mind. The freedom of single-minded obedience to Christ which characterized his life on behalf of others continues to be a powerful model for countless Christians. But Bonhoeffer the man was more than his final act of martyrdom, more even than his courageous service as theologian and churchman. His personality had other sides, perhaps as significant as the ones that are highlighted. Bonhoeffer's ethical stance (his being a "man for others") was complemented by his equally developed aesthetic posture (his existence as a "man with others").

In a volume of personal reminiscences by his friends entitled 1 Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, time and again Bonhoeffer's play is remembered alongside his work. Those who knew him recall his ability at tennis and Ping-Pong, his unfailing sense of humor, his love of ethnic foods, and his piano-playing and evenings spent listening to chamber music. His acquaintances recall his love for Goethe, for cultured table-talk, travel, and singing. For example, Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann writes, "Bonhoeffer was generous with money. He wanted to enjoy what gave him pleasure. He loved the theatre and cinema, music, good food and drink, travel and fashionable clothes. He wanted others to share these things too; he did not want to enjoy them in secret. "2

Seeking to understand the profound influence which Bonhoeffer had upon him, Albrecht Schönherr, one of Bonhoeffer's students at the Confessing Church's Seminary in Finkenwalde, reflects:

What was it that fascinated us young people in Bonhoeffer? Nothing particular: his appearance was imposing but not elegant; his voice high, but not rich; his formulations were laborious, not brilliant. Perhaps it was that here we met a quite single-hearted, or in the words of Matthew VI, 22, a "sound man."

Schönherr goes on to develop his thesis about Bonhoeffer's "sound" life. He was not a one-sided intellectual. Bonhoeffer the theologian argued for the idea of "deputyship," our responsibility in Christ for our fellow man. And Bonhoeffer the Christian therefore "staked his life for the liberation of Germany and the world from the curse of murderous tyranny." He gave his all to other pursuits as well. His students were somewhat embarrassed that he, their elder and a townsman to boot, could outrun them in all the ballgames at Finkenwalde. Among the highlights were those times when Bonhoeffer played a piano concerto by Beethoven. So too were the half-hour of meditation and the time of silence which he made the discipline of the entire seminary community: "A unifying arch swung from music and play to quietude and prayer. . . ." Schönherr concludes his brief reflection by admitting to being "under the spell of that man who gave himself so entirely, heart and soul, whether in play or in theological discussion."3

Just prior to his arrest and imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a brief essay entitled "After Ten Years." He sent it to a few friends as a Christmas present in 1942. Knowing that his arrest was likely and experiencing the horror of wartime Germany, he asked the question, "Who stands fast?" His answer, "Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue ... (only) the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God." Such a call would involve the Christian in sympathy and action on behalf of those who were suffering, for whose sake Christ also suffered. Moreover, such "courage to enter public life" would be matched by continuing "pleasure in private life." Bonhoeffer called for a "return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation." Such a concern for the playful side of life did not compromise his participation in the Church struggle -- it enhanced it. "Quantities are competitive," he wrote; "qualities are complementary. "4

This "sound" life, which developed in freedom, continued even during Bonhoeffer's prison years. In his letters written from captivity we read of his continued work in theological study, reflection, and writing. He was constantly requesting new books to read. Moreover, his letters and papers from prison, which were published posthumously, document that this period was indeed a time of productivity. Many, in fact, would argue that his prison writings are among the most significant theological works of the last fifty years.

But Bonhoeffer's letters and papers reveal more than the continuing fertility of a theological mind; they give evidence of an ongoing balance in his personal life. While in prison, Bonhoeffer read many stories and novels just for fun. He loved to hear music from the guard's radio but would criticize what struck him as banal. He sang hymns and lieder. He played chess and/or worked solitary chess problems by the hour. He followed the church year in his private worship. He read his Bible devotionally, particularly the Old Testament. He detested gossip but loved to talk with two or three people. By letter he engaged his friend, Eberhard Bethge, in discussion about landscape painting and requested his reaction to Michelangelo's Pieta. Bonhoeffer even began to write his own stories and poems, and started work on a novel.

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian life was a combination of work and play, of Church and culture, of solitude and time spent with others. Such a pattern could not be split up or dismembered; its rhythm had a continuous flow. As he himself commented, "A common denominator must be sought both in thought and in a personal and integrated attitude to life. "5 Bonhoeffer reflected on this fact on several occasions during his stay in prison. Recalling the story of a certain young man, for example, he wrote:

We read that he set out into the world "um das Ganze zu tun" (to do the whole thing); here we have the ánthrōpos tÚleios (tÚleios originally meant `whole' in the sense of `complete' or `perfect'); `you, therefore, must be perfect (téleios), as your.heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt. 5.48) -- in contrast to the an ér dípsychos (`a double-minded man') of James 1.8.6


To "do the whole thing," to be a whole man -- an ánthropos téleios -- such was Bonhoeffer's desire. He realized, however, that apart from some integrating principle-or, better, apart from some integrator-life's wholeness would prove illusory.

From his prison cell Bonhoeffer reflected on life's centeredness in God, which allows for its concomitant diversity. Turning to the metaphor of music, he said there is a "polyphony of life." He wrote:

What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts-not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7:6). It is a good thing that that book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian. (Where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?) Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits.


Bonhoeffer concluded that "only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. "7

Bonhoeffer's concern for wholeness in life-for faithfulness to Christ in both his work and his play-was evident even during his prison years. It was particularly apparent in the care he took to nurture his friendships. For him, friendship was one manifestation of culture. It could not be classified as work, a categorization some Lutherans were prone to make. It belonged not to the sphere of obedience but to that broad arena of freedom. Bonhoeffer counseled, "The man who is ignorant of this area of freedom may be a good father, citizen, and worker, indeed even a Christian; but I doubt whether he is a complete man and therefore a Christian in the widest sense of the term."8

The making of a complete man or woman -- "a Christian in the widest sense of the term" -- has been the larger purpose of this book. With our time increasing for friendship and for art, for reading and for tennis, and with our need for such play perhaps stronger than ever before, given the nature of our work, the question facing both the Church and our wider culture is why our practice of play remains so filled with problems. Why is it that our potentially playful experiences have all too often been turned into attempted escapes from tension or boredom, or beyond that, into exercises geared to accomplish something?

It is my thesis that what is presently wrong in American life centers in our continuing attitude as a people. Our work-dominated value scheme and our reigning technocracy have obscured our vision of life's full possibilities. In this situation the Christian Church could serve a prophetic role within the wider society if it only would. Unfortunately, Christian theologians have scarcely fared better than general society in understanding the necessity of a balanced life. Some have included play within their work agendas, while others have made play central to their mission of self-fulfillment. But whether "play as politics" or "play as total ideology," the results have been similar: life has been reduced to something less than itself. We as a church do not know how to play.

In order to remove the blinders of our contemporary culture, we as Christians must listen afresh to the biblical witness. If we would only be attentive, we would hear Scripture proclaim that our play, like our work, is to be a God-given expression of our humanity. Along with our work, play is part of the intended rhythm for our lives. Such a viewpoint concerning play (and work) is heard not only in the Song of Songs (where Bonhoeffer recognized its presence) but in the biblical discussion of Sabbath rest. It is central to the book of Ecclesiastes, and is illustrated in Jesus' pattern of friendship. It is also basic to such Israelite practices as festival, dance, feasting, and the providing of hospitality.

Contrary to those who would understand play as merely general organic activity, we must understand play as a specific human event, one rooted both creationally and attitudinally. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct in realizing that in times like these, not everyone will be able to play-"surely not the `ethical' man, but only the Christian." The true Christian, Bonhoeffer writes, should appreciate the "cornflower" as well as the "cornfield":

Beside the cornfield that sustains us,
tilled and cared for reverently by men
sweating as they labour at their task,
and, if need be, giving their life's blood --
beside the field that gives their daily bread
men also let the lovely cornflower thrive. ....................................
Beside the staff of life,
taken and fashioned from the heavy earth,
beside our marriage, work, and war,
the free man, too, will live and grow towards the sun.
Not the ripe fruit alone --
blossom is lovely, too.
Does blossom only serve the fruit,
or does fruit only serve the blossom --
who knows?
But both are given to us.9




1. F. Burton Nelson, Vice-President of the Bonhoeffer Society, is working on an oral history project about Bonhoeffer's acquaintances, and confirms the fact that Bonhoeffer's humanity, even more than his theology, has had the greatest lasting influence on his friends.

2. Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, "Years in Berlin," in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1973), pp. 59-67. Cf. Theodore A. Gill, "Bonhoeffer as Aesthete" (unpublished paper).

3. Albrecht Schönherr, "The Single-Heartedness of the Provoked," in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp. 126-129.

4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "After Ten Years," Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 4, 13.

5. Bonhoeffer, prison letter of January 29 and 30, 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 108.

6. Ibid.

7. Bonhoeffer, prison letter of May 20, 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 150.

8. Bonhoeffer, prison letter of January 23, 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 104.

9. Bonhoeffer, "The Friend," Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 209-210.

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