by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 1
June 2020

Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is essential lockdown reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers in Prison in lockdown. Imprisoned by the Nazis for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, the great theologian had time to process how much the world had changed since his childhood. Many of his urgent reflections on how to live resonate with this moment, not least the theme of home.

The centrality of the home in a time when we’re all confined to it is obvious, but it’s also part of a longer trend. I wrote last year about the “pivot to burnout” that saw branding companies and marketers focus on the “domestic cosy” trend — even before it was enforced, we were spending more time in (and more money on) our living spaces.

Bonhoeffer got me pondering whether there might be something else significant that could change underneath the consumer led-rush. After the birth of his nephew, he wrote:

In the revolutionary times ahead the greatest gift will be to know the security of a good home. It will be a bulwark against all dangers from within and without…In the general impoverishment of intellectual life you will find your parents’ home a storehouse of spiritual values and a source of intellectual stimulation.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers in Prison

This crisis has reminded us that not everyone has access to a stable or safe home. But for those of us who are fortunate enough, the enforced time in them has brought on a renewed focus on domestic life. My own family’s experiments in homeschooling have not, as yet, shown us to be parents who offer “a storehouse of spiritual values and intellectual stimulation”, and there has been a fair amount of slumping, exhausted, in front of streaming services. I have realised that intellectual and spiritual formation (our own and our children’s) were things I assumed would happen out in the world, and home was for recovering from those efforts. This unspoken attitude meant we had effectively outsourced them, which I no longer wish to do.

Practically, Bonhoeffer writes of the need to put music at the heart of the home, and carve out protected time for real, engaged, conversation. Andy Crouch, more recently, advises shaping living space around things that encourage active engagement, like craft, cooking, music or books, rather than passive consumption of entertainment. The TV, or worse, individual screens is now the “hearth” of the home we gather round. Maybe they should be banished elsewhere.

If there are indeed “revolutionary times ahead” which we, like Bonhoeffer, may be facing, I’m realising that how we live at home will determine the people we are outside it. Now I just need to turn off Netflix.


  • June 4, 2020
    I read him in my late teens and early twenties and was inspired by his books. I think I should take another look, now I am in my seventies and spending too much time on screen Read more

  • June 2, 2020
    Lovely article. Thanks The " revolutionary" times of which Bonhoeffer spoke are already upon us-- in plain sight. It has taken an existentially awful pandemic to re awaken us to Home and Family as the heart and the hearth of our lives--- where parents can re engage with their children. A hundred... Read more

  • June 1, 2020
    DB a great hero of mine, and very good to see him referenced here. A nice photo too. I am not sure if he was involved in in the 1944 plot for which he was convicted as he was imprisoned in 1943, but I am sure more scholarly opinions than mine will know. Read more

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