A home says so much about a person, but it fails to say everything for them. Over time, you may come to feel kinship with its inhabitants, you might absorb a few memories, even learn a lesson or two. But you wouldn’t presume to speak on behalf of its owners no matter how many times you retraced their footfalls.
Laura Fabrycky beautifully walks the line between making herself at home and growing overly comfortablethe line in Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book chronicles her time guiding curious travelers through the family home of the German theologian, political conspirator, and eventual martyr.
Too many modern Christians try to bend for their own purposes the life and death of this pastor who wrestled with God and country before joining the plot against Hitler’s life. They convert Bonhoeffer into a philosophical exercise or a rubber stamp for their ethical particularities.
“Bonhoeffer has become a more malleable figure in our hands, someone we are tempted to fashion for ourselves and to our own ends if we are not attentive to the questions and demands we make on him,” Fabrycky writes early in the book.
Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus is not a biography, but a memoir of a life lived alongside what mattered to the man. Fighting off the impulse to lionize Bonhoeffer, Fabrycky casts him as a complicated and courageous man in extraordinary circumstances—but a man all the same. Asking a better class of questions, she gleans wisdom from Bonhoeffer’s life without using him as an avatar for the sort of Christian experience she wants to pursue.
Home and Humanity
Fabrycky first encountered the Bonhoeffer Haus in 2016, after her husband began a diplomatic post in Berlin. Political news from home unmoored her; institutions were crumbling, loved ones revealing their true colors.
“Cords of civic affection were fraying,” she writes. “I felt something fraying within me, too, a sense of homelessness and helplessness threatening to swallow me up. I wanted to fight and flee all at once.”
She stepped across the threshold of the Bonhoeffer Haus a dizzy pilgrim desperate to make sense of a world leaking spiritual logic. Her visits began as a “curious reprieve from the groans of home,” became “a merciful redirection,” and eventually provided her a home away from home, a place to reorient her internal compass.
An ability to abide within the Bonhoeffer Haus without coloring her own pictures across its walls grows as Fabrycky takes the place on its own terms. She treats it as a home, “not a museum, a historical theme park, or even a shrine for a deceased hero.”
“The place gave off the homey cues of a residence, with the old-bones creak of the floorboards, a warm and pleasant odor of wooden beams and books, and an enveloping and settling feeling of calm and order,” Fabrycky writes. “This Bonhoeffer Haus was a home, the door opened for us.”
Especially moving is an early scene in Bonhoeffer’s bedroom. Each detail chisels away at the myth, revealing the man. A cigarette burn eternally etches “Dietrich was here” into a desk set. A clavichord sits in the room, played at Bonhoeffer’s pleasure yet quietly enough to avoid disturbing another soul.
“Everything in the room points to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s humanity, putting his insights, courage, and self-sacrificing decisions in even sharper relief,” Fabrycky writes.
Longing for a tenable way to chase Jesus through the thorns of political and personal relationships, Fabrycky sees a path open up before her. The revelation comes not in thunder or lightning, but a still, small voice emanating from the trappings of a life Bonhoeffer was willing to lay down.
Finding Our Own Way
Coming of age, a jazz musician learns you can’t honor your heroes by playing their songs note-for-note. You internalize the spirit of the sound, then exercise your voice in a way no one else can or will. Going room by room through Bonhoeffer’s life, Fabrycky discovers that a 21st-century Christian cannot mimic him. Faithfulness requires curiosity and creativity.
“It is not fair to him to ask, ‘What Would Bonhoeffer Do’ not only because he cannot answer it . . . but also because, and I cannot stress this point enough, it is not his responsibility to do so,” Fabrycky writes. “We can take counsel from the wisdom of his life, but it is our responsibility to act wisely in our own lives.”
The real lesson of Bonhoeffer’s home cannot be memorized like the facts Fabrycky prepared for tours; it is light to be refracted in whatever direction the day demands. The inheritance of Bonhoeffer comes, she writes, as we learn “what it means to be human and remain human, and to be a Christian and remain a Christian, in deadly, dehumanizing times.”
“We aren’t Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” she adds. “Even though we all try to imaginatively slip our feet into his shoes, they don't fit us. We have to walk in our shoes, in the circumstances in which we were placed. But Bonhoeffer’s life, like many others, can be a helpful model, a sturdy banister, that can help us expand our moral imaginations in our life and times.”
Hero worship doesn’t befit the Christian. Rather, much as we study scripture, we apply a certain hermeneutic to the lives which inspire us. Fabrycky encourages three questions: What did this life mean while it was being lived? What might it mean to our current situation? How is God calling us to go and do likewise? As answers come, we understand how impossible it is to be the Bonhoeffer for our day.
But with God, all things are possible—including living lives of unique mindfulness and resistance, and placing our faith in a church and world we have yet to see.
Fabrycky carried an important key inside herself all along. We carry it too when we attach ourselves to specific people and places, caring enough to fight for the best, truest versions of these things.
“In the Bonhoeffer Haus, I saw that Bonhoeffer was who he was because he belonged to people and places,” she writes. “It matters that we know who we belong to, practice including those we may have been taught to exclude, and offer correction to those entrenched stories.”
Fabrycky’s book leaves readers with an important conclusion and a world of possibility. The saint is not someone who loses his or her life for the most spectacular cause in the most spectacular fashion. In every age, the faithful Christian fights to recover the meaning of home, laboring to see this earthly dwelling resemble their father’s house.
Cover image by Florian van Duyn.