Bonhoeffer’s hymns

I spent some time today trying to chase up the music for three hymns, the lyrics of which were all authored by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The first one was ‘In boundless mercy God has called’. Apparently this is in The Hymnal of the United Church of Christ #118, but I’ve had no success in hunting it down. Does anyone have a copy of this? Or does it appear anywhere else?

The second hymn was ‘O Lord my God, I thank thee that thou hast brought this day to its close’. Again, I’ve hit a dead end with this one. Can anyone help me out?

My success rate improved, however, with my third hunt, and that for the hymn ‘We turn to God when we are sorely pressed’, from Bonhoeffer’s poem ‘Christen und Heiden’, translated as ‘Christians and Unbelievers’ in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM Press, 1954), 167–8.

I sourced music for this poem from two places: Together in Song, Australian Hymn Book II #240 (which also includes Bonhoeffer’s more well-known hymn ‘By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered’, #617), and the Church Hymnary, Fourth Edition #393. This is available in both full music and words edition or melody and words edition.

One of the things that I found really interesting here was comparing the different ways that this poem had been translated. The original reads:

Menschen gehen zu Gott in ihrer Not,
flehen um Hilfe, bitten um Glück und um Brot,
um Errettung aus Krankheit, Schuld und Tod.
So tun sie alle, alle, Christen und Heiden.

Menschen gehen zu Gott in Seiner Not,
finden ihn Arm, geschmäht, ohne Obdach und Brot,
sehn ihn verschlungen von Sünde, Schwachheit und Tod.
Christen stehen bei Gott in Seinem Leiden.

Gott geht zu allen Menschen in ihrer Not,
sättigt den Leib und die Seele mit seinem Brot,
stirbt für Christen und Heiden den Kreuzestod,
und vergibt ihnen beiden.

Together in Song, Australian Hymn Book II translates it thus:

All go to God when they are sorely placed,
they plead to him for help, for peace, for bread,
for mercy, for them sinning, sick or dead.
We all do so in faith or unbelief.

We all go to God when he is sorely placed,
find him poor, scorned, unsheltered, without bread,
whelmed under weight of evil, weak or dead.
We stand by God then, in his hour of grief.

God comes to us when we are sorely placed,
body and spirit feeds us with his bread.
For everyone, he as a man hangs dead:
forgiven life he gives all through his death.

And the Church Hymnary like so:

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

Robert Frost was right: ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’.

3 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer’s hymns

  1. I have often been surprised how Bonhoeffer has escaped the more critical judgment in his theology? Like ‘Christ the Center’ – He did not discuss the origin of Christ, His relationship with and to the Father, His two natures, etc. There is simply no Chalcedon Christology, strange? And he appears to deny the real classic deity of Christ, for “Jesus Christ Today” is a “corporate presence”, etc. As much as I may like much in Bonhoeffer, there is also much that is so questionable? He is a theological enigma for me. Sorry, this may not be the place.

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  2. The translation is fascinating. As your Robert Frost quote articulates, this is a great demonstration of how if you’re trying to get rhyme and rhythm right it’s almost impossible to translate the same theological concepts – I don’t see why they don’t use ‘satisfies’ for ‘saettigt’ rather than merely ‘feeds'(satisfies body and soul with his bread). It is much more literal. And why do the Aussies do ‘we’ for Christen, when Bonhoeffer’s point here is to distinguish Christen from the universal we of stanza 1.

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  3. The current ELCA hymnal (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) has “By Gracious Powers” (#626) as the sole Bonhoeffer contribution.

    By gracious pow’rs so wonderfully sheltered,
    and confidently waiting come what may,
    we know that God is with us night and morning,
    and never fails to greet us each new day.
    (1st of 5 stanzas)

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