This is a wonderfully well written biography of a key figure in 20th century Christianity. Eric Metaxas has done a masterful job of communicating the zeitgeist of early and mid-20th century Germany, the inter-relationships between church and state amidst the growing popularity of the National Socialist Party and the incongruity of being a Christian, and adhering to official NAZI party lines. Four points are particularly well made:
First, there can be no doubt that one of the key issues that Bonhoeffer must respond to throughout his early life is the way the German Church - the church of the reformation that has so highlighted the importance of scripture, salvation and reconciliation with God by grace through the redeeming work of Christ on the cross - the German Church had adopted habits, that made it vulnerable to collaborating with government abuse of different populations. The German church is portrayed as simply offering up all kinds of deep compromise to the NAZIs. This biography begs the question: how do you interpret scripture in a way that will make you stand in the face of evil, cover your neighbor's back, look after the poor and the rejected, even if it means your end? To what extent will you go?
Second, the question takes on even more depth when applied to each individual's personal life. The question is not how to live your life without sin, without making mistakes. The question is: How do you respond with your entire life to God's calling? This question is incredibly significant in the face of a modern day Christianity that is strong on cultural judgement and too often thin on judging the atrocities and calamities that go on all over the world. As image bearers, are we concerned with avoiding a "bad life" rather than fully living the life that God has redeemed and made new.
Third, this biography is masterfully written by someone who has really done much careful historical work. I have read many works on the rise of the NAZI Party and the conditions that provided the context for the atrocities of WWII. I have learned much in this book about the intricate plans by the NAZIs to co-opt the German Church and, in an Orwellian fashion reminiscent of more explicit Stalinian tactics, allow the church to survive as an institution while removing completely all of its power and significance. There is much in this book that expresses NAZI thinking about Christianity and God and the role of believing Christians in the German resistance.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the specifics of the Bonhoeffer story are remarkable. His uneasy beginnings in theology, his experience of the American church, his work with the Confessing German Church and his early stands against some of the troublesome actions of the more traditional German Church, his work with the community of ordinands and his devotion to people, to service, even in prison, even at the dawn of his own execution. His desire to marry, start a family, to keep friends and to cherish them, to enjoy them, his bouts of depression. His struggle with the great issues that he faced and the choices that he made, especially as he engaged in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Above all, his refusal to live a life where the easy decisions are made that take you away from responding to God's calling. Metaxas makes a wonderful point, drawn from Bonhoeffer's thoughts on Ethics, about three quarters of the way through the book where he claims that not wanting to make mistakes will take you away from action that reflects God's presence. But deciding to take action will almost certainly confront you with different other dilemmas and force you to make other decisions. Being an image bearer is not an easy path.
This biography, like few other books, leaves the reader with the same question that haunted Bonhoeffer: How do you respond with your entire life to God's call? A question for the ages.
on January 22, 2011
BONHOEFFER: PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY
By Eric Metaxas
So many books have been written on Bonhoeffer, including the definitive biography by his best friend Eberhard Bethge. So why another one? Eric Metaxas has done a masterful job offering us a biography that is accessible to a new generation of North Americans who may not have any sense of the European context at the beginning to mid-20th century within Germany and beyond. In particular, Metaxas highlights the large opposition to Hitler and the Nazis within Germany, as well as the failure of the Allies to recognize and support such opposition, leading to repeated failures to bring down Hitler and the Nazis from within. Metaxas also does a great job chronicling the development of thinking that lead a group of Germans traditionally supportive and respectful of the rights of a legitimate ruler elected by the people, to the radical conviction that such a ruler and his party must be brought down by any means possible, including murder.
Bonhoeffer is a key player in this drama, and Metaxas offers us accessible ways to comprehend Bonhoeffer's personal and theological journey, his efforts within the church as both pastor and theologian, his witness in the ecumenical movement, and finally his involvement with the "Abwehr" (German Secret Service) in plans to assassinate Hitler and find support among the Allies for such a task.
While this is the dominant story line, Metaxas also beautifully chronicles Bonhoeffer's various relationships, especially with his parents and siblings, his best friend Bethge, and his growing love for Maria.
Metaxas also does a brilliant job describing various conceptual themes and how they develop, such as the Aryan/Pagan theology and the antagonism of the Nazis to Christianity, in particular it's Jewish elements and its presentation of a crucified Saviour as the revelation of God; the theological developments that lead to the split within the German church leading to the establishment of the Confessing Church, divisions within the Confessing Church and Bonhoeffer's impatience with their hesitation to be as radical as he believed they should be; his partnership with ecumenical leaders and the development of key relationships with people like Bishop George Bell; the development of his theological thinking around themes of discipleship, The Lordship of Christ, God's commitment to the earth and to the particularity of embodied life, his relationship with Karl Barth and others.
With all this going for the book, however, there are a few weaknesses. It would have been good to get a little more about Bonhoeffer's American experience and his response to theological voices like Reinhold Niebuhr. Moreover, in his discussion of the development of Aryan ideology and Reich church theology, Metaxas reflects on the ambiguity of Luther's position on the Jews, but offers no such reflection on the distorted appropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis. In addition, while German opposition to Hitler is connected to the persecution of Jews and the disabled, precious little is mentioned about homosexuals and nothing on the Gypsies. Finally, a little more could have been said to try to understand how it is that so many Germans were drawn to Hitler when he was so obviously deranged.
In spite of these concerns, however, this is among the best books on Bonhoeffer one can ever read.
(Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)
on January 4, 2011
I have read a bit of Bonhoeffer's story in the past but Metaxas in this recent writing does a fine job of introducing this complex person in such a way that I the reader felt somewhat transported back in time to process the amazing challenges of living under such life pressures. The book is excellent in that it keeps moving without bogging down, but also gives enough depth and detail to enable us to understand not only the context of Bonhoeffer's life but also probe into his thinking and agonizing over such difficult life and death decisions that he must make. If you enjoyed the author's "Amazing Grace" coverage of William Wilberforce, you will thoroughly enjoy his engagement of Bonhoeffer's life and times. I felt emboldened to be less concerned with what others think about my actions and decisions after examining this outstanding life.
on January 9, 2016
This book is way too long and detailed for anyone who wishes to understand (en gros) what this man has done. It drowns the reader into infinite details with his correspondance. This book provides every second pages extract from his correspondance to family, colleagues, and friends etc. If you want to know what this man has done, go to Wikipedia. If you're working on a Ph. D Thesis to understand how the man's vision has inlfuenced the protestant philosophy, this book is for you. Bottom line, this book is not for leisure reading.
on June 26, 2010
The historical biography genre is alive and well in the hands of Eric Metaxas...his book about famous pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so fluid and alive that it transports the reader to another world. That the subject matter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is eminantly important is beyond a doubt and Metaxas weaves an incredibly readable and highly relevant biography that captures details that have been missed or downplayed in other sources.
It is something when you can say that a biography is so compelling you find it hard to put down but this is just such a biography.Metaxas writes with a clear awareness of the relevance of Bonhoeffer to our own culture and emphasizes certain aspects of his life and theology such as the question of "what is the church?" Truly a biography for our time.
The author's biographical skills are not the only thing showcased in the text, his attention to historical detail is also constantly at the fore.
For those who know and appreciate Bonhoeffer you will be very happy with Metaxas' treatment of him. If you are unaware of him or simply not a fan of biographies I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to check out this book. You will be introduced to a person who will challenge and sharpen you and you will be given a wonderful and unique perspective about a critical period in world history - early 20th century Europe.
I promise you that this book will not disappoint...it will be a measure of what a biography should be for years to come.
What more remains to be said about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? More to the point, what can I contribute to what so many others have already said about him and this amazing book? Here are a few brief comments:
1. This is among the quite rare definitive biographies I have read (608 pages in length) to which there seems to be little (if anything) to add but, at the same time, from which there is little (if anything) to delete. The same can be said of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson and few others.
2. With all due respect to his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer was not a saint. Rather, as he would repeatedly insist, he was an imperfect human being who - during the last years of his life - struggled to be worthy of his faith that he viewed as a gift of holy grace,
3. He had no wish to die but, as H. Fischer-Hullstrung (Flossenburg concentration camp's doctor) later remembered, he seems to have embraced what he viewed - with serene gratitude - an opportunity to die for a faith for which he so fully lived.
4. Eric Metaxas' juxtaposition of Bonheoffer with Adolph Hitler invests this biography with tension and focus in ways and to an extent I have seldom encountered in a work of non-fiction. I am immediately reminded of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
5. As Bonhoeffer is portrayed in this book, he is the polar opposite of those for whom Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell: people who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. He was compelled to "let his light so shine before men...." Of course, Hitler wanted him "destroyed."
I have accumulated a number of quotations and now share a few:
"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession....Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
"Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility."
"To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ."
"God's truth judges created things out of love, and Satan's truth judges them out of envy and hatred."
"The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children."
"A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol"
"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."
"When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh."
"Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are."
"Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him."
In the Prologue, Eric Metaxas observes, "The man who died was engaged to be married. He was a pastor and theologian. And he was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. This is his story." I congratulate Metaxas for creating what is certain to remain the definitive account of that "story."
* * *
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a theologian, martyr, a spiritual writer, a musician, a pastor, and an author of poetry and fiction. The integrity of his Christian faith and life, and the international appeal of his writings, have received broad recognition and admiration, all of which has led to a consensus that he is one of the theologians of his time whose theological reflections might lead future generations of Christians into creating a new more spiritual and responsible millennium. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian famous for his stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His beliefs and convictions ultimately cost him his life in a Nazi concentration camp. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous theologians and martyrs of the 20th century. To learn more about him, please visit http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/.
This is a very engaging account of a very interesting life. Bonhoeffer was a complex character who lived in complex times. As a theologian, he laboured on the battle ground between liberalism and biblical orthodoxy. As a German, he lived in the stormy years of the Great War, the injustice and depression of the interwar years, and the rise and fall of one of the most evil political and ideological regimes of the 20th century, Nazism. As a pastor, mentor and teacher, he helped train people to minister while he himself ministered to souls (from troubled children to blue collar congregations to intellectual elites to seminarians to fellow prisoners). As a German, he struggled to remain faithful to his nation while opposing the evil ideology of the Nazis from the earliest days in every way he could both at home and abroad. To say he lived in tumultuous times is gross understatement.
Any version of Bonhoeffer's life or any assessment of his theology that doesn't take into account the complexities of his ecclesiastical and historical-political context is going to paint a warped caricature. To a certain extent, because of the incompleteness of his own work (he died too young to have fully developed his own theological ideas) and the unevenness of the sources (there are only patchy details about certain parts of his life and work, and of course his own letters and the reports of his family and friends won't give a full-orbed picture), any biography will, at least at some points, be a project in interpretation rather than objective reporting. In fact, because of the incompleteness of Bonhoeffer's theology, it has made him an easy project for both liberals and conservatives to adopt and, reading him in light of their own contemporary debates, mold to fit their own agendas and argue for their own side. This has been done too frequently to the point that there are two Bonhoeffers out their and they often don't sound much like one another. Even though Metaxas will no doubt be accused of claiming Bonhoeffer for the "conservatives" and "evangelicals", he provides some balance to the image that liberals have tried to paint of Bonhoeffer, even if the balance comes in the form of a pendulum swing possibly slightly too far in the other direction.
But Metaxas certainly is right to reclaim Bonhoeffer as a personal disciple of Christ, one who loved God, believed his Word, followed Christ personally and lovingly shepherded his church. Too often liberals have tried to claim Bonhoeffer and his "religionless Christianity" as supporting their godless Christianity. They simply attempt to coopt the heroic Bonhoeffer in their project to maintain the ethic of the man Jesus even as they empty Jesus of his moral authority as God incarnate, the central pillar in their attempt to make Christian morality relevant to a secular scientific age that has rejected notions of the supernatural. But Bonhoeffer was a follower of the Jesus of divine revelation and a passionate student of Scripture. He preached the gospel of the cross and faced his imprisonment with courage and his execution by the Gestapo with the hope of the resurrection because his faith rested in the resurrected and sovereign Lord Jesus.
There are minor issues with editing in perhaps 6 or 8 places. Little typos (doubled words, misspellings, etc.) which make it look like final editing might have been rushed, especially toward the end of the book. Also, in the final pages, Metaxas makes a dramatic point that the text which Bishop George Bell, a friend of Bonhoeffer and fellow worker in the ecumenical movement and anti-Nazi efforts of the Confessing Church, used for his sermon at Bonhoeffer's memorial service in London was none other than one from the Sermon on the Mount, the passage from Matthew that forms the basis of Bonhoeffer's great book, The Cost of Discipleship. However, the passage isn't from the Sermon on the Mount but from Jesus' commissioning of his disciples in Matthew 10 as he sends them out to preach the kingdom. This is a slip-up to be sure, but nothing to diminish this engaging biography which, in most places, moves along at the pace of a good novel.
This biography has done for me what all good biographies ought to do: it has made me appreciate the person of Bonhoeffer more than I previously did, it has made me feel like I know him much better than I did, and it has sparked in me the desire to know him better through other biographies and through his own works. I highly recommend it to all and I'd give it 4.5 stars.
on January 11, 2011
Attending high school in the 40's and working on the gas tanks for the Lancaster Bomber during the summer of 44 I looked on my efforts as patriotic. Germany and Hitler were the enemy. I had no knowlege of the delemna that faced the German People, especially the Christian community. As a believer I have now learned what a real commitment is and the cost, something which we discussed but the reality never understood.
"An others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea moreover of bonds and imprisonment." - Hebrews 11:36(KJV)
This is the first biographical account of Bonhoeffer's life I have read that truly pulsates with purpose and vitality. While other presentations may have effectively covered Bonhoeffer's theological views and his dogmatic opposition to the German National Church as an arm of Nazism, none seem to have the ability to create the historical, political and social context in which the man labored as a persecuted Christian. Throughout his adult lifetime, Bonhoeffer and members of the Confessing Church came to symbolize not only the need to resist tyranny but to stand for Christian truth. It is the personal lessons of the latter that Metaxas lays out in his efforts to define who the real Bonhoeffer is in history. While he may be seen as a gallant knight committed, along with others like Niemoller, Cannaris and Bethge, to rescuing the nation from the horrors of fascism and anti-semitism, if that were his only saving grace, he may have been known as a "Good German" in a generation of political vipers. Metaxas goes much further to reconstruct the trials and tribulations of an important figure in modern Christianity who learned to put his theology to the test while under fire. Over the decades, we see Bonhoeffer maturing as a Christian dedicated to serving God and loving his fellow man in ways that fulfilled Scripture. By the time his life ended on the scaffold at Flossenburg Prison, Bonhoeffer was what the reader might call the finished product: totally yielded to the will of God for him and his beloved Germany. While I applaud the courage of Bonhoeffer to stand up to all that is evil in society, I am more inspired by how this book traces the refining fire experiences God put him through to minister to others in their moments of misery. Yes, Bonhoeffer and the Kreisau Circle failed to remove Hitler but, as they were to learn in defeat, there is no shame for the Christian in being obedient to God's ultimate purpose and will. Overall, a very well-written and easy-to-read version of a celebrated life of a significant person who got it right when so many others were terribly wrong. Unlike Churchill, it was Bonhoeffer's destiny never to realize the prospects of a renewed society rising from the ashes of despair and treachery. Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer as an Old Testament prophet who was given only a fleeting glance of future glory and told to go out and live and preach an unpopularly tough message in the meantime.
on January 21, 2011
Since I was a student of theology some 25 plus years ago I have been familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Admittedly though, I have never read any of his works except to reference and quote him from time to time. I also had no clue about his absolutely incredible story.
Thanks to Eric Metaxas' new book Bonhoeffer. Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy I have had the opportunity to get to know Bonhoeffer and his story in a much more intimate fashion and have learned a tremendously greater appreciation for Bonhoeffer the theologian - but even more than that - for Bonhoeffer the person.
As I read the book, I was introduced to Dietrich's famous and well educated family. His father Karl was a noted psychologist, however Dietrich's interest in theology came from his mother's side of the family. His maternal great grandfather was a noted theologian, Karl August von Hase, and it was this influence that seemed to propel Dietrich on his sojourn into theological studies.
Metaxas crafts the story in a well documented but easily readable fashion. Layers and facets of Bonhoeffer's life are uncovered page after page, including his years of study, his life as a pastor and as a teacher, and ultimately as a conspirator in the plot to bring down Adolf Hitler.
As his story unfolds, we are able to see Bonhoeffer's transition from a brilliant academic theologian to someone who lives and continually develops his theology daily against the complicated backdrop of Nazi Germany. The more he learns about God, the more he believes that God actually speaks through His Word and that following Christ means more than just mental assent but instead an entire life devoted to living as Christ instructed. This conviction would lead him to his active participation in the conspiracy to eliminate the evil influence of Adolf Hitler, and tragically, eventually to his own death.
In spite of the book's length, Metaxas' writing style keeps you fully engaged in the story...but the real win in this book is the story itself. This is altogether an educational, inspirational and intriguing read.
Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.