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Bonhoeffer - More Accessible than Ever
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)