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Incredible story; brilliant writing
on July 3, 2012
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.