October 04, 2011

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Metaxas has given us a very readable biography of one of the most remarkable characters of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer's theological impact is large and continues to be felt widely, his ecumenical connections and his role in the church struggle in Germany propelled him to prominence in the fight against Nazism, and his role in the plots to remove Hitler gave him a place in the military and political history of the Second World War. So he is certainly a man to be reckoned with. Where Metaxas's biography shines is as he seeks to convey the deep conviction and faith that animated Bonhoeffer's thinking and living. A deeply academic man, with a broad education, he also took very seriously the living and practice of his faith. And Metaxas's biography is careful to trace this stream as he moves smoothly through the various important periods in Bonhoeffer's life. Bonhoeffer biography, in fact Bonhoeffer scholarship as a whole, is contested ground these days. Stephen Haynes wrote a book in 2004, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, that sought to show the various ways Bonhoeffer has been interpreted (or even co-opted) by various and diverse groups, how his remembrance goes from technical theological interaction to something approaching hagiography. Simply the presence of his popular Cost of Discipleship as a frequent must-read book among young evangelicals and the popularity of his idea of "religionless Christianity" among liberal scholars shows the breadth of interest in him. On the whole, I think Metaxas has navigated the rough waters well. He doesn't seem to excessively elevate Bonhoeffer, noting for instance that his family rarely if ever went to church while he was growing up or that his father was mostly opposed to religion, but he also doesn't shy away from Bonhoeffer's evident and deep faith that drove his thinking and acting. Instead he presents Bonhoeffer as a vibrant and scholarly Christian dedicated to living a life devoted to God but also willing to wade into complex waters without seeking simplistic answers but instead seeking to faithfully live as a disciple of Jesus. I greatly enjoyed this book, and was deeply inspired again by Bonhoeffer's life and his writings, which are liberally but not overwhelmingly excerpted and quoted throughout the narrative. Metaxas tells the story of Bonhoeffer's education and travels, details his involvement with the Confessing Church and its seminary, highlights his major theological writings without focusing on them in detail, and chronicles his involvement in the plots to kill HItler. It is compelling reading, and I highly recommend it.

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