It took me five months, but I finally finished off the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.
Bonhoeffer was, of course, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who helped found the Confessing Church movement which resisted the Nazi party, and was later directly involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Before being executed at a concentration camp in the waning days of the war, he had managed, in 39 packed years, to write several hugely consequential books on theology and philosophy, and alter the trajectory of Christian thinking to this day.
Yet while Bonhoeffer is a rockstar in theological circles, he is still a somewhat obscure figure to most Christians. For my part, I knew of him, but not much about him. Metaxas argues during his narrative that this is in part because Bonhoeffer’s ideas have been hijacked at various points over the years by different groups illegitimately claiming him as their own. Bonhoeffer’s fragmented musings written from prison on “religionless Christianity” have been particularly popular among some leftist thinkers and secular humanists in the 60s & 70s. Though Bonhoeffer’s own peers and confidants rejected this particular interpretation, it became influential, and was this apparently enough for many mainstream Christians to look elsewhere for guidance and inspiration.
At times, Metaxas frames his book as a correction to that phenomena, and he consistantly points to the unfailingly Christ-centered nature of Bonhoeffer’s thinking, and reframes “religionless Christianity” as a concept in keeping with Bonhoeffer’s lifelong argument against empty religious legalism. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that Bonhoeffer compelled Christians to live in the world, and to fully engage it, rather than seek comfort in some dualistic scheme where all things earthly are wretched and to be escaped. Bonhoeffer posits that the Christian life is one of action, sharing in the sufferings of others, and being a prayerful instrument of justice.
When I originally picked up the text, I was unaware of any such battle between the theological right and left over Bonhoeffer (after all, I’m no theologian). I was even tsk-tsked by a few liberal friends on Facebook over having selected the book. While I can’t pretend that I’m a capable arbiter of Metaxas’s fairness to one side or the other, after having read it I can say that it was stimulating and completely compelling. His history reads fast, and with a flair for language that I really enjoyed. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both wrote favorable reviews, and a liberal-ish Lutheran pastor friend of mine said that, while he disagreed with Metaxas’s take on Bonhoeffer’s theology, he enjoyed reading it. In short, while it is not a deeply scholarly work (he zips past many intricate political developments with a potent phrase or two), it struck me as a responsible book.
My take: the text is dense and the complexity of the conspiracies can be daunting, but it is also wonderfully challenging to the conscience and, primarily because of Bonhoeffer’s remarkable life, thoroughly inspiring.
A few other notes from the text:
-Bonhoeffer himself comes across as an endlessly interesting individual: highly intelligent, confident, and serious-minded, but also very generous and even playful at times. As a cultured aristocrat, academic, and world-traveller, he was completely unlike the average parochial-minded Lutheran pastor of his day. At the same time, his radically Christ-oriented life and passion for shepherding a parish or seminary distanced himself from the cool, insular world of university theologians. Again and again, Metaxas quotes observers of Bonhoeffer who marvelled at his life and the moral force of his words. That he would ultimately choose to justify political action subverting the state through his Christian theology is paradigm-shifting, but in keeping with his deeply-rooted character. There was absolutely nothing fickle about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
-In 1930, Bonhoeffer spent a fateful year doing postgraduate work in New York. Though generally unimpressed with American seminaries, he enjoyed his experiences at African-American churches, and the trip solidified his universalist view of the church. During that year, he also penned the Lee Greenwood hit “God Bless the USA” and suggested that somebody should shoot Huey Long.
-If Dietrich Bonhoeffer were alive today, he would probably be a rabbit hoarder.
-Bonhoeffer’s role in the Valkyrie assassination plot was two-pronged. On a tactical level, he used his contacts in Great Britain to suss out whether the Allies might respond favorably toward the conspirators (Churchill responded cooly, which Metaxas righly criticizes). On a moral level, Bonhoeffer framed the mission (at the center of which was the murder of a human being, it should be noted) as one of Christian obedience to God’s call through action in this world. Many of his co-conspirators, including Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the man at the center of the assassination attempt, were devout believers who clearly understood the evil nature of the Nazi regime.
-In a colossal blunder, for the 2008 film Valkyrie that depicted the Hitler assassination plot, the role of Bonhoeffer was “reimagined” for Tim Conway’s celebrated Dorf character. In the film Dorf/Bonhoeffer fouls the plan by accidentally pouring hot coffee on Hitler’s lap and is summarily executed.
-As a teacher, I much appreciated this anecdote about the rowdy confirmation class that a young Bonhoeffer inherited from an ailing old minister. Made up of hoodlums from a rough Berlin neighborhood, this class (required for young men in Germany in those days) made it their mission to make their teacher’s life a nightmare. Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge described Dietrich’s first day, as the boys raised hell:
The old [minister] left the scene in despair, leaving Bonhoeffer standing silent against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Minutes passed. His failure to react made the noise gradually less enjoyable, and he began speaking quietly, so that only the boys in the front row could catch a few words of what he said. Suddenly all were silent. He remarked that they had put up a remarkable initial performance, and went on to tell them a story about [his recent trip to] Harlem. If they listened, he told them, he would tell them more next time. Then he told them they could go. After that, he never complained about their lack of attentiveness.
-Seriously though, the Minnesota Twins suck this year.
-Bonhoeffer fell in love in his late 30s with an impressive young woman only in her teens. They were later engaged, but he was imprisoned shortly afterwards. As best we can tell, his love language was Being Martyred.
-Bonhoeffer was confident and inspiring to the very end. On the last day of his life, after having just completed an informal prayer service among his fellow prisoners, Bonhoeffer was summoned away by the SS. Everybody present knew what this meant, of course, and said their goodbyes to him. One of them later described what Bonhoeffer said to him as he left: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” Hours later, after calmly and prayerfully walking to the gallows, he was hanged as a traitor to the country he loved.