Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. 608 pages.
The reader may be familiar with the work of Eric Metaxas, even without knowing so. Before he authored this “New York Times Bestseller,” Metaxas authored the William Wilberforce biography, Amazing Grace, which was adapted for screen and released in theaters in 2006. His literary career began when he was editor of the Yale Record, “the nation’s oldest college humor magazine” (573). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today among others. Those with children and a video player have most assuredly come into contact with Metaxas’ work. In addition to authoring a number of children’s books and poems, he co-wrote Lyle the Kindly Viking, and was the voice of the narrator on Esther, both of Veggie Tale fame (574).
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once said. In this biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Metaxas leads the reader through an examination of the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In so doing he also helps the reader to examine his own life. Even if a person does not usually read biographies, this is one to read.
Why did he write it? Metaxas recounts that ever since he first read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship in 1988, he wanted to tell Bonhoeffer’s story: “As the son and grandson of Germans who had suffered through the period I was profoundly moved and thrilled and proud to hear it and immediately began telling the story to others” (577). As the years put more time between the present and the evils of the Nazi regime, more stories are being told which reveal that not all Germans were Nazis. Many Germans defended life and worked for good inside and outside of their nation during the terribly dark days of the Third Reich. Metaxas calls Bonhoeffer’s story “the fascinating story of the man who because of his Christian faith stood up to the Nazis and ultimately gave his life” (577). Indeed, Bonhoeffer was someone who was able to see through Hitler’s lies when seemingly so few could. He saw that the ideology of National Socialism was not only completely incompatible with a Christian Weltanschauung (worldview), in a philosophical sense, but completely incompatible with Christianity itself. Such evil must be opposed with the truth.
Already at the dedication page the reader knows this biography is going to be different than other biographies he has read. How many biographies in America utilize Scripture (John 6:40) and in German for that matter? Timothy Keller’s Foreword does an excellent job of building the reader’s desire to dig into this delightful tome. He sets the scene by asking how the church of Luther could come to a place where capitulation to Hitler was even possible. One of the tools Hitler used to anesthetize and ultimately destroy Germany was success (364), but Keller’s answer looks deeper than economics. He contends that the church lost its hold on the gospel. It became marked, he writes, by formalism and legalism and “understood grace only as abstract acceptance—‘God forgives; that’s his job’” (xvi). He then asks the question, “This lapse couldn’t happen to us, today, surely could it?” (xvi). It is a thought provoking question and one which brings to mind the exhortation of Jude 3, “To contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Bonhoeffer himself trumpeted the dangers of what he termed “religionless Christianity.” In one of his early lectures he wrestled with “the notion that Christ had been exiled from the lives of most Christians. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses’” (82). One remembers that the movement of pietism struggled with similar concerns. Bonhoeffer advocated a return to the Scriptures and longed to hear sermons that preached the gospel (82). The question is this, what gospel did he mean? If he meant the abiding gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead as proclaimed in all of the Scriptures, every true Christian can give a hearty “Amen” to his desire.
From 1930-1, during the one year between earning his doctorate and being old enough for parish ministry in Germany (a required 25 years of age), Bonhoeffer came to America where he attended classes at Union Theological Seminary. His letters and observations from that period note his great dissatisfaction with the false theology taught at Union and serve as a sad attestation to King Solomon’s words, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Reading Bonhoeffer’s remarks, a person could say similar things about so many “successful” congregations in America today. As one listens to Metaxas’ telling, it is reassuring, in a sense, to note that Bonhoeffer did not agree with the neo-orthodox theology he heard at Union, just as he had not agreed with the major teachings of Karl Barth under whom he studied in Germany, and this despite being very good friends with both Barth and Niebuhr who were two of the main proponents of the neo-orthodox movement. Concerning the preaching he heard in New York, Bonhoeffer wrote: “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life” (106). Bonhoeffer lamented that “the heart of the gospel had been marginalized and quaintly labeled as ‘traditional’” (106). He observed that “in the place of the church as a congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you’ll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership—that person can well assess the character degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically ‘charitable’ churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is” (107).
Even so, Bonhoeffer remains an enigma in so many ways. Metaxas also writes, Bonhoeffer “once told a student that every sermon must contain ‘a certain shot of heresy,’ meaning that to express the truth, we must sometimes overstate something or say something in a way that will sound heretical—though it must certainly not be heretical. But even in using that phrase, ‘a shot of heresy,’ Bonhoeffer betrayed his habit of saying things for effect that could easily be misinterpreted. Many seized on that phrase to claim that Bonhoeffer was unconcerned with orthodox theology. Bonhoeffer often fell into such traps, and for this reason he might be the most misunderstood theologian who ever lived” (364).
One positive take-away from Bonhoeffer’s theological practice is meditation on the Scriptures, not perhaps in the same manner in which he did, but in taking time for thoughtful reflection and meditation. In an age of distraction, his example of daily meditation on Scripture gives us pause. How much time, and thoughtful time at that, do we or our members devote to meditating on the Word of God? Would doing so more often and over a greater period of time help us see connections and godly applications to “the real world”? The gospel drives us into the world. How can we go forth into the world as salt and light and yet do so in a scripturally sound and God-pleasing way? It is good for Christians of today to wrestle with Scripture, and also with examples from the past, so that we are better equipped to stand and speak and act when we are called to confess Christ and serve our neighbor in love.
In regard to Bonhoeffer’s involvement in plots to kill Hitler this biography helps a person to better understand the greater context, as well as the emotions and questions involved in his decision. The story is so much deeper than “this man helped try to kill a psychopathic despot bent on destroying everything good in the world.” Bonhoeffer wrestled with the Scriptures and with his vocations as brother, neighbor, citizen, Christian, and pastor. He knew as we do that Lutherans do not revolt and believed that Christians are to honor the government and protect life.
What does a Christian do when laws of God seem opposed to each other, and it seems a person can only sin? The journey with him from his wrestling to his final decision is an exciting one. A person is caused to wonder, “What would I have done?” Not long thereafter the reader has reason to give thanks to God that such decisions have not yet been placed before him, and he is moved to pray for those Christians around the world who find themselves pressed down by evil regimes.
One point driven home in this biography is Bonhoeffer’s intent to live and communicate the faith. Indeed theologia est habitus practicus, and Metaxas writes that Bonhoeffer “was no mere academic. For him, ideas and beliefs were nothing if they did not relate to the world of reality outside one’s mind” (53). All theology is practical. This thinking showed itself especially in the way Bonhoeffer viewed preaching to children. “If one couldn’t communicate the most profound ideas about God and the Bible to children, something was amiss. There was more to life than academia” (64). In a related vein, one enjoyable aspect of Metaxas’ writing is that he, too, is capable of walking with academics, as Bonhoeffer was, yet at the same time, is able to communicate his knowledge in a very accessible manner. Metaxas handles Bonhoeffer’s story with clarity, simplicity, and with a deft and entertaining wit. A welcome inclusion to this edition is a “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the book (593-608). With some revision this reading guide could be quite helpful as the reader keeps an eye out for practical application.
What will the pastoral reader walk away with after reading about this pastor, martyr, prophet, and spy? He will certainly find a renewed zeal for ministry and for clearly communicating the gospel, as this reviewer did. Additionally, the busy pastor will have a wealth of Bonhoeffer quotes perfect for beginning Bible classes or for adding depth to discussion groups (without having to read through all of Bonhoeffer’s works). Be warned, however, that after reading this biography a person is liable to want to pick up a copy or two of Bonhoeffer’s work, if for no other reason than to sit down again with someone who has become a dear friend. This volume would also be helpful to teachers, staff ministers, lay-leaders, or interested lay-people. We seek to “encourage one another and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25), and together we want to “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3). This book provides such encouragement, and it’s a good read besides. One mustn’t look far or even have to read Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity” to see that Bonhoeffer’s warnings against “religionless Christianity” apply to our day. Truly we find it not only in the culture around us, but we find it welling up from the deep darkness of our own hearts. We must watch and pray and wield the sword of the Word of God. The antidote to sin and the answer to despair is the gospel. It is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that can scatter the darkness and light the way through this dark world. Praise God we have been brought by grace into that light of the Lord.
Our prayer is that our God strengthen us and lead us to be what he has made us, bring us to everlasting life, and “fulfill in us that other word with which Dietrich concluded his obituary of Harnack: ‘non potest non laetari qui sperat in Dominum’—‘while in God confiding I cannot but rejoice’” (542).