Bonhoeffer: Eric Metaxas

I set out 2016 with the hope of reading more than I had in previous years. I've always been a reader, but something happens in the middle of early parenthood that slides out leisure/entertainment reading time. Add in the constant draw of Facebook, electronic gadgets, home projects, work projects, and reading gets pushed to the back burner pretty quick. At least that's what it looks like in my house. My hope for 2016 was that I would reignite the reader bug I had caught back in high school. This happened to some degree, but perhaps not as much as I'd initially dreamed.

My initial thought was that I would complete "a book per week". This didn't pan out although I did log quite a number of them including some classics (two by Hemingway in a single year !). 

Around the end of fall, I finished Eric Metaxas' ostensibly monumental work on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am neither a Bonhoeffer expert nor terribly familiar with the work of Metaxas. Just about all that I knew of the famous German was that despite his commitment to non-violence, he never-the-less attempted to assassinate Adolph Hitler during WWII. All I knew of Metaxas was that he was a historian. 

I went into it a rather blank slate. 

The following were among my reactions:

1. Surprise. In a very real sense, I felt dwarfed by the scope and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was a human being of considerable substance; far more complex, knowledgeable, committed, and remarkable than I appreciated. As I read, the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer came to mind - another man who's ambition and intelligence were only challenged by the march of time. 

In either case, it's somewhat easy to judge a flattened version of the imagine him or her to really be about just one thing, to sum up their life in just a few words. As I read Metaxas' narrative, I was drawn into the life of a great human being who was many many things. In particular, I was touched by Bonhoeffer's commitment and insistence upon the difficulty and commitment of the Christian walk. The way Metaxas describes him as being dismayed by certain lackadaisical believers in Germany and America alike, both challenged and reinvigorated me.

One evaluation from Metaxas suck out to me in particular: “He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom—that was what it was to obey God.”

And from Bonhoeffer himself: “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. Do not defend God's word, but testify to it. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity."

2. Grace. Over and over again throughout his narrative, Metaxas highlights the theme of grace, how Bonhoeffer leaned into this essential Christian idea throughout his life, and how it proves to be the backdrop for the attempt that made the theologian famous. The quote: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will" comes up more than once in the book and helps to underscore some of the tension Bonhoeffer seemed to feel when weighing his convictions of non-violence with the embodied evil that was the Nazi state. 

As I understand, some have been critical of Metaxas for glossing over this tension a little too swiftly in favor of celebrating war and killing in the name of justice. It's probably a reasonable critique, said from someone who truly doesn't know any better one way or another. But I can't help but believe that the principle of grace had something to do with Bonhoeffer's ultimate decision to work against fascism.

3. Suffering. “Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace. How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”

4. Scope.  Just on a technical level, I found the biography to be a remarkable achievement. I'm not a historian, I'm not a professional author, and I'm not a scholar. Perhaps for some (those), the quantity of material presented in this volume is commonplace. Perhaps stacked up against other critical biographies on the lives of others, this is the norm. But I found myself as I read, to have the feeling of head-spin. The sheer amount of material covered, letters conveyed, situations unpacked, essays and sermons explained, was incredible. Again, I've read some crititisms about Metaxas research methods - but from someone on the outside, I found myself amazed at the scope of the book. It is long, thick, and ostensibly thorough. 

5. Flat. Characters, that is. One critique I found myself feeling especially later in the book, is that Bonhoeffer himself gets a little too much of the hero treatment. Almost like he gets off a little too easy. Without a doubt, Metaxas doesn't offer the same level of criticism he levels against Bonhoeffer's christian contemporaries.  The picture I felt left with at the end of the book was a portrait of a man who could virtually do no wrong. This was especially the case in the narrative once Hitler takes the stage. I found the author's telling from that point on to essentially take on the tone of a morality-tale rather than a biography. In this presentation, *Real* Christians never supported Hitler, and Bonhoeffer can do no wrong. I can't help but believe the world is a little more gray than the clear black and white boarders outlined. Yet, even Dietrich himself admitted that he rubbed people the wrong way and had a knack for making enemies due to his own issues. The best word for this analysis of a person's life seems to be: "sanitized". Perhaps this is necessary and even important for great human beings like Bonhoeffer (like I said, I'm not a professional here). But I found myself by the end of the book desiring to get to know a more "human" subject. 

6.  New. A criticism I've read more than once about this biography is that Metaxas really did no new research to produce it. New material wasn't discovered that led to the need for the book -- a new discovery or piece of writing from the subject himself. No, the apparent reason for writing it was philosophical: to extend a certain conservative worldview. And within the book itself, I think we see some of this. As I mentioned in my previous point here, polarization seems to be the modus operandi. Metaxas is trying to paint Bonhoeffer into a corner. An example of this is the minimal emphasis on Bonhoeffer's pacifism -- except to attempt to argue that he wasn't so committed to it or conflicted about it after all. Coming into the story from the outside, the main thing I knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he indeed had this conflict: a personal commitment to non-violence while also faced with a choice to attempt to inflict violence on one who embodied evil in his time. Metaxas might lead us to believe that Bonhoeffer's pacifism was only a social obligation to the Confessing Church, and nothing more. This bothered (and bothers) me. Because it feels a little more philosophically than factually driven.



All told - despite my gripes - I found the book to be deeply inspiring, challenging, and illuminating. Even if you don't align 100% with the author's worldview, I think it is well worth your time to invest it here. Brilliant stuff.