Tuesday, August 30, 2011

BookTuesday: Bonhoeffer

Today for BookTuesday, I’m reviewing Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer. The short title of the book is Bonhoeffer. Here’s a peek at the cover:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

As you can see, the long title of the book is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This title is an attempt to summarize the book in five words. And that’s not a bad attempt. The book released in hardcover last year, which my wife graciously gave me for Father’s Day. It’s been available on Kindle since then, and is coming out in trade paperback today. (Trade paperbacks are the ones that are 5x8 or so, not the small ones on checkout racks.) Officially, I think I’m reviewing the “e-version” for Booksneeze today, because that’s what they provided for me to read. I read this in hardback first, which I paid for—this review wouldn’t be any different if I were just reviewing the one I bought.

On to the book: It’s hard to review a biography without treading into dangerous ground and reviewing the subject’s life. How can I comment on Bonhoeffer without commenting on Bonhoeffer himself? To clear this hurdle, let me tell you first of my deep admiration for the man himself. I whole-heartedly agree with a statement from Eric Metaxas in a chapel address at Beeson Divinity School: of Christians in history, this was one who definitely took his faith, the Christian faith, seriously.

Metaxas came to this biography after writing a biography of William Wilberforce. While the Wilberforce biography became the underpinnings of the movie Amazing Grace, I don’t expect to see a Bonhoeffer movie. Not that I wouldn’t welcome one. However, I think it’s important to note that Metaxas did come to this writing with an admiration for his subject. Just as someone coming to write a critical biography of someone they dislike cannot fully mask their prejudice, so admiration will come through.

This book, though, is not an excessive hagiography. Metaxas shows the better sides of Bonhoeffer, certainly, but there do not appear to be any invented stories to make him sound better than he was. Here is a man, after all, who fought against Hitler, fought to save Jews and others from the Holocaust, and gave his life for his beliefs. He doesn’t need help to sound good.

The book opens with the image of post-World War II Germany as two people listen to BBC Radio. Metaxas then introduces these two as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s parents who are listening to the memorial service for their son. This tragic beginning casts a long shadow through the whole work. The reader cannot encounter the young prankster of the early chapters without thinking ahead to his imminent death.

The work here produces a tension that keeps the reader engaged. Some portions of the biography do drag a bit, but life gets that way sometimes. As such, I haven’t read a thorough biography that didn’t drag at points. The difficulty in writing biography is providing enough detail but not too much. There are times that Metaxas provides a bit too much, especially in the early years of Bonhoeffer’s life.

However, the focus of the book is not the early years of Bonhoeffer but his involvement in the church struggle in Germany and his later work against Hitler. The details given flesh out the picture I have seen in other sources, though I am admittedly not an expert on the life of Bonhoeffer. The details expand when there is more story to tell, and the final hours of Bonhoeffer’s life take quite a bit of print to cover.

A few words are necessary to address some of the criticism and questions about Metaxas's work in this book. The major criticism I have seen is that Metaxas has tried to remake Bonhoeffer into a modern American Evangelical. While I may have missed it by being a modern American Evangelical, I didn't see that.

What I saw was this: Metaxas tried to highlight the ways in which Bonhoeffer's theology and legacy were similar to what modern American Evangelicals should be. I think that too many of us on the farther-right side have tended to ignore or downplay Bonhoeffer because he was Lutheran and because of the high emphasis placed on a few of his statements. This would include his famous comment about "religionless Christianity." Metaxas took some pains to show how that statement and idea is neither the sum total of Bonhoeffer's life and thought nor is it a fully-developed view.

There are some questions regarding accuracy, including whether Metaxas spelled certain German words properly. I defer to experts in German on those subjects. If there are errors, then they should be corrected and a revised edition issued that addresses them. However, if the errors represent differing views on transliterating German words into English, that's hardly a major fault to find.

In all, I found the criticism of Metaxas' view of Bonhoeffer to come back to this: who defines the legacy of a man who didn't live long enough to fill out all of his thoughts? How should that legacy be determined?

Metaxas has focused on the writings, sermons, and actions of Bonhoeffer as they were. He has especially drawn from the completed theological writings, perhaps at the expense of the incomplete thoughts expressed in some of the prison writings of Bonhoeffer. Others, including those who study Bonhoeffer more in-depth than Metaxas, seem to define his legacy by including the trajectory of his thought. The question at hand is one of "what would Bonhoeffer have concluded in May 1945? in 1950?" The focus shifts to discerning what clues to the thoughts of Bonhoeffer can be found in his letters, his prison writings, his last thoughts.

As a whole, this book struck a strong chord with me. I was pleased to learn more of the life of one who actually did, in the words of Metaxas, take the Christian faith so seriously. I liked this book, but I also see it has limitations. There are more comprehensive biographies, like Eberhard Bethge's, that can provide better details. Most of Bonhoeffer's writings are published, so that one can study his theology directly. For an entry-level look, for an inspiring look, I don't think you can beat Metaxas' work.

I recommend that you buy, read, and read again Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.

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