Book Review – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

January 17, 2012 at 11:37 pm Leave a comment

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not a scholarly work. Hence the negative comments I’ve heard from more scholarly people regarding the book. I understand their concerns, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re also insanely jealous that their books were not New York Times bestsellers.

Yes, the author tries just a bit too hard to bring Bonhoeffer’s experiences to bear on present-day Evangelical concerns. Yes, the author relies far too much on outdated sources such as William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ But by and large, Metaxas lets Bonhoeffer speak for himself. And any book that does this is a positive thing. He also tells Bonhoeffer’s story in an engaging and lively manner. The book is a page-turner. What other German theologian (other than Luther) would find himself the subject of a page-turner? It’s a tribute to Bonhoeffer as well as Metaxas.

I also found myself thinking about how far Evangelicalism has come in this country. Perhaps this is part of not only MLK’s legacy but Bonhoeffer’s. A book marketed to American Evangelicals speaks plainly about Bonhoeffer’s positive experience of the black church and negative experience of segregation and how that affected his understanding of the Church. It should also be noteworthy that Bonhoeffer’s positive experience of Roman Catholicism gets such extensive treatment. Although it gets left behind as the story turns toward the plot to kill Hitler, Metaxas understands and communicates that Bonhoeffer’s early ecclesiological work leads to his question, ‘What is the Church?’ and that the shape of his theological life from ecumenism to anti-war activities even to his resistance activities spring from the answers Bonhoeffer comes up with to this question. In an era where Evangelicals are asking ‘What is the Church?’ a reading of this book is salutary.

Bonhoeffer’s commentary on American Christianity is useful as well and should prompt reflection. In America, both success-and-wealth evangelicals and social-Gospel liberals subscribe to a Christianity which has vacated its doctrine of sin and redemption, a trend that Bonhoeffer commented on extensively in 1930. The question is, do we recognize in ourselves the vacating of that theology, or only recognize it in our very useful foils?

Hours of unused interview footage from Martin Doblmeier’s 2003 film ‘Bonhoeffer’ form a unique body of source material in Metaxas’s work. The film and the book would go together quite well in a study group.

I am more than willing to overlook the faults in Metaxas’s book for its strong points. Frankly, Lutherans and scholars should be glad there is a popular and generally good biography of Bonhoeffer out there. Bethge’s work is still definitive, but if Metaxas gets people to Bethge, and even to Bonhoeffer, he will have done his job and done it well. As for me, reading this book has whetted my appetite to get into the more obscure volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works that I recently obtained for Christmas.

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