Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
I’m hovering between three and four stars here, because I did enjoy the book. Quite a stirring narrative. But, to put it too bluntly, I don’t have a fundamental trust in the theological acumen and judgment of Eric Metaxas. He’s certainly a good writer who did his homework (more on that in a moment), but I’ve read some Bonhoeffer—and he just didn’t quite speak the language of evangelical Protestantism like Metaxas seems to assume.
Even within the book there are hints that Bonhoeffer probably shouldn’t be claimed as an evangelical patron saint, the guy who did, we’re sure, what we evangelicals would have done in the same Hitlerian circumstances. Bonhoeffer’s closeness with Barth, his appreciation for Roman Catholicism, his chumminess with Union Theological Seminary—all of these made me uneasy. Yes, he praised a fundamentalist preacher in NYC and made some incisive criticisms of Fosdick and Coffin—but I never felt comfortable with him theologically.
Metaxas defends Bonhoeffer by suggesting several times that he tended to overstate his case in order to shock people into listening. I have no reason to dispute that assessment. But I’m still stuck at three stars, because Bonhoeffer’s place on the evangelical-to-liberal spectrum seems all-important for the biography of a theologian.
In addition, Metaxas fails to delve much into the circumstances behind Bonhoeffer’s apparent conversion. He writes of one instance in Dietrich’s life, “What happened is unclear, but the results were obvious. For one thing, he now became a regular churchgoer for the first time in his life and took Communion as often as possible.” Really? He was already a theologian at this point and had done church work. This seems very important to ferret out, but Metaxas leaves it unclear.
Yes, Bonhoeffer said and did some evangelical things, and I surely hope he was regenerated. I simply don’t feel I can trust Metaxas to help me decide. I’m afraid he made Bonhoeffer into our evangelical image. Thankfully, I don’t have to decide Bonhoeffer’s eternal destiny. It’s in God’s good hands. And no matter where he is now, God’s grace (common or special?) was strong in him, and he did courageous and honorable things I’m not sure I could do, even on my best day.
Criticisms over—because Metaxas deserves a great deal of praise for this book. I couldn’t help liking the clever little wordplays he used frequently. For example:
Norway … had recently been handed over to Hitler by the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, whose surname became an improper noun, meaning “traitor.”
Metaxas also has a flair for epithets. Nazi Reinhard Heydrich was alternately a “piscine ghoul,” an “albino stoat,” and a “waxy lamprey.” (He was also “cadaverous.”) A little much, perhaps, but it made for good reading.
So did the rest of the story—at least once the conflict between Bonhoeffer and the Nazis began. I had done some study of the man, but I had no idea how early, powerfully, confidently, prominently, and presciently Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis. He really did seem to see what was coming as few others did. And instead of being an alarmist or conspiracy theorist, Bonhoeffer had access to real evidence of Nazi atrocities.
Metaxas gives sufficient detail, lets characters speak in their own words from actual letters, and yet keeps the story moving. One thing for which I will always be indebted to him is resurrecting the validity of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with 18-year-old Maria von Wedemeyer. Getting to read her letters makes the relationship plausible in a way it hadn’t been when I just watched the movie.
Bonhoeffer’s story is one that challenged me deeply, and yet I think evangelicals should not be quick to claim him or his brave actions as their own.