This is an absolutely amazing book about a man who truly was a pastor, a martyr and a prophet It is a must read for every Christian We must examine our own beliefs about how we are to live as Christians in relation to the State, and to each other The book helps the reader to understand how Nazi Germany happened and the role that the German church played in what happened in Germany after World War I Someone said that Eric Metaxas has done for Bonhoeffer what David McCullough has done done for John Adams I would agree with that statement.
The book is dense in its information about Germany, the key figures in German politics after World War I, the religious leaders of the time, and in theological beliefs of the German church Even so, I found it to be a book I could not put down I hope to read it again so that I might gain eveninsight into the man and his times.
The evolution and development of Bonhoeffer s faith and theology is fascinating He left us a great legacy of faith His faithfulness in living the Christian life as he saw it, his productivity, intelligence, and internal fortitude are only matched by his resolve to see Hitler removed from power He worked, even from prison, on the plot to assassinate Hitler One is left to wonder what would have happened if Bonhoeffer s warnings to England and to others would have been heeded Would Hitler have been able to carry out his evil plan The dedication to a higher moral code, justice and equality shown by him and his entire family is inspirational Many in his family suffered much, even the loss of life, because they were committed to a Nazi free Germany.
Yikes this was a real disappointment, or, as Metaxas might say, a hemorrhoidal bummer I was excited when I read reviews when it came out Then I was wary when I learned that Metaxas is the founder and host of a philosophy reading group for crazy rich, conservative New Yorkers Then when I saw that the blurbs for his book, rather than being by biographers or scholars, were by CEOs, ex CEOs, former General Partners of Goldman Sachs, Kirkus journalists or people who feel the need to put PhD at the end of their names, I was really put off Then I started reading, and I went back to excitement Metaxas writes very clear, Hemingway gone effeminate sentences for the most part It s very soothing and then suddenly you realize that he s just lulling you so he can smack you over the head with a patented word couple like hemorrhoidal isometrics or vampiric homonculus In one sentence he describes Hitler as having both canine sensitivity and lupine ruthlessness In one sentence Theologians are accused of building diminutive Ziggurats It reads like a high school student trying to impress her teacher And then there s the big problem with the book despite the fact that almost everyone in Germany refused to take a stand as firm as Bonhoeffer s, Metaxas is unwilling to consider that anyone then alive wasn t either a black hatted varmant or a white hatted hero Once Hitler takes the stage, the book becomes a morality tale rather than a biography Real Christians never supported Hitler, and Bonhoeffer can do no wrong but even he admitted that he rubbed people the wrong way and had a knack for making enemies True, true, Metaxas admits, Bonhoeffer could get a bit too high brow in the pulpit But such a criticism is doubly ironic first, because Metaxas primary complaint about Bishop Mueller is that he s an uneducated Navy chaplain of lower class origins this is particularly jarring when you realize how privileged Bonhoeffer was, and that Metaxas doesn t seem to care Second, despite its sneering at the uneducated, this book is determinedly middle brow I imagine Bonhoeffer and Barth sharing a smirk about it before they got back to reading something incomprehensible I should have been tipped off by the sub title, of course, that there wouldn t be much attention paid Bonhoeffer s ideas here it s not called Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Theologian But I still found the lack of intellectual analysis disappointing, especially given that Metaxas has his own theological axes to grind, primarily against those who are attracted to the idea of religion less Christianity Who are they We re never told What should we put in place of their as he sees it flawed interpretation We re never told.
It s a shame, because this is a great subject for a biography, and he obviously did a great deal of research and excellent synthesis.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906 1945 was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian hanged by the Nazis at the age of 39, shortly before the conclusion of World War II, for his role in the plots for Hitler s assassination His dramatic death has served to make him a semi legendary figure in some circles, though his name isn t a household word to the general public but even in the circles where his name is recognized, it s a fair assumption that manypeople know of him vaguely by hearsay than have actually read his own writings or studied his life in much detail He s often been posthumously co opted by the Religious Left, on the basis of an out of context seizing upon of a single phrase he used in a 1944 letter, religionless Christianity This is the only Bonhoeffer biography I ve personally read The one that s generally recognized as THE definitive one is the 1,084 page 1968 tome by his close friend, pupil and correspondent who eventually became his nephew by marriage , Eberhard Bethge, which is obviously a primary source for much of the subject s life One Goodreads reviewer characterized Metaxas work as dependent on Bethge In fact, to the extent that they re serious about historical investigation, subsequent biographical treatments are all somewhat dependent on Bethge, and one might question their authors commitment to serious research if they weren t Yale graduate and evangelical Christian professional writer and public intellectual Metaxas, however, has used a substantial array of other primary and secondary sources besides Bethge s the bibliography fills about two and a half pages What he s also done is to synthesize and condense this material into 542 pages of actual text, which is still pretty detailed, but less daunting andmanageable for the non specialist reader.
Metaxas starts with Bonhoeffer s family background he came from a distinguished lineage on both sides his father was Germany s foremost brain specialist, and one of his brothers, as a physicist, helped split the atom He then proceeds to cover every stage of his subject s life, from childhood through the July 27, 1945 memorial service at Holy Trinity Church in England which frames the main narrative at beginning and end Bonhoeffer s theological thought is treated intelligibly, in the context of the events and experiences of his life in which it took shape His own writings, letters, and diary are quoted frequently, as are the words of other people who played parts in his life and who knew him A Goodreads reviewer complained that too much historical context is provided, but I personally did not have that feeling at all I found the focus to be quite steadily on Bonhoeffer, with reference to the events around him confined to what s necessary for understanding his own role and reactions As a history major, I went into the book with a general knowledge of the Nazi regime and the war, and I had some basic prior information about Bonhoeffer s life and thought but I encountered much significant information here that I didn t previously know Clearly, the author admires Bonhoeffer greatly, and considers him a hero as I think any non Nazi who studied the man s life would But he s writing biography, not hagiography he portrays his subject in photographic detail, without trying to air brush the picture.
This is not academic writing for professional scholars, but for general readers it does not employ the very dry, objective, precise and colorless mode of writing academics use in writing to each other and which I wrote in as a college and graduate student, so I m quite familiar with it Metaxas prose, in contrast, can be quite colorful in terms of the comparisons and descriptions used, and he makes no bones about being passionate towards the subject Examples might include the characterization of the aged Luther, in reference to his anti Semitic comments dredged up by the Nazis, as the Don Rickles of Wittenberg he insulted pretty much everybody, not just Jews , or the comment, on Neville Chamberlain s declaration of war after two days of dithering, that at some point someone lent Chamberlain a vertebra Readers who, for one reason or another, would prefer aacademic tone can fairly point this out Unlike some Goodreads reviewers, however, I don t think Metaxas prose style deserves ridicule The hardcover edition which was pushed into print too quickly, to coincide with the anniversary of Bonhoeffer s death also contained some typos and misspellings of German words These were mostly corrected in the paperback edition which is the one I read , although the misspelling of Gleichschaltung as Gleischaltung wasn t.
Bethge himself who was the recipient of the letter in question was strongly and explicitly critical of theologians who recklessly misinterpreted the religionless Christianity phrase as indicating some kind of wholesale rejection of traditional Christian beliefs Both Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth another close friend, who was also a major theological influence had been explicitly critical for years of religion, understood as a man made system of rules and shibboleths by which people try to earn favor with God and make themselves feel pious, and contrasted with a Biblical dependence on God s grace The same terminology is not uncommon among American evangelicals today As Metaxas makes clear, Bonhoeffer was not a separatistic and anti intellectual Fundamentalist He was a strong supporter of Barthian Neo Orthodoxy and in the context of 1920s and 30s Germany, where it was hotly opposed by Harnack s liberalism In lifestyle, he was much like Barth and his contemporary C S Lewis he was a cultured appreciator of classical art, music and literature, and an uncompromising exponent of intellectual rigor in theology and Biblical interpretation He was willing to fellowship with other believers, Catholic and Protestant, across denominational lines, and he respected fellow serious thinkers, such as Harnack, even when he disagreed with them But he was also strongly committed to classical Christianity, to the authority of Scripture, to the practice of serious prayer and worship, and to a life of total obedience to God, which ultimately led to his willing acceptance of his own martyrdom Metaxas also makes this irrefutably clear, and primarily by quoting Bonhoeffer s own words.
Though footnotes aren t used here, there are 21 pages of notes documenting the sources for each part of the text, by page and sentence paragraph beginnings The 14 page index appears to be serviceable, though I didn t use it much Finally, there are 15 and 1 2 pages of discussion questions, designed for book clubs or other groups reading the book together These actually seem to be quite good for their purpose, aiming to elicit individual thought and serious group discussion rather than to cut it off by suggesting canned answers.
As a young man, I read some of Bonhoffer s writing, though I don t list it on my Goodreads shelves because I don t remember exactly what I read But at that stage of my intellectual development and Christian walk, I don t think I was genuinely capable of appreciating and engaging with his thought One effect of reading this book has been to give me a much deeper appreciation of him as a person and as a theologian another has been to convince me that I need to seriously read or reread some of his writing and sooner, as in next year, rather than later My default rating for nonfiction books that I like is normally three stars This one is a rare nonfiction read that earns five and that s every bit as significant as it sounds Note in re reviewerly shortcomings Let me preface this by saying that I am about as ill qualified as one can be when it comes to ecumenical history The full extent of my knowledge on the Protestant Reformation is that Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of a church on October 31, 1517 and I only remember that because I remember thinking that it was weird that he did that on Halloween, and that the digits of 95 and 1517 both add up to 14random, I know, but, hey, I was a sopho in high school As a result, I won t be commenting on any bits of biblical exegesis and or theology because, really, I would just be making things up Die Familie von Bonhoeffer Growing up in the Bonhoeffer household aka the Wagenheimstrasse was intense Dietrich was sixth out of eight children including his twin sister, Sabine born to neurologist psychologist Karl Bonhoeffer and his wife, Paula, granddaughter of a famous Protestant theologian, Karl von Hase Karl, the pater familias, was effectively an atheist or agnostic basically, he wasn t terribly into religion , but the children were brought up with their mother s religion I don t know what they re looking at in the picture below, but it could be a bible However, every subject or endeavor, whether it be science, religion or music, was approached with fervid rigor under Karl Bonhoeffer s roof The rule of thumb was, in essence, if you re not going to say something devastatingly brilliant, then don t say anything at all I don t mean that to imply that the children didn t love their father they adored him, and their house was a veritable hive of activity click graphic below for it to be almost legibly large The big takeaway here was that, though Dietrich was nervous to tell his father he planned to be a theologian, it turned out his dad was a ok with it, as long as Dietrich studied the bible with the same discipline with which Karl approached his work as a scientist After all, Dietrich s older brother, Karl Friedrich, was off working in Physical Chemistry with Albert Einstein and Max Planck Also, it sets the scene for how Bonhoeffer would be perceived in the world His future student, Eberhard Bethge, was quoted It was hard for any group of people to live up to the standards expected and maintained in the Wangenheimstrasse Bonhoeffer himself admitted that newcomers to his home were put under the microscope With that background it was easy for him to create the impression of being superior and stand offish Dietrich Takes Berlin and also the US, and other places Eric Metaxas author of this book uses the Bethge quotation above by way of introduction to his chapter on Bonhoeffer as a student in Berlin Bonhoeffer s commitment to his own intellectual integrity would not allow him to just align his thoughts with those of one professor or another which, at times, could make things uncomfortable Despite his burdensome schedule as a student, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved with the students in his Sunday school class all theological candidates had to complete parish work in addition to their studies Bonhoeffer was never one to shy away from hard questions He began holding the Thursday Group, where they would address questions like, Is there such thing as a necessary lie Also, we begin to see the development of Bonhoeffer s ideas of costly grace and its counterpart cheap grace Here is where my theological ignorance will have to be excused, so I ll just borrow from Timothy J Keller s Foreword in which he describes Bonhoeffer s cheap grace That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn t really matter much how you live I m skipping over quite a bit here, and will sum up Bonhoeffer s take on Christianity in the U.
S circa 1930 1931 by saying that he was not impressed However, Bonhoeffer was taken with what he heard in Evangelical, black churches and, further, was acutely aware of the hypocrisy inherent in the treatment of the negro problem state side Bonhoeffer and The Fuhrer Principle Dietrich returned to Berlin determined to make known the suffering of the negroes Also, Bonhoeffer around this time 1931 1932 experienced a dramatic shift Metaxis calls this the Great Change in his realization of what it meant to live the life of a servant of Jesus Christ and belong to the Church However, he also encountered a Germany that was undergoing great changes of its own.
I m going to steer away from the word prophetic that the author uses to describe Bonhoeffer s reflection on the Fuhrer Principle prior to Hitler s election, but it certainly showed quite a bit of foresight While Bonhoeffer s treatment of the Fuhrer Principle is nuanced in its logic, it boils down to the idea that man is meant to seek salvation from only one authority, and that authority is the ultimate authority The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authoritywe forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him Nazi Germany and the Church Hitler was far too astute to think that he could be declared chancellor, denounce the church, and have death camps up and running all in one fell swoop No, in fact, Hitler would readily invoke God and Christianity as the basis for our collective morality, in the earliest days of his rule However, the heresy apparent to Bonhoeffer was not so readily apparent to much of the church leadership, as the need for unification and authority had intensified in the backlash to the Weimar Republic By April of 1933, the Nazi regime goal of coordinating the Protestant churches under one Reich church had gained sufficient momentum for the leadership of the Protestant federation to be writing a new constitution for a national church, and elections for the Church Council below were held in late 1933 for the Reichsbishop The Kirchenkampf which means church struggle , happened in waves see Five stages of Kirchenkampf which I won t attempt to describe Hitler s pick for bishop, Ludwig Muller, was not elected by the original Protestant federation council, so Hitler had to make several maneuvers before Muller could be elected and installed as Reich Bishop The Aryan Paragraph and the Confessing Church Luckily, Bonhoeffer was not alone in his outrage regarding the changes in the Church State relationship The Aryan Paragraph which barred all non Aryans from civil service proved to be the tipping point Protestant Pastor Martin Niemoller, who had previously supported Hitler, formed the Pastors Emergency League to consider whether or not they could accept this differentiation between Christians and Christians of Jewish descent excluding the latter from the church And lo, the Confessing Church was born Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and Karl Barth were among the pastors who decided that the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph was incompatible with the church of Jesus Christ From Confession to Conspiracy Ok, so I m not really going to describe this in any detail, but it s the name of a chapter, and I thought it was a pretty good one Bonhoeffer did not think that his responsibility as a Christian could be restricted to schisms in the church While some members of the Confessing Church were resisting political encroachment on their church activity, Bonhoeffer saw that there was a much larger problem at hand.
About half of this book is dedicated to closely examining how Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to the realization that it was not just his need, but his duty to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler Suffice it to say that this wasn t a decision he made lightly Bonhoeffer was a serious, rigorous man and one whose story is deservedly told and remembered Metaxas opens the book with Bonhoeffer s funeral, contrasting it with the sentiment that the only good German is a dead German My only critique of the book would be the occasional backhanded pot shot at admittedly terrible individuals, not because they were wrong, but they seemed out of tone with the rest of the narrative and certainly un Bonhoeffer like.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an inspiration and a revelation I do not know anyone who does not find much to admire in Bonhoeffer Even those who find Christian doctrines to stretch plausibility can admire Bonhoeffer s courage as a moral and principled man standing up to authoritarianism at the risk of his own life.
When the Nazis co opted the Lutheran Church in Germany, he helped to organize a new church, called the Confessing Church, to oppose the Nazi s attempted corruption of German Christianity When it became clear that Hitler had widespread political support and would not fail on his own merit something many influential people in Germany wrongly supposed would happen Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy lead by Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr and had no difficulty seeing that it was his duty as a Christian to support Canaris plans for the assassination of Hitler and the violent overthrow of the Third Reich Bonhoeffer s brother in law, also a member of the conspiracy, maintained a list documenting Nazi atrocities The list was to be used to win the loyalty of the populace which for years was largely in the dark about the Nazi s most horrific crimes after Hitler was gone It was the discovery of the list by the SS that likely led to the order that Bonhoeffer be executed Bonhoeffer lived and died courageously and Metaxas provides the details of Bonhoeffer s life in this regard effectively I think this explains the book s success Metaxas also wants his readers to understand that Bonhoeffer was a unique and innovative theologian Here the book is a disappointment Unquestionably, Bonhoeffer lived a sincerely Christian life and influenced friends to do likewise, even in the difficult circumstances of their time Butthan that, Metaxas is convinced that Bonhoeffer made important, even groundbreaking, contributions to protestant theology He failed to convince me Metaxas just does not engage the substance of Bonhoeffer s theology in any serious way I am far from an expert on this important subject, but Bonhoeffer seems not to have said anything about breaking with the bourgeois theology, that characterized Christianity on the continent before WWI, that his older contemporary Karl Barth had not already said even better Though Bonhoeffer s LETTERS FROM PRISON is undeniably compelling as an account of Bonhoeffer s personal psychology of faith, it does not offer anything new regarding the reasons for faith Or if it does, then Metaxas fails to develop it sufficiently for a reader like me to appreciate In this sense, it seems to me that Metaxas failed to achieve much of what he set out to do in this ambitious book.
We all know history is written and it s no use wishing for some other outcome when reading a biography or history book Yet reading this book I felt a terrible suspense I knew Bonhoeffer was a goner still I bit my nails, I dreaded, I cried, I hoped, and for a while I even engaged in magical thinking, imagining if I boycotted the last 20 pages Bonhoeffer would not die The sense of tragedy is heightened because the end of the war almost let Bonhoeffer escape his stupid fate, death coming just two weeks before the Third Reich was brought to its knees I had to force myself through the last pages Ugh, what a waste Buchenwald Just to note I m an atheist And I m no student of church history but I really enjoyed the theological insights of this book For as much as Bonhoeffer sometimes seemed an arrogant fussbudget, at least when he was younger, I m glad he existed, with his confidence in the Christian god, and his dedication to following his sense of what is right doing what he felt was God s will, for example, despite its being a sin The world needslike him How can you not admire someone who in 1935 said, Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants Bonhoeffer really wins you over But for all my admiration and respect, I couldn t help but be frustrated with him and all of noble, high bred and fine feeling aristocratic Germany, which couldn t get off its collective Arsch and assassinate Hitler, despite their outrage and chagrin Being on the side of the right was surely a way to feel good about yourself, but accomplished zilch And just like I hoped against all reason and reality that Bonhoeffer wouldn t die, I hoped to be reassured that there were good Germans out and about in the 40 s But the conclusion is there were hardly enough, and certainly not enough willing to sacrifice themselves for the country they d been proud of As one conspirator says, God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany But history makes it seem you could count the good when it mattered most men on two hands And the war not only destroyed Germany s future but also obliterated its past That is, it will never be remembered for its poets and thinkers whoever thinks of Germany now thinks first of the maniac with the little mustache and genocide And while those who think of Sodom might think about Lot, no one thinks about Bonhoeffer or von Stauffenberg Biography is a good way to experience history from a certain perspective, and I found this book illuminating in its picture of an age Living in Germany, it s an era I hear about day in day out You can t live here without reading something about WWII every day, and guaranteed there is a documentary on some channel or other every evening, too But it s often big picture stuff, or some military campaign, or just fleeting reference, and this biography was right there with its details of a particular life in a particular place It was heartening to read about Germans who protested against the Nazis, who found the Gestapo and the SS reprehensible, even if they failed to bring change.
It was said that when he prays it is as if he is really conversing with a God who is listening to him.
His family was rich and influential He had aristocratic lineage both in the maternal and paternal side Close relatives occupied high positions in the government, including the military.
He had a real talent for music, but he chose to be a theologian and a pastor of the Lutheran church where he belonged But he was open minded insofar as faith and salvation is concerned He had wanted to visit India and talk to Mahatma Gandhi.
He was a well read scholar and a poet The poem Powers of Good which he wrote in prison has become famous throughout Germany and is included in many school textbooks He had made monumental contributions to Christian thought.
He had fallen in love thrice, the last one to a young lady named Maria.
In saner times we would have seen him marry, raise children, writebooks on philosophy and theology, grow old teaching and holding services for his flock But no He was a German And it was the time of Hitler and the Nazis.
A gentle, kind, humble man of God in the most fucked up of times and places The extermination of the Jews and other people deemed undesirable by the Nazis, the killings of the sick, infirm and mentally ill, the suppression of free speech and other basic civil liberties, the systematic attack on religion and religious groups, the deification of Hitler and the indoctrination of the populace on the Nazi ideology what cruel cosmic joke was it to present all these before a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer Long before the world came to know of the Holocaust, he already knew about it through his contacts within the German military He loved his country, lost a brother fighting for it during world war one and had lost many friends, relatives and students in the current one But he is face to face with evil incarnate He had been praying that Germany lose the war but Hitler kept on winning battles and conquering territories So what to do Part of the enjoyment one can get out of reading this biography is to see the unraveling of this very fascinating moral conundrum.
If you have any real plans of someday reading it then stop here But I tell you that it is a thick volume and if you have lots in your tbr then maybe you can disregard the coming spoilers and continue, for here I will tell you what Bonhoeffer did.
He joined the German resistance against Hitler and his Nazi cohorts More than that, he was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and his closest henchmen A devout follower of Christ conspiring to murder the head of state of his own country.
He had gone to the United States twice, and during the second time concerned friends had urged him to stay since the Gestapo was already hot on his heels But he chose to go back to Germany He was needed there, he felt, at the very least to speak up for the weak and defenseless, especially the Jews In prison later, a plan was hatched for his escape and flight to another country but upon learning that such would further endanger some friends and relatives, he chose to remain behind bars Fully aware of the dangers to his very life, he boldly looked forward, with complete trust, and proposed to Maria and they became engaged He said that acts like this in times of great peril is embracing God s earth He considered it as an act of faith in God to step out in freedom and not to fear future possibilities As to killing Hitler as a sin or a violation of God s own commandment he said, confiding to a church colleague, that it is his moral conviction that the structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom and that If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what ishe cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ s bearing guilt without sin, and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event But fate was kinder It was not guilt he suffered from The opposition to Hitler was extensive, even right at the start of his ascension to power, and there had been many plots to oust him via coups or outrightly assassinate him, but all these had failed Including the last one where Bonhoeffer was a participant Valkyrie recently made into a film starring Tom Cruise.
While Nazi Germany was already tottering, with allied bombs raining upon Berlin itself, Bonhoeffer was executed upon the orders of the Fuhrer himself He was just 39, not able to marry Maria, and most likely still a virgin so unlike Thomas Merton