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To illustrate the power of social media, I’ve heard more about Eric Metaxas’ new book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” from Twitter and Facebook than anywhere else – especially the usual, traditional marketing methods.
In short, I couldn’t not read this book, so enamored are my friends with this epic profile of the German theologian who was murdered by the Nazis just before the end of the war in Europe, 1945.
It helps Metaxas that American evangelicals are joining mainline and Catholic readers in broadening their horizons. When I was 20, I was reading football magazines. Today’s college students are reading, well, “Bonhoeffer.” The new media have shown us a world far beyond potluck dinners on the church grounds in rural Alabama.
And this is where Metaxas excels on a grand scale. His portrait of a man long dead, and far removed from our culture, puts color on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s relevance.
The Lutheran pastor, with his round specs and morality writ large, possessed rare courage: he lived in Germany and was anti-Nazi. A member of the Confessing Movement that opposed the takeover of the country and the church by Hitler, Bonhoeffer made the decision to stand alone if necessary.
Tackling such a large historical figure is daunting, even for experienced historians who marvel at their subjects of interest. Metaxas seems to have been undaunted, with his face to the sun, in writing what is arguably the best religious biography in decades.
Of course, Metaxas begins at the beginning, which is the only place one can start to understand the richness of Bonhoeffer’s inner life. We learn that the man who would become a theologian and conspirator to assassinate Adolf Hitler enjoyed a wonderful childhood, blessed with grounded parents, a talented family, and enough resources to launch a career that would matter to millions.
We learn that young Dietrich, as the horrors of World War I spread through Europe, was quite an enterprising sort: “Food grew scarce too. Even for the relatively well-to-do Bonhoeffers, hunger became an issue. Dietrich distinguished himself as especially resourceful in procuring food. He got very involved in tracking down food supplies, so much so that his father praised him for his skill as a ‘messenger and food scout.'”
By the time he decided that theology was his destiny, rather than music (those who knew him recognized his brilliant ability), he was well on his way to gathering the moral courage needed to resist a rare evil.
There is a quite fascinating look at Bonhoeffer’s stay at Union Theological Seminary, and his initial false perspective about American religion, which horrified him after he attended a service led by the notorious Harry Emerson Fosdick at New York’s Riverside Church. It was only after ruminating over the heretical Fosdick that Bonhoeffer realized Americans across the country were not of the same spiritual stock as that of Fosdick.
It is here that Metaxas’ writing skill comes to the fore, as he quotes and then comments on a Time magazine article about Fosdick: “The flattering portrait painted of Fosdick suggested the son of Galileo and Joan of Arc, and the article managed to take a few potshots at the unwashed fundamentalist hordes whom the ruddy shepherd boy Fosdick was bravely fighting with his slingshot and Rockefeller’s millions.”
Bonhoeffer rightly rejected the theological liberalism that slithered from this rock, and here one sees the ultimate contrast between clergy who appease evil and those who oppose it. Fosdick didn’t swing from the end of a rope at the end of his life, but no doubt in the long run would have preferred it.
The meat of the book, of course, is the pulsating narrative of Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Third Reich and how he opposed it. He could very easily have sat out the war in America, but he went back to the Fatherland in order to try and make a difference. The tension present in his decision to help aid in the killing of the monster Hitler is decidedly poignant, especially in light of his devotion to Maria von Wedemeyer.
Eventually, Bonhoeffer was sent first to prison, then to Buchenwald. Listen as Metaxas describes the prisoners waiting for the Americans, in late winter, 1945: “Bonhoeffer and everyone else hung on in the cold and hunger, knowing that any moment they might be liberated or killed.”
Unfortunately for him, the Lutheran warrior was transferred to a makeshift prison and was summarily executed only days before the war ended. The account of his last few days is almost too horrible to finish, but finish it we must.
Eric Metaxas has been faithful to the recounting of one man’s life, but more importantly, in “Bonhoeffer” he shines a light on the common path of humanity we are all traveling – and shows us the way.
“Bonhoeffer” is simply brilliant.