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

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Thomas Nelson, 2010. 608 pages. 

Bonhoeffer is a book that has, apparently, met with stunning laudations.  I didn't read the article myself, but have it on good authority that First Things recommended in a review that people go out and buy six copies and give them to friends.  Trusted friends also gave this book high accolades.  With this acclaim ringing in the background, how could I fail to purchase and read it?  That's right, I couldn't. And, having read the book, I understand what all the buzz is about... mostly. 

As you may have guessed, Bonhoeffer is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  To summarize much more than that seems unnecessary.  Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer's life, from his childhood and family to his death in a Nazi prison.  

As promised, Metaxas is a stupendous story-teller and a superb writer.  I learned a lot reading this biography; details of Bonhoeffer's life, the thoughts and feelings of his friends and family, his acts in the confessing church, and much more.  I really want to stress that I enjoyed this book immensely. Metaxas style carried me along as if I were reading a novel rather than a biography. Thus, it was incredibly disconcerting to be rudely awakened by glaringly awkward and often nearly, or seemingly, inconsequential errors.  

I read with disbelief that Bonn is in Switzerland and that Hitler was democratically elected, as well as numerous erroneous presentations of the state of affairs at various times in Nazi Germany.  As far as the narrative goes these errors hardly matter.  However, what they did accomplish was to begin to destroy my sense of trust in Metaxas as narrator.  Once that step was taken, I noticed several other problems. Metaxas writes as an omnipresent narrator.  Stylistically this works very well, but source wise he is prone to embellishment. Metaxas 'knows' what everyone was thinking but often I could not see, or find out, how this was possible. Just over a quarter way through the book I had a conversation with a friend and realized that Metaxas had yet to mention that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. How, exactly, can you write a biography of a man and fail to mention his denominational affiliation? Sadly, there was one more blow to fall. 

Before continuing, let me take a step back and tell you about my own first encounter with Bonhoeffer. My first year of university was rough. I grew up evangelical but entered university running from God and pulled up short of disaster by Christmas, mostly thanks to the influence of some key friends.  One of them, very soon thereafter, lent me The Cost of Discipleship (yes, the uncritical and improperly titled version). I had never heard of this book or this author before, but I was told it was a good book so I sat down and began to read it the next Saturday morning. Later that day I arose, stunned, having skipped lunch and read the entire book in one sitting. I didn't understand all of it, but God spoke to me through what I did. Here was something so new, so different, so challenging. I had to know more. 

That first encounter with Bonhoeffer did several things in my life. It came at a crucial time of re-commitment to faith in God and bolstered said decision. It opened my eyes to how I had taken grace for granted. It also showed me, for perhaps the first time, how limited my reading and thinking had been in only focusing on contemporary evangelicalism (without even knowing that is what I had been doing).  In a real way, Bonhoeffer kicked off a year of reading outside of my tradition. Afterwards, I had my first encounters with the church fathers, quite a few mystics (St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas A. Kempis, and many more), and the luminaries of other denominations both old and new.  

This is right where the last blow fell in my reading of Bonhoeffer.  By the time I reached the end of the Metaxas' book I had thoroughly enjoyed a fast paced, events oriented, summary of the life of a great man.  Not only that, but I had been subtly assured that here was man before his time, a man of piety and devotion, of action and integrity, and, perhaps, underneath all of this, an evangelical just like me (except much 'better :). It's the evangelical part that bites (I think the rest is true). That same friend who I mentioned having a conversation with several paragraphs ago alerted me that others had made this criticism of Metaxas: that he portrayed Bonhoeffer as too evangelical. I agreed readily upon continuing my reading. This impression given by Metaxas (and it is but an impression) runs so against the grain of my initial encounter with Bonhoeffer's own writings that it almost ruined the book for me. Suddenly, failing to mention Bonhoeffer's Lutheranism didn't seem so accidental (and, having it on kindle, I could quickly search out all references to Luther, Lutheran, and Lutheranism just to make sure I didn't miss it... it really isn't there). More importantly, I want to keep my Bonhoeffer, thank you very much.  

Still, learning more about an individual inevitably means losing some of our fantasies. I am willing to concede that I envisioned Bonhoeffer as farther from my own tradition than he probably was in reality. However, Metaxas makes the opposite mistake and is no better off for it.  

What, then, can I say in conclusion? Here is a dilemma similar to the one I faced in my last book review but in the midst of an entirely different subject matter. I think that I will say this: 3.5 stars, conditionally recommended.  Great read, awesome story, but be careful. If you know nothing of Bonhoeffer and aren't much for biographies then there is no better place to begin than this book. Bonhoeffer is worth learning of and reading and, despite all his errors, Metaxas provides an excellent introduction. I only add that once you are finished this book you darn well better pick up one of Bonhoeffer's own and get to the real work of getting to know this Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy.  


Anonymous said...

I am curious: what makes you think Hitler was not democratically elected?

He greatly exceeded his constitutional authority after his election, but he was democratically elected. That he was makes it even more scary, I think.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

That is a fair question, since I suppose he did meet the technical requirements of a democratic election. However, I have read in other books on the subject/period that he very much hijacked that democratic process in order to win. Perhaps I am leaning too much on those opinions though :)

Jeremy Rios said...

Yeah, I'm pretty sure he was elected to power. It's one of the great and bitter ironies of history.

Anonymous said...

It is now December 2014 and I have finally read the Metaxas book. I’d previously borrowed it from the public library but returned it unread when it became due. But recently I came across a Bonhoeffer quote which was helpful to me (p. 244 of Ethics):

when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it ... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.

Not yet having access to the latter volume, I remembered the Metaxas book, and this time I read it.

What can I say? I think the popularity of the book is undeserved. I can not speak to the presentation of Bonhoeffer’s theology, not yet knowing anything about it, but other aspects of the book that I do know something about led me to my conclusion.

• Metaxas is a good stylist. A couple of examples:

But the welter of wonderfulness that was their heritage seems to have been a boon, one that bouyed them up so that each child seems not only to have stood on the shoulders of giants but also to have danced on them. (p. 8).

Starving from the skim milk at Union, ... (p. 108)

... the German people found themselves far from shore, alone in a boat with a madman. (p. 233).

But methinks Metaxas is too much in love with his own sentences. Like a pretty face not backed by substance, the elegant and just-so wording soon became tiring.

I especially don’t like all the different and inventive ways of saying that the Nazi leaders like Himmler, Heydrich, etc. were evil, and others in the Reichskirche were bad, foolish, or incompetent. Name-calling is unbecoming in a serious text, and name-calling isn’t an appropriate way to write about such people.

• The book is grossly lacking in providing the historical background of the Christian church in Germany. Especially for a North American readership, it needs to be said that in Germany there wasn’t a tradition of separation of church and state. Moreover, when Germany first became unified after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871 it was a conglomeration of multiple kingdoms, princedoms, regions, etc., each with its own unique church and religious tradition and each church tied closely to its state.

Only with this background can one understand that the people in the Reichskirche who cooperated with the Nazis or were co-opted by the Nazis, were not necessarily evil or naive.

• The book is too skimpy on the part played by the Catholic church in the Kirchenkampf.

• I wish there was some explanation, some indication of how Bonhoeffer came to be an first-rate theologian. In the book, we read of Bonhoeffer’s childhood and then seemingly out of the blue he became an outstanding theologian, completing his dissertation in 18 months despite a staggering workload, all the while attending operas, concerts, art exhibitions, etc. (p. 63).

(continued ...)

Roger Hui

Anonymous said...

(... continued)

Now, about that “howler” that mentioned in your review and in other reviews that I’ve read, viz., “Bonn is in Switzerland”. That is indeed a howler if Metaxas had intended it. However, there are other, more charitable, more sympathetic, possible explanations. The passage in question is (p. 119):

..., but even that couldn’t compete with what awaited Bonhoeffer in Switzerland. Erwin Sutz had arranged to introduce him to Karl Barth.

Bonhoeffer left for Bonn on July 10. Not surprisingly his first impressions of the great theologian was favorable. ...

So Metaxas never wrote that Bonn was in Switzerland. Certainly a straightforward reading implies that Barth was in Bonn and since Barth was also in Switzerland, a straightforward reading would imply that Bonn was in Switzerland. However, perhaps the passage was clumsily worded. Or perhaps Bonhoeffer went to Switzerland by way of Bonn.

There was another gross factual error mentioned in another review. The book described the transatlantic liner Columbus as a 33-ton ship (p. 96). You don’t have to know anything about theology or history to know that that is wrong by at least two orders of magnitude.

Finally, I disagree with your recommendation. If you really know nothing of Bonhoeffer, then you should not read this book, because it gives you a misleading picture. More importantly, you should not read this book because who knows what parts can be trusted and what parts not. If you really know nothing of Bonhoeffer, you can get a pretty good overview from Wikipedia, both the entry on Bonhoeffer himself and the entries linked to it.

Roger Hui