In an era in which the evangelical church in America has seemingly lost its prophetic voice and has instead substituted a gospel of self-actualization, acclaimed biographer Eric Metaxas (Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery [San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007]) has written a new and important biography of one of the most respected and yet controversial figures of the twentieth century, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’s plan for the book seems simple enough—to introduce Bonhoeffer to a general audience in an engaging manner. Metaxas of course cannot ignore Bonhoeffer’s thought or historical context, but these more challenging elements of Bonhoeffer are not his primary focus. Rather, as the subtitle suggests, Metaxas tries to chronicle the events of Bonhoeffer’s life in a detailed fashion.
Such an approach of course brings limitations, and one in particular stands out. The work seems to lack a central thesis—some driving focus—beyond the goal of merely popularizing Bonhoeffer’s life and work. What exactly the book adds to the knowledge of Bonhoeffer or of his lasting importance, if not altogether absent, is obscure at best. After nearly six hundred pages one might have hoped for a fresh assessment of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. Then again, perhaps that is what Metaxas has achieved. But that assessment seems flawed—a point revisited below.
Several minor irritations can also be registered, including (1) a bewildering parade of characters that is difficult to sort out and follow, (2) repeated references to geographically obscure places in Germany or present-day Poland [obscure at least to most Americans who are ostensibly the book’s primary audience], and (3) a few editorial quirks, for example, a veritable “insistence” on splitting infinitives and the use of endnotes, and endnotes of the most unhelpful sort (the text proper includes no references signaling these notes, and one is left to guess when some statement or claim is being documented). These problems could be remedied with some editing (which, despite several typos and a few unexplained foreign terms, is well done) and by adding an appendix with a cast of characters and a simple map. More problematic, however, is a flat, one-dimensional portrait of a diabolical Hitler, who serves as a perfect foil for Bonhoeffer. This strikes one as a nice literary touch, but if it is indeed intentional, it stretches one’s credulity. Moreover, on Metaxas’s recounting, one wonders why anyone ever followed Hitler and the Nazis in the first place.
Yet even more troubling is the steady undercurrent of hero worship. Bonhoeffer is what the subtitle Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile suggests, but he is also presented as a sort of Mother Teresa, Atticus Finch, and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled in one. He even performs the duties of a seamstress for derelict boys. Such accounts of sainthood generally do not make for an objective, critical biography. Even the one flaw from which Bonhoeffer did suffer—bouts of mild depression—is a product, one senses, of his unrelenting and superhuman struggle as a pastor, prophet, spy, and ultimately as a martyr.
But perhaps the most troubling concern is the less than accurate portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theology and its philosophical moorings. The ethos created by Metaxas, aided by sidestepping some of Bonhoeffer’s most problematic writings (see e.g., Letters and Papers from Prison, and note pp. 466–67 in the present volume), pictures a devout theologian committed to the evangelical faith (evangelical in the modern American, not German, sense of the word). Bonhoeffer is indeed worthy of admiration and respect—even imitation. But he was hardly a champion of evangelical orthodoxy. In the estimation of most scholars, he was essentially Barthian, and was in fact much closer in outlook to Rudolph Bultmann than he was to J. Gresham Machen. On some scorecards, Bonhoeffer is perhaps even an enemy of the gospel, and his status as an evangelical cult hero is rooted in myth (on the latter point see Richard Weikart, The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical? [San Francisco: International Scholars, 1997]). In short, Bonhoeffer himself seems to have combined a critical, skeptical mind with a pious and spiritually sensitive heart, and Metaxas has focused exclusively on the latter, perhaps as a result, at least partially, of a selective reading of Bonhoeffer.
Yet this is not to assign this book to the trash heap. It is merely to recognize its genre. It is not a critical academic biography; it is a popular and generally reliable recounting of a life from a decidedly positive perspective (as far as the raw factual data goes, Bonhoeffer is basically reliable, but there are a few irregularities, e.g., Metaxas’s claim that the Barmen Declaration repudiated anti-Semitism). As such, it retells the story of one of the giants of the twentieth century and does so with eloquence and passion. In many ways such a work excuses some of the distortion, unless it remakes Bonhoeffer in a deliberate attempt to recruit him as a theological or political ally. Unfortunately as Stephen Haynes and Lori Hale indicate, this has been an all too common problem with Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians [Louisville: WJKP, 2009], 141–47). Likewise the absence of a provocative, new thesis is understandable, for Bonhoeffer’s life is thesis enough. To layer it under rigorous historical and theological analysis is in some sense to destroy it—at least as an example of piety and religious devotion.
In the final analysis and the criticisms not withstanding, Metaxas’s work is worth reading for at least two reasons. First, Bonhoeffer’s story is worth telling afresh. There are painful lessons to be learned about faith, discipleship, and sacrifice. And the example afforded by Bonhoeffer may yet, to borrow a Metaxian figure of speech (p. 348), lend the church a vertebra in its struggle for radical and courageous obedience. Second is the engaging way in which the story is presented. Metaxas is a gifted writer and Bonhoeffer showcases his considerable skills well. In sum, Bonhoeffer, although not without problems, is a welcome volume as long as the audience is well informed and discerning. But therein lies the problem; Bonhoeffer seems aimed at an audience without sufficient grounding for such a reading. This is unfortunate, for Metaxas has recounted with power and reverence the example and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One could only wish that Metaxas had given a more complete and unbiased evangelical assessment of Bonhoeffer. Fortunately this void has been filled at least partially by others, including Steven R. Haynes (The Bonhoeffer Phenomena: Portraits of a Protestant Saint [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004]) and Joel Lawrence (Bonhoeffer: A Guide for the Perplexed [London: Clark, 2010]). In the end Bonhoeffer is an important work, for not only has it made Bonhoeffer more accessible, but also it seems to have naively ensconced him in the pantheon of evangelical heroes between Louis Berkhof and F. F. Bruce.
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