My Thoughts on “Bonhoeffer” by Metaxas

I finally got around to reading Eric Metaxas’ highly publicized biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I wasn’t going to read it for two reasons: 1) because I don’t usually read biographies of theologians whose works I’ve read extensively, and 2) because I was completely annoyed with Glenn Beck and Eric Metaxas’ discussion of Bonhoeffer where they treated him like an American, patriotic, conservative evangelical.  I didn’t want to read a book that “Americanized” Bonhoeffer so I put E. Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer on my “to read” list instead of Metaxas’.  Somebody recently gave me Metaxas’ book to read, so I decided to read it after all.

What do I think of it?

Positively, it was well written.  Metaxas is a good writer and uses the English language well.  I also enjoyed the historical side of the book, since I’ve read scores of books that have to do with WWII.  This might sound trivial, but I also liked the size of the chapters – they were just perfect to read in one sitting.  Though the book did drag along at points (it could have been much shorter!) it was arranged in a readable manner.

Negatively, I do believe Metaxas wrongly casts Bonhoeffer as a patriotic evangelical (as I rightly gathered from the above mentioned interview).  After reading this book, one would think Bonhoeffer was a German-speaking blend of John Piper, George Washington, Mike Huckabee, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.  Metaxas describes Bonhoeffer’s youth as an evangelical version of the Von Trap family (in “Sound of Music”) despite the fact that Bonhoeffer’s father was not a Christian and his family rarely went to church.  Bonhoeffer is also portrayed as a prayer warrior who enjoyed quiet times, spiritual disciplines, and exhorted his students to “love Jesus.”

Metaxas also explained Bonhoeffer’s decision to help in a plot to assassinate Hitler as following God’s plan for his life and hearing God’s voice in the matter (phrases used in America today but not in Germany 70 years ago).  In other words, Metaxas uses today’s American evangelical words to describe Bonhoeffer’s life and actions.  This is definitely unhelpful; we can’t call Bonhoeffer a conservative against the liberals as Metaxas does.  This gives us a distorted and simplistic picture of Bonhoeffer.

I’ve read enough of Bonhoeffer to know that though he was an exceptional and gifted man, he wasn’t at all a patriotic evangelical in the way Americans think of those terms.  For two short examples, he was somewhat Barthian (where his Christology, anthropology, and ecclesiology intersect – see parts of his Ethics for example) and he had quibbles with certain aspects of the OT (which show up cryptically in his prison letters).  To get a more balanced and accurate view of Bonhoeffer, I’ll now have to read some other sources that discuss Bonhoeffer’s theology.  I realize it is trendy to quote Bonhoeffer in American evangelicalism, but in quoting him we have to be careful not to pretend he’s evangelical in today’s sense of the term.  We should read Bonhoeffer, but in doing so we should be mindful of his theological background and context.  (The same might be said of C. S. Lewis.)

Another thing worth mentioning is the historical scholarship of the book.  Some historical points Metaxas made sounded inaccurate to me based on my earlier studies of WWII, but I don’t have the time and resources to verify this right now.  Before treating this book as “gospel truth” in the area of history, I’d want to hear what serious WWII historians have to say about it.  On this same note, in his brief section discussing Luther, Metaxas really painted an inaccurate historical/theological picture of the reformer.

In summary, after reading Metaxas’ biography I felt like I had just watched a movie based on a book – you know, where the producers take some liberties in an attempt to make the story more exciting, compelling, or to get an idea out there that wasn’t really in the book.  I usually like those movies, but end up disappointed because they didn’t accurately portray the real story.  That’s my basic thought about the book.  So if you haven’t yet read it and this topic interests you (and if you are up to reading around 600 pages!), I do recommend it with the following caveats: 1) don’t believe everything you read, and 2) read a fair amount of Bonhoeffer himself to get a better picture of the man, and 3) read a biography about Bonhoeffer from a different (i.e. non-American) point of view.

shane lems

7 thoughts on “My Thoughts on “Bonhoeffer” by Metaxas”

  1. Completely agree. Especially disturbing on some of the historiography of Luther, which then makes you wonder about his methods elsewhere.

    I wondered your take on two things Shane (and it was early summer when I read it, so I may be forgetting a bit):
    First, I came away with Bonhoeffer as this Machen-like figure during Bonhoeffer’s sojourn in American academia. It was really interesting to get his critique of American theological system, but there were times where I felt it was getting really close to a Machen-esque description. Did you see any of that?

    Also in the American sojourn, Bon’s relation and view of the Black church. What did you think about how (from my read at least) it was clearly the evil, white liberals vs. the “negro,” conservative Southern black churches? How Metaxas then tied race in America with antisemitism in Germany left me wondering. I was half expecting an excursus on race then and homosexuality now.

    Reactions? Thanks for the review!

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    1. Thanks, Brian, for the comments – Amen on the Luther note.

      1) I’d say that Bonhoeffer should be compared to Machen only in the broad sense that Barth can be compared to Machen. That is, both Barth and Machen reacted strongly against 19th century liberalism, but from very different perspectives. I’d put Bonhoeffer with Barth, not with Machen. Metaxas messes this all up by putting Bonhoeffer with the early 20th century fundamentalists in the US. That’s just odd; it’s not as if there were simply two “parties” involved.

      2) Yes, the second issue you pointed out was confusing to me as well. I knew that Metaxas had a conservative political ax to grind, so I’m not sure how to handle his take on Bonhoeffer’s view of African American spirituality. Probably if we’d know Metaxas’ specific views of race and politics we’d see where he put Bonhoeffer – close to his own views, no doubt! I also wonder if his notes that the Nazis didn’t mind homosexuality was an implication that people today who don’t mind homosexuality are like the Nazis (I’ve heard that tossed around in the political arena!).

      Again, I think a major and substantial critique of this biography is that it is terribly simplistic.

      I also forgot to mention above that the term “hagiography” came to mind after reading Metaxas’ book.

      Comments?
      shane

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  2. Shane,

    I liked the book better than you, but your criticisms are valid. I’ve read a good deal of Bonhoeffer, and yes, trying to cast him as a proto-evangelical conservative Republican is ridiculous. I suspect Bonhoeffer would have little use for a character such as Glenn Beck.

    My hope for Metaxas’ book is that it’s popularity will encourage people to read Bonhoeffer for themselves. He has much to say to the 21st century American church.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    I do hope, Stephen, that this book does what you said: cause people to read Bonhoeffer for themselves. That would be great. At the same time, I’m guessing it will make quite a few people think wrongly of Bonhoeffer.

    Additional note: I saw that Metaxas’ bibliography was quite limited – specifically limited to English sources. I’d be skeptical to use this book as a scholarly resource for Bonhoeffer studies based on this fact.

    Thanks again,
    shane

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  4. I have been a fan of Bonhoeffer for quite some time and was really eager to read this biography. When I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer (grade school), I idealized him as a war hero (who was a Christian) having no clue about the struggle against Scripture such a position would be in practicality. Later, as I read some of his work in my ‘Young, Restless, Reformed’ stage, I really clung to his critique of modern Christianity (since railing against the standard was trendy) while rejecting what was not ‘evangelical/baptist’ (i.e. Lutheran) As I have grown in my knowledge and understanding of Reformed Faith, understanding him in his context and not mine, I have come to value many things about Bonhoeffer. This is the value of primary source…if you want to know something, go to the source.

    While I enjoyed the biography, your critiques are spot on. I appreciated the level of letters that were in the biography because the helped with understanding where he was when he wrote certain works. However, Metaxas is certainly guilty of treading the line of historical accuracy and embellishment. While the book may be a useful tool to introduce people to Bonhoeffer, I fear that it might serve more to create a false understanding of Bonhoeffer and lead to a idealization of which I was guilty of in my youth. If I recommended this to someone who was not familiar with Bonhoeffer, I would certainly suggest that they read a good handful of his works first.

    Thanks for the review!
    Jacob

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