A short while ago, here on this blog, I posted a few fairly critical comments of Eric Metaxas’ bibliography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HERE and HERE). My main criticism of Metaxas’ work is that it casts Bonhoeffer in an American, conservative, patriotic, evangelical mold. A secondary critique I have is that Metaxas isn’t exactly accurate in the realm of history. For example, Bonhoeffer wasn’t really a martyr for the Christian faith (though he was a brave, principled Christian who sought to live out his convictions consistently). For another example, Metaxas used modern American evangelical language to explain Bonhoeffer’s ministry and theology, which leads to several anachronisms. Anyway, if you haven’t read my earlier posts, click those links above for more info.
The point of this post is to recommend Eberhard Bethge’s bibliography (pictured above). Eberhard Bethge (d. 2000) was a close friend and former student of Bonhoeffer. In fact, if you’ve read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison you can read fascinating letters the two wrote to one another while Bonhoeffer was in German prisons. Bethge edited and published Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison, six volumes of Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works, and worked to ensure publication of many other things Bonhoeffer wrote. Eberhard Bethge is certainly a man who was more than qualified to write the definitive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The book, like most biographies, simply traces Bonhoeffer’s life chronologically (starting in Berslau, 1906). Bethge discussed in detail Bonhoeffer’s roots, including his German ancestors and bloodline. He traced through the student years of Bonhoeffer, from 1923 to 1927. I especially appreciated how Bethge described Bonhoeffer’s years in the pastorate as well as his many travels (in and out of Germany). The book is very detailed, but the English translation (by Eric Mosbacker, re-edited by Victoria Barnett) is not too difficult to read. The details about Bonhoeffer’s final weeks, moving from one prison to the next, is especially fascinating and written without embellishment.
Here are a few reasons why I liked Bethge’s book much better than Metaxas’: 1) Bethge didn’t spend time weaving a love story through the last part of Bonhoeffer’s life. Metaxas’ emphasis on Maria in the story seemed to be played up a bit too much. Granted, Maria was part of Bonhoeffer’s life, but only for a very short time. 2) Bethge didn’t try to make Bonhoeffer a saint. He was willing to point out flaws and errors of Bonhoeffer and explain how quite a few others worked just as hard in the resistance as Bonhoeffer, whereas Metaxas made Bonhoeffer into an Athanasius (contra mundum) type of figure. 3) Bethge spelled out the nuances between the state and free (confessing) church (for example the Synods of Barmen and Dahlem) while Metaxas seemed to make things too black and white. 4) Bethge’s descriptions of Bonhoeffer’s theology were much more accurate than Metaxas’. Bethge helpfully explained how, why, and when Barth’s theology influenced Bonhoeffer and which parts Bonhoeffer rejected (and on what grounds he rejected them). 5) Bethge’s explanation of Bonhoeffer’s major turning points were much more descriptive than Metaxas’. Metaxas made these turning points sound like the course every good patriotic Christian would take, while Bethge explained how Bonhoeffer and others felt about these turning points (not everyone agreed that Bonhoeffer did the most “Christian” thing – and Bonhoeffer even questioned himself at times).
Anyway, I could go on. The main point is that Bethge’s account is much more nuanced and accurate. My recommendation is this: if you’ve read Metaxas’ book, view it like a good and fairly accurate Hollywood movie about a historical event (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume actually exists). In other words, Metaxas’ book has a lot of merits, and is pretty accurate, but written from a the standpoint of an American evangelical patriot and contains some historical flaws. I wouldn’t recommend using Metaxas’ book for any scholarly work on Bonhoeffer. You’ll need Bethge for that. If you’re interested in a more accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, get Bethge.
Finally, if you haven’t read Metaxas’ book, bypass it and purchase Bethge’s instead. Granted, it costs a few dollars more and is about 200 pages longer (at a whopping 900+ pages!), but for the sake of intelligent, fair, and accurate history and theology, go with the German expert rather than the American evangelical patriot.
By the way, if you’ve read both of these books, I’d love your comments here.