Bonhoeffer by Metaxas: A Review (2011)

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (NOTE: This is a repost from October, 2011).

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 popular 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 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

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One comment on “Bonhoeffer by Metaxas: A Review (2011)

  1. Laura says:

    This book is one of the next in my “to read” pile! I briefly met Eric Metaxas last year, and he autographed Bonhoeffer for me – so, ya know, I have to read it. I do remember some of these criticisms when the book first came out, and it is good to have a refresher. Thanks.

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