Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

bonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer is one of those names I’ve heard for years but never really knew anything about, so when Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas came up for sale at a good price on both Audible.com and Amazon’s Kindle store, it looked like a good time to learn more about him. (The Kindle price has gone back up but at this writing the audiobook at Audible is just $3.99.  The narrative parts were easy to listen to, but the philosophical parts were harder for me to grasp just by listening, so I was glad to have the Kindle version with which to read and ponder more slowly.)

I finished this book back in the fall, but noted so many places in it that even beginning a review by looking back at those notes was daunting. The book itself is some 600+ pages. So I finally decided that I wouldn’t summarize the book or his life except to say that he was a German Lutheran minister who helped to found what was called the Confessing Church, who opposed Hitler to the point of participating in the conspiracy to assassinate him, who was executed because of his part in that plot, and whose theology has been argued about ever since. You can find many further summations online (Wikipedia’s article on Bonhoeffer is a nice one). I’m just going to share some of my own impressions and things I liked and didn’t like.

I was intrigued by the family discussions he grew up with. His mother was a Christian, but his father, Karl, was not, yet his father “respected his wife’s tutelage of the children in this and lent his tacit approval of it” and attended the family religious activities, though the family did not attend church. Karl Bonhoeffer was a psychiatrist and “taught his children to speak only when they had something to say. He did not tolerate sloppiness of expression any more than he tolerated self-pity or selfishness or boastful pride.” He also wanted his children to keep their emotions under control, feeling that “Emotionalism, like sloppy communication, was thought to be self-indulgent.” He had a strong dislike of cliches and didn’t allow his children to use them, which puzzled me at first until I understood that he wanted his children to think for themselves rather than just parroting catch-phrases. These all worked together to cause his children to be razor-sharp thinkers.

Some followed their mother, some their father. When Dietrich announced at age 14 that he was going to be a theologian, his lawyer brother questioned his choice and called the church a “‘poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ ‘In that case,’ said Dietrich, ‘I shall have to reform it.'”

I liked that spirit about him, which led him to start the Confessing Church when the German Christians began to let themselves be Hitler’s puppets. He wasn’t one to sit back and grouse about issues when he could take action. On the other hand, that spirit is probably part of what led him into the conspiracy against Hitler.

I can understand the problems with Hitler’s regime and atrocities and the feeling that this could not be allowed to continue. I can condone a staging a coup to take him down. I can appreciate the difficulties in doing so because Hitler’s popularity with the public was at a high by the time his generals knew what was going on behind the scenes and knew that something must be done. They tried to limit him before WWII began and failed, and by that time any movement against him would have been at the peril of their own lives. I wrestle with whether an assassination attempt was the right response. With some of the conflicts in the world in my lifetime, I’ve often wondered whether taking out the one guy at the head of the trouble would be a better recourse that having multitudes die in a war, and I have always been glad that I wasn’t the one who had to make such decisions. So I can appreciate the moral wrestlings people of conscience would have had in that day, yet I still have trouble with a professing Christian pastor conspiring to have a leader killed, especially in light of the kind of political leadership Paul was under when he wrote in his epistles about what a Christian’s stance should be under it: he didn’t say anything about attacking those in charge or taking them out. Even though Bonhoeffer wasn’t the one pulling the trigger or planting bombs personally, he said that to aid as he did he’d have to be willing for such. “If necessary, he would be willing to kill Hitler…Bonhoeffer had to be clear that he was not assisting in the fulfillment of a deed he was unwilling to do” (p. 388, Kindle version).

I can’t really regard him as a martyr: he was persecuted for his faith, in being cut off from preaching, teaching, and writing, but he was executed for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler, not for his faith (unless you believe, as Metaxas evidently does, that his faith was what drove him to be a part of that plot).

I do appreciate his integrity in realizing that any action of this kind he took had to be his action alone and not something he could lead the church into. I also appreciated his testimony of unfailing kindness while imprisoned.

I am confused about his theology: some statements he made in the book I liked and agreed with, like the difference between cheap grace and costly grace, but some had me scratching my head. Evidently I am not the only one, because in a few articles I have read since finishing the book, there are some who argue over whether he was conservative or liberal and what his views were on various important doctrines. I was confused, too, at how he could discern problems with wrong theology yet still align himself churches that taught wrong theology.

I really disagreed with him here:

Bonhoeffer knew that to live in fear of “guilt” was itself sinful. God wanted His beloved children to operate out of freedom and joy and to do what was right and good, not out of fear of making a mistake. To live in fear and guilt was to be “religious” in the pejorative sense that [he] often talked and preached about. He knew that to act freely could mean inadvertently doing wrong and incurring guilt. In fact, he felt that living this way meant that it was impossible to avoid incurring guilt, but if one was wished to live responsibly and fully, one would be willing to do so (p. 424-425K).

Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life and answer to the question and call of God (pp. 445-446K).

God…demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and…promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture…one must sacrifice oneself utterly to God’s purposes, even to the point of possibly making moral mistakes (p. 446).

I do agree Christians should operate out of love for God rather than a neurotic fear of misstepping, but I don’t thing “freedom in Christ” precludes walking circumspectly or working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I don’t honestly think Bonhoeffer would say that, either, but there is a balance there and statements like these seem to lean too far one way. I can understand being willing to sacrifice reputation (as Mary, Jesus’s mother did), but I don’t see that God calls us to sacrifice virtue, when He is the one who has called us to virtue, and to sacrifice oneself to Him to the point of making moral mistakes seems incongruous.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book, particularly  about how Hitler came to power. I had always wondered how such a man could have been elected to leadership or not deposed at some point. I don’t know where I was during some of my history lessons, but I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Germany was quite unhappy with their lot after WWI, and part of what brought Hitler to glory was his reclaiming some of the territory Germany had lost. Then he staged certain events or recast them to the public to make it look like he had no choice but to take certain actions. It was also fascinating how he somehow escaped so many assassination attempts on his life.

I was perturbed by some aspects of Metaxas’s writing. He seemed to assume the reader knew certain aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life already and would refer to them way beforehand, plus he would mention someone and say something like “In 20 years he will be the person who does such and such.” I know a biography is a different genre than a novel or story, but some story-telling techniques can make it more interesting (and not ruin the suspense by spilling the beans too soon). He seemed to feel as if Bonhoeffer could do not wrong except that he sometimes “spoke hyperbolically, for effect, and sometimes it backfired” (p. 364K). He also got a little carried away sometimes with sentences like, “Behold, that unpredictable magus, Adolph Hitler, would now with a flourish produce from his hindquarters a withered olive branch and wave it before the goggling world” (p. 356K) and, commenting on Hitler’s atrocious table manners, “the famously vegetarian Reichsfuhrer indecorously bolted his meatless mush.”

Some of the articles I found online that discussed Bonhoeffer or disagreed with much of what Metaxas wrote are:

Hijacking Bonhoeffer.
Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique.
Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work (a second article titled Bonhoeffer and the Scriptures is underneath the end notes of the first article).
So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers.

I don’t feel so bad about my confusion of where Bonhoeffer stands if even the experts don’t agree on it. 🙂 But there are enough quotes of his dismissing certain core doctrines that I wouldn’t call him an evangelical (in Hijacking Bonhoeffer, the author makes the argument that Mataxas painted Bonhoeffer as much more conservative than he was to make him more appealing to conservatives, therefore “highjacking” him from the liberals who claim him as their own.)

So…I’m glad to have read the book, particularly for the historical aspect but also to get something of a window into who Bonhoeffer was, though the window itself may not have been the clearest, according to these other sources.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

  1. I am so impressed by your temerity in reading so many HUGE books (I’m thinking of this one, and Les Mis too). That is a real time commitment, as well as commitment of intellect. I really enjoyed your review of this book. It’s one I’ve thought looked interesting, but I’ve been intimidated by the length. As most that I’ve heard about Bonhoeffer is totally adoring, it’s interesting to hear a few not-so-perfect things about him. He was human, after all. Whew — those sentences you quoted! Man! How did the author get away with writing like that? And I agree about Hitler. Really, it’s unbelievable how many lives he seemed to have. He got away with so much, sadly … yet I know what you mean. I, too, would not feel right as a Christian killing him.

  2. I read a good bit of this one and then lost my Kindle. By the time my husband found my Kindle, I had lost my momentum. I didn’t realize, really, that Bonhoeffer is a controversial character. Hmmm. Lots of food for thought here.

    • According to some of the articles, some of his writings question some core doctrines like the virgin birth and regard the resurrection as a myth. I thought it odd that Metaxas didn’t go into those things.

  3. I read this book prior to its release (and loved it) but didn’t have the benefit of reading other (more educated) reviews/opinions discussing the book. I have heard that it might not be the best Bonhoeffer source…but I do still think it’s a good one. I loved the read, personally. I found it baffling though to understand some of his decisions and positions on things. He was a very complex man, I think. But that makes for fascinating studies!

  4. Another book I’ve wondered if I could read. I’ve been drawn to it but it’s size nd style of writing have scared me off. Maybe I’ll tackle it once I’ve gotten through my book pile a bit.

  5. Pingback: What’s On Your Nightstand: January 2014 | Stray Thoughts

  6. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: January 25, 2014 | Semicolon

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