Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, 591 pages, $29.99
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. ” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Bonhoeffer faced a church that had bowed its knee to the reigning culture, but we’re facing that today as well. The situation that compelled Bonhoeffer and the other Confessing Church leaders to draft the Barmen Declaration in the 1930s is not so terribly different from the current situation that has compelled Christian leaders to draft the Manhattan Declaration. ” Eric Metaxas
Biographies matter because they teach through the lives of others. Done well, they inform and entertain. Done very well, they can inspire. And, sometimes, at the hands of an author of real passion and talent, they can change the way we think about ourselves and our times. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, is just such a book. Eric Metaxas has created a biography of uncommon power: intelligent, moving, well researched, vividly written and rich in implication for our own lives. Or, to put it another way: Buy this book. Read it. Then buy another copy and give it to a person you love. It’s that good.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the sort of compelling figure from the past many people know something about, but few take the time to fully understand. One of eight children from a distinguished German family, he was a man of high intellect and social class who chose practical Lutheran ministry over a promising university career. Repelled by Nazi thuggery, he was appalled by the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews. He was equally disgusted by the collaboration and cowardice of mainline German Christians, and helped found a “Confessing Church” of resisting, faithful Christians critical of the regime. A pacifist by preference, Bonhoeffer nonetheless joined the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. He eventually was arrested and was hanged in Flossenburg prison camp in April 1945, just two weeks before the camp’s liberation by American troops.
Bonhoeffer was thirty-nine when he died. He already had written two small volumes that have become modern Christian classics—Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship—and a collection of notes that were edited after his death by his friend Eberhard Bethge and published as Ethics.
As Metaxas shows, Bonhoeffer’s actions cannot be appreciated outside the zealous Christian faith that animated him. In an age of arid theology and practical unbelief, even among many self-described Christians, Bonhoeffer committed himself to live what he claimed to believe. He saw Scripture as the restless but reliable word of God—a word that demands not only intellectual assent but also obedience of heart and submission of will in lives of active service. He had a passion for Jesus Christ and a deeply evangelical faith shaped by the Lutheran tradition. This makes him a rather awkward hero for modern secularizers who fail to read the Bonhoeffer fine print—especially when he speaks, with inconvenient Christian clarity, about the nature of marriage, family, and euthanasia and abortion, which he bluntly described as “murder.” For Bonhoeffer, faith had consequences for the entire range of human behavior, and he took an intensely allergic view of inappropriate Christian compromises with the world. He could see, firsthand in Germany, where such compromises led.
Bonhoeffer came to the United States in 1930-1931 to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He returned again, briefly, in 1939. His thoughts about the country make useful reading. He noted that the American Revolution had been “fundamentally different” from the French Revolution, with a federal Constitution rooted in a sense of original sin. As a result, “American democracy is founded not on humanity or the dignity of man, but on the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly power [emphasis in the original].” The energy, pragmatism, and social consciousness of American Christianity deeply impressed him. So did his experience of black Christian worship.
But Bonhoeffer was baffled by America’s “Protestantism without Reformation”—by what he saw as its intellectual shallowness, its disconnection from the great struggles of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and its disinterest in matters of creed. For Bonhoeffer, the same qualities that made American Christianity strong also made it prone to a unique kind of practical secularizing. Seventy years later, it’s hard to argue with his verdict.
Bonhoeffer was a faithful son of the Lutheran Reformation, writing thirty years before Vatican II. Catholic readers of his work sometimes will find themselves puzzled or irritated by his perceptions of Catholic life or disagreeing with his theology or his version of historical events. But Bonhoeffer was scrupulous in his respect for all sincere believers, and, as Eberhard Bethge once observed, he had a lifelong interest in things Catholic marked by “critical affection and affectionate criticism.” The work of the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos deeply attracted him, especially the novel The Diary of a Country Priest. Bonhoeffer also longed for a more robust sense of “Church,” which Catholics had and many Lutherans seemed to have lost. More than six decades after his death, nearly all of Bonhoeffer’s work still speaks, simply and powerfully, to every searching Christian heart.
We live in a time when freedom of religion, the rights of conscience, and the integrity of Christian life and witness are once again slowly weakening. History never repeats itself. But patterns of human thought and behavior, good and evil, heroism and barbarism repeat themselves all the time. Eric Metaxas has written an extraordinary book that not only brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his times, and his witness vividly alive but also leaves us yearning to find the same moral character in ourselves. No biographer can achieve anything higher.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Denver.