Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” was a book that, to use a cliché, I couldn’t put down. I’d always been interested in what little I knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I was disappointed in what turned out to be a really dreary TV movie about him some years back. But this book, which I grabbed on sale for Kindle a couple of weeks ago, really brings the story alive. It’s thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told, although the source material is so compelling that, before seeing that TV movie, I would have thought it hard to make boring.
Here are the basics, if you’re not familiar. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the giants of theology and religious literature in the 20th Century. He was born to prominent parents in Germany, just after the turn of the century. His father was a respected physician, a man of science, while his mother was the daughter of a chaplain and the granddaughter of a noted theologian. The Bonhoeffer household encouraged debate and discussion, but everyone was challenged to justify their opinions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer applied his father’s keen analytical mind to the issues raised by his mother’s faith. Bonhoeffer was a man of deep personal faith whose theology was rooted in personal and individual obedience to God. He decried what he called “cheap grace” and believed that any true Christian life would be based on radical obedience to God.
He bounced between theology and pastoral work – his mind was drawn to the great issues of Christianity, but he was also compelled to live out his beliefs in service to others. He set up a seminary with an almost monastic lifestyle, so much so that he was wrongly accused of rejecting Lutheran ideas of grace and adopting a faith based on works.
But just as Bonhoeffer was finding his way in the world, his homeland was losing its way. As Adolf Hitler consolidated his power, he cynically used the language of Christianity and appealed to the innate patriotism of Germany’s Christians, still stinging from the international humiliation that followed the Great War, to link allegiance to God and country, with himself as the personification of country. Privately, he and his inner circle were contemptuous of Christianity, but he could not afford to offend the faithful, and much of the German church, to its eternal shame, put patriotism over ideals, refusing to see what was really taking place.
Bonhoeffer, assisted by information from his prominent, well-connected family, was ahead of his countrymen in recognizing Hitler’s evil. He was a key figure in a movement called the “Confessing Church” which tried to set itself up in opposition to the Nazi-sanctioned church, but even many in the Confessing Church continued to believe that Hitler could be reasoned with or that it would be unpatriotic to risk returning Germany to its helpless post-war state.
Trips abroad, to work at churches in Spain and England, and to study in the U.S., exposed Bonhoeffer to ecumenical church leaders (and exposed them to Bonhoeffer). In America, Bonhoeffer was disturbed by the liberal theology of Union Theological Seminary, but found something closer to his own faith in a black church.
He made another trip to America later on – friends arranged a teaching position for him at Union as a way of getting him out of harm’s way at the point when he might have been drafted into the German military. But he had second thoughts, feeling that his place was in his homeland and with his people. He turned around and left the safety of the U.S. to return to Germany.
He wound up as a sort of double agent, leading even some long-time supporters to wonder if he had abandoned his ideals. He worked for the Abwehr, a division of German intelligence in competition with the SS, and also the base for some German officers opposed to Hitler. Supposedly, Bonhoeffer’s ongoing work with pastors was a cover for his intelligence work; in reality, it was the other way around. He became involved in a conspiracy within the German military to assassinate Hitler. (Although Bonhoeffer is not featured in the movie “Valkyrie,” the Valkyrie plot is dealt with in Metaxas’ book, and the events depicted in the movie figure into Bonhoeffer’s story.)
Bonhoeffer, at 36, began pursuing an improbable wartime romance with an 18-year-old, exactly half his age. He seems to have been encouraged in this by the girl’s grandmother, a prominent widow who was one one of his staunchest patrons and supporters. But, soon after their engagement, he was arrested, as details of the assassination conspiracy reached the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer’s faith continued unabated in prison. What he thought would be a short imprisonment drug on, and he was eventually moved to concentration camps, and executed only a few weeks before the end of the war, leaving his family and his fiancée to grieve. (Apparently, the first edition of the book didn’t bother to tell readers what ended up happening to the fiancée, a mistake Metaxas fixed with an afterword in the current edition.)
Those are just the high points, though. As with “Citizen Kane,” which begins by summarizing its entire plot and giving away the main character’s ultimate fate, the real story is not in the high points but in how they play out.
Some biographies are more detached than others, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Metaxas definitely wears his heart on his sleeve. He seems to find a different colorfully-insulting description for each new Nazi mentioned in the book, as if he’s afraid we’re not going to understand that the Nazis are the bad guys and he doesn’t like them. But his points are earned, and this book is highly-recommended.