Biographies are a gift to us. We get to enter into the life and world of those who preceded us to learn from their strengths and weaknesses. This is why biographies of people who are still living are of very little use to us. They aren’t finished running their race and we don’t have the perspective to step back and learn from them yet. Good biography teaches us, challenges us, and warns us.
My goal is to read a biography every year in January and to begin the year with a good challenge from the past. This year I worked through Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Coming of age during the years of the Weimar Republic, he worked mainly as a pastor and theologian until his execution at the hands of the Nazis in April 1945. Hitler’s regime put him to death for the crime of treason for his role in an attempt to assassinate history’s most vicious villain.
The plan for January was to read one chapter of Bonhoeffer each day in the month of January, finishing the thirty-one chapters on the last day of the month. The quality of Metaxas’ writing and the compelling nature of the story makes reading that slowly impossible. The narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life gripped me in ways that a book has not done in a long time. The book proved difficult to put down because of both Bonhoeffer’s life and the incredible events which took place in the country of his birth.
It is appropriate to acknowledge that the scholarly community has some difficulties with Metaxas’ presentation of Bonhoeffer’s life. Tim Challies summarizes the controversy here. In short, those who study Bonhoeffer’s work believe Metaxas made Bonhoeffer sound like a contemporary American evangelical in his theology. Bonhoeffer was schooled in Germany during a time when the critical method of biblical scholarship was in its heyday. Bonhoeffer also admired the work of Karl Barth. While Barth critiqued the critical method and liberal theology flowing from it, his theology was far from that which characterizes American evangelicalism. In spite of these difficulties, Bonhoeffer remains one of the best two or three biographies I have ever read. (George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life and Iain Murray’s biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones are my two other favorites.)
Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer as a man of deep theological conviction who was driven by a passion for God’s truth and by the understanding that the church was one people made up of many nations. He delivered an address critiquing the Fuhrer principle just days after the election of Adolf Hitler. (No one could have predicted what Hitler would become at that point, but he showed himself willing to march out of step with the prevailing culture around him.)When most of the German church incorporated nationalism into their theology, he refused to go along with the status quo. While we are uneasy with Bonhoeffer’s decision to take part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, we can see why he felt he could do so in good conscience. He did so out of a commitment to the common good, knowing the terror that Hitler was unleashing on the Jewish people and on all who stood in the way of his thirst for power.
Metaxas also shows Bonhoeffer as a man of deep compassion. Contemplation and prayer marked his devotional life. He taught Confessing Church seminary students to meditate on God’s word and led them in frequent prayer and worship together. Few people wanted to teach confirmation classes to young rowdy men in economically depressed areas of Berlin. Bonhoeffer took on this task with zeal and worked tirelessly to teach and train these boys. His letters to friends show his care and concern both fort them and for their spiritual well-being. Even his part in the conspiracy was motivated by love. He saw suffering and believed that taking out Hitler would help alleviate it.
I highly recommend Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’ writing is clear and compelling. The story of Bonhoeffer’s life causes the reader to keep turning pages even when he should probably be in bed. The story is engrossing and will challenge the reader in areas of courage, conviction, compassion, love, and truth.
(You can read more book reviews and notes here.)