Who doesn’t know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45)? The story of his arrest and execution by the Nazis (days before the war’s end) and his posthumous career as perhaps the most credible and exciting Christian theologian of the 20th century (seen especially in The Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers From Prison and the unfinished Ethics) has been told and retold. The definitive biography is still that by Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge (1,084 pages in the 2000 paperback edition); but shorter, readable tours of the man and his work are still welcome, and Eric Metaxas certainly makes an engaging guide.
Best known for Amazing Grace (2007), his fine life of William Wilberforce, Metaxas is that rare creature, a sophisticated “inspirational” journalist; and newcomers to Bonhoeffer will find much to like here. Above all, there are the many generous quotations from the diaries, correspondence and sermons of a man who was at once a class-conscious Prussian aristocrat, a fierce egalitarian, a boyish charmer, a highly gifted musician, a tender lover (of the young Maria von Wedemyer, whom he never got to marry), a thinker both innovative and conservative and a fearless teller of the truth. Bonhoeffer had a way of saying things that immediately cleared the air. When someone suggested that he join the Nazi-run “German Christians” church to fight against the regime from within, Bonhoeffer replied: “If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running down the corridor in the opposite direction.” And he advised his compatriots who wanted to carry on religious business-as-usual amid the Final Solution: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
So far, so good. Unfortunately, Metaxas is not content with putting his star on center stage and letting him do his thing. Like Glenn Gould, with his habit of humming along to Bach keyboard pieces, Metaxas feels impelled to keep adding enthusiastic paraphrases to Bonhoeffer’s already eloquent words. Thus, after he cites a passage from a letter to Maria von Wedemeyer justifying their “desire for earthly bliss,” he amplifies as follows:
Bonhoeffer was trying to reclaim everything for God.... He was saying that it’s not just some “religious” part of this marriage that is important, but the whole thing. The freedom to choose a mate is a gift from God, who created us in his image. And the “desire for earthly bliss” is not something we steal from behind God’s back, but is something he has desired that we should desire. We mustn’t separate that part of life and marriage from God, either by trying to hide it from him as belonging to us alone or by trying to destroy it altogether through a false piety that denies its existence.
Well sure, but the careful reader will hardly need that scholion to get Bonhoeffer’s message.
A second quirk of Metaxas, though sometimes an amusing one, is his effort to jazz up his account of the Third Reich with snappy, even startling, expressions. He describes SS-Obegruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich as an “albino stoat” and a “piscine ghoul.” He attacks the “fumfering inaction of the German army officer corps”: “In time the bloodthirsty devils with whom they were playing pattycake would strangle them with the guts of their quaint scruples.” On the other hand, if the generals’ anti-Hitler putsch succeeded, “the former Viennese vagrant might be given the bum’s rush at any moment.” Metaxas also makes some sloppy mistakes with foreign terms (e.g., repeatedly citing “Gleischaltung” for Gleichschaltung, the crucial Nazi code-word for “standardization,” or totalitarian takeover of society). But he’s not writing academic history, so it’s no big deal.
Finally, we have the knotty—and probably unanswerable—question of where Bonhoeffer was headed with his controversial “religionless Christianity.” He argued:
The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mk 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Mt 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Is this just streamlined Protestantism, faith stripped of all-too-human institutional crutches and dodges, a vision born from Bonhoeffer’s experience of the ways German Christendom compromised with, and surrendered to, Hitler? Or does it look toward a more radical direction, if not to the weird acrobatics of the death-of-God theologians, at least to some kind of post-Christian landscape? Metaxas firmly rejects the latter option; but even if he is right, the dispute shows how Bonhoeffer’s work still carries weight across a broad spectrum of belief and doubt.
And undergirding it all is the unforgettable tale of Bonhoeffer’s return to Nazi Germany when he could have saved his skin by staying on in either America or Britain, of his serving in the Abwehr (military intelligence) while plotting the overthrow of Hitler, of his imprisonment and hanging. One cannot help wondering whether the war might not have come to a quicker end if Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators—many of them Prussian bluebloods like himself—had been as far-sighted as he was in spotting the intrinsic evil of Nazism and as determined to risk everything to attack it. But of course they were not, and they paid the penalty for their fastidious delays and ineptitude.
Tragic might-have-beens aside, Bonhoeffer’s achievement burns as brightly as ever and should get a still wider audience, thanks to Metaxas’s warm-hearted, lively chronicle.