Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Drinking a fine, aged wine. Hearing one of Chopin's sonatas played by a world class pianist. Seeing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in person. Smelling your favorite home cooked meal cooking on mom's stove after a long time away. These experiences can leave us with a sense of well-being, satisfaction, accomplishment, and sometimes as if we've experienced a small slice of something not quite of this world. Reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas left me with this kind of feeling.

Putting aside the content for a minute, Metaxas' use of the English language in this book is masterful. As someone who enjoys words and the power of language, I was consistently impressed, inspired, and honestly sometimes in awe of the elegance and power of Metaxas' prose. For example, while giving background information on Germany and the German church that shaped Bonhoeffer, Metaxas writes:
"Luther's influence cannot be overestimated. His translation of the Bible into German was cataclysmic. Like a medieval Paul Bunyan, Luther in a single blow shattered the edifice of European Catholicism and in the bargain created the modern German language, which in turn effectively created the German people. Christendom was cleft in twain, and out of the earth beside it sprang the Deutsche Volk" (p. 20).
Writing like this inspires me. It is a pleasure to read something of significance in both subject and style.

From a biographical standpoint, Bonhoeffer is on par with greats such as John Adams by David McCullough or The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. Everyone is shaped by his/her environment to varying degrees, therefore any good biography will include information not just about the subject, but about the people and events that helped shape him/her as well. There is a fine line between giving too much information and too little; it is also sometimes difficult to filter through the vast amounts of information and present only those people/events of importance. Metaxas walks this line perfectly throughout most of Bonhoeffer. The early family history is a little heavy, but every other area is given just enough attention to better appreciate Bonhoeffer's life.

Bonhoeffer was shaped by his family and world events more than the average person; without being raised in such an extraordinary family and intellectually rich and diverse environment, Bonhoeffer would never have been able to walk the tight rope he walked so effectively in many areas. His incredibly nuanced thinking allowed him to maintain positions many found untenable. This was not due to clever mental gymnastics in order to justify whatever it was he wanted; instead, it was an ability to understand and consider ever conceivable side of an issue in such an effective way that his reasoning was always intellectually sound. In truth, though he was quite capable of such mental exercises, his view of the life and duty of a Christian would never allow him to go such a route. In a letter to a brother-in-law he once wrote,
"If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands" (p. 137).
Metaxas helps the reader understand how such nuanced, yet at the same time disciplined, thinking was possible for Bonhoeffer, with his thorough description of the environment that shaped Bonhoeffer growing up. The description of his environment, and the environment itself, is so rich that after reading the first few chapters, the reader almost feels as though he/she has visited the house in Berlin's Grunewald district that was always full of music, people, culture, and intellectually stimulating discussion.

There is enough written in Bonhoeffer about the German people, their history, and psyche that those who are interested in Germany or the German people as a whole from WWI to WWII will also find Bonhoeffer an enjoyable read. History goes to the victor; because of this, many Americans have at least a slightly negative view of all Germans from this era, as if they all knew of and supported everything Hitler was doing. The truth is, many Germans were opposed to and actively fought against Hitler from the beginning; many millions more joined as the atrocities grew and the truth became known. Even the majority of the regular German soldiers fought in support of, and out of loyalty to, the German fatherland, not Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The Nazi party and the German people are not indistinguishable, and Metaxas makes this very clear in Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer will also be of interest to those interested in Christian theology, specifically that of the 20th century. Almost on accident, Bonhoeffer became of the most influential Christian theologians of the 20th century. His writings, some of which were published after his death, are considered classics in the theological cannon, especially Discipleship and Life Together. Life Together, Bonhoeffer's thoughts on Christian community, continues to be one of the definitive works on the subject.

Metaxas shows that one reason Bonhoeffer's theological thought is so influential, is because it was grounded in the practice of daily life. Though Bonhoeffer was brilliant and seemed almost destined to a life of academia, he purposely chose to become a pastor instead. Not only did Bonhoeffer view living in Christian community as an integral part of Christian life, but as Metaxas says,
"He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one's whole life in obedience to God's call through action" (p. 446).
All of this action was based on a very conservative theological outlook. In a letter to one of his brothers-in-law, Bonhoeffer wrote,
"I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself " (p. 136).
Of learning to read the Bible this way, he goes on to say, "I know that without this I could not live properly any longer" (p. 137).

This devotion to and grounding in God's Word is one of the things that made him a committed pastor even to the very end of his life. Hugh Falconer, a fellow prisoner of war during the last few months of Bonhoeffer's life, wrote a letter to one of Bonhoeffer's brothers-in-law in October 1945 and stated that, "[Bonhoeffer] was very happy during the whole time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety." Bonhoeffer never missed an opportunity to encourage those around him. He was a true shepherd to whatever flock he happened to have around him at the time. His friendship was devoted, sincere, and life long. He wrote thousands of letters to friends and family throughout his life, most of which included something encouraging and often spiritually uplifting.

Much has been made of Bonhoeffer's death and the fact he was hanged for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler mere days before his final location was liberated by Allied troops. Bonhoeffer himself was not disturbed by the thought of death. For him, death was the beginning of life. His view on the death of a Christian was made known in a letter he wrote to several of his former seminary students, early in the war. After mentioning the death of one of their fellow students on the front lines, Bonhoeffer wrote,
"Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God's power, and it must now serve God's own aims. It is not some fatalistic surrender but rather a living faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us, that is able to cope profoundly with death" (p. 384).
It was this confidence in the face of death that bolstered him as his participated in activities that he knew could lead to his death at any moment.

Overall, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is easily in my top five books ever read. It holds appeal for those interested in biography, history, theology, WWII, or anyone who simply enjoys a great read. At times, Bonhoeffer was hard to read because of the weight of both the content and how it was presented. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant man with a multi-faceted personality and nuanced thought life. His contributions to his world and his effort to better the world that came after him are substantial; reading his words and about his life should be done with a measure of seriousness and respect. Bonhoeffer is not a book to be skimmed and quickly put away, but instead one that deserves a careful reading and thoughtful response. Not only Bonhoeffer's life, but the treatment Eric Metaxas gives it has earned at least that much.