Where to begin with my review of Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy? How can 500 words or so really do justice to a 600-page analysis of the life of a Christian pastor who stood against Hitler and tried to guard his beloved Lutheran church from Nazi infiltration?
It took me longer to read this book than any in recent memory. For several months I lumbered through Metaxas’ overly detailed narrative. I knew just a little about Bonhoeffer prior to the book and afterward more than I might ever need to know. Instead of compiling one chronological account, Metaxas could have broken up the aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life into mini-volumes that I could digest one at a time.
For instance, it was interesting to see Bonhoeffer’s change of heart regarding church and becoming a pastor. Personally, it’s been almost uncanny how the books I’ve been reading have related to one another. Eugene Peterson in The Pastor tells of how he wanted to be a professor not a pastor, much like Bonhoeffer. Philip Yancey explored how the church should function in Church: Why Bother? just as Bonhoeffer did. Both Peterson and Yancey attested to the American church’s temptation to succumb to consumerism, something Bonhoeffer witnessed nearly 100 years ago.
In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. –Bonhoeffer
I appreciated Metaxas’ research, as he must have invested thousands of hours poring over and compiling letters and journals, but I felt he loaded down his absolutely wonderful prose with too much information. He consistently buried his fantastic writing with far too many excerpts from said letters and journals. It also would have been nice to have a cast of characters, much like you’d see in a playbill, since one name easily blended with another. I kept asking myself, “Now who is this guy again?”
I pledge allegiance to …
Bonhoeffer wrestled, as do I and many believers in America (see David Platt’s Radical), with nationalism, concluding that “one can’t be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time.” He was greatly patriotic, in the sense that he loved his country, her land, people, and culture, which is why he decried the Nazi’s abduction of his beloved Germany.
I pray for the defeat of my nation. For I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world. … Christians do not wish to escape repentance, or chaos, if it is God’s will to bring it upon us. We must take this judgement as Christians. –Bonhoeffer
I intend to read some of Bonhoeffer’s books, especially his well-known works The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, because Metaxas introduced me to a man who believed life with God looked different than most seminaries and churches portrayed it. Still today many churchgoers view God as a law giver, one we must (and can)appease by good works. For Bonhoeffer, “to be true to God in the deepest way meant having such a relationship with him that one did not live legalistically by ‘rules’ or ‘principles'” (Metaxas). It was how Bonhoeffer could reconcile the deception on his part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. As Martin Luther would say, he was “sinning boldly.”
How do you sustain suspense when you’ve given away the ending in your title? Bonhoeffer gave his life for the cause of Christ during the Third Reich, for his involvement in the attempt to take down evil incarnate. Unfortunately, Metaxas squelched the climax with his attention to detail. [Spoiler alert:] Bonhoeffer was just days from rescue by Allied forces. The closing action got bogged down.
I would recommend Bonhoeffer for those up to the challenge. There may be better biographies available, I don’t know. I liked getting to know the man more than the reading of the book.