Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and Pastor, who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, is undoubtedly a Christian hero. But in a Church plagued by theological tribalism, the legacy of such heroes can become a sharply contested. Different tribes claim the legacy of such heroes as their own as lives are analysed and attributes selectively emphasised. As with history itself, no biography is written from a neutral standpoint.
Eric Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer has sharply divided opinion. In having Tim Keller write the Foreword, this is a book clearly aimed at sharing Bonhoeffer with a more evangelical audience than has traditionally engaged with his life and work. Judging by the rave reviews and amount of awards the book has won, Metaxas clearly achieved this. However he has come in for sharp criticism from Bonhoeffer scholar Clifford Green who accuse him of an ideological agenda which has ‘hijacked’ and ‘co-opted’ Bonhoeffer for the evangelical agenda. Much of the contraversy comes from the culture wars which rage ferociously in the US between conservative and liberal perspectives – but clearly tribalism is even more vehement when combined with academic rivalry.
In reality, this biography should deeply challenge both conservatives and liberal Christians, and indeed anyone who reads it. This is because of the brilliant way Metaxas highlights Bonhoeffer’s devotion to God and his utter commitment to do His will in the face of such immense challenges. In writing about Bonhoeffer’s resilience and generosity in prison, he writes:
‘his strength was borrowed from God and lent to others’ (p.463).
Metaxas’ achievement is that he enables this strength to flow through the pages of his book and through it all Christians should be emboldened in their faith. Although long at over 600 pages, it is beautifully written and is hard to put down. I honestly think it is the best-written biography I have ever read.
True Christian radicalism like that lived out by Bonhoeffer challenges anything in our faith which is woolly, uncommitted or disengaged from the real world. It makes much of the internal arguments of the contemporary church looks as biblical or real as a Punch and Judy show.
Faith in the real world
As Metaxas writes, in Bonhoeffer’s context ‘the evil of Hitler was forcing Christians to go deeper in their obedience, to think harder about what God was asking’ (p.367). In this context Bonhoeffer was committed to seeking what ‘Jesus Christ means for us today’. As he wrote from prison:
“I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us”
As Metaxas commentates ‘To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology.’ (p361) Metaxas identifies this commitment to an integrated faith with challenging sharpness:
‘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 through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too…It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom – that was what it was to obey God.’ (p.446)
As this book shows, under the terrible pressure of Nazism, many Christians did live ‘cramped, compromised and circumspect’ lives. And lets be honest many of us do today. Despite my desire to live more radically, I know I how frequently I am guilty of all three of these temptations. At its core this a lack of faith.
Risk and adventure
But to obey God is to live a full life which involves risk and adventure – and this is what we see unfolded in the pages of this book. Metaxas captures the inner strength of Bonhoeffer, the rock-solid conviction which enabled him to both stand in confession against Hitler and then go on to actively conspire against him.
Many authentic German Christians faced the complex reality of trying to live out their faith in the face of incredibly inhuman, state-led terror. The key question Bonhoeffer poses, both then and now, is who is following the way of Jesus in the real world? As Bonhoeffer wrote:
‘Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.’
The path of belief is the same as the path of obedience.
Bonhoeffer’s life should never be co-opted simply in the service of contemporary ideological battles. But it should be held up as a life which faithfully points to God and which bears witness to the costly grace of Jesus Christ. This is what Metaxas’s biography has done. It is a great book about a great life which was lived in the service of a great God.