BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
BONHOEFFER: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
, September 4, 2010
An anti-Nazi martyrBONHOEFFER:Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spyby Eric Metaxas
Paperback: 608 pages
Rec. price: AUD$29.95Everyone wants a piece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not the only Christian martyred for opposing Hitler, but he is the best-known, largely because of his writings.
Various of his terms, such as "religionless Christianity", "world come of age" and "cheap grace", have entered mainstream theological discourse. As a result, believers from every tradition and doctrinal complexion in Christendom want to identify with him.
For some years he was hijacked by radical scholars of the "Death of God" movement and similar evanescent fads; but Metaxas's book is part of a growing recognition that, overwhelmingly, Bonhoeffer was theologically credal and traditional.
As his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, pointed out, the "isolated use ... of the famous term 'religionless Christianity' has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God".
As a young scholar, Bonhoeffer was faced with a choice between two competing tendencies.
On the one hand, the aged colossus, historian Adolf Harnack, represented rationalistic, optimistic 19th-century liberalism. In the famous apophthegm of Richard Niebuhr, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." In the equally well-known words of George Tyrell, "Harnack looked at the Jesus of history down a deep well and saw his own face reflected at the bottom."
On the other hand, the up-and-coming neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth, demanded a return to the recognition of fallen humanity's utter and helpless dependence on God's grace.
Bonhoeffer sided with Barth.
Not only did he hold to a conservative Protestant theology, which proclaimed the authority of Scripture and salvation through an atoning crucifixion, but also to a conservative ethic which did not hesitate to describe abortion as murder.
Metaxas conveys very successfully the highly civilised immediate family, extended family, and cultural milieu from which Bonhoeffer sprang - a world of art, literature and music; of reverence for learning; of duty and discipline and public service.
We today continue to share these people's inability to comprehend how all around them their Germany could be hurtling headlong into bestiality and barbarism.
Our bewilderment is exacerbated as we are reminded that Nazi-style atrocities persist today. For example Sippenhaft
, liability of kin, whereby spouses, children and parents are liable for the crimes of "traitors", is currently practised in North Korea.
The Third Reich 1933-45 is the most intensively researched and publicised period in history, not just in schools and academe, but also in the print and electronic popular media.
Metaxas presents his version of it reasonably well, but there are odd lacunae. For example, he mentions the 1933 Reichstag Fire and the Emergency Act, then jumps to the Enabling Act with no mention of the intervening March elections. And, in a story about totalitarianism, he inexplicably omits any reference to the Soviet Union and the Stalin-Hitler (Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact of 1939.
Fortunately he is a better biographer than historian. His account of Bonhoeffer's career during this era - the conflict between the Confessing Church and the collaborationist German Christians; the Barmen Declaration; the Finkenwalde Seminary; Bonhoeffer's resistance activities abroad and in the Abwehr; his imprisonment - is sound, comprehensive and confident.
Metaxas shows that, contrary to popular belief, Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. He wasn't prepared to fight as a soldier for Hitler, but he explicitly stated his willingness to, if necessary, kill Hitler.
Bonhoeffer's engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer was problematic.
Forty years ago, philosopher and theologian Colin Brown suggested that it "may be indelicate but not illegitimate to ask ... whether Bonhoeffer would have made the same mark had he survived Buchenwald and Flossenburg".
It might be similarly indelicate, but not illegitimate, to ask how successfully Bonhoeffer and Wedemeyer's romance, one of the most touching and tragic of the 20th century as it stands, would have coped with matrimony.
After all, she was half his age, uninterested in theology, and went through two marriages and divorces in the years after the war.
In describing the death of another anti-Nazi martyr, Sophie Scholl, Clive James wrote: "She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn't me, either."
An almost identical fortitude is found in the Flossenburg camp doctor's account of Bonhoeffer's execution: "At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed."
Some of the prose in this book verges on the purple - Goebbels, for example, is described as a "vampiric homunculus", Hitler as an "irascible vegetarian", and the enthusiastic Austrian welcome to the Anschluss as "contorted calisthenics of sycophancy". Americanisms such as "write" instead of "write to" (as in "He decided to write her") also grate.
That being said, my assessment is that Metaxas, while not a theologian, historian or any other kind of academic, has written a sympathetic and accessible but thoroughly responsible and competent biography, which I warmly recommend.