Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
Although I am by no means unfamiliar with the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, noted martyr of Nazi Germany and complicated man , this book really does a great job in bringing out the details and nuance of his life. According to one of the author’s other books, he was encouraged and motivated to write this lengthy book (about 550 pages or so) by a dream as well as by the connection between Bonhoeffer’s own struggles with Hitler’s regime and the struggles of his mother’s family, which was in Germany at the time. Whatever it took to keep him inspired to write this book when the going got tough, it was worthwhile, as this book is one that has to be read to be entirely understood. All too often Bonhoeffer’s comments have been taken in isolation, and even though he did not have the leisure to edit his thoughts and reflections in a mature form to avoid misunderstanding, his writing and life are definitely a powerful example for contemporary believers, many of whom have no idea how it is that they could face the difficult choices that lead to martyrdom.
This book covers, in chronological form, the entirety of Bonhoeffer’s short life–he died at about my age when he was engaged to a very young lady who he had met at the age of twelve and become engaged to when she was 18. While the facts of this relationship are not generally and widely known, the author makes use of the love letters written from prison that Bonhoeffer wrote to his young fiancee to make this book an even more compelling one. Besides Bonhoeffer’s relationship, the layered aspect of his writing and his willingness to oppose corrupt regimes while playing dumb and communicating on multiple levels to multiple audiences simultaneously is certainly a very Nathanish communication trait, as is his prolific writing and his appreciation of music, travel, interfaith diplomacy, and justice. Reading about the martyrdom of Nathanish people is by no means a very pleasant matter, and this book is certainly not a pleasant one, but it is an important book to read to understand the context of Chistianity in Germany in the middle of the 20th century, and how Christians have to wrestle with their relationship with unpopular populations and the levels of resistance that are proper and appropriate.
Overall, I find Bonhoeffer to be among the most Nathanish people I have encountered on the pages of a book. The author discusses his childhood as part of a bright and spirited family that did not tolerate sloppy thinking or sappy emotionalism and that drove its people to recognize the debt owed to illustrious forebears. After that the author talks about the education of Bonhoeffer, both at home from his mother and a governess as well as in school and at university, where Bonhoeffer rather unusually (for both his time and his family) did doctoral and postdoctoral studies in theology. The author details Bonhoeffer’s trips to Rome, Barcelona, London, and the Eastern United States, where he encountered different attitudes and expanded his own understanding of the responsibility of Christians and the importance of transcending racialism and nationalism and parochialism in his approach. Bonhoeffer’s fierce opposition to Hitler’s regime is noted, as are the compromised nature of the German church of the time. Perhaps most compellingly, the author notes how Bonhoeffer became an important figure in the Abwehr conspiracies against Hitler and served to bolster the others with theological justifications for overthrowing Hitler. Metaxas does not exaggerate Bonhoeefer’s importance and notes how some of his language has been improperly used by those who have no idea of the subject’s theology or perspective or fierce views on Christian ethics, but does a great job of telling a compelling story about a fascinating man.
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