Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In her recently posted annotated bibliography on “Emergence Christianity,” Phyllis Tickle includes the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s life and writings may be surprised to find a German theologian who was executed before turning 40 on a list of those influencing the future of global Christianity.  Here lies the great strength of this biography: Author Eric Metaxas shows Bonhoeffer’s prophetic edge in his day while revealing how prescient his theology remains now.

Biographies about admirable people ought to do at least two things well.  By book’s end the reader should want to explore the subject’s original sources and be compelled to examine a portion of his own life in light of the person encountered in the biography.  Put another way, a good biography is about far more than learning about a person; there is always the possibility of becoming like that person in certain ways.  For the Christian who looks to the saints of the past for examples of faithful discipleship, a good biography is an aide to spiritual formation.

I don’t mean to overstate the possible influence of Metaxas’ book, but the number of times I laid the book down to consider implications of Bonhoeffer’s thoughtful response to his circumstances became too many to count.  Perhaps the highest compliment I can give author is that his hefty book (542 pages) made more than one appearance while entertaining dinner guests.  Some of the passages are simply too good (provocative, enlightening, surprising, troubling) not to share.

The arc of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is well enough known that I won’t recount it here.  Suffice it to say that what many know- brilliant young theologian who was executed for his role in an attempt to assassinate Hitler- is just the beginning of a remarkable life pursued with clear-eyed commitment to Jesus.

In Metaxas’ telling there is little to be critiqued about his subject.  Is this a flaw?  If so, it’s easily overlooked.  The biographer manages to review Bonhoeffer’s experiences and writings with admiration while mostly sticking to the narrative provided by the original sources.  What commentary there is gives the reader a clear sense of where the author is coming from.

I’m glad Tickle included this book on her list.  Bonhoeffer is unquestionably a voice the church needs to hear from again and again.  Thankfully, with this biography, many more will be introduced to the young theologian whose convictions remained firm despite the complexities of his times.  It’s an example we can learn from today.

_______________________
A review copy of this book was sent to me upon request by Thomas Nelson Books.

4 comments

  1. John March

    David,

    I happen to be reading this book too, and I love it. I love when biographers do more than just share facts. It’s all about the story, and Metaxas weaves a great narrative. Hope things are well at New Community Bronzeville.

    john

  2. Dwight McMurrin

    Metaxas’ biography, as excellent as it is, has one serious flaw: superficial coverage of two important documents: the Bethel Confession (principal author, Bonhoeffer) and the Barmen Declaration (principal author, Barth).

    For Bethel, see Berlin: 1932-1933 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12.

    For Barmen, see The Church Confronts the Nazis: Barmen Then and Now, edited by Hubert G. Locke.

    In comparing the two documents, you’ll see what is omitted in Barmen that Bonhoeffer had in Bethel (rejection of the Third Reich’s Aryan Paragraph, and why Barth wrote to Bonhoeffer in London, “Come home. Your house is on fire!”

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