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.
I’m halfway through Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, far enough to suggest you add this biography to your summer reading list. A 500-page book about the life of a German theologian many have never heard of may seem an odd choice for beach reading, but Metaxas does a phenomenal job of pushing forward a very compelling narrative.
I’ve always thought Dietrich Bonhoeffer has much to say to our contemporary churches; the historic context provided in this biography- massive cultural shifts, impending wars, churches in allegiance to the state- makes his thoughtful conviction all the more prescient for our day.
Still not sure you’d appreciate this book?
Collin Hansen has a brief interview with Metaxas over at Christianity Today. One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me thus far covers Bonhoeffers time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Hansen asks,
What did Bonhoeffer think of America? How did his visits affect him?
Bonhoeffer was hardly affected by his studies at Union. In letters sent home, he sneered at what passed for theology in the U.S. But a trip to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem changed everything. He saw the full-throated gospel of Christ for perhaps the first time in his life. The worship and sermons stunned him. He’d seen the real thing, a Christianity based on wholehearted devotion to Jesus. When he returned to Germany, everyone could see that he was different. The experience deepened his faith quite dramatically.
And should you finish the biography and decide you’re ready to dip into the primary sources, Matt Miller has put together a Bonhoeffer reading plan along with the reasons he lays the books out in the order he does. It’s not a comprehensive list- I would have liked to see Letters and Papers from Prison included- but it’s a great start. And a reminder that I have more Bonhoeffer reading to look forward to.
Anyone picked up the Bonhoeffer biography yet? Any thoughts?
In college, unrelated to actual coursework, I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and felt like I’d been grabbed by the ankles, turned upside down and shaken. In a good way. Ever since then Bonhoeffer has been a regular voice in my ear, particularly in matters of community and personal devotion to Jesus. A few years back I saw the Chicago premier of Bonhoeffer, the superb documentary by Martin Doblmeier who was in the audience that night and took questions following the screening. (Netflix subscribers can view the film online.)
Now a new Bonhoeffer biography has been written by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and Andy Rowell has a succinct review up at Books and Culture.
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who joined the Nazi intelligence service so that he might travel abroad and covertly plot the overthrow of the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, he wrote critically acclaimed prose, lost his professorial position at Berlin University for his convictions, opened a secret training facility for young pastors, and fell in love. In the end, his story took a tragic turn: he was captured, imprisoned, and executed in 1945.
I’ve requested a review copy of the book from the publisher with the hope of reviewing it here. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some good summer reading, I trust Andy’s opinion that this book won’t disappoint.
I’ve had a few conversations recently with folks from our church who are either very interested in intentional community or already pursuing it in some way. My lunch on Sunday was in the home of a family who share there space with five single folks. Last week I spoke with a guy who, along with his wife, is wondering about purchasing a home with some others from the church when we plant a congregation on Chicago’s South Side. On Monday Maggie and I had dinner with a couple who has bought an abandoned home with the vision of renovating the basement and upstairs to host college students who want to experience incarnational neighborhood life. Yesterday afternoon I met with a single guy who is very interested in living in community and learning how to use his financial skills for the good of neglected neighborhoods.
Good stuff. These conversations reminded me of the stories we heard this summer at the PAPA Festival (as blogged about here, here, and here).
During my conversation yesterday I recommended the following books for this guy’s research into Christian community. These were just a few that I grabbed from my bookshelf.
A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp.
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauweras and William Willimon.
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.
Let Justice Roll Down by John Perkins.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What titles and authors would you add to this list?