If you can read only one book this year, make it Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Biography is unique because it has so many implicit benefits. As John Piper observes: “Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as CS Lewis calls it). It is also theology – the most powerful kind – because it bursts forth from the lives of people. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading” (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p. 90). Dietrich Bonhoeffer looms larger than life in the history, theology, and suspense of the twentieth century. The subtitle captures it well: pastor, martyr, prophet, spy. Metaxas’ engaging writing teases out all these angles to craft a spiritually edifying, painstakingly researched, compellingly narrated biography.
I confess that like many Christians, I was fairly ignorant of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. My only exposure to him was reading The Cost of Discipleship back in college – when I was probably too naïve to appreciate its nuances. Metaxas helps readers understand Bonhoeffer by outlining his cultural setting. He was one of the brightest theological minds in Germany – a student of Adolf von Harnack and a personal friend of Karl Barth. Dietrich’s father Karl was the top psychiatrist in all of Germany. His mother Paula was a deeply thoughtful Christian; her father had been the personal chaplain of the Kaiser and her grandfather, Karl August von Hase, one of the premier theologians of the 19th century. His oldest brother Karl-Friedrich was a decorated scientist who worked with Albert Einstein, and his brother-in-law Hans Dohnanyi was a lawyer who often served the German Supreme Court. The Bonhoeffer family was no ordinary family; they were part of the cultural elite. So Bonhoeffer’s critiques of Hitler, of the German church, and of liberal theology were not the rantings of a marginalized prophet. They were articulate criticisms arising from the very center of German cultural production. This is part of what gave Bonhoeffer’s words their weight and caused his voice to be heard – both by the broader world and by the Third Reich, at whose hands he would finally meet his demise.
The most compelling part of Bonhoeffer’s story is his decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. The Wall Street Journal’s review explains:
As the storms of hatred raged in Germany, Bonhoeffer moved beyond “confession”—that is, preaching and writing—and into rebellion. By the summer of 1940, he was recruited by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris and others as a double agent for their conspiracy against Hitler, an effort that operated out of the Abwehr (Nazi military intelligence). Henceforth he would pretend allegiance to the regime and pass along to the conspirators—whose goal was Hitler’s assassination—whatever intelligence he could gather. He depended on deception for his survival.
It was a bizarre role for a religious man, and a hitherto loyal German citizen, to play. As Mr. Metaxas notes: “For a pastor to be involved in a plot whose linchpin was the assassination of the head of state during a time of war, when brothers and sons and fathers were giving their lives for their country, was unthinkable.” And yet it became thinkable for Bonhoeffer precisely because his understanding of faith required more than adhering to tidy legalisms about truth-telling and nonviolence.
The ethical implications of such a decision are staggeringly complex. And that’s what makes this biography so personally engaging. Thoughtful readers will find themselves second-guessing Bonhoeffer at multiple points in the story. Hindsight is 20/20. But in the midst of his deception, when gathering intel on Hitler meant lying to his own friends and looking the other way while innocent people were killed – did he make the right choice? These Jack-Bauer-esque moral dilemmas were part and parcel of Bonhoeffer’s life. His resolute decisiveness in the midst of them will serve to awaken the slumbering moral convictions of most readers.
Debate will continue to rage over whether Bonhoeffer could be considered an evangelical. (See, for instance, the fretting from the reviewer over at The Christian Century who insists that Metaxas’ reading is anachronistic. Notice especially how the first two paragraphs and the last three are little more than an extended ad hominem argument against Metaxas.) Perhaps that question is best left for to readers to judge. Metaxas acknowledges that “[Bonhoeffer] could [never] easily be labeled conservative or liberal,” and his legacy has been claimed by both. Reading what Bonhoeffer says about the liberal theologians of his own day makes it hard to see what the debate is about. And getting a taste of his own love for the Scriptures and the Savior they reveal seems to end the debate entirely.
One thing is certain: the time you spend reading this biography is time well spent.
Other reviews of Bonhoeffer: