Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the towering figures looming over modern Christianity. His seemingly prophetic perception of the evils of National Socialism and his principled stand that led to his execution remain a powerful witness against the evils fostered upon the world through the unbridled excesses manifest in Nazi Germany.
Much more has been written about Bonhoeffer than Bonhoeffer ever wrote; nevertheless, Eric Metaxas has written an accessible if long biography of him entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor. Martyr. Prophet. Spy. Through it one receives a rather comprehensive view of Bonhoeffer: his family, his upbringing, the theological climate in which he worked, descriptions of the historical events that led to the circumstances in which he found himself, and a decent attempt to synthesize the theology Bonhoeffer developed.
As an introduction to Bonhoeffer's world, work, and theology, Metaxas' work succeeds admirably. He does well at contextualizing Bonhoeffer as a brilliant twentieth century German whose "practical," more Barthian theology challenged both the "liberal" and the "conservative" viewpoints, and who seemed to above all seek to live the life exemplified in Jesus. In a mostly anti-Semitic world, he and his family would stand with the right of the Jews to live and exist as they had previously. When other "Christians" attempted to accommodate and/or appease National Socialism, he perceived what it was all about and called for rejecting it. Bonhoeffer perceived, to some extent, Jesus' goal for the transnational Kingdom of God beyond most of his fellow Germans. And then there was the conspiracy against Hitler: the most controversial aspect of Bonhoeffer's life and work.
There is a reason why I have said that it succeeds admirably as an introduction: especially in his historical analysis, Metaxas has a tendency to oversimplify and even become a bit too apologetic for both Germany and Bonhoeffer. Furthermore, Metaxas' admiration for Bonhoeffer seems to be a bit overmuch; the work does not seem to suggest much criticism of Bonhoeffer for any reason. This is understandable to an extent: since the book is directed mostly at Americans, it is useful to get a chance to see the "other side" and try to see why the Nazis took over. Nevertheless, the apology provided throughout--"we did not take Hitler seriously; we could not imagine that he could be that evil"-- is a catch-22. It sounds as if something someone would say to maintain a final last shred of dignity after being presented with the clear culpability and thorough evil taking place at that time, a kind of historical revisionism to feel better. If it is actually true and legitimate (and it seems to be to some extent, at least in terms of the view of other nations toward Hitler), then it is in many ways even worse: people come out looking much more foolish, stupid, and naive this way. A more nuanced position would be more frank about the German predilections toward all of the things that ended up happening based upon the entrenched nationalism, Social Darwinism, and memory of the humiliation of WWI still very much alive at that time.
Metaxas demonstrates how Hitler and his companions were more influenced by Nietzsche than Christianity and the outright hostility toward Christianity felt by many of the Nazis in high command. Their own words confess their adherence to many scientific dogmas of the day and how they used those dogmas to justify their actions. Ultimately, this level of evil cannot be easily explained, and to that end it is easy to sympathize with Metaxas: how can you explain how Hitler came to be?
That same surface treatment also causes difficulty in terms of the discussion of the conspiracy. For me, this has always been the most vexing challenge of Bonhoeffer: one wants to sympathize with his cause, understanding the great evil being perpetrated by Hitler, and one wants to sympathize with his arguments about how all of the deception and work done in an attempt to kill Hitler is justified because of the greater good of getting rid of him.
But the conspiracy does not succeed. Most of those who participated were executed. Ultimately, all would have been better off had they not attempted the execution; the Allies were already on the ground in France when the attempt was actually made, and the war would be over within the year. Yes, it is easy to make that declaration in hindsight, but when we are being faced with a theological question like this, it is worth consideration: whereas Bonhoeffer's ultimate goal perhaps was right, did that justify his methodology?
These are major challenges, and easy answers do not help. The tone of Metaxas' biography assumes Bonhoeffer is right in believing that what he is doing is what God wills and wants him to do. To challenge that premise is made out to be dangerous; after all, it is easy to play "armchair quarterback" and criticize his actions and thought process in peace and security when he was in great danger and acting boldly. But this may be the ultimate difficulty of Bonhoeffer's execution: he was denied the opportunity to sit down in peacetime, reflect upon his behavior and how everything eventually took place, and try to make sense of it all. We will never know whether he would confess that in the heat of the conflict he went too far or whether he would stand by everything he did until the bitter end. Therefore, we are left with his theology as it was tested in the middle of intense conflict, and its condition is argued in that situation.
This is not an attempt to besmirch Bonhoeffer. He perceived the great challenge to historic Christianity that was afoot in the twentieth century, and he stood firm against it. He can be embraced as the conscience of a nation that almost entirely lost it in the war. His challenge to Christian organizations and individuals to take what Jesus said and did seriously and attempt to live similarly in their own day and age is exactly what needed to be declared, and much that is good in theology has developed in his shadow.
But Bonhoeffer was not perfect; of all people, he would be the first to admit that. Therefore, his theology and actions, especially in terms of resistance against the state, are things to be discussed, questioned, challenged, and debated, and not necessarily to be wholeheartedly embraced. A good dose of "Lincoln's theology" might present an entirely different view of the matter, viewing Hitler and WWII in similar terms as Lincoln viewed the Civil War. Until the cup of wrath was fully drunk, perhaps, there was not intended to be relief for anyone. Ultimately, only God knows.
Could Bonhoeffer have engaged in resistance against the Nazis without the deception and the conspiracy and not just remain in God's will but be better aligned with it in order to see the ultimate end as God was establishing it? This is the question; it has always been the question; it will remain the question.
Yet this is beyond the scope of the book, which remains a good introduction to Bonhoeffer, and hopefully many will read it and go on to consider his other books.
*--book received as part of early review program