Of the fifty-five books that I’ve read so far this year, one has affected me far more than all of the others—and there have been some heavy hitters in the lineup! Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great and John M. Perkins’ memoir, Let Justice Roll Down, were both wonderful, but did not achieve the top spot. No, the book that had all of my colleagues, family, and friends asking me to “shut up, already” was Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
In the past year, it seems as if I kept on hearing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer on every side. It is my belief that this was the Lord trying to tell me something, and I am often unfortunately slow on the uptake. He has to hit me over the head, it seems. I had read some of Bonhoeffer’s writings in the past, but it had been a while, and I only had a Wikipedia-sized knowledge of his life. I needed more, so I searched our library’s catalog and found a recent biography by a guy I’d never heard of: Eric Metaxas. Now, I was really worried about the viewpoint of the biographer. Don’t tell me a writer is neutral; it’s impossible. If you really didn’t care about your subject, you wouldn’t devote a huge chunk of your life to researching and writing about him. And if you care about your subject, you’ve got an opinion. I wanted a scholarly bio, but the writer would have to understand Christianity well in order to tell me what I wanted to know about Bonhoeffer’s beliefs.
To tell the truth, when I found out that Eric Metaxas was a Christian, I was skeptical that he could be scholarly. Isn’t that crazy, since I am a Christian? However, the last time I read a nonfiction book by a Christian, I was trying to find out information about a topic, but the writer seemed to think that he had to give an altar call at least every third page. It was difficult to wade through the evangelism to get to the information, and I did not want to repeat that experience.
Not to worry. Mr. Metaxas is a graduate of Yale, and used plenty of primary sources in the book. A bio filled with quotations and excerpts can be stilted and dry, but this book read like a great story. And since Metaxas is a serious Christian, he was searching Bonhoeffer’s soul in the same way I would, working through the agonizing decisions and rejoicing in God’s love with him. I couldn’t wait to get back to it each day. Since I work in a library, we are constantly sharing our current reading, and for several weeks I drove my colleagues nuts by saying, “Still reading Bonheoffer.” I didn’t want to rush it.
Although I started the book to find out about Bonhoeffer’s spiritual journey, I was fascinated by the things I did not know well. Starting with his childhood with many brothers and sisters, his scientist father, and his early education, Metaxas shows us why Bonhoeffer’s decision to go into the ministry was a surprise to those who knew him well. Further on, we read about his life-changing trip to the United States and his interaction with the black church in Harlem. When he returns, we learn about his early ministry, and then his work with the Confessing Church in Germany, including leading a secret seminary in a remote area and working internationally to try to build understanding with other Christian leaders about the real situation in Germany. Later on, we move into even more familiar territory when Bonhoeffer makes the terrifying choice to work from within the Nazi party, and finally, we read of his imprisonment and execution just weeks before the end of World War II. If you’re not sobbing by the end, you don’t have a heart in your chest.
Even though we know how the story ends, Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t. He lived a full and joyful life. He had a large and loving family and many friends. He was an active, athletic man who was interested in many things, and more than anything, he had a deep and abiding love for Christ. Everything in his life was defined by his love for God and his desire to do God’s will no matter where it led. He seriously considered the thought that he could end up dying and came to terms with it. And what Christian would not have to wrestle with the decision to assassinate the ruler of a nation, knowing full well what Paul wrote to us in Romans 13? I am so glad that Bonhoeffer wrote prolifically— books, yes, but also sermons, letters, and journals. His was very much an “examined life,” and we are all enriched by his reflections.
Next time, I will write more about Eric Metaxas, but if you’d like to know more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you can read Metaxas’ biography, of course, which is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Also, Bonhoeffer’s own books are: The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison, and other smaller works, particularly devotional volumes. They are all widely available.