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Martin Luther, by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther MetaxasMany decades ago, in my twenties, this quiet Catholic school girl found a hero in the brash and courageous monk named Martin Luther. When I could not find myself in the world in which I lived, he showed me a way out to a place where honest inquiry and Biblical truth combined to proclaim freedom to the captives, like me.

When I heard a few years ago that Eric Metaxas, of Bonhoeffer fame, was going to write a biography of Martin Luther in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I mentally set aside the fall of 2017 to read it. Metaxas has that felicitous combination of intellectual rigor and irrepressible humor that is unfortunately rare in serious Christians. Bringing those qualities to bear on a study of a figure like Luther, who was brilliant and articulate, but also shockingly vulgar and outspoken, has produced a work of profound insight that is sometimes pure fun.

Metaxas begins by debunking the many myths surrounding Luther, such as that he was from a poor family, or that he nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, thunderously announcing a new church. Rather, he quietly attached them to the door, which was like the neighborhood bulletin board, asking for a debate. As Metaxas has said on talk shows, picture him putting them up next to a poster of a lost cat. We imagine the hefty, confident man of his later years, but at that point, Luther was a skinny, sickly, and terrified monk who was just beginning to understand that all his fasting and confessing could not save him from hell. Rather, his faith in a loving God would. He had to let everyone else know about the grace that he had found.

The subtitle of this book is The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, which seems at first presumptuous. How could God be rediscovered? Had He been lost in the back of a closet? By painting a picture of the state of the church in Luther’s time, and of the entanglements between the ecclesiastical powers and the civil authorities, Metaxas proposes that yes, to a large extent, the knowledge of God had been hidden away from the vast majority of the common people, who had never seen a Bible in their lives and were completely dependent for their understanding of God on whatever they were told by the priests. As a matter of fact, Luther, a student of theology, had never owned a Bible until he was given one in order to teach scripture at the university. It is no wonder that so many reformers in past years had tried to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, only to die for their efforts. Luther’s success is due in no small part to the invention of the printing press not long before his birth, since it seems that everything he said and did was printed and distributed broadly, creating a groundswell of support for him that was already uncontrollable before the authorities knew of its existence.

Because of his own faith, Metaxas is able to understand and dissect the important details of doctrine that seem so obvious to us today, but were seen as heresy and therefore punishable by death in the 16th century. His story of the moment when Luther truly understood the message of faith in the book of Romans is the most riotous and R-rated presentation of the Gospel that I have ever seen or heard. It is certainly memorable. As the man of faith was freed from his fear of God, his troubles with earthly authorities began, and he endured years of challenges, maturing in his understanding of faith and slowly becoming the larger-than-life figure who has marched his way through our history books. In his early forties, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and became an unexpectedly tender and loving husband and father. Surprisingly, he extended far more rights and respect to women than was usual in his very male-dominated world.

Metaxas does not spare his criticism for Luther’s failures, and he did have very public failures, indeed. Luther did not foresee some of the consequences of allowing freedom of thought, and when other reformers went too far, or when the people began to rise up against their rulers, he always referred to Romans 13, which admonishes believers to submit to the governing authorities. Luther even went so far as to write to the rulers, advising them to quell the uprising with violence. His harsh statements against the Jews that he made late in his life are similarly shocking, especially since they contradict his positive writings about the Jewish people that he had made when he was younger. In a humorous passage that shows how powerful men who are quite sure of their opinions can often drive even their supporters to wish that they would just stop talking, Metaxas writes of Luther’s friend:

Melanchthon was upset at what he perceived as the harshness of Luther’s tone toward Karlstadt, but, alas, very much of what Luther would write in the years hence would read like a modern-day late-night tweet storm. (p. 325)

No one in Europe had succeeded in speaking truth to power before Martin Luther. His teaching and his writings had spread to Switzerland, England, and other parts of the continent before his death, and would continue to spread across the Atlantic to the New World in the years to come. We enjoy freedom of religion in this country because of his influence, and yet the church itself is splintered into innumerable squabbling groups for the same reason. Metaxas has written an account of this remarkable man that is scholarly yet readable, absorbing, and even, at times, rollicking. For good and for ill, Martin Luther changed the world forever, and whether you are a Christian or not, you may be surprised at the impact he has had on your life.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas

7 WomenI am pleased to announce that Eric Metaxas took my advice and followed up his book 7 Men with 7 Women, as is only fitting. Alright, there may have been more requests than mine, but the point is: the book has arrived.

As soon as I got my hands on this title, I opened to the table of contents to see which women had made the cut. Some of the names, like Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa, could be expected, but Hannah More and Saint Maria of Paris are not among the usual suspects. Who in the world is this Elizabeth Pilenko/ Kuz’mina-Karavaeva/ Skobtsova/ Saint Maria, anyway?

In his introduction, Metaxas relates that he decided not to go with the usual list of women who were the first to do something that had already been done by men, such as Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, or Sally Ride, the first woman in space, etc. Metaxas writes that “… the problem with this idea is that it presupposes the tremendously harmful and distorting idea of a competition for power.” (p. xviii) And, may I add, a competition in which women continually come in second place! Rather, he chose women who often lived sacrificial lives and accomplished great things that could only have been achieved by women, with their unique, God-given gifts.

Hopefully without giving spoilers, here are my brief thoughts on each of these choices:

Joan of Arc. Such a young girl with so much courage. I never know what to think about Joan, as I am stubbornly skeptical about visions and voices and such. Apparently, I am a terrible charismatic. However, I am so impressed by her character in a time when women were completely powerless.

Susanna Wesley. Yes, she is known because of her sons, but what a force of nature this woman was! I am not sure that I would want Susanna as a friend because of her super-scheduled, ultra-driven mindset, but considering the trials in her life, her family would have fallen apart without her. Her advice to her son, Charles, concerning alcoholic beverages seems hilarious in this day when—at least in the South—evangelical Christians are often assumed to be teetotalers.

Hannah More. Metaxas wrote a bit about this friend of William Wilberforce in his biography, Amazing Grace, but it was satisfying to learn her own story. An independent woman who was a well-educated, influential writer, More helped the cause of abolition in creative ways before women were able to have any political power. Furthermore, this story led me to Karen Swallow Prior’s books, and I popped her Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me straight into an Amazon order cart. Check it out.

Saint Maria of Paris. A twice-divorced, liquor-drinkin’, cigarette-smokin’ saint? Oh, yes, gentle reader. This fascinating nun (you read that right) was serious about her faith, especially in World War II Paris. Proof that everyone can serve God, sometimes filling a need with gifts that no one else would have. Since I had never heard of her before, this was one of my favorite chapters.

Corrie ten Boom. If you do not know this Holocaust survivor, please let this brief introduction be a springboard to The Hiding Place and all of ten Boom’s own works, as well as the movies of her life. We are so blessed that, during her long life, she continually wrote and spoke about the meaning of suffering and living sacrificially for others.

Rosa Parks. She would not give up her seat on the bus. So, what else do you know about her? Until this chapter, I knew nothing but that one fact about this quiet, unassuming woman. She was chosen to be the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of her exemplary character, but that was not the end of her work for equal rights. She admitted, when she was an old woman, that she did get tired of being asked about that one single moment of her life over and over again.

Mother Teresa. What other single human being, besides Jesus himself, so exemplifies giving up everything for others? I only had a mental image of Mother Teresa as an ancient nun, but Agnes Bojaxhiu felt called to the religious life from the age of twelve, inspired to serve by her own mother. Her entire life was one of continuous and progressive voluntary poverty, seeking to live among the poor as one of them so that she could understand their needs and their souls. Her pure virtue was so famous that she could speak truth to powerful leaders without fear.

In a word: inspiring. None of these women were the fragile flowers so often pushed by Christian media today as examples of perfect Christian women. No pink hearts, ribbons, or china teacups. These women were tough, hardworking, often irritating, and not concerned with choosing the right outfit. Not that I don’t love a nice sweater or a good cup of tea, but this is the kind of Christian woman I want to be, and I am pretty sure that most of my friends would be proud to have their daughters emulate any of these heroines, as well. Well done, Mr. Metaxas.

Eric MetaxasIf you do not know Eric Metaxas from his phenomenal biography, Bonhoeffer, or any of his other works, you will need to remedy that promptly. He has a biography of Luther coming up in 2017—500 years after the beginning of the Reformation—and I have already set it on the top of my entire reading list for that year. You can hear Eric Metaxas on the radio, too. The Eric Metaxas Show can be heard on podcast at MetaxasTalk.com. He has terrific guests, some of whom you would never hear elsewhere, and each one gets an entire hour to talk. So nice to listen to someone without competing guests shouting over one another. If you listen to the podcasts, you miss the commercials and only hear the out-and-back bumper music, some of which is of highly questionable taste, but we bear it.

7 Women would make a great Christmas present for pretty much every Christian woman over fourteen on your Christmas list, so get it right now!

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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7 Men, by Eric Metaxas

ImageFor the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that when I heard about 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, my first reaction was, “What, not one woman?” However, since I am an Eric Metaxas fan, I did ask the adult selector to buy it for the library system and immediately requested it for myself. As soon as I read the thoughtful and impassioned introduction, I realized that Metaxas had a reason for writing about men only and these seven men in particular.

Metaxas believes that we live in an age in which we love to shred our heroes. As a reader and selector of children’s books, I couldn’t agree more. Even children’s biographies these days tend to concentrate on the weaknesses of famous people, gleefully drawing attention to their sins, because everybody loves a public hanging. Metaxas aims to bring us back to finding out what it is about these heroes that is admirable, and in doing so, to find out how men can fulfill their God-given role to use their strength and power in order to protect the ones they love. His goal in each of these short biographies is to illustrate the sacrifice of each man, to point out the critical choice that each of them made when they could have taken the easier, more comfortable road, but made the turn to sacrifice—and therefore, greatness—instead.

Two of the men discussed in this book have been given fuller treatment in Metaxas’ biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but this distillation was a great refresher. Most of us may be surprised at what we didn’t find out in school about George Washington, and Chariots of Fire only tells part of the story about Eric Liddell.  Even though I’d heard of Jackie Robinson, sports figures are always a blur to me, so his story was fascinating, and although I was a Catholic at the time that John Paul II became pope, I did not know the full story of his inspiring life. Chuck Colson was such a controversial person, and even though I have read several of his books, I was so young during the Watergate scandal that I’d never been clear on his role in that episode in our history. Metaxas’ chapters on all of these men will bring the reader greater understanding, but they all point to the crucial question: Would their lives have been different if they had made the easier choice, and if so, why didn’t they?

Although this book is interesting and inspiring to all readers, it would be particularly valuable for young men. As C.S. Lewis once said, “We laugh at honour, and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”* Nourishing the minds of young men on the stories of great heroes may cause them to consider their own lives more carefully and to use their strength to serve others in need, be it their wives and children, the church, or their country. Growing such heroes would be a blessing to us all.

Amy Carmichael and Abigail Adams next time?


*C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas

As you know if you’ve been paying attention, I reviewed Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer last year around this time. After I read Bonhoeffer, I bought it, which is my typical order of business (I never buy a bad book that way), and while I was at it, I bought a couple of books by Bonhoeffer himself, plus Metaxas’ other biography, one about William Wilberforce.

Image Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery was timed to coincide with the movie that was coming out to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in England in 1807. Let me tell you, even though I have always had an interest in Wilberforce, I could not make it through that movie. I tried twice, and I somehow came away with the impression that William Wilberforce was sanctimonious, tortured, and boring.

How delighted I was that Mr. Metaxas returned my hero to me. In actuality, Wilberforce was cheerful and witty and had crowds of friends and admirers. To be sure, he was a serious Christian, scandalizing his nominally Anglican parents by becoming Methodist in a day when the word “Methodist” might as well have meant “radical terrorist.” Religious fervor of any kind was frowned upon by the upper classes, just as it is today, and Wilberforce’s parents encouraged him to party hearty and ignore his education as much as possible. Just meet all the right people and move in all the right circles.

Happily, Wilberforce’s aunt and uncle were not so inclined. They were devout Methodists and introduced young William to the luminaries of the evangelical movement of the time, including John Newton, a former slaver who wrote the beloved song that gives this book its title. Although he continued to stray throughout his adolescence, after his early graduation from Cambridge and astoundingly young election to parliament, Wilberforce came under the influence once again of religious intellectuals, and in his twenties he underwent what he always called the “Great Change.” From that time forward, he devoted his life to “two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.”

“The reformation of manners” may sound trivial to us today, but, as Metaxas describes, Wilberforce lived in a society where the masses would witness bear baiting, bull baiting, hangings, burnings, and public human dissections. These were considered entertaining to the lower classes and instructional to would-be criminals. Wilberforce put forth bills to stop the burning of convicted female prisoners, but they failed, since the other MPs couldn’t see the harm. After all, the women were already dead by hanging. He also introduced a bill to have the corpses of the men sold to scientists, rather than publicly dissected, but the MPs thought that the horror of dissection would be a deterrent to crime that couldn’t be achieved in a private laboratory. Eventually, Wilberforce was able to enact some laws that he felt would stop the coarsening of society, and that he hoped would, in time, curb the violent tendencies of the crowds of London.

As for his most famous achievement, Wilberforce introduced a bill to stop the slave trade every year for twenty years before it passed. You may be thinking that there couldn’t have been that many slaves in England, and you would be right, but remember the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” In those days, the British controlled possessions all over the globe, and there were 800,000 African slaves in the West Indies working on sugar plantations. Wilberforce and his friends, who lived in a community called Clapham, showed the members of Parliament the diagrams of the terribly crowded slave ships and described the diseases and death that awaited a large proportion of the kidnapped Africans. They appealed to the ministers’ sense of morality, asking whether one person can rightfully own another human being. They were winning more and more of the members to their side, and it looked as if abolition would win the day.

Then came the French Revolution. As the cries of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! rang out from their ancient enemy, the English people decided that they wanted nothing that smacked of the values of this violent movement. In their minds, the abolition of slavery, which would hurt the British landowners and aristocracy in the New World, was equated with the execution of the nobles and royalty in France. It was absurd, but it went on for years. Thousands upon thousands of slaves died horrible deaths because the British House of Lords and House of Commons self-righteously clung to tradition, rather than looking at the reality of slavery. Lest you think this never happens today, look at how the moral outrage of abortion has become tangled up in women’s rights. Every single day in America, we take 52,000 of our own children, rip their limbs off, poison them, burn them, suck out their brains, and push them down industrial garbage disposals. Most of them are little girls. How can we self-righteously ignore the fact of their deaths in the name of any political right? But we do. And they did.

Well, as you may know, Wilberforce hung in there and was able to pass the abolition of the slave trade after twenty years of work. He and his friends believed that when the plantation owners realized that there were no more slaves to be purchased, they would treat the ones they had better, rather than work them to death as they had previously. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and so they pushed even more boldly for the abolition of slavery altogether. This did not come to pass until mere days before Wilberforce’s death, but he was tremendously blessed to be one of the few who live to see their fondest dream come to fruition.

Woven into this narrative of England’s abolition of slavery a full generation before America’s Civil War are tales of Wilberforce’s friendships and his marriage. He was a tiny, little man and did not marry until he was 37, when he fell in love at first sight with his 20-year-old wife, Barbara, with whom I greatly sympathize because she was a happy, wonderful wife but a miserable hostess. The Wilberforces had famous people passing through their house at all hours, and the family was always in chaos. Cheerful, loving chaos, but enough that people noticed and commented to others about it. Barbara bore six healthy children in quick succession, and soon they had to move to the country in order to have more space. This did not stop the Claphamites, who merely widened the circumference of their community. Wilberforce was in the center of it all, laughing, singing, and working, always working.

So that you will know how enjoyable reading a biography by Mr. Metaxas can be, I will share with you a part of his passage describing the wedding and estrangement of George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Neither of them was pure as the driven snow, and they hated one another heartily right from the start, but the Prince decided to marry because he needed to pay off his atrocious gambling debts, and he would receive a greater income if he were married.

Though there are likely worse reasons to marry, few leap to mind. The prince arrived drunk at the royal wedding, and things tobogganed speedily downhill from there. He made no secret of finding his bride stout and tedious, not to say hygienically unschooled. Nor did Caroline think her lothario prince much in the way of a catch either. … But a daughter was born the following year, at which point the unhappy couple bade each other adieu and accelerated in opposite directions. Caroline eventually settled in Italy, like seeds in an appendix, and the prince remained in England to return to the never-ending fox hunt, as it were. (Page 257.)

ImageThis is an informative, solid biography, and I have only been able to touch on the barest surface in this review. At less than 300 pages of Mr. Metaxas’ witty writing, it is certainly an accessible read, and I was happy to revive the character of one of my heroes. However, Amazing Grace is not the masterpiece that Bonhoeffer is. The latter work was a life-changing book for me, even though I knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer before I read it. So take your pick: the Brit or the German, the 19th or the 20th century, slavery or Nazis. I say: take them both.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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Bonhoeffer & Metaxas, Part 2

So, now that you know that I have been immersed in everything Dietrich Bonhoeffer this year, I must also tell you about the author of his recent biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. In the spirit of “What else ya got?” I Googled Eric Metaxas— as every good librarian would— and found a mountain of stuff! First of all, Mr. Metaxas lives in New York City with his wife and daughter. I know that is a shocking place of residence, but apparently he is suffering for the sake of the gospel, so okay. Furthermore, he runs an outfit called Socrates in the (aforementioned) City, in which groups of intellectual types get together for drinks and dinner and talk about life, the universe, and everything. Some of the videos are posted on the website, http://www.socratesinthecity.com/, and are well worth watching.

Wait, there’s more! Mr. Metaxas has led a life crowded with incident, including writing for and doing voice acting for Veggie Tales. We love Veggie Tales! At the moment, he can be heard on BreakPoint, the ministry founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is also the author of a biography of William Wilberforce, who led England to outlaw slavery, and several books on apologetics.

The most fun Metaxas moment you can find on the internet, though, is his keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast this year. Go to his own website here for the link. There he is in front of President and Mrs. Obama, Vice President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and thousands of Christian leaders giving a speech that is simultaneously very serious and hilariously funny. He does not mind poking fun at anyone, but is so self-effacing that it doesn’t hurt. This is the source of the famous picture of President Obama holding up a copy of Bonhoeffer. Eric Metaxas had an opportunity to say some courageous things on behalf of the gospel, and he did not waste it. He led a room full of (let’s face it) stuffy people to sing “Amazing Grace” together.

This is what we need in the church and in the world today: serious intellectuals who truly love the Lord and have a sense of humor! Yelling and screaming just does not get it done. Let’s all have dinner and drinks and chat, instead.

Metaxas is also very, very, very active on Facebook, and apparently, Twitter. (I refuse to use Twitter, because I have to be able to say “I have a life” with a straight face.) He does get into all kinds of current events on Facebook, so if you would be offended, be forewarned. He is always kind and sensible, though.

Now, go. Have fun.

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Bonhoeffer & Metaxas, Part 1

bonhoeffer-metaxasOf 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.


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