The final days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1945 make for powerful and painful reading. Imprisoned for two years as a conspirator in a plot against Hitler, Bonhoeffer left Buchenwald packed into a hellish wood-burning van with fifteen other prisoners in a surreal, disorganized drive to an uncertain destination. After a case of mistaken identity almost saved him, his journey suddenly ended at the concentration camp in Flossenbürg, where he was hanged early in the morning of April 9 at the age of thirty-eight.
It was a particularly pointless execution, coming as it did only two weeks before Flossenbürg was liberated by the Allies and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. The German cause was already lost, and Bonhoeffer’s courageous work as both church leader and clandestine operative was about to reach its goal.
But it is not just Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom that makes him such an immensely appealing figure. An outstanding musician, a loyal and funny friend, and a brilliant, impatient mind, he grew up in a prominent, accomplished, intellectually demanding Berlin family that (unlike many such families) maintained an effortlessly close and joyful life together. Beginning at the age of thirteen he unexpectedly decided to pursue theology with a view toward academic life, but in the end he found himself drawn to pastoral work, and to the fight against the Nazis’ agenda for German religion.
The appeal of Bonhoeffer’s passionate Christianity crosses every denominational barrier. Placed in charge of seminary training for the illegal Confessing Church after the Reich’s takeover of the Lutheran establishment, he designed an unheard-of semimonastic formation program based on daily prayer, immersion in Scripture, and communal living. After an early trip to Rome gave him a sense of the church’s universality, he worked tirelessly in ecumenical gatherings to criticize traditional national boundaries and state establishment, which he ultimately saw as corrupting distractions from the message of the gospel.
Eric Metaxas’s biography focuses closely on the conflicts and drama of Bonhoeffer’s life, and succeeds in giving us a strong sense of his energy, persuasiveness, and courage. A former writer for the children’s religious cartoon series Veggie Tales, Metaxas is also the author of Amazing Grace, a biography of William Wilberforce, and the host of Socrates in the City, a series of religious forums for “busy and successful professionals” in New York. Metaxas is a skilled popularizer who seems to be developing a specialty in Christian heroes, and he delivers a fast-paced read that anyone looking for an overview of Bonhoeffer’s eventful life will certainly enjoy.
I’m all for a cracking adventure, and the book gives us one. It must be said, though, that at times the momentum is forced along by some excessive splash in the writing. A book with Nazis can be permitted some over-the-top color, and surely they were as “lupine,” “canine,” and “bestial” as Metaxas says they were. Yet Karl Barth might be surprised to read that one of his books “fell like a smart bomb,” while a Bonhoeffer sermon delivers a “nasty sucker punch followed by a wheeling roundhouse kick to the chops.” God knows the lives of theologians could use some spicing up, but Bonhoeffer’s needs it less than most, and the occasionally cartoonish language can make for a jarring contrast with Bonhoeffer’s own sober, clear, powerful words.
Besides the Nazis, Metaxas sets up a few other hissable villains. Among them is New York’s Union Theological Seminary, then at the height of its international prominence, where Bonhoeffer studied for a year beginning in 1930, and to which he escaped briefly in 1939 before his ultimate decision to return to Germany. Certainly Bonhoeffer’s own words about Union’s academics are harsh enough. “There is no theology here,” he wrote, claiming that the students showed “little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition.” A brilliant student who received his theology doctorate in Berlin at twenty-one, Bonhoeffer found Union’s focus on the social gospel, ethics, politics, and literature thin soup compared to his own dogmatic studies with Adolf von Harnack and others. And it’s true that theology and Scripture were, at the time, not central to Union’s supposedly advanced program of study.
Yet Metaxas goes further. At Union “they had jettisoned serious scholarship altogether,” he writes. He positions Union and its Rockefeller-funded neighbor Riverside Church as near villainous in their liberal plotting. Of Riverside he writes, “It was intended to influence the impressionable students of Union, Columbia, and Barnard along its theological lines. It continues to do so eight decades later.” (Since Commonweal’s office is right across the street from this suspicious activity, I can reassure you that most Columbia students couldn’t find Riverside Church with a map.) Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and author of the standard biography, paints a more nuanced picture of Bonhoeffer’s time at Union, and points out that the experience of seeing churches and Union students deeply involved in the U.S. economic crisis “made an ineradicable impression on him.... Henceforward, a purely desk-bound existence could no longer satisfy him.”
Perhaps the most serious shortcoming of Metaxas’s biography is that Bonhoeffer’s works do not receive even summary overviews, much less any critical analysis or comment. Like most readers, Metaxas is drawn to Bonhoeffer’s clarion calls to action, driven as they were by the urgent crises in Germany and the stark choices in his favorite Scripture, the Sermon the Mount. (Bonhoeffer’s indictment of what the German national church ultimately became is chilling: “We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition.”) Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer’s famous and memorable image from The Cost of Discipleship, contrasting “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” is a recurring theme:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves...grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.... Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.... Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
This is memorable and effective preaching, and a reminder that the gospel is a highly charged, life-or-death proposition. But as Bonhoeffer himself said, every good sermon needs a shot of heresy in it—heresy in the sense of a justifiable overstatement that drives home the message. In the wrong hands, this cheap/costly dichotomy can be just such a heresy. For example, in his introduction to Metaxas’s book, Presbyterian pastor Timothy J. Keller fulminates against cheap-gracers who believe in a “God who just accepts us as we are,” and suggests that it’s just such people who’d be caving in to the Nazis today if they had the chance.
Well, God does give us grace gratuitously, without our earning it or being completely up to the task; Metaxas, the author of a children’s bestseller called God Made You Special!, probably even agrees with this at some level. It does no disservice to the power and truth of Bonhoeffer’s words, and to his indictment of a church that left the gospel behind, to point out that his theology of grace is not the only approach to the question. Like Newman, Bonhoeffer is often embraced as a scourge of wimpy liberal thinking about what faith demands. That he certainly is, and we need him to be. But Bonhoeffer the theologian, himself a committed arguer and sharp-eyed reader, deserves better than simple hagiography. A more critical eye on his works would have been welcome.
In sum, Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer does not displace the longer, more stolid but authoritative Bethge biography, but, especially for those new to Bonhoeffer, it’s an engaging introduction to a remarkable life every Christian should know. But of course the best place to start is Bonhoeffer’s own books, especially Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. Even today, they bear regular re-reading as powerfully astringent treatments for faith that has become comfortable—as nagging reminders that, as Bonhoeffer wrote, “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”