Jerome's Reviews > Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
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really liked it

A fine biography, if heavily sanitized. The book's greatest strength is that it reads like a novel. Everything, from Bonhoeffer's academic lectures to his love life, is woven together into a simple but entertaining storyline. I usually have a hard time finishing a biography, but I read this one easily. If you're just looking for an engaging book, this one fits the bill.

The book also makes for easy reading--maybe even too easy at times. I don't think that things were really as straightforward as he portrays them. But for the most part, it's great that the book is so accessible, even for people who don't know anything about Bonhoeffer, World War II, or church history.

Bonhoeffer really is a fascinating person. In one of the darkest and most senseless periods of modern history, he consistently did what most others were unwilling to do; he saw what most others were too shortsighted to see. Metaxas also does a good job covering the less well known parts of Bonhoeffer's life, such as his pastorates and professorships.

Metaxas serves as the book's omniscient narrator. He frequently tells you what Bonhoeffer "must" have been thinking; it sounds very authoritative, but it's all just speculative. Likewise, he sometimes tells you why Bonhoeffer performed a given action, but in reality there is scholarly debate over the issue (though to be fair, this is goes back to one of the strengths...the book is easy to read precisely because Metaxas doesn't get bogged down in these nuances).

The author's language can get a little dramatic (even incendiary) at times. The atrocities of the Nazis speak for themselves; it's neither scholarly nor objective to call people "miscreants," "demons," and "invertebrates." Even though Metaxas has produced a decent biography, his style sometimes makes it sound like a hatchet job.

There is also a degree of bias. If you happen to follow Bonhoeffer scholarship, you're probably already aware of the controversy that this particular book has caused. Apparently, it's an attempt by the author to reinterpret or ignore some of the most significant parts of Bonhoeffer's life in order to portray him as a conservative, Evangelical guide for modern day American culture wars.

Still, all history is somewhat subjective. History is a collection of unchangeable facts, but how we interpret those facts--and what we decide that the facts mean--can be different for different people. This book is definitely a conservative interpretation of Bonhoeffer's life, and the author puts that spin on things. Metaxas calls Bonhoeffer "a conservative" several times, he goes on a long digression on Bonhoeffer's opposition to abortion, he ignores Bonhoeffer's "liberal" characteristics like rejecting biblical inerrancy, and in one place he even says that liberal Christianity explains Hitler's rise to power. I didn't always agree with Metaxas's interpretation of the evidence, but it certainly doesn't rise to the level of conservative propaganda or anything like that. If you finish this book and want the other side of the story, or you're serious about really getting to know Bonhoeffer, you can always read the massive book by Bonhoeffer's nephew-in-law (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography); that book is usually considered the definitive biography anyway.

Metaxas also ignores Bonhoeffer's 1933 Christology lectures, in which he claimed, "The biblical witness is uncertain with regard to the virgin birth." Bonhoeffer also rejected the notion of the verbal inspiration of scripture, and in a footnote to his "Cost of Discipleship" he warned against viewing statements about Christ's resurrection as ontological statements (statements about real events). Bonhoeffer even rejected apologetics, which he thought was misguided. Also, Metaxas portrays an image of Bonhoeffer reading the Bible every single day of his life, even though Bonhoeffer admitted this to be untrue in one of his letters.

And way too much of this book is written in silly language. Of the abortive 1943 plot to blow up Hitler's airplane, Metaxas writes: "Brandt gave the package [containing the bomb] an inadvertent jerk, nearly causing Schlabrendorff to have a heart attack and to expect a belated [?] and unexpected ka-boom." And after the unsuccessful July 20 bombing, we read, "Hitler was fine and dandy, albeit cartoonishly mussed."

But Metaxas reserves his real eloquence for the Nazis: "the superlatively despicable Heinrich Himmler"' "Heckel... pursuing a strategy of double-barreled flatulence" (what?), "Hitler kicked his bejeweled Arsch upstairs", "the cadaverous Heydrich" (Heydrich is also referred to as "the albino stoat") and so on.

Pseudo sophistication is another painful issue: "Bonhoeffer's cultural standards were obviously high".

One is also confused by odd phrasings which must be colloquial, but somehow fail to communicate: "Le mot oncle"? "fumfering inaction"? "That was another bag of peanuts"? The list of this sort of thing is endless, and it makes for quite painful reading.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 29, 2012 – Finished Reading
May 30, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Heather Excellent review. Thank you. I was also distracted by the writing style. The many strengths you listed, fascinating subject matter and heroic, tragic life of Bonhoeffer outweighed the painfully odd descriptions for me though. I will have to read the biography his nephew (great nephew) wrote.

Jerome You might also like Eberhard Bethge's 1,040-page biography.

Adam Shields The other good biography other than Bethge' huge one is Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. It is expensive, but a much better modern biography.

Cynthia I also really appreciate this review.

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