Alan Wolfe on Metaxas’s Biography of Bonhoeffer

Everywhere I turn someone is reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  My brother-in-law got a copy of the book for Christmas. A colleague recently praised it on his Facebook page.  An elderly friend and Presbyterian elder raves about it.  It seems like I can’t get through a week without someone asking me if I have read it.  As I write this, the book sits at #273 on  A few weekends ago I saw Metaxas talk about the book on C-Span and was quite impressed.  I guess I will need to get a copy of this book and read it for myself.

Alan Wolfe is also impressed.  He likes the book, but he wants to make sure that readers take away the right lessons from it.  Here is a taste:

Throughout his book, but especially toward the end, Metaxas turns this erudite and at times abstruse theologian into a living and tragic human being. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that bringing this man—and his intransigence on all the important questions of our time—so vividly to life raises awkward questions for the liberalism in which I put my own faith. How, precisely, would a Rawlsian have acted in those dark times? Must we not move beyond this-worldly conceptions of politics as a struggle for power to other-worldly concerns with repentance and days of judgment, if we are to grasp how the Nazis were able to combine their own rational plans to kill millions with satanically inspired ideas about a Thousand Year Reich, and also how some people were able to resist those plans? Is it possible to face death with courage without knowing that a better life awaits? Can one be loyal to one’s collaborators in the resistance without being loyal to some higher power? Can faith help overcome torture? Lurking behind all such questions is the major one: if the problem of evil is not one that humans can solve, have we no choice but to rely on God for help? Does Bonhoeffer’s greatness prove his rightness? 

Yet when I put this book down, I realized that its author, no doubt inadvertently, had helped me to answer these questions. Bonhoeffer may have been convinced that God was telling him what to do, but I am not convinced. Ironically, Metaxas’s passion, the intensity of his engagement with his subject, wound up persuading me of the importance of the very autonomy that Bonhoeffer believed that we do not possess. Even if God told Bonhoeffer what to do, it was Bonhoeffer who chose God in the first place. It was not a humble servant of the Lord who involved himself in the resistance, but a singular human being who, for whatever reason, was able to know what to do when faced with the problem of evil.

It is important to note in this context that there is no simple relationship between faith and courage. The German Christians who collaborated with Hitler may have abused religion, but they considered themselves religious. At the same time, many—if not most—of the resisters to Hitler were not Christian believers and did not take orders from God. They included Prussian generals, and left-wingers (including even a few communists), and the student movement known as the White Rose. Their bravery had nothing to do with religion. One should come away from the Bonhoeffer story impressed by religion, but not in awe of it. The human picture is more complicated.

In this fine biography, Metaxas stays close to the story and refrains from any efforts at theory. All the more reason to read it: when it comes to the strengths and the limits of post-Kantian liberalism, we already have theory aplenty. But be careful what you read it for. You can understand this book, if you wish, as making the case for belief in an all-powerful God, though a biography is not a work of philosophy. But unless you read it also as a testimony to the capacity for choice that mortal beings may be called upon to exercise when evil looms among them, its larger and most stirring lesson will be lost.

6 thoughts on “Alan Wolfe on Metaxas’s Biography of Bonhoeffer

  1. Oops, sorry (I assume you meant the link for me, unless there is a Brad I don't see)–I didn't realize you had already posted on this.

    So this leads to a question: how should we interpret these conflicting reviews of books outside of our own expertise? For example, I've seen a consensus growing regarding Wood's questionable review of Lepore's book, so I trust the academic consensus. But what happens when such a consensus is not discernible?


  2. John, I'll look forward to your thoughts if/when you read this (undoubtedly before I will).

    While I've seen rave reviews of Metaxas's biography, I've also seen serious objections (such as here and here) that accuse Metaxas of misunderstanding if not grossly distorting Bonhoeffer in an attempt to present him as amenable to American evangelicals.


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