Burkholder on Metaxas

Eric Metaxas, the author of the wildly successful (especially among evangelicals) Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, spoke this week at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana. 

Jared Burkholder, a historian at Grace and friend of this blog, was the master of ceremonies at the event.  His analysis at his excellent blog, The Hermeneutic Circle, is worth reading.  Here is a taste:

Grace College is hosting Eric Metaxas this week, who has had best-selling biographies of William Wilberforce (2007) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2010), and I had the privilege of introducing Metaxas and moderating discussion after he addressed our faculty. This was, of course, a great opportunity for the campus, but I must admit that I had reservations. I was aware that Metaxas is not a trained historian (nor does he claim to be) and that his biography of Bonhoeffer has received mixed reviews. The general consensus among Bonhoeffer specialists was that, however skillful the writing, Metaxas had “evangelicalized” Bonhoeffer, glossed over rather complex theological currents, and fashioned him into a figure that would give credibility to the activism of American evangelicals. (See, for example, an “evangelical critique” of the book by Richard Weikart (California State University, Stanislaus).) I am far from any kind of expert on Bonhoeffer, but all historians are familiar with this classic pitfall of biographical writing, that is, the temptation to (re)create a historical figure in one’s own image. While I will need to let the specialists (and future biographers) decide the overall merit of Metaxas’ treatment of Bonhoeffer, his talk today seemed to give creedence to his critics, at least in my mind. 

Before going further, I should say that his biographies are great reads and there was much that was commendable about Metaxas’ presentation and his interaction with the faculty. He admonished us to engage in the public sphere with skill and temperance, and to avoid the kind of demonizing for which politics has become known. He spoke of love, prayer, and learning from those across the aisle. He also humbly acknowledged his surprise that his books had been so well received and that he has received such notoriety from his talk at the National Prayer Breakfast back in February.

Yet, it seemed to me, he is still a culture warrior who has been enamored by these heroic figures and can’t help but make use of them to rally his fellow evangelicals to fight against the left…

Read the rest here.

I share many of Burkholder’s concerns about Metaxas.  Like Jared, I am not a Bonhoeffer scholar, but I do get concerned when I see Metaxas speaking at events sponsored by Wallbuilders and other Christian nationalist organizations.

Last year, while attending the Lilly Fellows Conference at Samford University in Alabama, I heard Charles Marsh, a Christian who teaches at the University of Virginia, offer a very different take on Bonhoeffer.  He is writing a biography of Bonhoeffer that will be appearing soon with Knopf.

Metaxas will be speaking at Messiah College on November 7th.  Interestingly enough, he will be speaking a day after Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed comes to campus to talk about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  Should be an interesting week on campus, not to mention the fact that Nov. 6 is election day.

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