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Friday, July 15, 2011

Metaxas' new biography of Bonhoeffer

For the last two and a half weeks I have been reading Eric Metaxas' new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I've read multiple biographies of Bonhoeffer before, and I've read a great deal of his own writing. However, this book for some reason has taken me deeper into Bonhoeffer as a person, as a pastor, and as a role model for me personally. I'm not done with the book yet; at present I'm reading through 1941-42, when Bonhoeffer was embroiled in plotting against Hitler, reaching out to the Allied authorities for some hope of support for the Germans who didn't support Nazism, and had just become engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. In all of this, he still remained deeply committed to the Confessing Church, the minority within Germany who resisted Hitler's command that the churches and pastors should see their loyalty to der Fuhrer as part and parcel of their Christian faith. In several cases, Bonhoeffer distanced himself from the Confessing Church precisely because he knew his identity as a conspirator would require him to take actions that might well reflect badly on the Confessing Church. It is dramatic, well-written, and even -- strange to say for such dark subject matter -- fun reading. I highly recommend it.

So far in the book the part that has had the biggest impact on me is Bonhoeffer's struggles in the early days of the Confessing Church, from 1933 to about 1938, when those who would not give their loyalty to Hitler fought to have their churches recognized as legitimate, even though they were separate from the church that was loyal to the Reich. It is chilling to read about the Reich Church -- the state church of Germany, the traditional Lutheran church -- that accepted as a matter of course that Christianity must be divorced from its Jewish roots; that the Old Testament was not to be read or trusted much because it was too Jewish; that the essence of Christianity was a set of principles, rather than a relationship with Jesus Christ. This traditional church had been deeply shaped by the legacy of scholars like Schleiermacher and Adolph von Harnack, who moved theology away from trust in the Bible toward a humanistic, scholarly, philosophical approach to Christianity that attempted to get away from the "mythological" elements of miracle stories, personal prayer, belief in a relational God, etc. Bonhoeffer and others stood against these movements. When Hitler appointed a Reich Bishop -- a church leader who would be a state official, loyal to the Nazis, in authority over all the pastors and churches in Germany -- the Confessing Church demanded to be recognized as a separate church.

It strikes me that much of Central's move away from the ELCA -- starting in 2004 and culminating in our vote to leave in 2009-2010 -- was informed by the Confessing Church and those who stood against the Reich Church in Germany in the 1930's. Certainly the ELCA is not demanding loyalty to a human leader like Hitler. But the liberal scholarship that is the rule rather than the exception within mainline denominations -- certainly including the ELCA -- casts doubt on the authority of the Bible and in many cases attempts to "demythologize" Christianity. Scholars like John Shelby Spong in the Episcopal Church or Marcus Borg in the Lutheran tradition are respected and honored while they teach that the "historical" Jesus was nothing like what the gospels portray. In other words, they teach that Jesus was certainly not born of a virgin, that he never physically rose from the dead, and that most of the miracle stories in the New Testament were non-historical inventions of the human authors designed to make a theological point. Mainline seminaries and colleges teach an approach to the Bible and Christian history that is based on the methods of Schleiermacher and von Harnack. Skepticism toward the Bible and toward the historicity of the gospels is the rule, not the exception, in mainline higher education.

This liberal scholarship could not help but give rise to loosening theological standards, which then leads to a tepid, passionless life on the part of the average member. What fruit has been borne in mainline churches over the last fifty years? We have come to a point where most mainline churches are actively pursuing policies that directly contradict a plain reading of the Bible. Denominational gatherings spend more time talking about malaria prevention and fair trade chocolate than they do about Jesus. Missionaries from mainline churches, as a rule, go into all the world not to make disciples for Jesus Christ but to do social service work. They expect to live out a gospel of tolerance rather than giving their passion for Jesus and his kingdom.

We at Central -- and I daresay other churches that have abandoned liberal denominational structures in the last few years -- are not innocent in these things. We are infected by the same complacency. This bothers me so much precisely because I see myself as infected with this same skeptical nonbelief rather than living out of a passion for Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer is such a role model for me precisely because in the face of complacency and compromise, he fled to the cross and lived at the feet of Jesus. It excites me to think what that life might mean for me, for us, here and now.


  1. I just finished this book a few days ago, and I am still paging through it, writing down some of the parts that have inspired me the most. I too have found some similarities between some of Bonhoeffer's problems with the Reichskirche and problems with the ELCA today. The parts that jumped out at me the most were when the author summarized Bonhoeffer's belief in living out our faith in the world, not just sitting by, complacent and trying to stay away from sin. It is truly a book that has strengthened my faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

  2. Heidi, thanks for your post. This is timely -- I just last night finished re-reading this book! I was struck this time by two things especially: first, just what you mention above -- Bonhoeffer's belief in living out our faith in the world -- his move from belief to action. The second thing that struck me was again, the parallels between the German Church's tendency to distance themselves from scripture and our own scholarship today that says, "We don't read the Bible that way." It's a dangerous thing anytime we say certain parts of the Bible don't apply to us today. Bonhoeffer certainly stood against that kind of a view.

    Glad you enjoyed the book!

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I had the SAME experience this summer when I read the book. The powerful witness of Bonhoeffer as told by Metaxas calls us to re-examine our discipleship and the loyalty to to denominations, contemporary issues, or whether we are called to follow Christ, which immediately sends us to the Christ of the Cross and his empty tomb!

  4. Culynn, thanks for your insights. I was thinking more about this during the last 24 hrs or so. I think one of the things I respect about Bonhoeffer is first, his insight into the godlessness of popular German culture in the 1920's and 30's -- which leads to a lot of Bonhoeffer's insights into the difference between religion and following Jesus. The German culture remained very religious throughout the Nazi years, even when the German Church was denying the Jewishness of Jesus, jettisoning the Old Testament, etc. Second and directly following is his willingness to stand against what everyone else just assumed was "normal." Metaxas makes this so clear in Bonhoeffer's relationship with his own family when they resisted him pursuing theology, in the formation of the Confessing Church, and in B's distancing himself from the Confessing Church when they were unwilling to stand against Hitler.

    So it makes me wonder, what are those things we assume are normal in our culture that are, in reality, diametrically opposed to Christianity? This is an interesting question to ask right now, a few minutes after the Superbowl ended.