40 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas won the 2011 Christian Book of the Year Award from the Evangelical Christian Publisher’s Association. I think it could win awards on anyone’s list, though. It’s one of the most fascinating biographies I’ve read in a while.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer started out in life as the privileged child of German intellectuals and met his end in a Nazi concentration camp. In between he wrote a number of theological texts, helped to found the Confessing Church in opposition to the official state church in the Nazi regime, and became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
His story shows the difficulties faced by Germans who attempted to oppose Hitler, but mostly it gives us a glimpse into what an extraordinary person Bonhoeffer was. He was a man who meditated deeply on scripture for answers to the violence and corruption in the world. He was particularly taken with the Sermon on the Mount. He saw it as the cornerstone for all Christian belief, and he insisted that his students meditate deeply on it, verse by verse. He then proceeded to live his life, even at great cost to himself, according to what he believed were the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount.
Much of what we know of Bonhoeffer now we know through his personal letters, and he wrote a great many letters to his fiance while he was imprisoned. Thus, much of the book covers his relationship with the young woman who never did become his wife but who was privy to the kind of peaceful acceptance he had for his situation. It’s through her we know that Bonhoeffer maintained the utmost faith throughout his ordeal, that he managed while in prison to not just cope but to somehow thrive enough to become a source of comfort to others.
I was also very interested in Bonhoeffer’s travels to America in his younger years. He was very much a scholar, having come from not just an intellectual family but also from a highly intellectual tradition within the German church. He visited America hoping to learn from American theologians, but he was not impressed. He did visit some African American churches that he enjoyed. He thought they were the only places he found real spirituality in his travels. For the most part, however, he did not believe he was even hearing sermons in American churches. He thought they were lacking in both intellectualism and in spirituality.
He was also quite bothered by the treatment of blacks in America. I personally thought it said a great deal about what he encountered that a German coming from the days of Hitler’s rise to power would be shocked by the racial divides he saw in America. He was shocked, though, and he thought the mainstream churches were falling down on their Christian duties by not addressing the issue of racial reconciliation as an issue of obedience to God.
Bonhoeffer believed that Christians should neither veer off toward being too liberal nor veer off toward being too legalistic. He thought both were wrong, and he believed that there was a desired middle ground that was the path of simple obedience to God’s will. For him the answers to what that will might be were in the Sermon on the Mount. This was the conviction he stuck by, and it seemed to be the source of his extraordinary peace with himself even throughout the direst of circumstances.
You’ll learn a lot about how Hitler rose to power and what the reactions were among German Christians in this book. You’ll also learn a lot about how a pastor and a theologian found himself involved in a plot to assassinate his country’s leader and how he justified his choices to himself. All that, plus you’ll see an example of unwavering faith.
It’s a book I think anyone could enjoy regardless of religious persuasion, but it is full of explanations for Bonhoeffer’s theology that would make it of more particular interest to those Christians looking for academic understandings of matters of faith. I can see why it won the Christian Book of the Year Award. It’s a keeper.