Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Eric Metaxas)

I received a copy of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy as a gift this summer (thanks Strunks!). It is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I’ve admired Bonhoeffer since reading another of his biographies many years ago.

The complexity of Bonhoeffer intrigues me. In fact, as I read this book I felt that he was being oversimplified at times. Without notes or transcripts on the matter we cannot recreate the full process that Bonhoeffer went through as he weighed his loyalty to God, to Germany, and to an ethical life. Many gaps exist between the written records and the words of witnesses.

I find it fascinating that Bonhoeffer struggled with some form of depression or sadness–he referred to it as acedia or tristizia–which he only revealed to his closest confidant, Eberhard Bethge. Despite this heaviness he managed to appear calm, happy, joyful, and peaceful. I’m curious if his outward demeanor is a representation of his concept of “living truth.” I plan to read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics to try to understand his concept of truth more clearly (I definitely believe with the simplified version Metaxas presents, which is that truth is more than just facts–and to paraphrase Bonhoeffer: a factual lie may contain more truth than a factual “truth”).

One of the things I like about Bonoeffer is his combined love of solitude and community. During a time of unrest while separated from close friends he wrote in his journal: “One is less lonely when one is alone.” Despite a penchant for solitude Bonhoeffer seemed to have many friends.

While a prisoner separated from the woman he loved Bonhoeffer wrote this about pain and longing:

Stifter once said, “Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all joys of the world.” It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again–the pain of longing which can often be felt even physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, that is the one of joy in God.

It makes me wonder if that was a daily reality for Dietrich. Was he able to feel that which he believed? Did the logic permeate his being? I hope so.

Changing gears, this was the first book written by Metaxas that I have read, and I found myself alternating between opinions on his writing. At times his phrasing was a bit confusing or jarring. He managed to use phrases like “. . . hemorrhoidal isometrics . . .” and “. . . double-barreled flatulence . . .” in all seriousness (reading the latter resulted in a mental rabbit trail rather juvenile in nature–most unfitting with the serious context in which it was presented).

I’ve read some reviews that question the accuracy of Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theology, beliefs, and life. The main criticism is that he has presented Bonhoeffer as a modern evangelical American. I would agree that much of Bonhoeffer’s theology is presented very sparsely, and I do not know how accurately. I’m very curious about the very secular mindset of his family, which is not emphasized in the book. I’m also intrigued by the idea that theology may have began as a primarily academic pursuit for Bonhoeffer before meaning more to him.

I found this book interesting, challenging, and inspiring–well worth reading.

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