Portraits of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Metaxas and Schlingensiepen

While traveling to and from the Czech Republic, I completed Schlingensiepen’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. This is the second of two really good biographies I’ve read on Bonhoeffer this year. The first is the much enjoyed, and maligned, biography by Eric Metaxas Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

In reviews of Metaxas’ book some have criticized him for presenting Bonhoeffer inaccurately. They see Metaxas “hijacking” Bonhoeffer and rendering him in modern American Evangelical dress: a born-again, just-war advocate, and one who, as a theologically conservative, fought the liberals. There are others who are in a much better position than I to judge the scholarship in Metaxas’ book. Also, it is obviously difficult to judge such criticisms while standing firmly inside the evangelical movement as I do. Yet having now read both Metaxas and Schlingensiepen [the book, by the way, Clifford Green, who so severely criticized Metaxas, recommended in his review as a better guide to Bonhoeffer], I believe these critics have grossly overstated the case.

The two biographies are certainly different. Metaxas has a flare for the poetic and is one of the premier storytellers of our day. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Metaxas’ narrative interests could have influenced his presentation of the facts. Schlingensiepen, as a scholar, is more cautious and prosaic a writer. What one gains from this style is a less adventurous and less interesting a story. Schlingensiepen’s book is shorter, but it often felt to me like a longer read. Metaxas’ narrative is a page-turner as Green admits in his review. His story moves quickly with color and texture. I was often struck my Metaxas’ turn of phrase. He may be accused of “mind reading” and presenting himself as an “omniscient narrator”, but these are the tactics that make the story more interesting and I think he can be forgiven if his imagination gets the best of him. Sometimes scholars are anything but interesting as writers. And this makes a public readership uninterested in what they have to say.

The sourpusses among the International Bonhoeffer Society types, so fiercely criticizing Metaxas, are curiously on the wrong side of a renewed interest in Bonhoeffer among non-academic types. I should have thought that this renewed interest in Bonhoeffer, due to the popularity of Metaxas’ book, would be a welcomed happenstance for those interested in Bonhoeffer scholarship. Is it possible that the venom shot at Metaxas from certain quarters is more about fear than fact? Are they just appalled that an outsider like Metaxas has hijacked their role as the gatekeepers of Bonhoeffer’s legacy? Perhaps we can hear this in Green’s own admission:

Contrary to claims in the publicity, there is no new research in this biography. Bonhoeffer scholars are thanked but only mentioned in their role as editors; their research and writings are never discussed. (Disclosure: I have edited several volumes in the Bonhoeffer Works.)

The Bonhoeffer I met in Metaxas’ story was little different from the one I met in Schlingensiepen’s book. However, I definitely enjoyed Metaxas’ portrait of Bonhoeffer more than Schlingensiepen’s. Metaxas is simply a better writer and storyteller. I think it is useful, nevertheless, to read more than one biography if you’re really interested in a historical person. No one author can fully capture a man. And every biographer will seek to bring out those characteristics of the figure that they find most interesting and important. Furthermore, every biographer is writing to a constituency who to a degree shapes the presentation. Thus, no biography can stand alone. Of course the standard of all Bonhoeffer biographies is Ebehard Bethge’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, now 40 years old.

Have you read either of these new biographies? What are your thoughts on Eric Metaxas’ biography?

  • Rick Wadholm

    I did read Metaxas’ work and quite enjoyed it (I’ve recommended it to numerous individuals and even blogged a brief review of it on one of my blogs). As a member of the International Bonhoeffer Society I found some of his ideas to portray Bonhoeffer somewhat more as an American Evangelical, but for the most part felt he did a great service to Bonhoeffer scholarship in the English speaking world. One of the things I truly appreciated about it was the way he made Bonhoeffer come alive. It was not as dry as Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial work (which I noticed you forgot the first ‘r’ in his name), but it has been enough for me to be able to encourage others who know little of Bonhoeffer to catch a glimpse of the passion I feel for studying his life and theology. I have Schlingensiepen’s work on my priority purchase list for buying some time within the next year and reading. I look forward to seeing his own portrayal in comparison to the others. Thanks for the review Joel.

  • Rick Wadholm

    I did read Metaxas’ work and quite enjoyed it (I’ve recommended it to numerous individuals and even blogged a brief review of it on one of my blogs). As a member of the International Bonhoeffer Society I found some of his ideas to portray Bonhoeffer somewhat more as an American Evangelical, but for the most part felt he did a great service to Bonhoeffer scholarship in the English speaking world. One of the things I truly appreciated about it was the way he made Bonhoeffer come alive. It was not as dry as Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial work (which I noticed you forgot the first ‘r’ in his name), but it has been enough for me to be able to encourage others who know little of Bonhoeffer to catch a glimpse of the passion I feel for studying his life and theology. I have Schlingensiepen’s work on my priority purchase list for buying some time within the next year and reading. I look forward to seeing his own portrayal in comparison to the others. Thanks for the review Joel.

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  • Michael Fletcher

    I just finished the Metaxas book last night. It’s well written and well researched. One of the greatest things it did for me was to make me want to read more about Bonhoeffer. I don’t see how any devotees of Bonhoeffer could see that as a bad thing.

  • Michael Fletcher

    I just finished the Metaxas book last night. It’s well written and well researched. One of the greatest things it did for me was to make me want to read more about Bonhoeffer. I don’t see how any devotees of Bonhoeffer could see that as a bad thing.

  • BethSims

    Maybe because Metaxas is an American, his work appeals to Americans – I think Americans getting to know Bonhoeffer is a good thing. I just finished the book and I count it an honor to get to know such an honorable man as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am inspired by the life story of this man.

  • BethSims

    Maybe because Metaxas is an American, his work appeals to Americans – I think Americans getting to know Bonhoeffer is a good thing. I just finished the book and I count it an honor to get to know such an honorable man as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am inspired by the life story of this man.

  • Patrick Egan

    Joel, I also read Metaxas earlier this Summer. I really enjoyed it since I was able to place his work within a narrative of his life. I guessed that there was likely a N American perspective on his life, which, for better or worse, is likely unavoidable. Your raising another biographer I think will go a long way toward mitigating any undue influence such a perspective might present.

    In addition to your advice about reading more than one biography of a person, I would add that (especially for someone whose writing can be so accessible) a person ought to read several works by the person. Most, I would think, will find Discipleship both challenging and a pleasure. I would also recommend his book on the Psalms (Gebetbuch) and Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben).

  • Patrick Egan

    Joel, I also read Metaxas earlier this Summer. I really enjoyed it since I was able to place his work within a narrative of his life. I guessed that there was likely a N American perspective on his life, which, for better or worse, is likely unavoidable. Your raising another biographer I think will go a long way toward mitigating any undue influence such a perspective might present.

    In addition to your advice about reading more than one biography of a person, I would add that (especially for someone whose writing can be so accessible) a person ought to read several works by the person. Most, I would think, will find Discipleship both challenging and a pleasure. I would also recommend his book on the Psalms (Gebetbuch) and Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben).

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  • Brianmaiers

    I haven’t read the Metaxas book. I am sure its a good read. I am more concerned with his appearances on Glen Beck show http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjiarWEWNxw. I am pretty sure on anyone’s reading of Bonhoeffer and Barth that one would conclude that they would not be in favor of Beck’s agenda.

  • Brianmaiers

    I haven’t read the Metaxas book. I am sure its a good read. I am more concerned with his appearances on Glen Beck show http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjiarWEWNxw. I am pretty sure on anyone’s reading of Bonhoeffer and Barth that one would conclude that they would not be in favor of Beck’s agenda.

  • AM

    Is it true that Bonhoeffer denied the Resurrection?

    • Rick Wadholm

      No. I’m not sure where anyone would say such a thing. Any idea where you heard it?

      • AM

        Here’s a summary: http://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/did-bonhoeffer-believe-in-the-resurrection/

        It seems he denies its historicity, but renders it a matter of “faith”.

        • Rick Wadholm

          He does not deny its historicity but the attempt to rely on its historicity (or lack thereof) as the grounds for faith (or a denial of it). Instead he argues for the encounter with the “Risen One” as the grounds for faith. His argument is against any sense of a naked faith in “historically” known facts. The reality of the resurrection remains, but we are not capable of resting our faith in an empty tomb. Our faith rests in the Risen Lord who is even now present with His Church.

  • AM

    Is it true that Bonhoeffer denied the Resurrection?

    • Rick Wadholm

      No. I’m not sure where anyone would say such a thing. Any idea where you heard it?

      • AM

        Here’s a summary: http://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/did-bonhoeffer-believe-in-the-resurrection/

        It seems he denies its historicity, but renders it a matter of “faith”.

        • Rick Wadholm

          He does not deny its historicity but the attempt to rely on its historicity (or lack thereof) as the grounds for faith (or a denial of it). Instead he argues for the encounter with the “Risen One” as the grounds for faith. His argument is against any sense of a naked faith in “historically” known facts. The reality of the resurrection remains, but we are not capable of resting our faith in an empty tomb. Our faith rests in the Risen Lord who is even now present with His Church.

  • William Barto

    I recently completed Schlingensiepen’s biography of Bonhoeffer, and while it was not a page-turner, it was an enjoyable read. The author did not skimp on including Bonhoeffer’s own theological writings to illustrate various points, but the work’s major strength is situating Bonhoeffer within German society at the time. I will read Metaxas’ effort at some point, but what Schlingensiepen has done is motivate me to jump back into the primary works by Bonhoeffer, particularly his Ethics and Cost of Discipleship, to see if they were fairly represented. BTW, Schlingensiepen is one of the Founders of the International Bonhoeffer Society.

  • William Barto

    I recently completed Schlingensiepen’s biography of Bonhoeffer, and while it was not a page-turner, it was an enjoyable read. The author did not skimp on including Bonhoeffer’s own theological writings to illustrate various points, but the work’s major strength is situating Bonhoeffer within German society at the time. I will read Metaxas’ effort at some point, but what Schlingensiepen has done is motivate me to jump back into the primary works by Bonhoeffer, particularly his Ethics and Cost of Discipleship, to see if they were fairly represented. BTW, Schlingensiepen is one of the Founders of the International Bonhoeffer Society.

  • Isaac

    So did you find that Metaxas paints Bonhoeffer as a Just War proponent or a theological conservative? I’m finishing up a course on Bonhoeffer from Fuller and those seem like pretty important characterizations to get right (or wrong).

  • Isaac

    So did you find that Metaxas paints Bonhoeffer as a Just War proponent or a theological conservative? I’m finishing up a course on Bonhoeffer from Fuller and those seem like pretty important characterizations to get right (or wrong).

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