Bonhoeffer Bends A Lot of Ways

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Make of him what you will. Literally.

Everyone wants to claim Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals like his political action on behalf of an oppressed people. Evangelicals love his “religionless Christianity” and his critique of his students at Union Seminary in New York. That he is a complex historic figure is currently on display, brought to a head by Eric Metaxas.

Metaxas, an accomplished author and unapologetically conservative firebrand, wrote a popular biography of Bonhoeffer that was met with plaudits by fellow conservatives, winning Book of the Year in 2010 by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Metaxas got another jewel in his crown when he gave the plenary address this year at the National Prayer Breakfast.

The problem? Metaxas’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life has been almost universally derided by Bonhoeffer scholars. They say that he simply took bits and pieces of Bonhoeffer’s biography — all cribbed from earlier books — and pasted them together to make his point that Bonhoeffer was actually a conservative cultural warrior who repudiated liberal Christianity and considered fundamentalists in America to be in the same plight as German Jews.

In the Association of Contemporary Church Historians Quarterly, for instance, Victoria J. Barnett of the US Holocaust Museum writes,

There are two central problems here. The first is that he has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period. Hence he has pieced together the historical and theological backdrop for the Bonhoeffer story using examples from various works, sometimes completely out of context and often without understanding their meaning. He focuses too much on minor details and overlooks some of the major ones (such as the role of the Lutheran bishops and the “intact” churches). The second is that theologically, the book is a polemic, written to make the case that Bonhoeffer was in reality an evangelical Christian whose battle was not just against the Nazis but all the liberal Christians who enabled them.

And that’s the nice part of the review.

So, is this just a case of academics being jealous of the popular success of someone who’s not part of the guild? Or is it the academic liberal elite whining about conservative scholarship? In either case, Metaxas gets to claim that their criticism actually proves his point.

Being a supremely complex and somewhat ambiguous historical figure, Bonhoeffer lends himself to multiple interpretations. Many parties can claim him for their purposes; many have, and many surely will in the future.

Kind of like Jesus.

  • Tim Hartman

    A timely post, Tony. As the International Bonhoeffer Congress is meeting, starting tomorrow, in Sigtuna, Sweden on Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology… For more see:
    http://www.sigtunastiftelsen.se/Aktuellt+program_3__1053.html/lid/6/boka/461

  • http://scottpaeth.typepad.com Scott Paeth

    Good post. I think it’s more accurate to say evangelicals like his work in “Discipleship” and “Life Together,” early to mid-period stuff from before he was knee deep in the conspiracy. Liberals tend to like “Ethics” and “Letters and Papers from Prison,” which is where you get the inklings of “religionless Christianity” and the idea of God being with those on the underside of history. That’s the stuff I tend to prefer at least, though I do have a lot of affection for the early stuff too.

    But undoubtedly Metaxas’s work is a scurrilous bit of revisionist history, and poorly researched at that. We read the book as part of the President’s Book Club at DePaul last Spring, and the historians of the period in my group utterly destroyed his take on Germany in the 1930s, while I took him apart theologically.

  • http://www.mikeoles3.wordpress.com Mike Oles

    Bonhoeffer wasn’t that ambiguous.

    He led perhaps the most audacious and nearly succesful Christian resistance against Hitler and Nazism. Any decent student of history would tell you that the American evangelical church has way more in common with the church that colluded with Hitler than resisted Hitler (ie. extreme patriotism, anti-unionism, pro-corporate power, pro-militarism, suspectible to racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant, etc.)

    It totally sucks that this book is now probably the most popular book about him published in the last good while but it is telling that the author gave the keynote at the creepy national prayer breakfast; an event as Jeff Sharlet has documented that is readily used for informal networking between american conversative power brokers and third world tyrants, many of whom can be accused of committing genocide.

    It is my hope that instead of ceding Bonhoeffer (and Jesus) to the likes of Mextaxas that us in the emergent/progressive church can embody the costly grace that Bonhoeffer wrote about and lived out.

    • Chris

      “Any decent student of history would tell you that the American evangelical church has way more in common with the church that colluded with Hitler than resisted Hitler (ie. extreme patriotism, anti-unionism, pro-corporate power, pro-militarism, suspectible to racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant, etc.)”

      Ay, ay, ay. This is dumb in the extreme. Now evangelicals are really clandestine Nazi’s.
      This is like saying that mainline protestants have more in common with Stalinist Russia (i.e. class-envy and a push for a classless society, pro-workers union, extreme anti-capitalism, etc).

      For Gods sake people can we have just the least little bit of perspective here?

      • http://www.mikeoles3.wordpress.com Mike Oles

        How is it dumb to the extreme? I did not make the claim that American evangelicals are “clandestine Nazis.” I made the claim that the value systems of the church, both Catholic and protestan, that failed to challenge or ended up colluding with Nazism shared many of the same values that a strong majority of American conservative Christians share. They aren’t Nazis, but would American conservative Christians challenge an American fascist movement or government? I would hope so but the jury is still out and that isn’t what happend in Germany during the rise of the Nazis.

        As for your comparision to “mainline protestants” having “more in common with Stalinist Russia,” I think you are completely losing your analogy. Since Bonhoeffer essentially came from a “mainline protestant” church, it could be argued that most “mainline” churches in Germany (which isnt really a German term–but lets have it mean upper class, well educated protestants) also failed to effectively confront Nazism and/or colluded with Nazism.

        And unfortunately, as a member of a mainline church, United Methodist, I fear how my own denomiation would have acted in the face of the rising Nazi threat.

        I think it is completely ridicoulous though to place Bonhoeffer in the pantheon of conservative (and anti-liberal) Christian heroes, which Metaxas is clearly trying to do. Bonhoeffer clearly rejected status-quo Christianity, both the conservative and liberal form of it, for something much closer to the real heart and life of Christ.

        To quote Bonhoeffer, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”

        • Chris

          Once again:

          “Any decent student of history would tell you that the American evangelical church has way more in common with the church that colluded with Hitler than resisted Hitler (ie. extreme patriotism, anti-unionism, pro-corporate power, pro-militarism, suspectible to racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant, etc.)”

          I’ll let your statement stand unedited and let people decide for themselves whether or not your are drawing fair/unfair inferences between Hitler’s ideology and American evangelicalism.

          • Justin F

            “I’ll let your statement stand unedited and let people decide for themselves whether or not your are drawing fair/unfair inferences between Hitler’s ideology and American evangelicalism.”

            I’d like to point out that your statement is a misleading framing of Mike’s comment. He’s not drawing comparisons between the Evangelical Church and Hitler. Per the quote you cited, he’s comparing the Evangelical Church with the German Church that colluded with Hitler.

          • http://missional.ca Jamie Arpin-Ricci

            Chris, even out of context, Mike’s comment in no way suggests what you claim it suggests. I’m with Mike on this one. It was a relative comparison between the churches NOT an absolute equating with Nazism.

    • CM

      Why do progressives naturally assume that American conservatives would rally around the Nazi cause? It’s an old and tired claim that comes from the political arena designed to put conservatives on the defensive, having to claim that they would stand up to Hitler.

      Conservatives could easily take the other path…American Progressives would stand up with the Marxist movements throughout the 20th and even today who co-opted various Christian denominations to push “social justice” and other Marxist themes.

      Being “anti-union” does not make one a Nazi. Being a patriot does not make one a Nazi. Supporting the military does not make one a Nazi. What is more telling is that the opposite of these themes would indicate what YOU believe: Pro-Union, pro-Internationalism (communism), anti-military…is that all true? No? Then why do you provide these sly insults to conservatives?

  • Dale Friesen

    I would be interested to hear Andrew Root weigh in on this as he uses a lot of Bonehoffer in his writings.

  • Susan Taylor

    I read Metaxas’ book, and yes, it definitely has a conservative/evangelical agenda; and I agree with with his statement by Mike Oles, “Any decent student of history would tell you that the American evangelical church has way more in common with the church that colluded with Hitler than resisted Hitler (ie. extreme patriotism, anti-unionism, pro-corporate power, pro-militarism, suspectible to racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant, etc.)”

    As far as I’m concerned, because Metaxas’ book has many people, of many political and apolitical persuasions, reading about Bonehoffer–it is a good thing. Reading about Bonehoffer and what he wrote and did makes people think critically, in my opinion. Reading this book most likely may send readers to re-read or read for the first time his books, and reading Bonehoffer always causes people of all persuasions to think critically and deeply about their Christian faith. Thinking critically and deeply about your Christian faith most often helps people to mature in their faith.

    • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

      Susan, it would be great if the Metaxas bio led people to read Bonhoeffer for themselves, but I’m not so sure. I think a great many will take his picture of Bonhoeffer and make use of him for their own purposes without ever bothering to read him. It’s important that we heed the Bonoeffer scholars who speak to the dangers of this book.

      I would also suggest reading the most definitive bio of Bonhoeffer available to day, and that’s Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945.

  • Adam

    Is there a better Bonhoeffer biography that you guys might suggest? I have wanted to read one for a while, but having a degree in history and divinity, I was skeptical of Metaxas’ perspective outside of those disciplines. Would appreciate any suggestions.

    • Robert Thompson

      Adam, Try Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eberhard Bethge,Who actually knew Bonhoeffer he was at the Confessing Church at Zingst and was part of the House of Brethen with Bonhoeffer. He also Married the daughter of one of Bonhoeffer’s sisters. He also had the original papers for “Letters and Papers from Prison” He clearly knew the man and the biography is very will sourced.

      • Carl Badgley

        i just read this tonight and posted concerning it on my FB page. in the couple of comments that ensued, i think i stumbled on why, as my lutheran pastor friend puts it, “cringe every time someone mentions his name.” why, you may ask? very simply as influential as he has been on my own thought i would never dishonor the man by dragging his name behind me as some post-mortem stamp of approval for where i have ended up theologically or politically.
        its simply not fair to him or his memory to do so. and frankly, i think DB would have rather seen his legacy fade than for it to become the notary public for everyone’s thoughts and behavior who loved his work.

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com greg metzger

    So very glad to see this from Tony. I have been challenging Metaxas’ extraordinary work recently comparing the Preisdent’s Affordable Care Act to early Nazi laws while giving absolutely no documentation. We really do need to be pushing back against this man’s simplistic and highly charged distortions of the historical record especially since he has a ridiculously large media influence. My posts on him are at:

    http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com

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