Bonhoeffer at the End of Life: Bonhoeffer, Evangelicals and Pastor Mike Hayes.

Bonhoeffer at the End of Life: Bonhoeffer, Evangelicals and Pastor Mike Hayes. January 12, 2018
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The following is an interview with Pastor Mike Hayes. I first heard of Mike from John Walter Matthews, former President of the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section. John informed me that Mike is a retired pastor working on a book on Bonhoeffer for evangelicals. So, who’s Mike? In answer to the question, Mike packed 55 years of his life as a follower of Jesus into one paragraph:

“I live in Red Wing MN, retired after ten years as a pastor in Blaine and 16 as a pastor in Fargo. When I finished Fuller Seminary in 68, I joined IVCF staff and was campus staff/Area Director in Hawaii for ten years. The greatest influences in my theology were several IV staff members, as well as Ray Anderson as Pastor, Professor (at Fuller), and Friend. Writers would have to be John Stott in my early years, then Henri Nouwen, and especially Eugene Peterson. My favorite ministry over the years has been leading Bible studies for as few as one or as many as 70-80 at a time. I’ve done that here in the US, of course, but also a number of times in a Bible college in eastern Russia, often with Muslim followers of Jesus in Bangkok, and a few times with American missionaries in Europe. Probably half of those have been in the Gospel of Mark, which has probably also occupied about half my own personal study time.”

Here’s the interview:

Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): Your assessment of Bonhoeffer’s writings at the end of his life (such as his Letters and Papers from Prison) differs from Eric Metaxas’s assessment in his biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. How so?

Mike Hayes (MH): I have three major problems with Metaxas’s biography. The first problem is that he appears to be unacquainted with most of Bonhoeffer’s writings. He shows no awareness of some of Bonhoeffer’s most valuable and persisting ideas, such as the Christian’s solidarity with the world, responsibility as the essence of the Christian life, and the core conviction that God comes to be with us in weakness, not strength. The second problem springs from the first. Metaxas follows the long-outdated impression among many evangelicals that there is a disconnect between Bonhoeffer’s earlier and later writings. It seems that among the earlier writings Metaxas has read only Discipleship and Life Together. At the very least, these are the works he features. Such fixation distorts what Bonhoeffer was thinking, saying, and doing as early as his university years. When Metaxas turns to Ethics and Letters and Papers, Metaxas simply dismisses them as if Bonhoeffer hadn’t even thought through his ideas with any care. Had he read something such as Bonhoeffer’s lecture in Barcelona called “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity,” he would have realized that there is nothing radical in the last writings that was not already in Bonhoeffer’s mind at age 22. The third problem is that believing Discipleship and Life Together to be the “real” Bonhoeffer, Metaxas comes to the bizarre conclusion that Bonhoeffer was just like a modern American evangelical (Note to the reader: it is worth reading the critical reviews of Metaxas’s biography by noted Bonhoeffer scholars, Clifford Green and Charles Marsh; refer here and here).

PLM: You have shared with me that Bonhoeffer’s piety differs from many American evangelicals’ piety. Please define “piety” for the readership, and how it manifests itself in Bonhoeffer’s life and work, and how it differs from the kind of piety reflected in many evangelicals in the U.S. today.

MH: Piety is both an attitude and its resultant lifestyle, with a very personal devotion to Jesus Christ at its core. The two most commonly and easily recognized marks of piety are devotion to Scripture as the Word of God and to Jesus as Lord and Savior. The commitment to Scripture among healthy pietists does not require that they be literalists, just that they be constantly learning from and fundamentally trusting what Bonhoeffer once called the “love letter from God.” Sometimes the “personal” part of piety gets distorted and exaggerated into a merely “Jesus and me” kind of religiosity. Bonhoeffer was deeply offended by that distortion and thus had no patience with the individualistic and otherworldly piety he saw in the Germany of his day. Even though he was critical of such distorted piety, it is important to note that, to the day of his death, Bonhoeffer’s faith was marked by a very deep piety learned in his childhood from his mother. She was an excellent and active teacher of Christian piety in the family. And her lifestyle of service to others, including Jews, made a deep impression on Bonhoeffer. Hers was not a piety of grabbing onto a few pat answers but of loving and serving a living Lord Jesus in the community around her.

PLM: Presently, you prefer to use the word “biblical” to describe yourself rather than “evangelical.” Why is that?

MH: I’ve always considered myself to be an evangelical. However, I’m afraid the word “evangelical” has had its meaning so badly distorted in our day that it is now a political rather than a Christian term. The political evangelicals have a firm grip on two ethical positions (they are against abortion and gay rights), and on a small number of politically far-right positions (such as being anti-government, except when it suits their agenda). As a result, they have ceased to care about biblical values or Christian character in our leaders. I can’t go along with that at all. The overly-simplified picture one gains of the Pharisees in the New Testament is that they were severe legalists, committed to an external ethical perspective with lots of convenient loopholes. Today’s evangelicals appear to me to be far more legalistic than the Pharisees. For over half a century I’ve considered myself an evangelical, but now I only want to be a biblical Christian. Nothing more. 

PLM: What are the unique features and aim of your book?

MH: My book, entitled Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biblical Appreciation, is a blend of biography and chronological examination of Bonhoeffer’s writings from his university years until the end of the Letters and Papers. I’m especially interested in helping conservative Christians see that Ethics as well as Letters and Papers are easily “translatable” into language that is more familiar to us. I try to take into account many of the lesser known writings for those who may not have easy access to them. My thesis is that, while Bonhoeffer is certainly not to be identified with American evangelicals, he does share with us the foundation of a pious devotion to Scripture and to Jesus Christ. The house he builds on the foundation, however, is deeper and more insightful than most American evangelicals can quite imagine. The book will be published by Kirk House Publishers, which has three imprints: Kirk House Publishers, Quill House Publishers, and Lutheran University Press. The book will be available sometime this spring (Note: Mike Hayes also blogs about Bonhoeffer. You can find his blog here at this link).

PLM: Mike, before I proceed with the next question, I want to share with our readers the following endorsement by John W. Matthews, Senior Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota; Adjunct Instructor of Religion at Augsburg University, Minneapolis; and Past-President of the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section: “Michael Hayes, an evangelical Christian, offers in this volume perhaps the first – and only – biography that shows how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy can be of great inspiration to evangelicals, while not diminishing or dismissing his (Bonhoeffer’s) ‘liberal’ biblical, ethical and social commitments. Hayes understands Bonhoeffer’s contribution to address key concerns for evangelicals: scripture, salvation, sin, Jesus Christ, church and world. He argues – throughout this biography – that for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Bible had immense authority (a primary evangelical commitment), even though Bonhoeffer did no embrace the fundamentalist or evangelical doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ever the Lutheran, Jesus Christ is unquestionably the incarnate Word of God, present in preaching, community and sacraments, at the center of the church, history, nature and individual lives. Hayes, an evangelical, challenges fellow evangelicals not to diminish Bonhoeffer’s importance for lacking an emphasis on a ‘private’ experience of conversion, as understood by American evangelicals. Finally, Hayes affirms Bonhoeffer’s dialectical grasp of the ‘Word and World,’ while not succumbing to a heretical Manichean dualism, often present as the dark side of evangelical preaching and teaching.”

PLM: Mike, you have told me that you have cancer, and that you are likely in your last days. What are your closing thoughts about Bonhoeffer, the evangelical movement and your own life, and what your hope is for the future of Christianity in America?

MH: I am proud of the idea and the ideals of America. In our founding documents and the stories that helped to form this country, it is clear that America stands for justice, liberty, and freedom. However, I believe this ideal is being severely tested presently. We are in difficult times when enmity to such ideals is not uncommon among members of our national leadership.  As a result, we find ourselves in a very dangerous and unstable situation. My conviction is that the church is America’s greatest hope, though we’re struggling with knowing how to help lead the way in our democracy as Jesus’ disciples. Thus, it is essential that we learn anew what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in our day. While we do not know where he will lead us, we need to discern how he will lead us. Scripture is quite clear on the subject: Jesus Christ leads his followers into the world. We’ve got to be servants, to be listeners, and to demonstrate the respect and love showed all those whom Jesus engaged. We must also remember that Jesus’ strongest and harshest responses were to righteous, religious folks, who ostracized “sinners.” Bonhoeffer in both his teaching and his example has a great deal to teach us in this regard.

Bonhoeffer, like Jesus, tended toward an attitude of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. One of my favorite examples of Jesus being inclusive is the story of his encounter with the unclean Gentile, who was a Syrophoenician woman. He spoke to her in a way which sounds rude to our modern ears, though the important thing is that she did not hear it that way. Rather, she and Jesus engaged in a brief but very rabbinic-like conversation. He spoke a suggestive sentence. She heard exactly where he was going with his idea that it is not good to give the Jewish children’s bread to Gentile dogs (Matthew 15:26-27) it, and added her own words to complete the thought that even dogs receive crumbs from their master’s table. Jesus set up the conversation so that the woman would counter his assertion in a manner that brings about a creative and redemptive synthesis. Jesus then commended her for her word of faith and blessed her without telling her she was supposed to become a Jew like him. Just as Jesus includes the outsider in the canonical gospels, so we find in the Book of Acts that the aim of the church is to be inclusive, not exclusive, as illustrated in the decision at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Bonhoeffer’s overarching vision and life was given to break down exclusionary walls to foster inclusion. How are we doing, not simply with reading Bonhoeffer, or reading about Bonhoeffer, but in following his example? As Bonhoeffer would say, Jesus is the man for others—especially excluded others, and the church is the community for such excluded others. So, in view of Christian Scripture, which Jesus, which church and which Bonhoeffer will we embrace today?

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