Portraits of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Metaxas and Schlingensiepen

Portraits of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Metaxas and Schlingensiepen August 13, 2011

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?

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