Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.
The Hero They Wanted.
In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.
He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.
You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.
Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.
Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.
You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.
His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.
Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.
I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.
The Movie in Their Heads.
Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.
For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”
We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)
In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.
It’s difficult to describe to those who’ve never tangled with fundagelicals the downright grandiose view that they often have of themselves. I really can’t overstate enough how it was back then–and how much more extreme it seems now when I look at how they talk about themselves and about world events. Everything got filtered through that lens of heroism and desperate clawing for battlefield victories that couldn’t be seen with the eye. Everything got correlated with diagrams and charts, and everything fit into conspiracy theories masquerading as prophecies contorted out of the Book of Revelation. And everything and everyone opposing their headlong rush for uncontested, theocratic power got filed under “demonic influence that must be opposed at all costs.”Everything was either for Christianity or against it. (By “Christianity,” of course, I mean fundagelicals’ version of the religion; everyone else’s version of it was suspect.) Once something ended up in the definitely Satanic/demonic/worldly side of the equation, it couldn’t ever change or leave that side to go to the definitely godly/angelic/heavenly side. There’s no way to say “whoops! We were wrong, guys!” in fundagelicalism.
Once right-wing Christian leaders got in bed with Republicans and began twisting their version of the religion into one that was even more nationalistic and concerned with earthly power than the religion naturally is, this thinking became more prominent–and more extremist. The more nationalistic and grabby the religion became, the greater grew fundagelicals’ fascination with this movie-version of the world–and the further removed their movie-world selves became from their real-world selves.
Recasting the Last Good War.
A major part of Christians’ effort to maintain their feelings of moral superiority and correctness involves reframing issues and people in ways that either flatter their own side or denigrate their enemies’ side. Often they accomplish this task by comparing themselves and their culture wars to unambiguously virtuous people and events from the past. That’s why they seriously tried to say with a straight face that their heroine Kim Davis was the Rosa Parks of this generation–even though she was fighting to the last breath to limit other people’s civil rights. Thankfully, that attempt was mocked and slapped down so hard that the Christians pushing the idea dropped it fairly quickly.
But they’re a persistent bunch, and they found something else to latch onto.
Unfortunately, it was something even more egregiously wrong.
One of the hardest times in our history was World War II. The enemy faction was so monstrous, so cruel, so evil, and so extreme in every way that you’ll often hear people refer to this war as “the Last Good War.” It was “a parable of good and evil,” in one historian’s words, though even non-fundagelicals do a little recasting of our own in remembering it thusly.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against that evil as best he could. He did it through a complicated view of Christianity and morality, one that doesn’t easily translate to the modern age. Eric Metaxas does him–and fundagelicals generally–a huge disservice by trying to compare the modern world to the one that existed at the dawn of the Second World War, and an even bigger one by trying to compare his tribe to their new idol. Simply put, Democrats aren’t Nazis, evangelicals aren’t the Allies, and Hillary Clinton isn’t Adolf Hitler. Nobody’s murdering anybody, much less babies, and fundagelicals have actually set themselves against freedom and progress rather than fighting for either one. As Libby Anne has pointed out, if you want to get all technical, only one side is acting anything like the Nazis here, and it ain’t us.
Eric Metaxas’ brazen recasting of his tribe as the brave Allies fighting the evil Nazis to save the world is breathtaking in its inanity and dishonesty, but it’s just the culmination of many years of steady encroachment on the memory of that era. In fundagelicals’ minds, they’re the victims because nobody’s letting them be bigots-for-Jesus and strip rights from women or LGBTQ people without comment or resistance. They’re the ones suffering because their redefined “religious liberties” are being threatened by the idea of total strangers handling their consensual relationships in a way that fundagelicals don’t personally like–and this suffering compares to that of the people the Nazis oppressed. They’re the ones oppressed because Creationism cannot be taught in public schools’ science classes anymore.
This recasting effort is only going to backfire dramatically as more people hear about it. It’s a ridiculous and flailing attempt to reframe their own catastrophic errors in a way that flatters themselves.
On the plus side, there is pushback from outside the tribe. One of Mr. Bonhoeffer’s more reputable biographers refers to Eric Metaxas’ writing as a book full of “Bonhoeffer delusions.” Charles Marsh, who actually is a real live historian who conducted real live scholarly research on the fellow’s life before writing a book about him, says very forcefully that Mr. Metaxas’ view of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a “born-again Christian who espoused traditional family values” is “complete nonsense.” (He also reveals the bombshell that this great leader, painted by Mr. Metaxas as a powerhouse of fundagelical virtues, might have been gay.) And he concludes, as damningly as one can possibly manage in such a sweetly-scholarly way, the worst accusation of them all:
In the end, Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer resembles no one so much as Metaxas.
Ah, and (as J.D. would have said) there it is: this is why Eric Metaxas loves his version of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as much as he does. This vision doesn’t resemble reality at all, but it doesn’t need to–not for him, not for his tribe. It feeds and flatters fundagelicals’ feelings and desires, validating their deepest yearnings. That’s all they really want or need out of their movie-land version of reality.
But I’ll tell you this, friends: more and more often, people are seeing through the illusion. They’re making their rolls to disbelieve, so to speak! One little lie punctures the bubble–that’s all it takes, just one more puncture than their leaders have time to repair. You’d really think at this point that those leaders would be concentrating now on producing as few punctures as possible, but instead they are only growing more belligerent by the day and more removed from reality by the moment.
Be vigilant–but take heart. What we’re seeing is pure desperation, completely mindless flailing and scrabbling for purchase in a world that is moving ever-faster away from their control. The worse that scrabbling gets, the more people will see their behavior for what it is: dishonest and utterly divorced from reality. And it’s happening faster than I ever could have imagined when I first deconverted.
Maybe what’s left will closer resemble Mr. Bonhoeffer’s vision of Christianity than Mr. Metaxas’ one. We’ll just have to see.
Though if it is, that shift would be quite the departure from how the religion’s been for most of its 2000 years of existence.
It’d take–dare I say it?–a miracle.
* Sold out, on fire: Christianese terms that indicate a very high degree of faithfulness, fervor, and religiosity. I sometimes call this state of mind “gung ho” or “hardcore.”
** Rapture and Tribulation: two events that right-wing Christians believe, probably erroneously, to be predicted in the Bible as part of Earth’s final days. In the Rapture, Jesus will magic all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ up through the sky into Heaven. The Tribulation is a period of great persecution that will end in a huge world war called Armageddon; after that the Christian god will slate-wipe the whole shebang. Christians argue a lot about exactly at what point in the Tribulation the Rapture will occur; most think it’ll happen before shit hits the fan (pre-Tribulation/Trib), while some think it’ll happen exactly midway through (mid-Trib) and a few think it’ll happen at the very end (post-Trib), right before the war. My church was more or less officially pre-Trib but I knew post-Trib Christians who thought we were weenies who weren’t hardcore enough. An old friend of mine called himself “pan-Trib,” meaning he refused to worry about it because if he did his best, he knew everything would pan out. (Haha I know right?) A disturbing number of modern fundagelicals believe wholeheartedly that these events will begin in their lifetimes–and obviously they’re slated to be Raptured. Incidentally, the Left Behind series is pre-Trib (as are most Rapture-preaching evangelists). I’ll leave it to y’all to work out why it’s such a popular position.