Book Review: “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”

I first encountered the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in high school.  Our teacher, Jim Martin, made us read passages out of Bonhoeffer for a class we were taking.  Like most things in high school, I didn’t take it all that seriously.  Cursory glances into the famous Cost of Discipleship at best.  Years later, in seminary, CoD was again assigned reading for a class I was taking.  Again, cursory glances.  The depth of the reading and the magnitude of the man escaped me.

I began to take Bonhoeffer seriously several years later, when I was at my first pastorate in Tulsa.  I had run across Bonhoeffer’s name several times by reading such theologians as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, so I decided to give him another look, pulling Cost of Discipleship off the shelf once more.  This time, for whatever reason, I was completely captivated.  I motored through the book and then quickly ordered Ethics because I just HAD to get more.  Later on I purchased Eberhard Bethge’s monumental (1,000 page) biography of Bonhoeffer entitled Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times and found myself utterly captivated by Bethge’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life.  (Bethge was perhaps Bonhoeffer’s closest friend during the last decade of his life.)  Putting CoD and Ethics in the context of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Naziism further solidified the importance of listening to Bonhoeffer for me.  One person has dubbed him a “Church Father for Modern Times”, and I think that’s accurate.  There are few more towering and important theological and pastoral figures in 20th century than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So it is with extreme joy that I recommend what is surely to become the modern classic on Bonhoeffer’s life, a new biography by Eric Metaxas entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  If you don’t read another biography this year, read this one.  Metaxas combines masterful scholarship with a novelist’s touch, presenting Bonhoeffer with truly stunning and compelling clarity.  The work is not nearly the tome that Bethge’s is.  And that is perhaps one of its strengths.  At just over 500 pages, it moves with a brisk and captivating pace.

As relevant and enjoyable as I think this book will be for anyone who decides to pick it up (Christian or non), in particular I wish to recommend it heavily for pastors and students preparing for ministry.  The modern church is devoid of good models.  In a time when the word “pastor” floats further and further away from its historical meaning, we need figures – lives of the saints – that can help us reclaim what it means for us to live the calling well.  Bonhoeffer is one such figure.  His theology was deep yet crystal clear, and provided the resources out of which he led the church resistance to Naziism.  He was an academic par excellence yet did not see life in the pastorate and life as a scholar to be incompatible.  He assumed that the Church (the communio sanctorum in which Christ really lived) could only be the Church if it knew the present call of Christ in all of its depth and splendor, and knew it well.  So he preached with vigor and sharp theological insight.  He cultivated a lively spirituality and sought to draw others into it.  He was one of the first to ever talk about church renewal through a “new monasticism”, and the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde which he led for several years provides a compelling example of that vision.  He never shied away from conflict or struggle, and understood that following Christ would often mean walking a lonely and misunderstood path.  Bonhoeffer is a constant source of inspiration for me.

Anyway, again, if you’re not familiar with Bonhoeffer, Metaxas’ biography is a great place to start.  And so, perhaps to whet your appetite for Bonhoeffer, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.”

“There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.  The students–on the average 25-30 years old–are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are unfamiliar even with the most basic questions.  They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.” (This he wrote in a letter back to Germany after observing the vacuity of theological education at Union Seminary in New York.)

“What is at stake is by no means whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews.  It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: ‘here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God, here is proof whether a church is still the church or not.'”

“Only he who cries out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chants.”

“A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?…We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them…Do not try to make the Bible relevant.  Its relevance is axiomatic…Do not defend God’s Word but testify to it…Trust to the Word.  It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”  (On preaching)

“I discovered later and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.  By ‘this wordliness’ I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world.  That, I think, is faith.”

“If you set out to seek freedom, you must learn before all things mastery over sense and soul, lest your wayward desirings, lest your undisciplined members lead you now this way, now that way.  Chaste be your mind and your body, and subject to you and obedient, serving solely to seek their appointed goal and objective.  None learns the secret of freedom save only by way of control.  Do and dare what is right!  Not swayed by the whim of the moment.  Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying about in what might be.  Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.  Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.  God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.  Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.”  (From Stations on the Way to Freedom, written during his time at the Tegel prison.)

“This is the end…but for me it is the beginning of life.” (Bonnhoeffer’s last recorded words, just before he was hanged.)

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