Book Review: Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.


bonhoeffercolorAs an undergraduate I attended a Christian music festival my junior summer. Knowing that moments of waiting between acts would be inevitable, I carried with me a copy of The Cost of Discipleship. In between sets, during sets that I decided lacked something, or just late at night unable to sleep due to the excitement of the day, I doggedly plowed through that green paperback. The event itself was on great and remains a blessed memory; but the book, that book changed me life. Like so many young men before me, I was challenged and emboldened by this German pastor’s call to expensive grace. That summer and book set off a lifetime conversation with this German Lutheran pastor and martyr.

Upon hearing about this new biography, I was thrilled and excited to read it; yet my excitement admittedly waned as I learned about the author. A testy exchange of tweets between him and me over (of all things) the Oscar win of Quentin Tarantino seemingly sealed the fate of this book: to be forever condemned to the not read pile in my office. Yet something new happened and I found myself intrigued and interested in seeing my German conversation partner in a new light. It seems all so coincidental that I would find myself drawn to rediscovery in the same year of my life in which Bonhoeffer met his new one.

And so I picked up this large book and began reading, setting aside the author’s curious political and theological leanings, I hoped to meet afresh someone whose life could serve as a model for the reinvention and rediscovery of who I am as a minister.

In Bonhoeffer I see someone with a very real and very authentic faith and it is this faith that Metaxas excels at revealing. In discussion of the life of Bonhoeffer we encounter his theology of the body and in it find a incarnated theology to be examined, exhumed, and integrated into one’s own. Perhaps the best understanding of this theology can be seen in Bonhoeffer’s comments about the marriage he had hoped to experience. From his jail cell Bonhoeffer would say:

“As God today adds his ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes.’ As he confirms your will with his will, and as he allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, he makes you at the same time instruments of his will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In his unfathomable condescension God does add his ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, he creates out of your love something quite new- the holy estate of marriage.” (458)

Here we see operating both Bonhoeffer’s Barthian view of God and his equally Barthian sense that humanity, true humanity, is one in which God comes down and binds himself to humanity. In Jesus Christ humanity sees not only the true essence of what a human is; but also who God is. In this dialectical personage and passage, we see how the Yes of God can be added to the Yes of humanity and something new, something beautiful, something good comes out of our sinful, evil, and tragic world. The true self is the self committed in obedience to will and do the things that God himself wills and does. It is only when we add our Yes to God’s that the magic and mystery of faith blossoms into a beautiful flower.

Now as a child I heard many a sermon on obedience. Simple sermons on what obedience looked and acted like. To echo Albert Schweitzer’s criticism of the first quest for historical Jesus, most of these sermons looked more like the pastor than of Christ, himself. Yet in Bonhoeffer, as presented so well by Metaxas, we see a figure not so simplistic; one capable of seeing a multitude of grays in this wantingly black and white preaching. Talking about his quest and mission to stand over against the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Who stands fast?…. Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God- the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.” (446)

In both his work with the German Confessing Church and his involvement to seeing the death of Hitler (literally and figuratively), Bonhoeffer lived a life that he hoped was an answer to the question of God to him. Yet this no mere high-minded stand, Bonhoeffer as the moral force behind the Valkyrie plot, was one willing to muddy his hands in the dirt if that was what it took to free the sight of German blind man. For as Bonhoeffer taught his charges in the schools he led, both sympathy for the oppressed and action on their behalf was needed. Bonhoeffer taught these faithful men that one must go to the scriptures and ask the not-as-simple-as-it-sounds question: “what word do you have for me today?” Imagining Bonhoeffer in his cell meditating on his Bible and praying his prayers, one might see flickers of Luther, his predecessor, in his own cell at Wartburg Castle, a place we know Bonhoeffer was familiar.

In this way Bonhoeffer, through this book, seems to speaking a new truth to the new minister emerging from within me. Much as his Cost of Discipleship ministered to the younger minister I was, the words and descriptions of this mature Bonhoeffer content in his cell at Tegel speaks to the maturing minister I am becoming. The call and question in my life and heart is not the call to the very specific rules and guidelines of my youth, the blacks and whites of my Charismatic Evangelical youth; but to the Anglican grays of my present existence. From his grave the words of Bonhoeffer ring true as a call and question:

“If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s largeheartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.” (447).

In the opening graphs I eluded to a change in my life and circumstances, and in closing let me make that idea more clear. After years of service to the Charismatic Evangelical world, I find myself crossing the threshold to the liturgical world of Anglicanism and there I find myself entering into a new ministry of sorts. Now I find myself sitting in hospital rooms as a Chaplain listening to confessions, fears, hopes, doubts, dreams, and despairs. I find myself quite caught up not just in sympathy with these things; but in action with and against them. I find my yes being added to God’s yes in answer to the question: “who will find and feed my sheep?”  Now my experience has not the danger of standing up to a madman like Hitler; but as I recently found out firsthand it does have its dangers, to be around the unhealthy can impact even the health of a well person. As I stand in the gap, as it were, with those on the front line of our nation’s war against Ebola, death, and disease, I stand with those who know just how fleeting life can be, and just how beautiful.

It seems to me like Bonhoeffer has once again become an unlikely ally of sorts in the new ministry to which I go; and I have Metaxas’ careful consideration of Bonhoeffer to thank for that. Early in the work, Metaxas pulls a quote from Bonhoeffer: “where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.” (71). This seems to me a great descriptor of the call and question of the Chaplain. We go forth into the hospital or prison or what have you and we bring our presence, our Yes to God; and in His faithfulness, He adds His Yes to ours; and where those two ‘yes’s’ meet the loneliness and suffering abates if only for a little while. In this way we are present in sympathy and action with the sufferings of our brothers and sisters; and it is good enough.

This is a valiant thought of which I am indebted to Metaxas for bringing before me. I just wish that he would agree with me that just such action is needed in the world of gun control.

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