Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bonhoeffer: has Metaxas whitewashed him?

I shall make no bones about it - it is a long time since I was as engrossed by a book, even a biography, as I was by Eric Metaxas's 'Bonhoeffer: pastor, martyr, prophet, spy' recently. It is racily written and with a keen ear for the catchy phrase and snappy put-down of baddies (Nazis mainly). But it is a challenging book as well as a good read and highly recommended. It has got me into re-reading some Bonhoeffer classics I first read many years ago, and also into reading one or two new things.

One of the questions that arises is: has Metaxas painted Bonhoeffer as rather more evangelical than he was? The evidence of what he writes is irrefutable and eminently quotable by an evangelical. The man seems to have had a very real love for and relationship with the Lord, and a real devotional life. But this is all from the period before he went into prison. One can read 'Life Together', 'The Cost of Discipleship' and even 'Ethics' and get much real help. For us who have lived in relatively tranquil times, it is mind-numbing to think about how one would have coped with the kind of pressures facing men in Bonhoeffer's position, with the Lutheran church capitulating to Hitler, and Bonhoeffer even losing faith eventually in the Confessing Church which promised far more than it delivered. But who will cast the first stone at anyone trying to find a way through the ethical maze of those dark days?

The theological climate is different when reading his theological letters from prison written from 1943-45. This is when his ideas of 'man come of age' and 'religionless Christianity' began to be explored although never fully developed. In subsequent years many sought to develop them and he was largely drawn on for example along with Tillich, Bultmann and Barth in the 'Honest to God' debate, though they were by no means saying the same things. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was taken to false conclusions by those professing to follow him. But he certainly said things which would lead to a radical secularising of Christianity and of Christian language and concepts.

In his 'The Abolition of Religion' (1964) Leon Morris helpfully analyses the debate and comes down fairly forcefully against Bonhoeffer.

It is fair to say that Metaxas does not really deal adequately with the 'Letters and Papers from Prison'. The theological debate is skirted in favour of perhaps one too many love letters from or to Bonhoeffer's fiancee Maria. It would have been good to have more rigorous debate about Bonhoeffer's ideas in this book.

A good complement is the helpful shorter biography by Edwin Robertson, 'The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer'. He too borders on hagiography (is this an inherent danger with a relatively young man who died under a tyranny?) but in the other direction, far more sympathetic to the 'Letters and Papers' but with less attention to certain 'evangelical' aspects of the early Bonhoeffer.

Still, we hope to debate the book at the John Owen Centre Theology Study Group on Monday 20th. Should be good! (See Gary Brady at 'Heavenly Worldliness' on this theme too).

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