Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
I've wanted to review Metaxas' Bonhoeffer ever since the early days of this blog--but to do it justice, I needed to give it a second read, to have the contents fresh in my mind. And that just didn't happen. I kept shoving it to later, until this year, when Bonhoeffer became a top priority.
He's been one of my heroes. He deeply inspired one of the novels I've written, his theology and life have shaped my thinking time and again. And reading this book for a second time, I found even more profound insights from his life to meditate on.
The Book [from the back cover, paperback edition]
WHO BETTER TO FACE THE GREATEST EVIL OF THE 20TH CENTURY THAN A HUMBLE MAN OF FAITH?
As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis seduced a nation, bullied a continent, and attempted to exterminate the Jews of Europe, a small number of dissidents and saboteurs worked to dismantle the Third Reich from the inside. One of these was Dietrich Bonhoeffer--a pastor and author. In this New York Times best-selling biography, Eric Metaxas takes both strands of Bonhoeffer's life--the theologian and the spy--and draws them together to tell a searing story of incredible moral courage in the face of monstrous evil. Metaxas presents the fullest accounting of Bonhoeffer's heart-wrenching decision to leave the safe haven of America to return to Hitler's Germany, and sheds new light on Bonhoeffer's involvement in the famous Valkyrie plot and in "Operation 7", the effort to smuggle Jews into neutral Switzerland. Bonhoeffer is the story of a life framed by a passion for truth and a commitment to justice on behalf of those who face implacable evil.
Summing up a 542 page biography is hard enough. Summing it up on such an incredible man as Bonhoeffer is nearly impossible. But nonetheless, I'll try.
I think one of the themes that stood out so clearly to me in this book was decision making. Bonhoeffer didn't wait around to make decisions. If the German government was doing wrong, this was how we should speak out against it. No brainer. But time and again, the church struggled with making decisions. They didn't want to take action that would have definite consequences in future. They would rather play it safe both sides. And they delayed too long. Bonhoeffer had a hard time understanding this, and often got angry with them for their refusal to stand irrevocably on the Word of God. In that respect, I probably wouldn't be like him. I hate making decisions that burn bridges or rock the boat.
Another theme about decision making that I pulled out was his struggle in chapter 21 when he returned to America just before WW2. Bonhoeffer was a contentious objector on the brink of being drafted, but he didn't want to make this a public stand, because he knew others would follow his lead unnecessarily. While he believed it for himself, he didn't believe it should be the precedent for the entire church. He struggled with whether to stay safely in America or to support the church in Germany. He could not find his motives in it all, and he could not clearly discern God's will. But in one particularly comforting passage in his diary, he writes: "When the confusion of accusations and excuses, of desires and fears, makes everything with us so obscure, he sees quite clearly into all our secrets. And at the heart of them all he finds a name which he himself has inscribed: Jesus Christ. So too one day we shall see quite clearly into the depths of the divine heart and there we shall then be able to read, no to see, a name: Jesus Christ." (Metaxas, pg. 328) As I struggle with searching the depths of my own unfathomable heart, it comforts me that at the center, God has imprinted Jesus Christ there. Even in the most confusing and challenging decisions.
I began tabbing my thoughts with sticky notes towards the end of the book, so I only have record of what stood out to me in the latter part. But the points that stood out to me were scattered through Bonhoeffer's decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. Bonhoeffer helped his brother-in-law Donhanyi compiled the Zossen file, a record of the atrocities the Nazis committed against the Jews, mentally ill, and others. Bonhoeffer and his confederates had to wrestle with hard decisions, and they never found comfort in them: does one kill a man to prevent him from killing many others? That was the conclusion they came to. And with it, I think Bonhoeffer came to other conclusions as well. He condemned the idea that success justifies the means which one uses to achieve something. The world looks at success as a justification of wrong. But for Bonhoeffer, it was simple, clear obedience, the figure of the crucified Christ, which should be the standard of action. Christ's death did not look like a success at the time: but it was obedience to God, and that was what mattered.
Some pages later, Bonhoeffer makes a note in another letter to his parents. He told them that "Last year when...we came to the end of the year, we probably all thought that this year we would be decisively further along and would see more clearly." (Metaxas, p. 374) Nevertheless, they had to come to terms with the uncertainty of the future for the long haul. There weren't going to be any quick fixes.
The third point that I suspect came out of Bonhoeffer's decisions surrounding the conspiracy was in a letter to a friend where he says "In such times [referring to the death of his friend's father] one must struggle through a great deal for oneself alone .You will have to learn out there how one sometimes must come to terms with something alone before God. It is often very difficult, but these are the important hours of life." (Metaxas, pg 410). Whether Bonhoeffer reached that conclusion in America, or in his struggles with church, or perhaps even with his brother Walter's death or his broken relationship with Elizabeth Zinn, I don't know. But the triple points of obedience, long-term commitment, and personal accountability to God certainly shaped his character in the war years.
While those points stood out to me theologically, the personal relationships Bonhoeffer experienced were also interesting. Bonhoeffer's rigorous academic family life, where he learned to speak of things thoughtfully, and his close friendship with Eberhard Bethge did a lot to support him through the turbulent years he endured. I could resonate completely when he said, "That the two of us could be connected for five years by work and friendship is, I believe, a rather extraordinary joy for a human life." (Metaxas, p. 375)
I also found his relationship with Maria charming. She was a bright, girlish sweetheart, who wanted to study mathematics and took sudden urges to dance or get up in the middle of the night to take a walk. She constantly thought her light-hearted spirits wouldn't be good enough for Bonhoeffer: but he didn't need her to be an equal theologian to love her deeply. Bonhoeffer promoted marriage even in these turbulent times of war. Marriage, was, to him, a belief and dependence that God was working even in dark times, and would continue to work after the war. There was no need to wait for better days. Embracing marriage was embracing humanity and our presence here on earth. Perhaps my favorite quote from his letter on marriage was, "We need not despise happiness simply because there is so much unhappiness. We should not arrogantly push away the kind hand of God because God's hand is otherwise so hard." (Metaxas, p. 408) Bonhoeffer's view in turbulent and uncertain times: Keep embracing the joys and responsibilities of earth. We are not yet called to heaven.
I am saddened by his death every time--wishing it hadn't happened, something had worked differently, all the little triggers to kill Hitler that didn't work would have worked. But ultimately, that would be wanting to change God's ordering of history, even, as hard as it is to comprehend or accept, throughout the Nazi horrors. Bonhoeffer's writings and testimony have proved an inspiration for many. And though his tragic loss leaves me numb with the ache, I treasure his memory. As Bonhoeffer himself said, "Where God tears great gaps, we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is [Bonhoeffer's friend's] God." (Metaxas, pg 349).
This fall or winter would be a great time to add Bonhoeffer to your reading list and discover him for yourself.
Friday on the Blog
Jaeryn Graham, the enigmatic Irish doctor from War of Loyalties, turns 127 (but in reality he only stays about 28 years old). In celebration, he's hosting a Q&A on the blog--turn in YOUR questions by blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ before Friday, and he'll answer them!