Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, though a sizeable work, draws the reader through quickly from the very first pages. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived an extraordinary life, and proved the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction. Yet part of my love for this biography is that it doesn’t stick strictly to Bonhoeffer’s life, but offers countless side stories, scripture, theology, and details of the concurrent events which firmly set his life in context. As a result, I was captivated by the determination and sacrifice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer while at the same time I learned more than I ever had about Germany itself during its darkest hour in history. It is along these two lines that I will offer my reflections from this book.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer seems to have been a true Christian prophet of his time. He sensed the significance of events in Germany long before others, and he strove to warn his countrymen through sermons, writing, and teaching. He had a clear idea that he was being led and used by God. I relate to and respect Bonhoeffer because he didn’t merely have an intellectual faith, but “strove to see what God wanted to show and then to do what God asked in response.” In addition, the strength and joy which characterized him as he opposed the evil Nazi regime and even as he went to his death are truly incredible. Part of his strength and joy seems to have come from a great freedom that he found in Christ: “God wanted his beloved children to operate out of freedom and joy to do what was right and good, not out of fear of making a mistake.” For me as an overachieving perfectionist Hopkins alum, this is a challenging and revolutionary idea. Bonhoeffer also struggled with depression, but unlike me, “he didn’t let himself become gloomy or stymied by any of it.” I pray that I could be more like Bonhoeffer in my life and death. (I read this book in its entirety while in China, and it gave me great perspective and strength to endure struggles with joy.)
As an aside, I have also found in Bonhoeffer a role model as I continue to strive to be a scientifically-minded Christian. “During his lifetime, Bonhoeffer brought this critical and ‘scientific’ attitude to all questions of faith and theology.” I have taken such an approach in my own faith, and this year in particular wrestled with difficult questions of science and faith. Unlike many of my colleagues and students here at Hopkins, though, I agree with Bonhoeffer that “the search had to lead to the goal, the quest demanded an answer.” I am not content with a search for truth that refuses to arrive at an answer even when that answer is obvious – that, in my opinion, is not intellectually honest.
I have long been something of a fanatic about World War II, perhaps because my grandfather served as a flight engineer on a B-24 in Europe. I must admit here that I’ve just as long demonized Germany and its people for that war. Metaxas noted that, “For the purposes of the war effort, Churchill maintained the fiction that there were no good Germans.” Churchill even influenced my own view some 70 years later. However, with all of its accounts of German resistors and dissidents within Nazi Germany, including soldiers and generals, this biography has challenged my simplistic thinking and forced me to readjust my perspective on Germany. I have a greater appreciation for how easily evil could take hold of a nation, even in America. I also have great respect for the Germans who resisted the Nazi regime in the face of certain death.
This book also led me to grieve in a new way over the Holocaust. It seems that before the war, it was not uncommon for Jews to embrace Jesus. “The Nazis, on the other hand, wished adamantly to prevent Jews from converting.” Eventually, many of the Jewish Christians of the day were mistreated or killed, and Jews in general were galvanized against Christianity by the Holocaust. It seems that today, 70 years later, Christian outreach to Jews is still greatly inhibited as a direct result and the Nazis are still getting that wish. Bonhoeffer “had become convinced that a church that was not willing to stand up for the Jews in its midst was not the real church of Jesus Christ.” I am ashamed that more Christians of that day did not also see that simple truth, and I hope and pray that Christians of today do not make the same mistake.
This is one of the best books I have read in a while because Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a remarkable man who lived in extraordinary times. I highly recommend this biography!