I don’t remember the last time I read 550 pages in one week. The book that grabbed me this Christmas and didn’t let me go until it was over was entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in the decade leading up to WWII. During the war he joined forces with an undercover conspiracy to murder Hitler and end his evil regime, which unfortunately failed. You may be familiar with the recent movie Valkyrie which is about one of the assassination attempts on Hitler by the resistance, in which Bonhoeffer played a part.
Before the war, Bonhoeffer made a name for himself as a bright young conservative theologian falling in line with the theology of Karl Barth who was his older contemporary. What is amazing about this is that he studied under theological liberalism’s greatest mastermind of the time, Adolf Harnack, protégée of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
He authored two books that made a great splash in theological and devotional discussions and that continue to enjoy a great readership. The first is Life Together, which is a short reflection on living as the community of Christ. He wrote this when he was the lead teacher of the Confessional Churches’ illegal seminary. The seminary, which Bonhoeffer founded, was revolutionary in that it was not just concerned with academics but with spiritual disciplines and community living. I think many seminaries today can learn some great things that were tried by Bonhoeffer at Zingst and Finkenwalde. Life Together still enjoys a good readership but not as much as his seminal work The Cost of Discipleship. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer coined the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace” and calls all disciples to obey the Lord at all costs. He spends the latter half of the book reflecting on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and calls all disciples to radical obedience to the Lord. This book is one of my favorites and one that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys chewing on a deep entrée of theological meat that will change your life. But the premise is simple: fully submit to the Lord in radical obedience to his teachings. The love of this book is what drew me to read his biography…well, that and the fact that he was involved in a conspiracy to end Hitler. Bonhoeffer was working on a book called Ethics that he was unable to finish before his death but it has been published, I have not had a chance to read it yet.
Before the war and during the war, Bonhoeffer bravely fought against Hitler and his anti-Semitism laws that were placed upon the German people and even in the church. Even though it was dangerous, Bonhoeffer preached vigorously against the bigotry against Jews and blasted the Church in Germany for caving to Hitler’s wishes. Bonhoeffer and other brave church leaders started the rebel Confessional Church, because they were disgusted by the Nazi influence on the German church, and called themselves the true German church. Bonhoeffer knew that the Lord would not be pleased with a church that condoned racial bigotry.
During the war, Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy and did so through the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence). He was able to join the conspiracy through his brother-in-law who was deep in the German government. In this role he was able to communicate the atrocities of Nazi crimes to the international world, primarily Great Britain. He also was involved in smuggling German Jews to safety across the Swiss border. This eventually got him arrested where he spent a year and a half in prison. But when the Valkyrie plot failed to kill Hitler, the Fuhrer launched a staunch investigation into the conspiracy and Bonhoeffer, his brother-in-law, and many others were discovered, sent to concentration camps, tortured, and finally executed. Bonhoeffer was hung and died at the age of 39, just 3 weeks before the Allies took control of Germany and ended the war in 1945.
I saw in Bonhoeffer the ability to show the patience and love of Christ to all be it those he differed with theologically, like Harnack, or those that were morally disgusting like the Nazis. I was inspired by Bonheoffer’s diligence in reading the Bible for daily devotions. He also showed great dedication to prayer and writing. The book includes many letters and journal entries written by Bonhoeffer. I was reminded of the importance of journaling as a means of not only developing our own theological thoughts but also as a means to self-understanding and prayer. I loved that Bonhoeffer was a great thinker that lived it out in the real world. He was not just a ivory tower thinker but a radical practitioner of the gospel of Christ. Bonhoeffer believed that one could not truly understand his faith unless he lives it, or lives in submissive obedience to the Lord. Bonhoeffer encourages me as a real life example of someone who truly stood unwaveringly to what he believed. He did not always make friends and he was not always listened to but he was a true prophetic leader for his country during an unquestionably evil time.
The Biography is a heroic account that traces Bonheoffer’s life beginning with his childhood in a rich neighborhood of Berlin. His mother’s Christian faith had a great impact on Dietrich. The author, Eric Metaxas does a great job showing how Bonhoeffer was influenced by many people in his life to eventually become the heroic person that he became. There is a great love story in the book between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer. Much of the correspondence between these two engaged love birds is quite moving and unsurprisingly heartbreaking. In the end, we see a great man of faith that walked the talk. He did what he wrote about in The Cost of Discipleship, he followed the Lord at all costs. It cost him his life, but in the words of Bonhoeffer just before his death, “This is the end…but for me the beginning of life.”
I highly recommend this biography by Eric Metaxas. I have never read 550 pages so effortlessly, turned pages so passionately, nor been inspired so blatantly then when I was reading this book.