I haven’t come to a book with so much skepticism in a long time. During my final semester of seminary, I took a class on Bonhoeffer where we engaged many of Bonhoeffer’s works while reading Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s thorough and scholarly (i.e. often dry) biography. When asked why we were not reading Eric Metaxes’ new biography, our professor shot down the thought with a quick dismissal of Metaxes’ evangelical background and guiding us to the myriad reviews denouncing the work (for a good sampling, go here: http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell…) .
Such vitriol meant the book was required reading for me after I graduated and actually had time for personal reading. I couldn’t wait to get into the book and see for myself where Metaxes had “hijacked” the true Bonhoeffer, instead showcasing a born-again Republican Evangelical. And unfortunately there are points where Metaxes’ underlying convictions do end up co-opting Bonhoeffer, which at best exaggerate or misinterpret aspects of his life and work, and sometimes falls into blatant fallacy.
Clifford Green, the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, sums up the way Metaxes is able to conflate the situation in Nazi Germany to circumstances facing churches in America today. Green writes in his review “Hijacking Bonhoeffer” that according to Metaxes, Bonhoeffer was a “‘theologically conservative evangelical.’ Born again at Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer was called by God to be in his own time a prophet like Jeremiah, Metaxas told Christianbook.com. In an e-mail to the Catholic News Agency, Metaxas stated that Bonhoeffer has “staggering” relevance today: ‘Just as the Third Reich was bullying the German church, [so] the American government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality” and on “abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research. . . . We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front.’”
While one could discuss Bonhoeffer’s works, such as his Ethics or Discipleship, to debate how we should understand issues of sexuality, abortion, etc., to say that the situation of the church in America and that of the Lutheran Church, and Confessing Church, in Germany is laughable if not perilous.
Yet, in my early attempt to scour the book for these incendiary statements, I almost missed how enjoyable and engrossing the narrative was. After a few chapters I was able to relax and enjoy the story of this young, intelligent man as he brushes next to theological and political giants while never letting down his convictions. As much as we might like to think, no biography is a wholly complete and unbiased look at a person’s life, and biography’s invariably morph the more estranged we get from the subject. While Metaxes may have overplayed his biases, his craft and tact at weaving together the story of a thinker’s life provides many with a good intro-introduction to the life of Bonhoeffer, that can be then better fleshed out by reading Bonhoeffer’s own works and letters.
The book requires having your ears perked – and I would recommend reading the critical reviews either before or immediately after you finish the biography. The biggest danger would be to have the biography then color one’s reading of Bonhoeffer’s own theological works. But to blacklist the book might mean that many laypeople and non-Christians would never hear of this man who held as one his thoughts and actions during the tumultuous rise of the Hitler regime in Germany. Just be careful.