Sunday, March 20, 2011

“Bonhoeffer”: A Life That May Need No Biographer

None of us knows the date of his own private Easter. For me it could come today, on the second Sunday in Lent. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and martyr to the Third Reich, it fell eight days after Easter 1945, when he reached what he called the last station on the road to freedom, at the Flossenbürg death camp.  Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Bonhoeffer is both majestic and annoying, but it makes one irony compelling. “It is worth noting,” Metaxas writes, “that Flossenbürg, a place so closely associated with Bonhoeffer, is a place where he spent perhaps twelve hours.” Add to that this irony: A life that can be documented in overwhelming detail, such that Bonhoeffer scholarship is certainly a small industry, ended on the Flossenbürg gallows in anonymity, with but one sympathetic witness.

Metaxas gets many things right in this book. In an earlier post, I took the biographer to task for a few egregious metaphors. I also wrote that he “tirelessly unrolls the chronology that led the son of a famous psychiatrist father and a deeply religious mother to the gallows at Flossenbürg. For pages, the writing is colorless, as Metaxas uses long quotations from his characters to tell their story, punctuated by places and dates and straightforward events.” While I don’t take back the “colorless,” I want to add now that perhaps Bonhoeffer is best served in black-and-white. The facts of his life and the many writings and letters that emerged from that life are all the testimony this great man needs.

He was onto the atrocities of Hitler as early as anyone, and he never shrank from the Cross of resistance. He tried to rescue the German pastorate from the clutches of a state-controlled Nazi “church,” and, when he knew that it was his only reasonable course of action, he participated in a protracted conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. When the last attempt, a bomb that blew up almost everything in the room except Der Führer, failed, the plotters were finally exposed and Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed.

One of the things Metaxas gets very right is his framing of this weighty (608-page) tome. Because of the ashy cloud of unknowing that hung over the rubble that was Germany at the end of the war, Bonhoeffer’s remarkable parents did not know the details of his death until they heard the eulogy of an English bishop nearly four months after the execution at Flossenbürg. In a moving prologue, Metaxas shows us Herr and Frau Bonhoeffer listening to the eulogy from their radio in Berlin:

As the couple took in the hard news that the good man who was their son was now dead, so too, many English took in the hard news that the dead man who was a German was good. Thus did the world again begin to reconcile itself to itself.

Ahead 600 pages, with the spare facts of the execution told, Metaxas ends his book back in the same Berlin parlor, listening to the same eulogy. Metaxas gives us the eulogy in full, then finishes with a single sentence: “When the service ended, Karl and Paula Bohoeffer turned off the radio.”

One eyewitness to Bonhoeffer’s execution did live to tell of it. His account of the pastor’s last moments, written years later, is powerful testimony, beginning with a phrase that recalls the Resurrection:

On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgeritsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man so entirely submissive to the will of God.

As I come to the dawn of my last full day at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., I consider it a double grace to have seen “Of Gods and Men” and to have finished Bonhoeffer, another true story of martyrdom, within the same 12-hour span. What lies ahead?

The publisher’s compelling video promo for the book is here. It provides a good two-minute summary of Bonhoeffer’s life.


  1. Thanks for these posts on Bonhoeffer, Webster. I was given Alan Wolfe's review of Metaxas' bio that appeared in The New Republic and subsequently I read a more critical take on it by Jason Hood that appeared in Christianity Today. All of these make me want to read Metaxas' book.

    More than that, I am drawn back to Bonhoeffer's writings, particularly The Cost of Discipleship, a book that will never be irrelevant, at least not until Christ returns in glory.

    These words of Bonhoeffer strike me on this Second Sunday of Lent:

    "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate"

  2. Deacon Scott,
    Many thanks for your comment and for the useful links to reviews in TNR and Christianity Today. These two pieces, written from divergent ideological perspectives, seem to show me how an "event" like Bonhoeffer can be reduced to a proof of one's own preconceptions. I appreciated the comment attributed to Carl Trueman in the CT review: "'Of more value than 'Was he an evangelical?' is surely 'How can I learn from him how better to be a Christian?'" The CT reviewer saw that Trueman "models this by being confessionally Reformed but still using the word 'hero' with respect to Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, citing much that he has learned from him."

  3. Great post! I want to see a follow up to this topic

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