Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bonhoeffer Unmoved

I am working my way through Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about which I have already posted once. I knew little in advance about Bonhoeffer beyond these three bullet points: Lutheran pastor; resisted Hitler; hanged in a concentration camp mere days before it was liberated. Reading now, I can’t find a better word for Bonhoeffer than a yiddish one: He was a mensch.

There are things about Metaxas’s book that are annoying (see below), but its hyper-detailed account of Bonhoeffer’s witness against Hitler and the Third Reich is relentlessly impressive. Because Bonhoeffer was relentless himself. The young theologian and pastor was on to Hitler from the beginning, and never wavered in his critique and protest and then outright rebellion. He eventually took part in a plot to assassinate Der Führer.

Tonight I came across a statement made by Bonhoeffer in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Hitler’s minions destroyed synagogues throughout Germany. Bonhoeffer was distressed by the waffling of his fellow pastors, many of whom frequently changed their tunes to accommodate Hitler’s bobbing and weaving. Bonhoeffer was appalled:

I’m not quite sure how we have largely got into a way of thinking which is positively dangerous. We think that we are acting particularly responsibly if every other week we take another look at the question whether the way on which we have set out is the right one. It is particularly noticeable that such a “responsible reappraisal” always begins the moment serious difficulties appear. We then speak as though we no longer had “a proper joy and certainty” about this way, or, still worse, as though God and his Word were no longer as clearly present with us as they used to be. . . .

Here it seems to me Bonhoeffer is speaking just as Pope Benedict has been doing about the knowledge of faith becoming the knowledge of reality. If our faith is so flimsy that it wavers in each passing breeze, what good is it to us? Bonhoeffer continues:

Dear brethren, our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn’t want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be constant with the fact that God’s cause is not always the successful one, that we really could be “unsuccessful”: and yet be on the right road. But this is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm. 

We probably should not pray to have our faith tested as Bonhoeffer’s was. We too might find the proper response “too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us,” and we love success too much.

About Bonhoeffer, the book, I am less positive. Metaxas 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. But every so often he erupts with metaphor, and the effect is like being spattered with paint: colorful but often annoying.

For example, this analogy about Hitler’s decision to annex the Sudetenland is fine, until Metaxas “putsches” it too far:

It was as if Hitler had crept out onto a ledge, made his outrageous demands, and would not come back inside. He certainly wasn’t about to embarrass himself before the crowds by crawling back in the window. The whole world watched him from below, and the generals watched him from inside, looking out the window at him on the ledge. They knew his position was impossible and were expecting him to fall, and if necessary, they were prepared to give him a little “putsch.”

Often, one feels Metaxas over-reaching for a metaphor, sometimes too high, sometimes too low:

Heydrich had an icy mien that suggested something one might encounter in the lightless world of the Marianas Trench. 

In this case, Metaxas takes a metaphor about a Nazi where it probably doesn’t belong, the bottom of the ocean. In another case, he mixes an analogy with anachronistic abandon:

The biggest news was that Ludwig Müller was elected Reich bishop. The bull-headed Müller was widely regarded as an uncouth hick; for many Germans, it was as if Gomer Pyle had become the archbishop of Canterbury.

Still, that’s not my favorite howler. Again in reference to Müller, Bonhoeffer describes the efforts of German pastors to meet with the “bull-headed hick” in the presence of Hitler. Der Führer postponed the meeting, then postponed it again. “The eight days of additional waiting,” writes Metaxas, ”were an eternity of strained inaction.” Now comes the beauty part:

Bonhoeffer followed every detail of these hemorrhoidal isometrics from England via his mother’s almost daily updates. 

It is painful to stub your toe on a hilarious yet atrocious phrase like “hemorrhoidal isometrics” in a biography this inspiring and serious. But then I guess writing a metaphor that combines the human foot with hemorrhoids is a bit like kicking yourself in the butt. Time for bed?

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