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Calvin January Series: Eric Metaxas on German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer

January 9, 2012

The speaker at Monday’s January Series lecture at Calvin College was Eric Metaxas, Christian author of several books, most recently a biography on the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

As someone who read and was inspired by Bonhoeffer’s writing nearly 30 years ago, I was curious as to what new information Metaxas might provide in his lecture. I have not read the speakers book on Bonhoeffer, but will say up front that I was deeply disappointed by what the author had to say.

Metaxas spent way too much time telling jokes about himself and the evolution of his own religious development, so much so that he did not even mention Bonhoeffer until 20 minutes in to his speech.

Metaxas gave a brief overview of Bonhoeffer and his family and did mention that Bonhoeffer was taught by his father to think critically and logically, which he then applied in his passion for theology.

Metaxas noted that Bonhoeffer excelled in the university and finished his doctorate at the age of 21. One question that Bonhoeffer grappled with was “the meaning of the church in the world,” according to Metaxas. Bonhoeffer at one point went to the US where he spent some time at Union Theological Seminary. Bonhoeffer was then invite to visit a Black Baptist Church by a fellow student, an experience that deeply touched him. The German theologian was mostly impressed with the social and cultural significance of what he experienced at this Black congregation. The experience had a profound impact on his theological understanding and had a tremendous impact on his courage to speak out against fascism.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany it was around the time that the National Socialist Party is coming to power. Bonhoeffer was from the very beginning of Nazi Germany a critic of the fascist regime. Just two days after Hitler comes to power Bonhoeffer challenged the authority that Adolph Hitler was claiming as the new Furher.

In 1934,  Bonhoeffer was part of writing the Barmen Declaration, a statement that essentially said this group of Christians were distinguishing themselves from the state controlled religion in Nazi Germany. In the 1935 Bonhoeffer was asked to lead a seminary that was viewed as an outlaw school that was shut down by the Gestapo at one point, which drove the school underground. Eventually, the school was disbanded as the Nazi repression increased against anyone who questioned the regime.

At one point Bonhoeffer was invited to come back to the US, but he quickly realized that he could not in good conscience abandon the struggle in Germany against the power of the Nazi regime. Here is a fabulous clip from Martin Doblmeler’s excellent documentary entitled Bonhoeffer, where one of the theologian’s students reflects on Bonhoeffer’s decision to come back to Germany. Bonhoeffer himself quoted the prophet Isaiah who said, “those who don’t fear, don’t flee.”

After 3 weeks Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and quickly came in contact with the German resistance movement, particularly those who worked in the area of military intelligence. Bonhoeffer then travels on behalf of the German Intelligence community and meets with people in the Allied countries to share information with them that would help undermine the Nazi campaign of imperialist expansion.

Metaxas then mentions that Bonhoeffer fell in love and says this revelation was something new that the author reveals that had not been presented before, a claim is not true since the documentary already mentioned deals with the theologian love affair.

Metaxas then states that Bonhoeffer was originally arrested for his role in trying to assist some Jews who were trying to escape the country. He is sent to a military prison with the belief that he will get out soon, but he ends up spending the rest of his life there. The Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler happens, but fails and it is at this moment that Bonhoeffer’s name is revealed to the Nazi, which results in his transfer to a concentration camp. He was hung the very next day.

The speaker ended his talk by referencing a statement from Bonhoeffer about his belief in the resurrection, which means you have overcome your fear of death in order to be a true believer. Metaxas tries to present this belief that Bonhoeffer experienced to those in the audience and then walks off the stage without taking any questions.

In many ways I felt that the speaker did not do justice to the person of Bonhoeffer. Metaxas did not explore Bonhoeffer’s intellectual evolution and his body of work, particularly The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics or Life Together. The speaker also did not spend adequate time exploring the tremendous sacrifices that Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church took in resisting the Nazi regime.

My ambivalence about Metaxas was deepened during his opening remarks where he stated that he used to work for Chuck Colson and referred to as his hero. This seems rather contradictory to writing a biography on Bonhoeffer, someone who has inspired radical left Christians for decades, with Colson who advocates far right religious views.

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