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Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Updated on September 2, 2011

With wit, style, and most importantly substance, Eric Metaxas offers an excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As one of the most influential German theologians of the twenty-first century and a member of the resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer has been a man often misunderstood both during his life and after his death. Whether being mistakenly stereotyped as a pacifist, or having his theological philosophies warped into being a platform for the "Death of God" movement, his detractors have been many and varied. But there are those who take him for what he truly was; a devout disciple of Christ and a man who's love for God took him from the extremes of great influence in the international church to the horrors of a life and death in a Nazi concentration camp.

Metaxas' Biography

Before I began reading it, Metaxas' biography seemed to be just an over-600 page tome that I would labor through, finishing after months of perseverance and only having the gratification of having learned a great deal of dry material and accomplishing a goal. But I was pleasantly surprised, and though the first couple of chapters were slow, after that I was riveted. Details and information are given in abundance, but in a style so conversational and personable that you almost forget that you're reading a biography. It never slips into triteness, but avoids becoming pedantic and dull. I especially appreciated the care with which he handled theological matters, making them understandable and deep without being patronizing.

And now it is time for a confession-- I didn't want to like Dietrich Bonhoeffer at all. Due to some overly enthusiastic friends who ardently admired and over-advertised him, I had made up my mind to quite loath the poor man. Respect him yes; find myself fond of him, not a bit. He was to be that great mind with enough distance and intellect that I would admire and move on. But I found in Metaxas' portrayal a man who was not only great, he was humble in that greatness. A man who was principled to the death, but in his strength was gentle, kind, and affectionate. Even though I knew the inevitable, tragic conclusion that history has left us, I caught myself wishing that somehow, the ending would be different and Bonhoeffer would leave the Nazi's evil grip alive and well, returning to his loved ones and rebuilding the German church. I don't think I can give a biography much better credentials than that to say that the subject was made into a real human being, with emotion, a mind, and personality that almost felt like a tangible friend that you should be able to talk to about anything. That is probably the most powerful aspect of the book.

Further Reading

If reading this biography makes you want to learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there are many resources for just that. I've listed just a few below that are some of his most influential works, but there are many to choose from. The Cost of Discipleship is his treatise on the Sermon on the Mount, and details his philosophies on what it means to live as a Christian serving God. He considered Ethics his greatest work, covering every aspect of life including civil government, marriage, the Church, and many other issues. Bonhoeffer's untimely death left it unfinished, but it is still a colossal work of great influence. Letters and Papers from Prison is a compilation by his friend, Eberhard Bethge, of the his writings and communications during his last months as a prisoner of the Nazis.

All of them are well worth reading, and should be handled with a lot of depth and thought. Bonhoeffer writes in a formal German style, so his works have to be handled with care and given time. But believe me, you won't be sorry if you do.


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