For Praxis Circle’s December Book of the Month, we have selected Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2009, revised 2020) by Eric Metaxas. It is today’s fullest account of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and the events leading up to his execution in 1945 under the Third Reich. Thanks to his many writings (notably Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship), he has inspired many Christians to live a faithful life and avoid “religious Christianity,” including Contributor Frank Hill who mentions the impact of Bonhoeffer in his interview with us.
Now, you might be wondering since it is officially the Advent season, why this book? Why not suggest a happier, lighter, and more hopeful read as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ?
Let me explain.
First, it’s the most recent book I’ve finished, so it’s fresh on my mind. (And at almost 600 pages, this is no small feat!) Second, the life and work of Bonhoeffer are something all Christians should be familiar with as they serve as a reminder of what the true Christian life looks like. Only when we are living this life can we fully appreciate the birth of Christ and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.
Praise for Metaxas
While I am hardly equipped to review a New York Times Bestseller, I will try to give a glimpse into the treasures of this book.
Number one and most important: It goes without saying that Metaxas is a fantastic writer. With a biography this long, the danger is that things will become dry and grueling, but Metaxas carefully balances his own captivating writing style with many excerpts of Bonhoeffer’s own words, allowing the reader to have an even deeper understanding of Bonhoeffer as a person. Second, the breadth of Metaxas’ knowledge and his ability to research is astounding—from Bonhoeffer’s extensive family history, to piecing together his life events, to incorporating Bonhoeffer’s theology through his writings, to giving a historical and political overview of World War II and the Nazi regime as it unfolded during Bonhoeffer’s life. The chronicled facts alone are well-worth the read. Third, I am a linear processor, so it greatly helped that the book was mostly in chronological order from Bonhoeffer’s birth to death, allowing me to see what events influenced his theology and prompted him to write his works during the given timeline.
The Power of Bonhoeffer’s Worldview: Family, the Confessing Church, and Assassinating Hitler
Metaxas emphasizes the importance of Bonhoeffer’s family to the formation of his strong Christian worldview. In the opening chapter, Metaxas includes a quote from Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge,
“The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believe the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.” (pg. 5)
Dietrich’s father, Karl, was a prominent doctor and his mother, Paula, was a teacher and deeply faithful woman. Together, they raised their children to pursue and protect truth, no matter the cost. This environment helped shape Bonhoeffer into the bold theologian and anti-Nazi that he would become.
As one of Hitler’s earliest critics, Metaxas highlights the crucial role Bonhoeffer played in the ecumenical movement and standing up for biblical theology in the German church. Bonhoeffer became one of the leading spokesmen for the Confessing Church, a movement that fought against the Nazification of the German Evangelical Church. During a time when many pastors and religious leaders were claiming that Christ had come to save Germany through Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer writes,
“It has become ever more evident to me that we are to be given a great popular national Church, whose nature cannot be reconciled with Christianity, and that we must prepare our minds for the entirely new paths which we shall then have to follow. The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of the day the better.” (pg. 185)
It was this strong conviction that eventually turned Bonhoeffer the pacifist into Bonhoeffer the conspirator. In 1939, Bonhoeffer made the courageous decision to leave safety in America and return to his home country to pastor and encourage his fellow Germans. Only a few years later would he answer the call from God to “come and die” and join the assassination conspiracy. Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer,
“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.” (pg. 432)
Conviction, Christmas, and Conquering Death
From the beginning, Metaxas emphasizes that Bonhoeffer had a clear understanding of his worldview and biblical theology, allowing him to see through Nazi efforts to persuade Christians towards their fascist and anti-Semitic ideology. Eventually, Bonhoeffer also had the clarify of direction and conscience to resist not only in word but in deed—no matter how drastic the deed or high the cost. The cost ended up being his life, but even then, Bonhoeffer was at peace. Metaxas includes this Bonhoeffer quote,
“Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?
Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” (pg. 531)
And this brings us to Christmas. Jesus Christ, the baby born in the manger over 2000 years ago, gives every man the ability to transform death. Bonhoeffer writes in a letter from prison, where he would remain until his execution,
“And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” (Letter to Maria von Wedemeyer, 1943, quoted from God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas)
As we face evil, trial, and tribulation in this world, know that there is hope found in the manger and at the cross. This hope allows us to discern truth from falsehood, how to live a meaningful life, and ultimately hope in facing death—this is the hope that drove Bonhoeffer’s life, and it’s a hope you can have, too. For these reasons, I can hardly recommend Bonhoeffer enough. He is a true example of someone living by the Christian worldview and putting faith into action. May we always remember the hope that Christ extends to us and live by that hope faithfully and courageously this Advent season.
To read more where we cite Metaxas’ work: