Monday, October 01, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Tale of Heroism or Tale of Tragedy?

As I continue to slowly work through the very popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I find myself thinking about him in a far different light than I expected. He has taken on rather mythic proportions in the church, and while some of that is understandable I am beginnning to wonder if we are doing him justice and getting a real picture of him.

For example, some years before the full rise of Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these words in a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich (emphasis mine)....

Perhaps I seem to you rather fanatical and mad about a number of things. I myself am sometimes afraid of that. But I know that the day I became more “reasonable,” to be honest, I should have to chuck my entire theology. When I first started in theology, my idea of it was quite different—rather more academic, probably. Now it has turned into something else altogether. But I do believe that at last I am on the right track, for the first time in my life. I often feel quite happy about it. I only worry about being so afraid of what other people will think as to get bogged down instead of going forward. I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Here alone lies the force that can blow all of this idiocy sky-high—like fireworks, leaving only a few burnt-out shells behind. The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.

Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (pp. 259-260). Kindle Edition.

What happened to this Bonhoeffer that he became complicit in a plot to murder someone? When I originally read this excerpt I immediately highlighted the same sections. Knowing how the story ends, at least at a high level, much of what I am reading is confusing. There seem to be two Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, one a man consumed with following Christ and living in fellowship with God's people and another who was consumed with restoring Germany and overthrowing Hitler to the point of lying, deceiving and plotting murder. Something changed and the Metaxas biography doesn't really shed any light on it.

At somewhat more than halfway through the book I am finding myself enjoying it less and less. I am not enjoying the way it is written and I am somewhat disturbed by the picture I see. I have a hard time believing someone as bright, serious and scholarly as Bonhoeffer would make such a radical shift without a great deal of agonizing thought but we see none of that. Stories of his privellaged upbringing we see plenty of but the turmoil over the event that made him famous gets little attention, at least thus far. I have far more to say that will be in my full review but needless to say that I am finding the task of finishing this work to be more chore than pleasure.

I have already added Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance to my Kindle wishlist, by most accounts a more accurate and less agenda driven biography. As some commenters have noted, this popular biography by Metaxas seems aimed at "Americanizing" Bonhoeffer, making him into a palatable champion for conservative America evangelicals and I am not sure that does him justice. Like of the majority of the great men of faith throughout the ages Bonhoeffer must be more complex than we are seeing. Perhaps the popularity of this biography tells us a lot more about the American religious culture than it does about this complex man.


C said...

That's a shame. I got this a while ago and have been looking forward to reading it when I get time. I'm still looking forward to it, but perhaps I shall also have to get that other book you mentioned to balance it out.

Anonymous said...

Actually, in talking with Mark Thiessen Nation at the Pittsburg Mennonite Convention (Mark being a theologian at EMS), his opinion is that Metaxas took a lot of text out of context, juxtaposed it, in order to imply the complicity in Valkyrie.

Some of Bonhoeffer's writings do seem to carry that fatalistic weight of "we have to do something", but it is more played out in his writing, speaking, and spreading the news about what was going on in Germany and less about the Valkyrie plot.

In any case, there is some debate out there among Bonhoffer scholars as to whether or not the rumors are true about participating in the assassination...and some questions about Metaxas trying to put his own Republican right-wing spin on things.

Anonymous said...

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Michelle said...

I was wondering the same thing!

Arthur Sido said...

Robert that looks very interesting, I am going to listen to he podcast later. I hope it will help me to "fill in the blanks" that seem to out of place in Bonhoeffer's life.

Chuck, it is a worthwhile read but you need to read it eyes wide open. I hope to finish it fairly soon and then work on the other book along with more direct sources from Bonhoeffer himself.