Duelling Bonhoeffers

If you want to know more about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, and Nazi resister, you are in luck. Your choices range from Eberhard Bethge’s classic biography, newly revised by Victoria Barnett and weighing in at 1,048 pages (Fortress, 2000), to half a dozen biographies of two hundred pages or less, in addition to three documentaries, three plays, two “biographical novels,” an opera, and a feature film (Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, 1999). As Stephen R. Haynes puts it in The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon (Fortress, 2004), “among those who count theologians as their heroes there is nothing quite like the compulsion to narrate Bonhoeffer’s life.”

The two books under review here are among the newest entries in Bonhoeffer biography, and both aim at the middle range in terms of length and complexity. Beyond those similarities, they offer marked contrasts. To put it concisely, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen represents an insider’s view of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while Eric Metaxas represents an outsider’s view. The Bonhoeffer “establishment” represented by Schlingensiepen aligns itself with the theological center and the political left, while the “insurgency” represented by Metaxas seeks to claim Bonhoeffer for the theological and political right. So the same story is spun very differently in these biographies, reflecting the contentious political context they are addressing. The key question to ask of both: Is Dietrich Bonhoeffer allowed his own unique voice and character?

The German original of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s book was published in 2005, but its gestation comprised decades. The author is a consummate Bonhoeffer insider. His father was a Confessing Church pastor who was once arrested along with Bonhoeffer by the Gestapo at the home of the prominent resister Martin Niemoeller. He himself was a close friend and associate of Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and literary executor; and he was one of the founders of the Bonhoeffer Society in Germany.

Such insider status is an advantage, but not an unalloyed one. An inner circle that forms around the memory of a great person can develop a rigid perspective regarding the meaning of that person’s life and work. Although Bonhoeffer was extraordinarily fortunate (or wise) in choosing Eberhard Bethge as his friend and confidante, there is clearly an interpretive grid favored by Bethge and his associates, which is followed faithfully by Schlingensiepen. It emerged during the 1960s in the backwash of the “Death of God” movement, which interpreted Bonhoeffer’s enigmatic late utterances about “religionless Christianity” and “a world come of age” as a repudiation of core Christian doctrines and practices and a celebration of “godless” secularity. At the same time, Bonhoeffer’s reputation in post-war German church circles was still under a cloud owing to his participation in the failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, which struck even anti-Nazi churchmen as an unpatriotic and inappropriately political act for a pastor. In response to these challenges, Bethge and his associates sought to make two points.

First, they argued that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” was deeply Christian in belief and practice; Bonhoeffer was a believer and a churchman, not an atheist or a secularist. He was challenging the church to come to grips with the growing secularity of the modern world, neither by retreating into a religious enclave nor by attempting to re-impose religious hegemony over the world, but by accepting the world’s adulthood as the condition willed by God under which the church’s mission is now to develop. Bonhoeffer’s question to Bethge in the famous letter of April 30, 1944—”How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?”—was a real, not a rhetorical, question, the answer to which would emerge only out of deep biblical reflection and faithful discipleship.

Second, they insisted that Bonhoeffer’s participation in the conspiracy against Hitler was grounded in a valid theological understanding of Christian political responsibility. Although he was required for pragmatic reasons to separate his conspiratorial activities from his ecclesiastical role, Bonhoeffer clearly viewed his life as a unified response to Christ. The church-focused call to heroic religious nonconformity, familiar to readers of The Cost of Discipleship, may not seem to jibe with the worldly vocation he embraced by joining the political resistance (which included masquerading as an agent of German Military Intelligence); but paradoxically, each sprang from Bonhoeffer’s perception of the claim of God on his life. According to the consensus view, it is continuity, not a radical break, which characterizes both his theology and his praxis over the course of his life.

Schlingensiepen represents this view ably. In addition, he avoids a temptation that some Bonhoeffer insiders fall into. Given the turn toward the political in much theology after the 1960s, it was tempting to position Bonhoeffer as a forerunner of the theology of liberation. For example, in The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Eerdmans, 2003), Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (both card-carrying insiders) seem more intent on using Bonhoeffer as a club to bash Republican policies of the 1990s than on offering a balanced portrait of the man himself. This, despite ample evidence that Bonhoeffer’s own political views were far too complex to be easily assimilated to either the contemporary left or the right. Schlingensiepen wisely avoids speculating on who Bonhoeffer would root for in political conflicts that he never experienced, and he confines himself to explicating Bonhoeffer’s own agonizing attempt to navigate the shoals of his unique era and circumstances.

In contrast to Schlingensiepen, Eric Metaxas offers an “outsider” perspective on Bonhoeffer. An American convert to evangelical Christianity, Metaxas has written children’s books, apologetics, and biography—notably Amazing Grace, a biography of the British antislavery crusader William Wilberforce that accompanied the film of the same title. But this book represents his first foray into Bonhoeffer studies. Among the dozen or so blurbs gracing the back cover of his book, you’ll find none from the circle of insiders identified with the International Bonhoeffer Society (IBS) and the monumental, recently completed edition of Bonhoeffer’s works in German and English (DBW). Although he salutes Bethge’s biography and the editors of DBW in his acknowledgements, his own work follows a strikingly different course from the insider consensus.

First, although like the insiders he sees Bonhoeffer’s political commitments as coherent with his theology, he views both as far closer to the contemporary political and cultural right. Others before Metaxas have pointed out ostensibly conservative elements in Bonhoeffer, some with eagerness and some with regret. Metaxas is clearly with the eager, and seldom passes up a chance to imply that Bonhoeffer would have favored fundamentalists over liberals, creationists over Darwinists, and traditional values over squishy relativism. Unfortunately, much of his polemicizing is as speculative as Kelly and Nelson’s liberal preachments. For instance, Darwin and Nietzsche are particular bêtes noirs for Metaxas; but there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer had any problems with the former, and much evidence that he was strongly influenced by the latter.

The second difference between Metaxas and the insider view concerns Bonhoeffer’s provocative theological reflections in the late letters to Bethge. While both parties want to rescue Bonhoeffer from the “Death of God” theologians, they adopt very different strategies for doing so. Metaxas takes Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” as yet another attack on Protestant liberalism—”the ersatz and abbreviated Christianity that he spent his life working against”—and suggests that Bonhoeffer favored a conservative resurgence. “The God of the Bible was Lord over everything, over every scientific discovery.” This implies a kind of new Christian hegemony that is contradicted by other ideas of Bonhoeffer from those letters, such as “the world come of age” and “the suffering God”—phrases that go unmentioned by Metaxas, since they hardly fit the muscular Christianity he appears to favor.

Metaxas’s facile prose obscures other problems—minor mistakes in detail, chronology, and German orthography that nonetheless raise doubts about the depth of his scholarship. And he would have benefited from an editor with the backbone to insist that he tone down his more colorful passages, some of which border on verbal abuse. It’s not easy to excite sympathy for Nazis, but after hearing the “cadaverous” Reinhard Heydrich described as a “waxy lamprey,” a “piscine ghoul,” and an “albino stoat,” this reader experienced a surge of solidarity with ugly people. The invective hurled at American liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick is less zoological but still inordinate. Standards of civility ought to hold for our dealings with the dead as well as the living.

It is no accident that conservative media personality Glenn Beck loves Bonhoeffer, or that he has twice invited Metaxas onto his show to discuss it. Although Metaxas professes to disdain the term, his Bonhoeffer is a conservative “culture warrior” of the first order. Whether that Bonhoeffer bears much relation to the Bonhoeffer of history is, however, a serious question. Unfortunately, given the comparative sales figures, Metaxas’s view of Bonhoeffer may carry more weight with the American reading public than that of the more scholarly and less incendiary Schlingensiepen.

David E. Timmer teaches religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where he chairs the philosophy and religion department.