I would not do justice to Metaxa’s work by trying to do some sort of book review or even a summary of what I took away. Rather, I would like to express some of my thoughts on various aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life. These thoughts do not present any sort of coherent picture that can be called a thesis or even a main point. Instead, this post aims to bring to light those ideas that struck me most from the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
After reading Michael Van Dyke’s take on Bonhoeffer in Radical Integrity: The Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was eager to read more about Bonhoeffer’s life. To me see it seems that Van Dyke oversimplified both Bonhoeffer’s life and theology for the sake of brevity. Furthermore, Van Dyke over-dramatized Bonhoeffer’s life by using unecessary anecdotes and conversations which I was skeptical had happened as Van Dyke presents them. Overall, Van Dyke’s take on Bonhoeffer left more to be desired.
Metaxas’ book, on the other hand, captures what I had found missing in Van Dyke’s book: a rich interweaving of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology into one narrative. Bonhoeffer as a student writing Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being in his early twenties is a far different Bonhoeffer than the conspirator and prisoner writing Ethics during the height of the Nazi regime. Nonetheless, there is an implied continuity from student to conspirator and prisoner, which provides the reader with a holistic picture of the life of Bonhoeffer.
Another thought I had was how, on the surface, Bonhoeffer was an incredibly contradictory individual. He was simultaneously an ordained priest and part of conspiracy to kill Hitler. He was able to simultaneously live in the ivory-tower as prodigious academic and scholar while being down-to-earth and pragmatic. He was able to simultaneously influence an entire generation of theologians and a poverty-stricken group of young boys. He was simultaneously firm and kind. But above all, he was both a man of this world and a man absolutely devoted to following Christ.
Above all, the greatest thought I had was this: Christ is at the center of Bonhoeffer, i.e. Bonhoeffer allows Christ to take center stage in everything he does. Christ is at the center of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Christ is at the center of his work as a priest (something, ironically, that Bonhoeffer finds missing in American pastor’s and their sermons). And above all, Christ is at the center of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity.
The last point could serve as an entire book, and would take pages upon pages to flesh out. Honestly, I barely comprehend how someone could be so devoted to putting Christ in the center of their life. The absurdness of a Christian plotting to murder somebody reminds me of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Abraham following God’s will to kill his son Isaac: it leaves one with “fear and trembling”. How could I begin to put myself in Bonhoeffer’s shoes? No doubt with “fear and trembling”. But that is what Bonhoeffer’s theology and life asks us to do: follow Christ to the cross, i.e. to death.
I must be honest. As an American, the living-out of Christianity as Bonhoeffer did is alien. It seems radical and extreme. I read the life of a man who rejected the Nazi regime with his whole being and think, “Of course, who would not? The Nazi regime was clearly detestable and any good person would do what Bonhoeffer did”. Most Americans in the 21st century would take this point to be axiomatic. Nonetheless, I ask: would we all see so penetratingly clear into our own times, as Bonhoeffer did? Would we know if we are called to die for our faith? And would we have the faith and courage to do so? The thought is truly uncomfortable.
I will end my post and thoughts on that cheery note! But in all seriousness, I highly recommend Metaxa’s book. If you are a Christian, Bonhoeffer’s walk with Christ deserves serious attention. Nonetheless, I think non-Christians would learn a lot from his life. There is a such breadth to his thought and actions that anyone might be able to learn something from this courageous man.