I waited to read the Metaxas biography of Bonhoeffer until it was recommended to me by an Episcopalian priest who said I would find it a good read. He was right. Metaxas is an engaging writer who did more than anyone to put Bonhoeffer in the public realm. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy we get to see Bonhoeffer the man replete with a family, love interest, and all the thought and feelings of a dedicated Christian who lived through that most challenging part of human history. We even get some of his theology, though what we get here is read through a very American and evangelical lens.
If there was any criticism leveled at Metaxes, it was that he wrote the book with an agenda. I do not concur, but we do get a Bonhoeffer who is made into an evangelical hero rather than a product of continental Protestantism. To be fair, some of this rights a wrong that was too long in the making, that is Bonhoeffer is a liberal Christian fighting the evil of an unjust social order. Bonhoeffer was no liberal and his fight against national socialism was as much to preserve the German Protestant Church as it was to protest the evils of Nazism. Granted he did know that a Germany that was true to its Christianity could not permit the horrors of the regime, but his first interest was in making right a Christian community that had ceased to be Christian. On this point Metaxes does well, even if the complexity of the German church is much simplified.
What Metaxes misses is the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s thought. I am no Bonhoeffer scholar, but a cursory read of his material does not put him in the camp of American style evangelism. It is true Bonhoeffer would take issue with the current direction of the mainline churches in Europe and North America, but he would still stand closer to their theology than that of the “me and Jesus” theology of American evangelical megachurches and free church sects. Written at length in the Metaxes biography is Bonhoeffer’s experiences in America where he experiences an epiphany by the exploration of African-American spirituality and a dislike of the religious liberalism of Union Theological seminary. Though these things are true, an epiphany for Bonhoeffer was not a conversion experience and dislike of liberalism is no endorsement of the evangelical understanding of theology. Bonhoeffer never shied from difficult questions about biblical historicity or the soundness of theology and it is best to think of him with the likes of Karl Barth rather than the 20th century evangelist.
None of this means Metaxes should be ignored. Religious liberals have claimed Bonhoeffer too long. The fact that Bonhoeffer came out of the same world as Tillich and Bultmann and that he was well read in Kierkegaard (also no liberal) and others has led liberals to hastily claim Bonhoeffer as one of their own. Metaxes sees through this and never lets liberal Christianity have an exclusive claim on Bonhoeffer. What Metaxes ignores is where Bonhoeffer finds common ground with religious thinkers like Tillich, is in the understanding of what it is to be Christian, of “walking wet” through the daily renewal of baptism rather than conversion and in being pragmatic (the ends justify the means) rather than in seeking to attain a type of perfectionism common to evangelical thought. Bonhoeffer was enough of a Lutheran to understand himself to at once be saint and sinner, that sin is to be despised but it inhabits every person.
As for Bonhoeffer the man, Metaxas does an excellent job and concerns himself more with the man than his theology. That is fair enough; this is a biography. His relationship with his family is spoken of in length as well as his relationship to his girlfriend and eventual fiance Maria von Wedemyer. On that relationship Metaxas emphasizes the love story more than the justice of a man in his late thirties asking a girl half his age to share his struggles and joys, though the issue is not absent and having access to their correspondence gave him an edge on other Bonhoeffer biographers. Metaxas also does an incredible job on seeing the pathos of German society between the wars and a system that had to give in….unfortunately on the wrong side of history and the moral arc.
Asked if I would recommend Metaxes, I would say yes, albeit with a bit (though only a small bit) of hesitation. There are times when his work seems to be an endorsement of a type of Christianity that Bonhoeffer would not entirely own. Bonhoeffer was thoroughly Lutheran and understood life as a place of paradox, both messy and beautiful. The cut and dry American take on Protestant Christianity is nearly absent from his thought, though this is hardly the case for the author. Still you can hardly find a more moving portrayal of a theologian anywhere else. So read Metaxes; he is a great writer and can turn even the life of a theologian into a page turner, though let me add after you do so, pick up Life Together or The Cost of Discipleship and give it a good read or at least a look. (And if you find yourself taken by the man, check out Love Letters from Cell 92.)