Book Review: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 Back in my university days I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship, and was moved by the thoughts and practicality of this theologian known primarily conspiring to kill Hitler. A few months ago, one of our friends described a brilliant new biography (by Eric Metaxas) he had just finished about this German Christian - so I decided to give it a whirl (biographies are a favorite genre of mine - I try to always be reading one). What I learned from this biographical work surprised me - here are some thoughts!

 One - The Bonhoeffer Family 

 Knowing nothing really at all about the life of D.Bonhoeffer, I was surprised to learn he was a twin. I was also surprised to learn he was of the German aristocracy, and that his grandparents, parents, and siblings were all renown in their respective fields. I'll not steal all of Metaxas' thunder, so only one more comment on the Bonhoeffer family. Most of the children learned to play an assortment of instruments, and every week the family held a "recital" showcasing what the children had learned/practiced that week. Other family friends were invited, dinner and dessert were offered; the evening became an event of great family/friend fellowship. I've told Joshua we need to cultivate a similar event for our kids, family and friends - an opportunity to gather weekly, share what we have learned, and enjoy good company! 

Two - German Theology

 It ought to have been obvious to me that a biography about a theologian would canvas the theological atmosphere of the day.  True confession - the amount of theological discourse proved more than I expected, and was thoroughly educational! Living with a Karl Barth fanatic (our son's middle name is Markus - yup, you guessed, in honor of Markus Barth) made enjoyable the various notes on Barth (a contemporary and correspondent of Bonhoeffer's). Bonhoeffer studied under some of the biggest names of German liberal theology, and while he respected their learning was staunchly opposed to them. The biggest "fight" Bonhoeffer engaged in was against the German National Church, and Metaxas documented each clash!

Three - Critique

 Eric Metaxas writes a well researched, engaging biography. I recommend it highly - and will freely admit it has spurred my reading into areas peripheral to Bonhoeffer's story. The only critique I find myself passing along is that of bias. Discussion with my husband regarding some of Bonhoeffer's theological points, life decisions, and circumstantial stances brought to light chinks in the armor. The biography never seemed to allow any chinks and left me wondering just how partial Metaxas had been in his display of Bonhoeffer's life and thoughts.

 

Four - and final! Personal Impact

 

  The final stages in Bonhoeffer's life are known primarily from the autobiographies, letters, and memoirs of individuals who were imprisoned with him and survived. Their depiction of Bonhoeffer falls in line with that developed by Metaxas, and can be summed up by the following: Bonhoeffer was highly intelligent, diligent in his studies, ecumenically astute, and sincerely lived a practical example of Christ. It was the final characteristic that has impacted me personally - I draw my example from a couple instances noted about Bonhoeffer while he was in prison. The first came from a cell mate who documented how joyful Bonhoeffer was in being able to share the provisions his family brought to him with other imprisoned believers. My foibles are known to me, and I was quite taken with Bonhoeffer's ease - enjoyment even! - of freely giving to those around him rather than taking stock of his goodies and measuring out his own usage to make the items last until the next time his parents or fiance would visit. The second is similar, when Bonhoeffer had been moved to a concentration camp he kept back a portion of the tobacco he had been allowed to bring for a celebration when they were finally liberated. He didn't just save enough for his own pipe, but measured how much he would need to share with all the tobacco smokers imprisoned with him and made due with the remainder. While he was never personally liberated, the camp was evacuated and at that time Bonhoeffer doled out the precious tobacco, giving it out as joyfully as it was received. I had an opportunity just days after reading these accounts to assist fellow believers in an extremely mundane but necessary task - unsolicited. I would have helped in any regard, but Bonhoeffer came to mind and I endeavored to "bear one another's burdens" with the joy I had seen in Bonhoeffer's actions, counting it an opportunity to due unto Christ as I was doing unto His church. What a difference it made in my heart! 

 

To conclude - Favorite Book of the year thus far.

 I am eager to continue my forays into the theological debate between Schleiermacher and Barth, the various conspiracies to assassinate Hitler, and the Prussian nobility.  As for the attempt to serve with more love and purpose - I'll keep you updated! 

All her life Alaina traveled. As a child it was through novels, history books, and biographies. She has never lost a game of Risk to Joshua. Including the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings editions.