Takeaway: Bonhoeffer is a complicated and fascinating figure in Christianity.
There were two biographies of Bonhoeffer published in 2010. It was not a coincidence. This was also when the final editions of Bonhoeffer’s complete works a 15 volume set were being completed. There is a trove of documents and letters that have been discovered since the classic biography from Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge’s was first published in 1970. (A new translation was released in 2000.)
I read Eric Metaxas’ biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy right after it came out. It is a good, but not great biography. Metaxas is a good storyteller. He was trying to counter some misunderstanding about Bonhoeffer, especially to an Evangelical audience that did not quite trust Bonhoeffer. But Metaxas is not a Bonhoeffer scholar and even a Bonhoeffer lightweight like myself saw errors or myths that were presented as fact. But this is a review of Schlingersiepen’s biography, not Metaxas’ biography (Bookwi.se review of Metaxas Biography).
What I appreciated about Schlingersiepen’s biography is that it was much more focused on telling the background and history around Bonhoeffer. I felt like I understood not only more about Bonhoeffer, but also more about Germany, the issues of religious freedom under Hitler and a number of theological issues that Bonhoeffer was dealing with.
Second, Schlingersiepen uses Bonhoeffer’s own works frequently. It gave me a much better sense of the changes in Bonhoeffer’s theology and his progression over time. I was glancing back at the passages I highlighted and realized that all but one were quotes from Bonhoeffer’s own writing. It is an odd biography that concentrates so well on what Bonhoeffer said in context and without being bored by quotes.
I also appreciate that Schlingersiepen does not present Bonhoeffer as if he were always right. Frankly, the theological issues at the end of Bonhoeffer’s life were presented as difficulties. (Metaxas swept them under the rug.) Throughout this biography, as much as I respect Bonhoeffer, I saw many areas where I would theologically disagree. That is helpful.
Bonhoeffer’s work with the resistance and his work in the Military Intelligence was very well presented here. I felt with Metaxas’ presentation that I did not really understand the role that Bonhoeffer played as a double spy. And I certainly did not understand what it was that lead to Bonhoeffer’s arrest as well as I did with this book. I also saw many random occurrences (prosecutor being transferred, the court being blown up, Bonhoeffer being accidentally sent to the wrong prison, etc.) that almost felt like miracles to save his life. We can never know this side of heaven what was really going on during his last days. But it did feel as if the hand of God was moving.
If I had to recommend just one biography of Bonheoffer, I would recommend this one. But I do not have to. There is room for multiple biographies
and I still recommend Metaxas’, albeit with some caveats. and I would recommend this one and Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory as a good combination.
I put off buying this biography because it was so expensive. The kindle version has ranged from $15-19 since it was released. It was down to $9.99 for a couple weeks (around the anniversary of his death) and I bought it. I hate to say that price really matters that much. But most people when they see two biographies, one at $8 and the other at $18, they are going to buy the $8 one. Especially when it has so many more reviews. (I actually bought Metaxas book on kindle for $1.99 on sale).
Schlingersiepen was a friend and student of Bethge. This biography was written in German and translated. Schlingersiepen is just more familiar with the scholarship and Germany. It is no wonder it is the better biography.