Takeaway: The first popular biography of Bonhoeffer. Not perfect,
but well worth reading. (Read Charles Marsh’s biography instead)
Like many Evangelicals I have been a fan of Bonhoeffer’s writing for many years. I have read Cost of Discipleship, Life Together and the two collections Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92. More than the rest the Love Letters book really made him a real person, and not just writer. A couple years ago I also saw Bonhoeffer, a great film documentary (streamable on netflix) that did a great job introducing Bonhoeffer, but none of these comes anywhere close to the depth that Eric Metaxas’ new biography has.
This biography was a whole new view of Bonhoeffer. I knew he was a great theologian. I knew he served as a pastor and underground seminary leader, I knew he had written some of the most challenging works of the 20th century, I knew he was executed days before the end of World War II. I did not understand the extent of his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, or how many attempts there were, or how long the planning went on.
I also did not know much he worked to keep a practical, pastoral focus to his theology, not just an academic focus. He served as a pastor in Spain, London, and a variety of places in Germany. This is in spite of the fact that many of his own family did not approve of theology, let alone seeing a pastor as a viable career choice. His family was among the top rungs of intellectual society in Germany. His brother worked with Albert Einstein before Einstein left Germany. His father was among the most celebrated psychiatrist/neurologists in Germany (primarily as an academic study).
This is not a perfect biography. There are some editing errors. (Albert Einstein is referred to as Alfred.) But more distracting are what I would call the “Dan Rather” style descriptions. This is one of many, many examples, “The RSHA was led by the waxy lamprey Reinhard Heydrick, who worked directly under Himmler.” Now I know what Metaxas meant, but I think the folksy descriptions detract from the story and otherwise very well written biography.
More than anything I think that Metaxas worked to keep Bonhoeffer out of the boxes that many people want to put him in. Bonhoeffer was not simply an academic theologian, he was not simply against Hitler, he was much more than just a martyr or saint. He was a man of God, that strived to do what he believed that God would have for him.
I highly with reservations recommend this biography. (I now no longer recommend).
This book has generated a significant amount of controversy. Here is a Second Opinion from Christianity Today that summarizes some of the controversy and deals with them in a very balanced way. After reading a number of reviews from people more familiar with Bonhoeffer studies, I am less inclined to recommend this biography.
I still think it is worth reading. And there is not another popular biography of Bonhoeffer available.
I now recommend the Charles Marsh Biography of Bonhoeffer. It is written at a popular level and it is a much better biography than the Metaxas one. But if you do read Metaxas’ you should know that many Bonhoeffer scholars are quite negative about the accuracy of both Metaxas’s take on German history and on Bonhoeffer’s theology. Another option is the more academic Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, but it is not a cheap biography.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher with the understanding that I would review the book here. I gave the book away to a man on a plane that was very interested in Bonhoeffer. He had been introduced to Bonhoeffer by a secular Jewish man that really liked the book Cost of Discipleship.