Takeaway: While Bonhoeffer is treated by many as a Rorschach test, there actually was a real person that should be dealt with honestly.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most respected Christian figures of the 20th century. But it would not be surprising that his legacy is debated. Bonhoeffer’s works span 16 volumes in the complete works. Those complete works include letters, books, fiction, sermons, academic papers, and more. It is unsurprising in the breadth of his work over time that there were significant changes in thought, even in his short life.
What may be surprising for many is how recent the interest in Bonhoeffer is. There is a good chapter by Timothy Larson in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture that traces Evangelical reception to Bonhoeffer. And Martin Marty’s biography of the book Letters and Papers from Prison has a long section that traces the history of how Bonhoeffer was received as well.
The Battle for Bonhoeffer is really a book-length expansion of the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer that both of the two mentioned books discuss in shorter sections. And for the most part, Battle for Bonhoeffer is a scathing critique of the misuse while noting some of the better uses.
Bonhoeffer’s ideas have been widely appropriated for different movements from the start. John Robinson’s very controversial book Honest to God used Bonhoeffer’s concept of religion-less Christianity. But in 1963 when Honest to God was published, Bonhoeffer was not widely known, and Bonhoeffer was tainted in conservative circles because of his attachment to Honest to God.
Haynes carefully examines how different groups have used (and often misused or distorted) Bonhoeffer for their own purposes. This is a brief but helpful reminder that the broader context of a person’s life and work is essential to rightly understanding and using a person’s ideas. My most significant takeaway from Battle for Bonhoeffer is the importance of actually understanding the subject before talking about it.
There is a special and extensive critique of Eric Metaxas and his biography. Metaxas is not a historian or theologian. While Haynes notes the value in Metaxas bringing more attention to Bonhoeffer, Haynes has almost nothing positive to say about the quality of Metaxas’ work. I am far from a Bonhoeffer scholar, and at the time I first read Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, I noticed at least a half dozen mistakes. Haynes notes far more.
While Haynes is very critical of Metaxas and others’ harmful use of Bonhoeffer, he is not unreasonable in expecting that subjects of biographies be treated accurately. As I was reading, I was reminded of Bradley Wright’s Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. Both are attempting to correct Christians that badly use data/history. Many Christians that are using data/history badly are justifying the bad use because of their good intentions. Wright talks about pastors trying to prove the importance of their subjects in their preaching by searching for the worst statistics they can find instead of accurately presenting data. Haynes’ point about Metaxas’ lousy use of history and his ignorance of Bonhoeffer’s theology and historical context is that even if Metaxas had good intentions, the bad history still is bad history.
Battle for Bonhoeffer is subtitled “Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump.’ And there are several sections at the end that deal with current events. Part of the context of the critique of Metaxas is how Metaxas used Bonhoeffer as a weapon in his critique of Obama and Metaxas’ support of Trump. Haynes is very concerned about how many modern figures on the left and right point to Hitler’s Germany as somehow parallel to either Obama’s or Trump’s America.
However, at the end of Battle for Bonhoeffer, Haynes writes an open letter to Christians that are currently supporting Trump because he believes that while Trump is not Hitler, things that can be learned from Bonhoeffer are relevant to our current political situation. He distinguishes between those that reluctantly voted for Trump but are concerned about Trump’s policies today and those that, nearly two years after his election continue to support Trump fully. (Christianity Today reported on a survey by Lifeway that was released yesterday that said that 52% of all Christian pastors support Trump’s presidential performance, 28% disapprove, and 20% are unsure).
I am not sure many supporters of Trump will pick up a book about the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer, so I doubt that Battle for Bonhoeffer will impact Trump’s level of support. However, as an individual, this is a screed that I thought was personally useful in reminding me of the importance of academic research, the limits of using historical data to understand current events, and the need to honestly inspect how we pick and choose data to make our points.