Sometimes, from my perspective, the phrase regarding an individual being an “inspiration” to one’s own life is used too liberally by many people. The statement has almost become a sort of cliché.
However, when I think of the 20th century figure of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there isn’t any other phrase that sums up these last couple of years of reading works of his and biographies about him that have impacted my life. I have to be careful when I say that Bonhoeffer impacted my life or was an inspiration because I haven’t really ever been in a situation (i.e political challenges) that he experienced. Bonhoeffer’s writing and actions though have caused a sincere challenge to my faith and, in an axiomatic way, what I would do facing certain grim prospects.
Recently, I finished “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. The book is an exhaustive work that is not without its critics. The strength of the text though is taking the reader on a journey from Bonhoeffer’s birth on February 4th 1906 to his untimely death in a concentration camp at Flossenburg on April 9, 1945. There are generous quoted direct sources including Eberhard Bethge and other friends/family members.
What is known of Bonhoeffer’s childhood is displayed as well as his formative study years at Berlin University studying under a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf von Harnack. Harnack could be described as a staunch theological liberal. Bonhoeffer himself would have many disagreements with Harnack being heavily influenced by the highly regarded 20th century theologian, Karl Barth.
When Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30th, 1933, it would be two days before Bonhoeffer (then 26) gave a radio address criticizing the young German need for a Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer was arguing that an autocratic leader inevitably becomes an idol that is not accountable to God or to anyone. Such a position would be dangerous for any nation under such a ruler.
From here, Metaxas juxtaposes historical tidbits of the sweeping changes in 1930s Germany alongside analysis of the life and ideas of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer opposed the Hitler regime from the beginning but evolved through being an active resister of the regime to finally being an agent trying to assassinate its leader.
Fascinating enough on the plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer had a staunch opposition to the genocidal killing of the Jews (Bonhoeffer had Jewish family members) and the Third Reich’s euthanasia program. Bonhoeffer, however, seemingly stopped short of declaring a violent reaction to the regime as a universal will of God. Bonhoeffer believed (and was utterly convinced) that God’s will for him personally was to subvert the regime by cutting off the head of the snake but stopped short of calling this God’s will for every Christian in Germany. Bonhoeffer and his group came close to ending the Fuhrer’s life before his cowardly suicide. They had a bomb on the plane with Hitler but the device did not explode. As we read the history of this, we cannot help but speculate how this might have changed history.
Metaxas has been criticized in this book for making Bonhoeffer out to be like an American evangelical. In some places, this is a valid criticism. I would have liked Metaxas to explore the unique Christianity that was in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich and how this may have influenced Bonhoeffer. He certainly was not an American Evangelical. Although, he was deeply influenced by Barth whose work would shape some aspects of American evangelicalism.
The book is also very long at 542 pages. I understand to some extent that this should be expected when biographing the life of an important figure but there are places that should have been edited down and other passages that feel repetitive.
I don’t think anyone can deny the real inspirational power that is felt through exploring the character of Bonhoeffer. In Flossenburg, at the end of his life on earth, H. Fischer-Hullstrung observed the pastor’s last moments:
“Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”