It is common practice in the world of big awards to announce the “short list” of potential honorees. Well, my short list isn’t so short, and as I’m preparing for our new year’s look-back at the best books of 2010, I thought I’d name a short-listed one. I’m not so sure, yet, which categories I’ll have cooked up (you may know my list is sometimes a bit–okay, well, a lot– quirky, even making up category awards to fit the books I want to applaud.) I am not sure into which category this book will make its way—maybe more than one.
But know this, for now: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Nelson; $29.99) is a winner. It is one of the most interesting books of recent years, one of the most talked about, and, dare I say, one of the most important. There is much that needs to be said about this (and I may not be the person to do so, but it has been very widely reviewed, mostly to over-the-top raves.) Here is the sort of stuff, though, that we hear, here in the shop: one fellow was almost at the 500 page mark and didn’t want to proceed. He said he just didn’t want the book to be over, and was disappointed that the tale was almost over. Yep, that is not uncommon as Metaxas has given us a thrilling telling of a thrilling story. and lots of readers are riveted and delighted. As with his wonderful Amazing Grace book on Wilberforce, this is an easy to read, hard to put down, vibrant story, told with passion and warmth. With a few exceptions, reviewers have used tremendously positive descriptors. It is “tantalizing” or “beautiful” or “a masterpiece that reads like a great novel.” The prestigious (and not easy to please) Kirkus review says “Metaxas magnificently captures the life of of theologian and anti-Nazi activist…a definitive Bonhoeffer biography for the 21st century.” They named it as one of their top 25 non-fiction books of the year.
You most likely know that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who stood up to the Nazis in a variety of ways and has been quite the darling of progressive, more liberal Christians for years. His radical call to discipleship, his wonderful reflections about community in Life Together, and his reflections on the Psalms have been widely appreciated but some of his later theological work has been viewed with some healthy criticism by more evangelical folks. Metaxas’ book intends to re-frame some of this, placing the martyr firmly within historical Christian orthodoxy and telling of his life in ways that sound familiar to evangelicals. This is, I’d say, a large and daring interpretive move, and one that rings true.
You may know—I know that some of our readers know—that there was a blistering critique in The Christian Century. I posted a comment at their website, in fact, protesting that the important scholar who wrote the review was beyond the pale in ad hominem attacks and whining about Metaxas’ conservative theology. So what—I would say–if the author has appeared on FoxNews? Readers and friends of Hearts & Minds know we are not fans of Glen Beck, but I was thrilled that Metaxas got on that sordid venue, that Beck did a long piece on the book. Does this diminish Metaxas’s ability to tell the story of the great Bonhoeffer? Does an alleged misspelling of a German word ruin his academic chops? Apparently, in The Century reviewer’s mind, it does.
It does seem evident (and the CC review was not the only place to observe this) that there are, indeed, different takes on the complicated views of Rev. B. We have his letters and papers and sermons and like any serious thinker, they do not form a simplistic collage. Not unlike the remarkable film Bonhoeffer by Martin Doblmeier, Metaxas makes a lot of hay out of Bonhoeffer’s displeasure at the lack of gospel-centered teaching at old Union Seminary, and his subsequent spiritual renewal when he worshiped at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist church. It is known that Bonhoeffer disapproved of what his friends at Union were teaching, and he even took recordings of black spirituals with him back to Germany, hoping to recreate some of the passion and joy and deep piety that emerged from the historic black church in those years.
Perhaps it can be said that Mr. Metaxas’ tome isn’t the best study of Bonhoeffer. Indeed, it is not a “study” at all, but a biography. Like any historian’s work, the framing and interpretation of the historian comes in to play, and there can be lively debate about whether or not any biographer gets his or her subject fully right. One would suppose that Metaxas would be happy to engage fair-minded conversation about this. I am confident, though, that for the big story, told with passion and awareness, and historical insight, that this is the place to begin. It is not only the best way into the Bonhoeffer story, but it is one heckuva read for anyone that wants a heart-pounding, historical drama.
We are glad that so many are reading the book, that it has gotten such favorably feedback, that it has catapulted into the evangelical world (and beyond) and thereby help create a renewed interest in Bonhoeffer. Only but the most grumpy leaders of the academic guild who think they are the gatekeepers to all writing about Bonhoeffer would be thrilled to know that the heroic story of this brave and thoughtful leader, is being discovered, explored, talked about. May lives be changed as readers are drawn to “pick up their cross” and live into the radical, costly, servanthood vision of cruciform discipleship; may we all grow in greater awareness of the other writings by and about Bonhoeffer and how they may shape us in our own political and ethical faithfulness.
Eric, by the way, was on C-Span the other night, doing a talk on the book, and from the first few minutes you can see that he’s one funny dude. To explain how he came to learn about Bonhoeffer–raised in a New York Greek Orthodox family, he hadn’t heard of him–he tells a bit about his own spiritual awakening after graduating from Yale.
Here are the important critical editions of Bonhoeffer’s works, published by Augsburg-Fortress. Let us know if you want any.
Here is a wonderful, brief essay and review, on Bonhoeffer’s popularity and on Eric’s book, written in Books & Culture.
By the way, there is another recent work on Bonhoeffer that we stock th
at deserves a shout out; it, too, has been considerably acclaimed as a dense and important study, written by a scholar whose father was a Confessing Church leader and familiar with Bonhoeffer and his friend Eberhard Bethge. Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen (T & T Clark; $29.95.)