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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In Eric Metaxas's new book on Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas offers the reader a deep, intricate journey into the life of what would be perceived as any normal "run of the mill" pastor/theologian, if Hitler's rise to power did not loom on the horizon.  Metaxas beautifully articulates how Bonhoeffer, raised in a good Aristocratic German family, lay aside great amounts of power, prestige, and status for participation with an oppressed group of people, eventually resulting in his imprisonment and death. The time period of the early 1930's Germany, which Metaxas is writing sits so poignantly obvious, as 20/20 hindsight renders the story. Yet, as the reader is following Bonhoeffer as he travels, teaches, and meets with theologians across the world, Bonhoffer's actions initially seem so benign. There does not seem to be any urgency in what Bonhoeffer is doing until around 1932/1933.
Although, small transformations are detailed in the story, such as Bonhoeffer going to see the movie, All is Quiet on the Western Front and weeping during the movie at the horrendous violence associated with war.  Metaxas inserts that he believes that Bonhoeffer was so affected by this movie that he began to truly believe that as a Christian, pacificism was not simply an alternative way of being, but an imperative and had intended to visit Mohandas Gandhi in India, but subsequently never made the trip.
America is also portrayed in the book as a life altering time period for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer did post-graduate work and taught theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC in 1930.  Bonhoeffer had already been exposed to the liberal theology of Adolph Von Harnack in Germany during his study at the University of Berlin, but Metaxas portrayed Bonhoeffer's time in America as more spiritual, and yet more disturbing than his studies in Germany. Metaxas details how Bonhoeffer was introduced to the African-American plight in America through his contact with a black student at Union who brought Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.  Through Bonhoeffer's time at this church, he stated that he grew in his faith through listening and participating in "African American spirituals", yet Bonhoeffer was so deeply disturbed by the separation of black and white Christians in America.
Metaxas wrote that in 1931 Bonhoeffer stated that, "The plight of blacks in America seems to even overshadow the Jewish question in Germany."  This statement was made of course in 1931, prior to the Nazi's taking power in Germany and Metaxas unpacks this statement by demonstrating that since many Jews were business owners, lawyers, and professors, they had a slight advantage over blacks in America.  Although, the statement itself presupposed that there already was a "Jewish question" in Germany.
When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, Metaxas demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had already begun a dramatic transformation by coming to truly embody the mission of the church, which was to not only preach the gospel, but to stand beside those who were the victims of suffering. As the Third Reich began implementing its new Aryan policies, such as the Aryan Paragraph which wanted to return all state jobs to those of Aryan blood, Bonhoeffer needed to address the growing uncertainty within the German church as to how to respond to this new policy.  Out of this quandry came according to Metaxas, one of Bonhoeffer's most famous quotes in relation between how the church should respond to the state by stating,
"It is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself."
Metaxas has done a marvelous job in allowing the reader into the world of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to truly experience how deeply Bonhoeffer was committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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