Title: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Author: Eric Metaxas
Major Themes: Bonhoeffer, Biography, World War II
Synopsis: The life story of the famous pastor and preacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died under the Nazis in World War II.
Years ago, I heard an interview with Eric Metaxas on Focus on the Family, and in that interview, his book Bonhoeffer was mentioned. After that, I knew I wanted to read it—sometimes those interviews make the books sound really good! Since I never found it available for free, though, I shelved the thought until later. At one point, I do remember recommending the book to Mom, and she got the Bonhoeffer Student Edition to review, but I never got around to reading that version. Then just recently, when I had a few extra credits to use and there was a sale at Christian Audio, I finally saw my chance—Bonhoeffer was much cheaper than normal, so I got the audiobook! It’s a long audiobook (22 hr), but I am glad I finally got to read/hear it.
This book is a fairly typical biography in that it follows Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life from a very young child right up until his death. What I loved about this, though, was that it showed not only his life story but also gave a sense of how his family was situated as well. I hadn’t picked up in other biographies, for example, that his mother was a staunch Christian, and his father more of an agnostic. Or that his childhood and young adult years were full of laughter and joy, plays and musical concerts—things that fed the soul as well as the mind. I appreciated his father’s stance on words—only say what you know is true and which you can defend; don’t just rattle off whatever comes to mind. That challenged me, because often we can have very foolish, unprofitable conversations around our house! There’s a place for that, but it’s also good to know how to talk seriously and have profitable, well-reasoned conversations.
As Bonhoeffer got older, of course, he studied theology and eventually became a pastor. He started a seminary and led it for a while—until the war and German government restricted things to the point where that could no longer continue. Then he was involved in several plots against Hitler, which eventually ended his life.
One thing that impressed me about Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was that Metaxas didn’t just focus on Bonhoeffer’s life, but he also was able to pull in a lot of the history surrounding his life—what was going on at the same time in his extended family, in the socio-political environment, and some of what was going on in the world, as well. After reading this, I felt like I had a good overview of the times as well as the life of this man, and I appreciated that. It was also very interesting to see how Hitler came to power (from Bonhoeffer’s perspective, of course), and how he slowly introduced motions and gained the control he did in the end…all while blinding the people under him to his ultimate goals. It’s good to read about these things in history, because I feel like it can give us greater clarity when we consider what is happening around us and what the future outcomes could be of the decisions being made now. For example, one thing that struck me was the German church’s response to Hitler’s coming to power. Instead of standing up for the truth, they caved—and that only gave Hitler more power to work evil. I had to ask myself what kinds of compromises am I willing to make? Do I want to avoid conflict so much that I would end up as weak and helpless as many in that church did back in the early ‘40s?
I don’t feel like I can recommend Bonhoeffer as much as I would like, though. This book presents him as a very good, godly man, and while I don’t doubt that he had mostly good intentions, I don’t agree with the compromises he was willing to make (and the outright lies that went along with it) to possibly achieve his goals. Some have cast doubt on how much of this story is credible, and honestly, I don’t know. Much of it seemed realistic, but I don’t know my history as well as I would like. Exercise caution and your God-given wisdom; compare Bonhoeffer’s conclusions to the Biblical teachings, and make up your mind about it. This book isn’t for the faint of heart (it’s long!), and it also isn’t for children. Some of the Nazi’s atrocities are told here, and they are truly hideous. While I felt like a lot of this book was good from a historical standpoint, this isn’t a book you’d likely ever find on my shelf, since I have such mixed feelings about it.
WARNING: Throughout this book, there is an amount of lying/deception going on, and several times that is explained away as if it wasn’t really that wrong—I wasn’t comfortable with all of it. Otherwise, in ch. 1, a boy dies of a shrapnel wound, and there’s a report of a fight and of a man who was assassinated. In ch. 9, there’s a story of a man who was executed, and ch. 10 has a mention of a death by suicide. Ch. 12 says something about “men who should have killed Hitler”. Ch. 13 tells of another suicide; ch. 15 has the story of the night of the long knives; ch. 17 has some talk about euthanasia and abortions and other things an evil man headed up during the war. Ch. 20 has talk of multiple men in the German government who were homosexual, “damned” is used, there’s lying as people escape, a man is shot and killed, Kristallnacht happens, and there is a mention of murders in Poland (which are not described). Ch. 21 has news of a man who was beaten to death; ch. 22 has a story of a man who was killed, war stories, and the euthanasia program is talked about again. Ch. 23 has more lying and executions, as well as ch. 24. From here on, my notes become somewhat sporadic, but continue in much the same vein. The ones I noted down were—ch. 29: suicides and Nazi atrocities (either here or ch. 30 was especially bad); ch. 30: more suicides, atrocities, and a man is killed; ch. 31: Bonhoeffer killed and aftermath.