Book Review and Afterthoughts

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Author:  Eric Metaxas

I had heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer through listening to sermons, reading articles, and watching the PBS movie several years ago. I also have read several books about World War II and the history of this time period. It has been an incomplete picture, up to this point.

Until you read this book, understanding World War II is missing an important perspective.

Many books focus on Hitler’s rise to power, various military leaders of World War II, and the overall unfolding and ending of the war. A missing element has been, at least for me, the role of Hitler with the church.

Until you read this book by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer may be only hazily understood.

Metaxas does an excellent job of unfolding Bonhoeffer’s life; describing the stage in which Hitler essentially took over the church; and bringing to life how Bonhoeffer challenged himself and others to take a stand against this horrific regime.

With those two general statements, reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy will fill the historical gaps in your understanding of this time period and will open your eyes to what an individual can do to try to change history and live their life intensely committed to God.

Throughout the book, you can feel the intensity at which Bonhoeffer undertakes theology, thoughtfulness, and action. Even with his passion, there always seems to a strong pastoral, likable, comfortable aspect to his interactions and relationships. All of this is strongly driven by his relationship with God.

From reading this book, there are several characteristics of Bonhoeffer’s life which speak loudly of how to live a life of difference and raise important questions for use to consider today. The key elements are:

  1. The call to the church
  2. The call to live by example
  3. The call to live a life fulfilled by the Spirit of God within you

The call to the church. When the Jewish question was raised by Hitler, Bonhoeffer outlined the role of the church. The “three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state” include:

  • Help the state be the state as God intended
  • Aid the victims of state action, “even if they do not belong to the Christian community”
  • Take action against the state to stop it from perpetuating evil

These were bold calls to action for the church. It was a call to help Christians and Jews who were victims of the state. It was a call to stop the state from doing evil. This is an active call for the church to help everyone and to stop evil from occurring, even if it is coming from the government.

These calls to action for the church made some very uncomfortable. This was the call that Bonhoeffer made to the Confessing Church in trying to spur action in response to Hitler and to offer a clear alternative to what was becoming the Reich Church.

Question for us to consider:  Is it good to be an uncomfortable Christian at times?

The call to live by example. The author, Metaxas, summarizes this principle well:

“A major theme for Bonhoeffer was that every Christian must be ‘fully human’ by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some ‘spiritual’ realm. To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology. “

Getting your hands dirty and living by example is a key theme in Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer did this over and over again. Sometimes it was a subtle, yet still important, action. For example, in 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible, and it highlighted the book of Psalms. It sounds harmless. However, at the time, the Old Testament was ignored as the Nazis tried to undermine anything of Jewish origin. Bonhoeffer, with this book, declared the importance of the Old Testament.

Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer was willing to live by example. He was willing and ready to do whatever he challenged others to do. It was a consistent life.

Question for us to consider: What does our life exemplify?

The call to live a life fulfilled by the Spirit of God within you. Again, Metaxas does excellent work in summarizing Bonhoeffer’s approach:

“It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny.”

There are several keywords in these sentences – not avoiding sin, more than just believing, whole life obedience to God’s call. In other words, sitting on the sidelines and being good are not enough. We must listen to and act upon God’s call to us. We must connect our mind and body to do the work that God intends for us to do. It is not a life of avoidance, but a life called to action aligned with the Spirit within us.

Question for us to consider: Are we doing what God is calling us to do?

The story told about Bonhoeffer is fulfilling, and it is packed with great detail (too much at times, perhaps). It delivers a perspective on history, which is necessary. It delivers a perspective on the role of the church, which is challenging. It delivers a perspective for an individual, which is demanding.

Take the time to read this important book; it will provide greater historical context for you to consider and challenge you to answer questions about your own life.

Bonhoeffer’s words and, more importantly, his actions light a path for us to consider closely in examining what we are doing to lead a life of meaning. Are we fully using our Spirit-filled strengths in our actions?