Dietrich Bonhoeffer holds a place in Christian history not unlike William Wilberforce — a man that modern Christians should know, but one most are only vaguely aware of and can’t speak intelligently about. Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, though hefty at more than 500 pages, does an admirable job of communicating the story of Bonhoeffer’s life to modern audiences.
Bonhoeffer is well-written and is fascinating as a narrative that parallels, rather than focuses on, many of the stereotypical storylines of World War II. While some of the details of Bonhoeffer’s life are interesting, such as his well-to-do upbringing in an essentially agnostic family, the theme most interesting and relevant to modern Christians is Bonhoeffer’s attempts to align his life with his faith. Though Metaxas received some criticism, he did a generally admirable job of using Bonhoeffer’s own words to explain his faith-based reasoning.
Bonhoeffer is portrayed as a man who grows gradually in his faith as it relates to his life; he did not start out as an ardent political activist and wrap his ulterior motives in religion. As he grew, though, he increasingly found conflicts between his role in society — particularly as Nazi Germany arose — and his Christian faith. The conflicts he faced — the Ecumenical movement, the Nazi-affiliated German church, his vulnerability to conscription, and more — are fascinating looks into how he reconciled (or was unable to reconcile) his faith with his place in society.
In that regard — the look into a Christian’s role in public life — the book is particularly apt for “lessons learned” for the modern Christian. That’s also why Metaxas has been criticized, as some have claimed that while Metaxas was generally historically accurate, he recast Bonhoeffer as a modern day American evangelical. That criticism is unfounded, as the criticism itself is cast from a modern perspective. Bonhoeffer is hardly portrayed as an early member of the Moral Majority or “religious right.” His growth in his faith, and that influence over his public life, is measured and consistent.
The book is a gripping read, even if you know the end of the story. Ultimately, as history tells us, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on of thousands executed for their roles in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler. The camp in which Bonhoeffer was executed was liberated only days later.
This is not the first time Bonhoeffer’s story has been told, but Metaxas tells it well. Bonhoeffer’s story is one Christians should know, and those who would like to see how the German pastor struggled with his faith in a society increasingly hostile to his Christian ideals would do well to spend the time to read Metaxas’ work.
While lengthy, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, is highly Recommended.