Hijacking Bonhoeffer

October 4, 2010

You have to read Eric Metaxas with bifocals. With the upper lens you read the Metaxas of the book, an engaging narrative by an experienced writer who presents Bonhoeffer as a Christian hero led by God to struggle against an evil regime and against his wayward church. With the lower lens you read the Metaxas revealed in numerous web interviews in which he gives his account of Bonhoeffer's "staggering" significance today.

Metaxas first read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship at the time of his evangelical conversion some 20 years ago. Formerly a staff writer for Chuck Colson's BreakPoint, he appears frequently as a cultural commentator on Fox News and CNN. He founded and hosts Socrates in the City, a monthly event in New York featuring prominent speakers on "life, God, and other small topics." He presumably treats such topics in his trilogy of popular apologetics, the first being Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask). In 2007 he published Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, which made the New York Times best-seller list and was the companion book to the film Amazing Grace.

Readers coming to Bonhoeffer for the first time will likely be carried along by Metaxas's engaging narrative and admiration for his subject. A talented writer, he depends heavily on Eberhard Bethge's biography— 40 years old but still an unsurpassed source. His new material comes especially from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English edition, which contains eight volumes of Bonhoeffer's letters, sermons and papers. Metaxas quotes copiously from the five volumes that have only recently been translated. Also built into the narrative are letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, published in 1994 as Love Letters from Cell 92. Other sources include various memoirs written by Bonhoeffer's sister Sabine and by acquaintances such as Paul Lehmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and George Bell. Martin Doblmeier, maker of the film Bonhoeffer, calls the book "a masterpiece that reads like a great novel" and its author "the preeminent biographer of Christianity's most courageous figures."

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text (even the notorious names Buchenwald and Dachau are misspelled). I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent. (Metaxas repeats the pious and probably self-serving statement of the Flossenbürg camp doctor about Bonhoeffer's death and the canard about Bonhoeffer's radio speech on the Führer being cut off as if he were a marked man from the beginning of Hitler's rule, when in fact he just went over the time limit.) One of the signs that the book was rushed through the press to appear on the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's death is found in the news that Bonhoeffer crossed the Atlantic in the "thirty-three-ton ship" Columbus.

Informed readers will attend to what else is missing. Contrary to claims in the publicity, there is no new research in this biography. Bonhoeffer scholars are thanked but only mentioned in their role as editors; their research and writings are never discussed. (Disclosure: I have edited several volumes in the Bonhoeffer Works.) Because research has found new documents and new interpretation has been written since Bethge's book, one can indeed make a case for a new biography. (Ferdinand Schlingensiepen has just undertaken this serious task in Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance.) And given the tendency of evangelicals and liberals to focus on different parts of Bonhoeffer's theology and witness, the challenge is to transcend theological polarization and present an integrated and compelling picture.

But that is not Metaxas's approach: polarization is a structural motif of the whole narrative, because his mission is to reclaim the true Bonhoeffer from "liberals" who have "hijacked" the theologian. Consider the treatment of Bon­hoeffer's year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-1931. It is true that Bonhoeffer was very critical of theology at Union as well as the preaching he heard in white churches like Riverside Church. What Metaxas highlights, however, is Bon­hoeffer's experience at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where, he implies, Bonhoeffer had a conversion experience and became a serious Christian. In volume 10 of the Bonhoeffer Works I present new evidence of Abyssinian's deep personal impact on Bonhoeffer. But that is to complement, not disparage, the decisive impact of Bonhoeffer's friends at Union Seminary.

At Union, as Bonhoeffer himself reports, he engaged in life-changing discussions with Lehmann, Jean Lasserre, Erwin Sutz and Frank Fisher, discussions about the Sermon on the Mount, peace and "learning to have faith." These led directly and quickly to work on his book Discipleship. There, too, he got to know several Social Gospel radicals—pacifists and socialists—about whom he continued to inquire in letters years later. Metaxas tells us nothing of all this. Why? Because his Union Seminary is a construct of his polarizing worldview in which evangelicals are pitted against liberals.

This same simplistic approach governs Metaxas's writing about German theology and about the church struggle under National Socialism. He flippantly compares the theological controversy between Harnack and Barth to the conflict between latter-day Darwinians and proponents of Intelligent Design. He presents the Confessing Church as if it were an American denomination founded by Bonhoeffer. Indeed, he describes the battles of American fundamentalists and of the Confessing Church as essentially the same. Bonhoeffer, Metaxas tells us, "equated the fundamentalists with the Confessing Church. Here they were fighting against the corrupting influences of the theologians at Union and Riverside, and at home the fight was against the Reich church."

Two aspects of Bonhoeffer are so disturbing to Metaxas that he has to deny them outright or try to explain them away. Bonhoeffer, he insists, was not a pacifist. While pacifism as usually understood is not a good word to describe Bonhoeffer's position, his Christian peace ethic was rooted in the core doctrines of his theology—his Christology and his understanding of discipleship, his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and his doctrine of the church. He did not abandon his peace ethic while working to kill Hitler and end the Nazi regime. Just one sign of this stance is the fact that even during the war Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics and spoke to his fiancée in support of conscientious objection. These matters of theology and ethics are too subtle for Metaxas; consequently his treatment of the Lasserre-Bonhoeffer friendship in New York falsifies the sources and wallows in sentimentality.

Worse, if possible, is Metaxas's embarrassment about Bonhoeffer's writing in Letters and Papers from Prison about "religionless Christianity." In a Trinity Forum interview he even stated that Bonhoeffer "never really said it," but then had to retract that because, well, Bonhoeffer did say it. But, Metaxas continues, he wrote it privately in a letter to Bethge and never intended anyone to see it because it was "utterly out of keeping with the rest of Bonhoeffer's life." He calls Bonhoeffer's theological prison reflections a "few bone fragments . . . set upon by famished kites and less noble birds, many of whose descendants gnaw them still."

Descending to insult, even insulting the subject of his own book, is a sure sign that an author is in trouble. Why does he do this? Ostensibly because the death-of-God theologians, those "liberals," have "hijacked" Bonhoeffer. But why whip a few writers who made a brief splash 40 years ago and who have had little or no influence on theology or the church? Because they function as straw men in his polarizing narrative about "orthodox Christians" and "liberals." His real target is liberals, and not just theological liberals, but political liberals too.

The simplest way to refute Metaxas's dismissal of the prison theology is to note Bonhoeffer's answer when Bethge asked him how the book he was writing on religionless Christianity related to the unfinished Ethics. Bonhoeffer answered that the book he was writing in prison was "in a certain sense a prologue to the larger work [Ethics] and, in part, anticipates it." So, pace Metaxas, Ethics and the prison theology belong together.

A lot of nonsense has been written about Bonhoeffer's prison theology, but the answer to that is good interpretation, not pretending that the prison theology is a dirty little secret. Why is the Christ-centered worldly theology of the Letters so threatening to Metaxas? Because it can't be forced into a conservative evangelical mold—or a so-called liberal one either.

Metaxas writes as an omniscient narrator, a mind reader who knows Bonhoeffer's every thought and feeling. (Is this just a literary device, or does it reveal how much the author pro­jects his own views into the mind and actions of his subject?) For example, at the height of the church struggle, Bonhoeffer caused an uproar when he wrote: "Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church separates himself from salvation." Metaxas assures us that Bonhoeffer did not think this was explosive and "never imagined that it would become a focal point of the lecture."

One curious problem parades itself in the sub-subtitle: Bonhoeffer is presented as "A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich." With this phrase Metaxas takes sides with a group that has advocated for Bonhoeffer to be recognized as a "righteous gentile" by Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Whatever one believes about the merits of the case, this element of the book is a piece of provocative posturing since there is no new information about the issue, or even discussion of it, in the book.

This brings us back to the bifocals and the Internet interviews. Bonhoeffer was a "theologically conservative evangelical," Metaxas told Christianity Today. Born again at Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer was called by God to be in his own time a prophet like Jeremiah, Metaxas told Christianbook.com. In an e-mail to the Catholic News Agency, Metaxas stated that Bonhoeffer has "staggering" relevance today: "Just as the Third Reich was bullying the German church, [so] the Ameri­can government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality" and on "abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research. . . . We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front."

Lauren Green of FoxNews.com wrote that Metaxas showed how Bonhoeffer's legacy was "the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures . . . today as well." Reading this, a blogger wrote: "That's Obama and his followers he was warning us about." If you think that's a stretch, read Metaxas's comments last December on Fox Forum discussing White House Christmas celebrations, in which Obama is connected—in­directly, of course—to Herod.

Given all this, the most descriptive and honest title for Metaxas's book would perhaps be Bonhoeffer Co-opted. Or better: Bonhoeffer Hijacked.


Liberal theology

Many of the posts on this forum seem unclear as to the nature of liberal theology.   It is NOT the same thing as holding liberal political beliefs.  Bonhoeffer was opposed to the liberal theology that was pervasive in the Lutheran Church in Germany.  One needs to understand this in the historical context of the time when he lived.  

My major criticism of the book is that it doesn't seem to be objective.  It offers absolutely no criticisms of Bonhoeffer.  Although he was a very good man, he was a human being and therefore not perfect.

Response to "Hijacking Bonhoeffer"

I have read through Mr. Green's scathing review twice and the links. Here is my take:  Bonhoeffer was a formidable intellect and a prolific writer who left a vast body of work.  He, his father, and many other members of his extended family, were highly respected members of the German academy.  I think the depth and scope of Bonhoeffer's work has become a kind of theological Rorschach test where each camp essentially projects its own interpretation of Bonhoeffer.  In that sense, Metaxas is no different, perhaps, than all the others who have written biographies.  He certainly emphasized and highlighted those aspects of Bonhoeffer's faith journey that resonate with the evangelical church. He never, however, labelled Bonhoeffer an "evangelical", as far as I can recall.  Maybe part of Bonhoeffer's unquestioned and enduring genius is, for example, that he, indeed, fit as well into -- and was theologically shaped by -- his experience with the black churches of Harlem as the high Lutheran church in Germany almost 500 years after the Reformation.  Another thing I beleve is in play in the demeaning, damning criticism of Metaxas is academic jealousy and hubris.  Those who have made a career of and think they "own" the Bonhoeffer legacy were broadsided by the overwhelming success of a major work by an "outsider" that dwarfed their own societies' message and writings in international sales, awards, and influence.  That scenario always brings about a coordinated "kill the message by killing the messenger" response, and this one is simply more erudite and sophisticated than most.  This cabal of self-anointed "higher critics" are mostly writing for one another and can rob only those who choose to be robbed.
The Metaxas biography remains a well-researched, transformational read.  I also think it's "prophetic" in the vernacular sense of the word in its thorough analysis of German culture and how that great Reformation nation -- its constitutional government and institutions, including the church -- was irreparably highjacked by a godless, propagandizing regime and an evil, totalitarian despot not unlike the ubiquitous, teleprompted charlatan and his minions now wielding the reins of power in our own reeling, staggering nation as it "slouches toward Gomorrah."  Metaxas brilliantly crafted, and did not embellish or distort, the sweeping narrative of a great and noble life -- in all its broken, "warts-and-all" humanity -- that needed to be told particularly as he told it.  To see how Bonhoeffer, as a man of faith, walked through the treacherous currents and cross-currents of those dark, bloody days toward his certain death is a story, I believe, of near-Biblical proportions.

Metaxas as hijacker of great man

I agree with Green about the poor job Metaxas did with the meaning of Bonhoeffer. The basic story of Bonhoeffer was aptly written. The understanding of who Bonhoeffer was  and his true significance is severely lacking in Metaxas' analysis.

What Metaxas performed was a right-wing hijacking of the Bonhoeffer story. It has true that Dietrich had a profound religious experience at the church in Harlem, but his faith journey was well underway before that. Lasserre and Bonhoeffer were friends and Lasserre was his spiritual mentor in the pacifism of the Kingdom of God. Bonhoeffer remained a pacifist to the end, and recognized the evil of taking Hitler's life. Dietrich thought it was better to commit an evil act, than to be a truly evil person.

Now Fox News and the Religious Right have stolen Dietrich, so they think. Metaxas has helped in this spiritual theft.  Rather than recognizing Bush as a possible Hitler Redividus, Metaxas subtly points the finger at President Obama. 


I am responding so late in the game because I read Dr. Green's review quite a while ago and concluded from it that the Metaxas book would not be worth reading. Recently I came across that book at a great discount, bought it and thought I would at least give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised. I found it to be a compelling story not particularly at odds with what I knew of Bonhoeffer (I have read almost all of what was written by him then available in English prior to the newer edition Dr. Green was involved with. I have also read Bethge's biography and had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago.) It is always disappointing to read reviews by a scholar of Dr. Green's stature which betray only a superficial acquaintance with the book under consideration. Well warned by Dr. Green of Metaxas' ideological tendencies and on the look out for them, I was, as I said, surprised to find these defects to be only mildly present and grossly exaggerated in the review. Instead I found valuable new insights in the book. Of course it is not a perfect book, but it deserved a fair hearing, which it did not receive in this review. You can do better Christian Century.


Mr.Metaxas spoke quickly about his new faith in Jesus Christ at the "book signing" where tickets were sold in advance. Metaxas talked about his relationship with the reformed Watergate conspirator, while blending his adoration for Bonhoeffer. The conversation was so spread out, that part of the audience was frowning, while a few giggled, and many knew not where they had been, nor where we were heading. Metaxas, although obviously intelligent, failed somehow, as he floated himself as a justified authority, when he is really just a quick study, fast talker.

green's confusion on the lib/con debate

qoute from metaxes:
"Bonhoeffer was not a liberal or a conservative, but a Christian. He was zealous for God’s perspective on things, and God’s perspective is inevitably wider than the standard parochial political points of view. It sometimes forces us toward a liberal view and sometimes toward a conservative view"
that seems pretty darn fair. perhaps green could also use some of his lib fairness to compliment metaxes.

Reading this on the day of the Iowa caucuses...2016

Found myself in Berlin and stumbled upon the church where DB hosted the confirmation classes in the Zionskirche area and decided to finally download the Metaxes book to read.

Had to stop at 34% to see what the internet reviews had to say as could not believe how sloppy the writing was but how good the reviews were on Amazon. I guess I'm a little late to this party but I agree with your review above! Apart from inspiring a lot of googling of the supporting characters in the book, the absence of proper citation, style of writing (leading much?!) and lack of nuance/simple references to American popular culture were such turn-offs that I had to return the book! I'm glad I came across this review.

I must say though that reading about Hitler's rise and the language used to describe the discontent faced in Germany at the time and the oppression of Jews, I could not help but compare that situation to the current stories surrouding the leading Republican contender in the primaries and his comments on Muslims! There are many parallels to be drawn...

The book (or at least the first 34%) also gave me an appreciation for the deep roots of Christianity within Germany...and made me hopeful for the response of its people during this time as the country faces an influx of refugees fleeing numerous wars.

Metaxas and Bonheffer

The plain and obvious fact is the Metaxas is a hard right Bircher Dominionist. His singular focus is the destruction of America with his anti-Christ propaganda deceiving if possible even the very elect - since wraps it all in a cross....