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‘Religionless Christianity’ revisited

by
28 February 2011

A life of Bonhoeffer is slanted by US debates, John Arnold finds

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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy
Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson £12.99
(978-1-5955-5318-8)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

OF THE making of books about Bonhoeffer there is no end. So is there a need for this new block­buster? It is a conventional, chrono­logical account of the martyr’s life and death, giving due weight to the importance of his family and their academic and aristocratic connec­tions in shaping his character, with its exceptional combination of self-restraint and self-confidence, clarity of vision, and constancy of purpose.

It is also a modern-style bio­graphy, in that we are given much personal and domestic information, such as what they had for breakfast, and plenty of speculation about what people must have been think­ing; but there are no significant new insights into Bonhoeffer’s personal­ity or theology.

The breezy, colloquial style is in­appropriate for such weighty and solemn material; and there are many lapses of taste, as well as errors of fact. The very attempt to vivify the narrative leads to this high tragedy’s reading like a historical novel.

Metaxas makes good use of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (Love Letters from Cell 92, English translation, 1995), which was not available to earlier biographers; but he ignores the military and church archives, which underlie Sara Schlingen­siepen’s magisterial Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 (Books, 18 June 2010). The blurb states that this is the first major biography (of Bonhoeffer) in 40 years; yet the writer is unaware of this publica­tion (German, 2006, and English earlier in 2010). Indeed, there are no references to any German works at all; and Ger­man words are frequently mis­spelt.

Running through the book is a polemic against “liberalism”, which seems to reflect contemporary American concerns rather than the vital German debates of Bonhoeffer’s lifetime. Still, one of the merits of Metaxas’s method is his use of extended quotation; so, after credit­ing Bonhoeffer with siding with the fundamentalists, he gives us Hel­muth Traub’s more accurate sum­mary of his position in 1939: “The best of liberal theology from Harnack’s time, as well as the most recent movement of [Barth’s] dia­lectical theology, were alive in him.”

Bonhoeffer’s thought developed in pioneering and seminal ways during his time in jail. Metaxas rightly criticises later misuse of his Letters and Papers from Prison. As Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge, his first biographer, said in Coventry Cathedral in 1967, “the isolated use and handing down of the term ‘religionless Christianity’ has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all he wanted to tell us about the living God.” Nevertheless, “shallow moder­nism” and fundamentalism are not the only options available.

The tragi-comic tale of the journey from the Berlin cell to the Flossenbürg execution shed is well told; and the book closes honourably with a detailed account of the ecumenical service that his “unshakeable friend” Bishop George Bell conducted at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and through which his parents first learnt of his death. The sermon by his old colleague Franz Hildebrandt is quoted in full. These four pages alone are worth the price of a book.

Otherwise, Renate Wind’s A Spoke in the Wheel remains the best short introduction, Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A biography the indis­pensable key to understanding, and Schlingensiepen the most up-to-date work of serious scholarship.

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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