Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bonhoeffer Bio: Reading Notes

Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas.

Gathering my thoughts to write this review has been frustrating.  I admire Dietrich Bonhoeffer so much, but feel that his biographer, Eric Metaxas wasn't exactly the perfect match for his subject.  Here are my reading notes:

Pro:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a strong subject with a compelling story.  Eric Metaxas worked hard to make DB's sometimes highly cerebral theology comprehensible to lay audiences.  Metaxas' prose style is a little  punchy and crude, but when he doesn't get carried away, it is a good balance for Bonhoeffer's somewhat hazy philosophical jaunts, especially earlier in his career.  He is also quite adept as showing Bonhoeffer's development and transition from a man of thought to a man of action.

Pro:  Bookending the biography with the July, 1945 BBC memorial broadcast was a nice choice. Very moving.

Pro:  EM's research showing how Hitler impacted the German church, his personal feelings about religion, his own whacked-out vision of himself as a god, and his cynical manipulation of the church to keep the German "Volk" firmly on his side made for interesting and compelling reading.

Pro: EM seems intellectually honest.  If DB's thoughts and reactions haven't been recorded in some fashion, he says so and doesn't try to make up things.

Pro:  Bonhoeffer spent some time in prison at Buchenwald.  A British intelligence officer named S. Payne Best was imprisoned in the same cellar with him.  Best, who survived the war, wrote about his experiences as a POW in a book called The Venlo Incident.  As EM points out, Best "had a penchant for dark humor" and looking at Bonhoeffer's last months through this viewpoint is disconcerting, but it works well in this biography. While bringing some levity to the grimness, the description of Bonhoeffer engaging in day-to-day events amplifies the nervousness and horror the reader feels about his fate.

Con:  EM's writing style, while vigorous, is so distracting.  He has several little asides that do nothing to serve his subject and stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  While doing his research, he seems to have been influenced by William L.Shirer, the author of The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich.  In this work, Shirer was not one to keep his opinions to himself and engaged in name-calling and insults.  This doesn't work quite so well for Metaxas.  He doesn't have to work so hard to make modern readers hate Hitler.  We get it; he and his minions were evil.  There was also a longish section in which EM discusses how an aged Martin Luther developed an increasing fondness for scatological phrasing.  Again, this does not serve the subject of the book, it reads like EM is showing off his research while trying to appeal to the earthiness of his perceived reading public.

Con:  Metaxas is writing for what seems like a narrowly specific audience (American, Fundamentalist, Conservative) and he seems to believe that his audience, while devout, are not great readers and he's got to piggyback them along.  There's also a lot of apologizing and explaining for Bonhoeffer as Metaxas twists himself into knots to convince the audience that DB is one of them.  Bonhoeffer was bigger than that, though; his influences came from everywhere!  Furthermore, if he had lived longer, his intellect would not have permitted him to stop refining his thoughts and beliefs and developing new ones.  Bonhoeffer's legacy is large enough to include a large variety of people, churchgoing or not.

Con:  " we shall see..." Constant repetition of this phrase seemed lazy and unnecessary.

Con:  How could EM fit in all that other stuff, the cute little asides, the scatological humor and the dogged attempts to knock Bonhoeffer's corners off  and tell the readers exactly what to think but leave out what became of Bonhoeffer's young fiancee, Maria?  He makes amends in a later edition of the book, but what editor would allow that kind of oversight, regardless of deadlines looming?

Con:  I don't know if this was true with all editions of the book, but my copy had no photos, which is my main pet peeve for nonfiction.

Final thoughts:  I finished reading Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy over a week ago and I can't stop thinking about his bravery, his tough-mindedness and his incredible ability to see what Hitler was up to so early and so clearly.  Reading about his last days was a wrenching and grueling experience.  I also wanted to scream when he was safe in London and in New York on separate occasions, yet letters and diaries show that he felt he couldn't sit out the war safely and also be a credible member of clergy.   Credit goes to his biographer for bringing him so vividly to life.

 With a few reservations, I recommend this book.  If you decide to read it, be prepared for jarring authorial intrusion.  Skip the reading questions.  They are designed to make readers think, but they are also designed with nationalistic and religious perimeters to insure the reader will be led to very specific conclusions.


Teresa said...

Having just read The Cost of Discipleship a few months ago, I've been wondering about this biography. One of the members of my book group read and liked it, but I'd also heard elsewhere about your second con, so I can't quite decide. A lot of conservative evangelicals seem to have a hard time accepting that not all their Christian heroes had a theology that would totally mesh with their own, so they end up ignoring or trying to explain away some of their ideas. (You see the same thing in discussions of C.S. Lewis.) I may still give this a try someday, but it's not high on my list.

Unknown said...

Interesting review. I've long been a fan of Bonhoeffer. There was a movie about him several years ago, which is how I came to know him. I'm a bit taken about that this biography is aimed at a conservative readership, because I always felt Bonhoeffer's was a very 'liberal' take on Christianity. As a full out leftie myself, I found his story to be very inspirational.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I read this one last year and was just blown away by Bonhoeffer's life. It wasn't the writing as much as the story itself that was so powerful.