Column: Bonhoeffer: True believer
WASHINGTON -- June 18, 2010 marked the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's historic call to arms for the French to resist the Nazis and also Winston Churchill's "finest hour" address.
Another anniversary might have gone unnoticed were it not for a brilliant new biography of a man who gave his life in a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" by Eric Metaxas, is a major biography of this giant of faith published 65 years after his death.
Bonhoeffer came from a family of intellectuals. His father was Germany's leading psychiatrist. His siblings succeeded in their chosen fields. Dietrich became a theologian to the surprise and initial disappointment of his parents and puzzlement of his siblings.
Twice Bonhoeffer visited the United States. On the first occasion he studied at the liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York where he met the theological giants of the time, including Reinhold Niebuhr. Bonhoeffer quickly tired of the "God-lite" theology at Union and decided to visit churches that held more substantive beliefs. He discovered an African-American church in Harlem where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. preached riveting sermons and people joyfully worshipped God as if they actually believed He exists.
Bonhoeffer's theology might be summed up in a letter he wrote in 1936 to his brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher: "One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it."
Bonhoeffer struggled over whether to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and that struggle is chronicled in Metaxas' book. His may have been a simple faith surrounded by theological muscle, but its application -- which he knew might cost him his life -- was a classic struggle of flesh vs. spirit faced by all who seek to take God seriously.
Metaxas writes of the attempt by Hitler to create a state church that would give him moral cover for his immoral acts, especially his goal of exterminating Jews. The willingness of so many to sign on to this rogue and apostate church warns us moderns about the dangers of a church that is more interested in advancing an earthly political agenda than the Kingdom of God.
Clerics are seen sieg-heiling and speaking lovingly of their Fuhrer with a reverence that convicts them of spiritual adultery. Bonhoeffer bravely stood against them as he participated in the formation of the "Confessing Church," which, among other things, spoke up for the Jews. The high regard in which the Bonhoeffer family was held in Germany and their supreme intellect temporarily protected Dietrich from the hands of the Gestapo.
Inevitably he was arrested, but even then he won the respect of prison guards, who offered him special treatment, which he refused. Further complicating things and adding to his temptation to live was that he had fallen in love with a young woman, 18 years his junior. Their love letters, mostly written when Dietrich was in prison, are riveting.
Metaxas writes, "Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of a Christian -- and the privilege and honor -- to suffer with those who suffered." That's why he considered it both privilege and honor to be executed at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, where his body was burned in a pile of bodies, many of which were likely Jewish. The doctor at the camp said he had never seen anyone die with such peace. Two weeks later, the Allies marched into Flossenburg. A week after that, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.
Bonhoeffer's memorial service at Holy Trinity Church in London on July 27, 1945, was broadcast in Germany where his parents listened. The sermon by Bonhoeffer's longtime friend, Bishop George Bell, is reprinted in the book.
In an age (then and now) full of "cheap grace," here is a book that will challenge Christians and non-Christians alike. Few books can claim to be a "must-read." This is one.
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