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CBD Academic has a blog well worth reading where there was a guest review of Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Bonhoeffer scholar Joe McGarry (Aberdeen University).  In it, he gives credit to Metaxas for his ability to craft a book that has become a NYTimes best seller about a dead German theologian (something I am truly happy about and is a masterful feat for anyone).    The issues that McGarry raises against Metaxas presentation of Bonhoeffer essentially come down to whom Metaxas has written his book for: the general public.  I will give a brief summary of my own in what follows (since it was a rather lengthy critique).

The problem isn’t that he wrote it for the general public (I for one am delighted to have more people interested in Bonhoeffer), but that he presents a Bonhoeffer who does not seem to quite match the Bonhoeffer of Bonhoeffer’s own writings.  Two things that I will mention in particular that McGarry notes in his review (and they are ‘small’ but not unimportant matters in the wider scheme of Bonhoeffer studies): the influences upon Bonhoeffer’s theology and the language of Bonhoeffer.

Concerning the former, Metaxas has seemed to over-emphasize the place of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem as influencing Bonhoeffer (while neglecting the possible…even likely influence of Neibuhr and Bonhoeffer’s fellow students while he was at Union).  He also plays up the influence of Karl Barth on the theology of Bonhoeffer…something I’m not altogether unconvinced of and think may be an area that has perhaps been neglected in Bonhoeffer studies in the past.  But McGarry in his critique is right to note that while Barth played a part in shaping Bonhoeffer, yet Luther was ALWAYS paramount to the thinking of Bonhoeffer (whether explicitly or implicitly).  Bonhoeffer seemed to continuously think in Lutheran categories and was thoroughly engaged in an internal Lutheran theological dialogue.  Metaxas’ book seems to miss all of this (or at least to diminish it).  This is something that the general reader who has no familiarity with Bonhoeffer would simply not know, but should.

The other issue that McGarry notes is Metaxas’ use of “God” in place of “Christ” in the thinking of Bonhoeffer.  While this may seem a nit-picky thing to a non-theologian…it is a major issue when one spends time with Bonhoeffer who was radically Christo-centric in all of his writings.  Bonhoeffer, does not often speak generically of the relation to “God”, but always to “Christ”.  For Bonhoeffer, Christ was the very center and essence of all that gives meaning to God (not as fully expressive of all that is God, but that we only encounter God through Jesus Christ our Lord).  This, again, might easily escape the general reader of this otherwise wonderfully written biography (not that there aren’t other things to take some issue with, but they are all minor).

I would still say that if you haven’t yet read “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy”…you need to…whether you have read any of Bonhoeffer’s other works or not.  He simply is one of those saints of the Church that we would do well to know better…and Eric Metaxas has done the Church a favor by making Bonhoeffer accessible and interesting to a wider audience.

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