Among the books I was privileged to read for the Christianity Today book awards this year was Eric Metaxas‘s excellent new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas has gotten a lot of well-deserved buzz for this book, including the following interview in Harpers. I’m reproducing here the first two questions and answers out of six included in the interview. For now you can still link here for the whole article.
By Scott Horton
Eric Metaxas, whose best-selling biography of William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, provided the framework for an important motion picture, is now out with a thick review of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who played a key role in one of the attempts to kill Adolf Hitler. I put six questions to Metaxas about Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy:
1. You dedicate your book, in German no less, to your grandfather. Tell us the significance of that dedication, and how in the course of your own life you were drawn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
My grandfather was a genuinely reluctant German soldier who was killed in the war in 1944, at the age of 31. My mother was nine. The tragedy of my mother’s losing her father at that age has been a big part of my life. My grandfather didn’t want to fight in Hitler’s war. My grandmother said that he used to listen to the BBC with his ear literally pressed against the radio speaker, because if you were caught listening to the BBC you could be sent to a concentration camp. The boss in the factory where he worked was a friend of the family–I met him in 1971–and he was able to keep my grandfather from being drafted until 1943. Of course that wasn’t quite long enough.
When I first heard the story of Bonhoeffer in 1988, I was staggered. I was slowly returning to the Christian faith that I had lost as a student at Yale, and Bonhoeffer’s personal story and his magnificent book, The Cost of Discipleship, really spoke to me and helped me as I struggled with my questions. As a German-American, I was especially touched by his story, because he was a German who had spoken up for those who couldn’t speak. First and foremost for the Jews of Europe, but also for many like my grandfather, who were powerless and who in their own way were also victims of the Nazis.
The dedication to my grandfather, for whom I’m named, includes a quote from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says that those who believe in Him will be “raised up on the last day.” Because of that promise I hope that I will actually get to meet my grandfather.
[SIDEBAR:] Somehow Bonhoeffer’s time in New York, especially his worship in the “negro churches,” played their part… He had heard the gospel preached there and had seen real piety among a suffering people. The fiery sermons and the joyous worship and singing had all opened his eyes to something and had changed him. Had he been “born again”?
What happened is unclear, but the results were obvious. For one thing, he now became a regular churchgoer for the first time in his life and took Communion as often as possible . . . Two years earlier, in New York, he hadn’t been interested in going to church. He loved working with the children in Harlem, and he loved going to concerts and movies and museums, and he loved traveling, and he loved the philosophical and academic give-and-take of theological ideas–but here was something new.
—From Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Reprinted by permission of Thomas Nelson—© 2010 Eric Metaxas
2. Albert Einstein was famous for saying that a “foolish faith in authority” was a core weakness in German society. German writers like Heinrich Mann, Hermann Hesse, and Frank Wedekind depict an educational system designed to break the individual’s will and make social conformists. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer emerged from this milieu unbent and with a strong contrarian streak. What is it about Bonhoeffer’s personality and upbringing that built such a determined opponent of the Nazi state?
The Bonhoeffer family were not mere contrarians or “anti-authority” in the shallow contemporary sense, but they did seem to have a rare and healthy perspective on themselves and on Germany. They were patriotic, but they were wary of certain impulses in the German national character. Bonhoeffer’s mother was a serious Christian who homeschooled her children because she didn’t like the authoritarian character of German public schooling at that time. She would quote the saying that German children “had their backs broken twice,” first in school and then in the military.
Of course a serious Christian perspective makes one wary of knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism, too. Anti-authoritarianism is the typical and opposite American impulse. That’s part of our national character and what we need to guard against. Bonhoeffer saw it at Union Theological Seminary in New York and was quite put off by it. The real question for Bonhoeffer was “What is legitimate authority?” In America we have by now swung so far in the anti-authoritarian direction that we have bumper stickers that say “Question Authority.” This implies that all authority is suspect, but Bonhoeffer would disagree. We are to question authority to determine whether it is legitimate. But to imply that all authority is illegitimate and mustn’t be obeyed is no different than saying that all authority is legitimate and must be obeyed.
As I say in the book, Bonhoeffer gave a famous speech two days after Hitler became Chancellor in which he deals with this issue explicitly. It is just as important today for us as it was then in Germany, but perhaps in the opposite direction.
You can finish the article here.