Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hijacking Bonhoeffer

Like many Christians, I have great regard for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I've read many of his works, am a subscriber to his Complete Works, took a class on Bonhoeffer in seminary, have read Eberhard Bethge's monumental biography, have read several others including John Moses' study The Reluctant Revolutionary, which I reviewed for the Christian Century, and Ferdinand Schingensiepen's new biography from T & T Clark (a review of which has been submitted to the editor of the Christian Century blog).  It is from that background that I sat down one day to skim the wildly popular "biography" of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas.  Just skimming through the book, aided by the index, I was horrified by what I found.  Bonhoeffer was none other than a conservative American Evangelical, whose battle with the German Christians can be compared to the battle between Intelligent Design folks (good people) and Evolutionists (bad people).  Barth is good, Harnack is bad -- though the Barth he describes seems far distant from the one I've read and studied.  

Now I didn't have the patience or desire to read the entire book, but I had hoped someone would write a response.  That response can be found in the most recent issue of the Christian Century.  Although the online version is available only to subscribers, Clifford Green, the Executive Editor of the English edition of Bonhoeffer's works offers a strongly worded and greatly needed response (is rebuke too strong a word) noting in some detail how Metaxas has hijacked Bonhoeffer in the name of rescuing Bonhoeffer from liberals, which, Green suggests is accomplished by downplaying Bonhoeffer's time spent at Union Theological Seminary and even more importantly basically dismissing the theological work he did while in prison.  Green writes:

Worse, if possible, [Metaxas's attempt to redefine Bonhoeffer's pacifist leanings] is Metaxas's embarrassment about Bonhoeffer's writing in Letters and Papers from Prison  about "religionless Christianity."  In a Trinity Forum interview he even stated that Bonhoeffer "never really said it," but then had to retract that because, well, Bonhoeffer did say it.  But, Metaxas continues, he wrote it privately in a letter to Bethge and never intended anyone to see it because it was " utterly out of keeping with the rest of Bonhoeffer's life."  He calls Bonhoeffer's theological prison reflections a "few bone fragments . . . set upon by famished kites and less noble birds, many of whose descendants gnaw them still" (CC, pp. 37-38).  
As Green points out those "few bone fragments" are directly connected to Bonhoeffer's Ethics.  While a lot of bad interpretation has taken place over the years, two wrongs don't make a right, and Metaxas's interpretation is at best self-serving.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer deserves much better!

If you want to truly know the nature of Bonhoeffer's life, then you would be better served reading Schlingensiepen's biography.  It may not be as rip-roaring a ride, but you'll get a better sense of the real Bonhoeffer than you ever will from Metaxas! 

12 comments:

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

Yea, Bonhoeffer really loved his time at Union. I quote from volume ten of the Bonhoeffer works,

"In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.... So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how? – claims the right to call itself 'Christian' "

Really now. You're going to blast this book, when all the author does is provide a much needed corrective to the Bonhoeffer myth. Metaxes does some mighty mythologizing himself, but seriously, someone needs to save Bonhoeffer from people who care more for Bonhoeffer the idealized liberal than the man himself .

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Henry, unfortunately, Metaxas doesn't understand the context in which Bonhoeffer found himself. Yes, he was concerned that Jesus wasn't as central to the theology as Union as he believed it should be, but his criticism, as a full picture of Bonhoeffer shows, was of an American Christianity, both conservative and liberal that did not understand Jesus. Bonhoeffer was not a conservative evangelical in any way shape or form.

He was pious but he was also a critical scholar. Metaxas simply doesn't understand the context of Bonhoeffer.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Henry, just to add to my response, since you quoted Bonhoeffer's critique of the Union liberal side, hear his critique of the fundamentalism of Machen as well:

"Although reformation views are doubless preserved here, they are distorted by the crassest orthodoxy, especially in the Soughtern Baptist Church. Here a different side of the American character manifests itself, namely, an unrelenting harshness in holding on to one's possessions, possessions either of this or of the other world. I acqired this possession with trust in God, God made my success happen, so whoever infringes upon this ppossession is infringing upon God. It's obvious that no understanding for the viatality of the church can emerge on such a basis, for this thinking, too, is basically individualistic." (Works, vol. 10, p. 317).

Bonhoeffer was troubled by American individualism and its lack of theological curiosity, but he was just as critical of evangelicalism as he was of liberalism. So my criticism of Metaxas still stands. By the way, I learned my Bonhoeffer at Fuller Seminary, which last I checked was evangelical.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

The full review is now available to be read online.

Henry said...

I wasn't criticizing you, Rev. Cornwall, nor your credentials as a "small e" evangelical Christian. I was just saying that I think we can't condemn Metaxes work simply because it is a more conservative take on Bonhoeffer. You're a learned man, you've probably encountered many misreadings of Bonhoeffer from the more left side of things as well. But as you show with you quote on Machen, Bonhoeffer can be interpreted as simply not a fan of the American church, except the Harlem churches that is.

I've read the Bethge, the Schlingensiepen, and the Metaxes. If I was going to recommend a book to a non scholar as way of introducing Bonhoeffer's life (but not his work) I'd give them the Metaxes. It is a solid piece of popular history, and a well told yarn to boot. A book like that isn't worth condemning, and in my opinion it is a bit much to call it hijacking. But that is just my opinion.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Henry,

Bonhoeffer, because of the nature of his death, has become an icon that everyone wants to claim. But, what he needs is not a partisan retelling of the life, but one that is fair to his life. My concern about Metaxes is that he doesn't understand the theological dynamics nor the context in which Bonhoeffer wrote. Bonhoeffer's critique of American theology emerged out of his own German context. He found it insufficiently "dogmatic."

What is important to note is that on the theological spectrum he would have been center left. He was pious, but critical. And considering his condemnation of "God of the Gaps" thinking, it's rather odd that Metaxes would use the Intelligent Design versus evolution analogy to compare his response to liberal theology.

I think that Victoria Barnett's review says it best -- Bonhoeffer deserves an evangelical retelling, just not this one.

Byron K. Borger said...

Thanks for this good conversation. My sense is that Henry is right that "hijacking" is a bit strong.

I wonder if it is an accurate to presume that Metaxas is a "conservative evangelical" in the mold of the Southern Baptists that you quote Bonhoeffer critiquing. That is, it may be that Metaxas is, in his evangelicalism, not exactly as you picture him. From his work on Wilberforce to his Socrates in the City, it is evident he's certainly no Jerry Falwell...

AND, why do you say that Metaxas "doesn't understand" the context of Union, or German theology? On what basis do you say that? It seems to me that there is this condescension here, as in the CC piece, that seems to me unfair. Perhaps Metaxas doesn't understand the context of liberal German theology. Or maybe he just disagrees with it, or your framing of it, or of the way it worked in Bonhoeffer, or holds some other significant disagreement. It is to easy to demean those with whom we disagree, rather than just stating the disagreements. Why impugn his intelligence or character or intentions?

Thanks, Byron Borger

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Byron,

Thanks for the questions. In my estimation, having read pretty deeply in the Bonhoeffer corpus, I don't recognize the Bonhoeffer that Metaxas presents. I think he misrepresents Bonhoeffer and Barth. As for the Union dig. If you read the entire letter it's clear that he has American Christianity in total, evangelical, liberal, etc. in mind, not just the liberalism of Union.

If Metaxas gets people to actually read Bonhoeffer, then maybe that's not a bad thing. But there are other biographers who tell the story in a much better and more honest way.

Mark said...

Pastor, you said "Now I didn't have the patience or desire to read the entire book..." Yet you feel confortable engaging in an ongoing, caustic critique of it?? Come now. What's a rational person to think?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mark,

I read through significant sections where Metaxas was dealing with Bonhoeffer's theology and casting it in a more evangelical perspective. All I'm saying is that there are better and more accurate portrayal's of Bonhoeffer available -- and am encouraging people to check them out. Schlingensiepen is a Bonhoeffer scholar who has known Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's principal interpreter for many years. If you enjoyed Metaxas, fine, just check out the other portrayals.

Mark said...

Fair enough, Bob. One other question: how would you define "evangelical?"