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February 2011  LIBRARY NEWS:

Book Review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

reviewed by Wendy McGee 

When our son John’s flight from Geneva to London was cancelled on Dec. 21, my husband’s first thought was terrorism; as it turned out, the reason was the weather, but it reminded me again of the dangers and uncertainties we face on any given day.  Such a world, in which evil seems daily to be ascendant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew well.  This book is the inspiring tale of how he lived day to day, both in Nazi Germany as a free man and then as a prisoner of the state.

Bonhoeffer’s devotional life was central.  In 1935 he was asked to open a seminary and his idea was that his students be not only theological students but also true disciples of Christ, who as far as possible would “live in the way Jesus commanded his followers to live in his Sermon on the Mount”. (263) This meant that in addition to the morning service that would begin the day, Bonhoeffer and his students would also spend half an hour in meditation on the day’s Scripture reading, and would wait for and expect, to hear God’s personal word for them.  Not all of the students appreciated this and Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer’s former teacher and well-known theologian, disapproved but it was in this way that Bonhoeffer grew to know God and was able to be sustained later when he was imprisoned by Adolf Hitler.  A nominal Christian Bonhoeffer was not.  He was deeply serious and tried to live out to the best of his abilities what it meant to take up his cross daily and to follow Christ.

To hear that this young pastor in Nazi Germany was involved in a plot to kill Hitler is as intriguing as it is unexpected.  Killing, after all, is contrary to one of Ten Commandments, so how could this be? But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer examined both his conscience and his personal options he reasoned as follows:
             that “the problem of evil is too much for us” and that “to try to explain ‘right’ and      ‘wrong’ –to talk about ethics—outside of God and obedience to his will [was]     impossible”. (471) 
It was impossible also then, as a Christian, to retreat to a kind of ‘private virtue’ amidst the public horrors of, for example, the disabled being killed, which Hitler had proposed as early as 1929, or of Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. He believed that those who thought that they could remain morally untainted by not taking moral stands, could do so “only at the cost of self-deception [by which] they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world”. (470)  In contrast, early on, at great personal risk, Bonhoeffer stood up to Hitler in little things, and then later, even to the extent of becoming involved in the plot to assassinate him.

One particularly fascinating aspect of this book is hearing of those men, both in the military and high up in the government who were anti-Nazi and who were trying to get rid of Hitler from the inside.  Two of these were Bonhoeffer’s uncle, Paul von Hase, a military commander in Berlin, and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who was assigned to the Reich minister of justice. (sic)  Metaxas tells us that Dohnanyi was helpful in “[providing] British intelligence with information about Hitler and the Nazis, trying to influence them into taking a tough stand against Hitler before he marched into Austria and the Sudetenland”.(319) 

The 2008 movie starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie, made famous another plot to assassinate Hitler which almost came off.  What the book adds is how the failure of that plan led directly to the deaths of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and his two brothers-in-law as well as hundreds of other consipirators.

If the Lutheran church had saints, no doubt Bonhoeffer’s name would be at the top of the list for those nominated in the twentieth century.  Reading about his life is a true inspiration because we see him as a person like ourselves looking to God and expecting guidance in the nitty gritty aspects of our day-to-day lives.  It is truly encouraging to see that as things got worse for him externally that he was transfigured inwardly, in such a way that was abundantly clear to those who observed him.  It could be said that he lived out the words of John Chrysostom, [giving] “glory to God for all things”.