A new look at a 20th-century hero
December 20, 2010
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was more riveting than most of the novels written this year. And Eric Metaxas (pictured at right), in his new monumental biography of the Lutheran pastor who was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp after his participation in a failed attempt to kill Hitler, tells Bonhoeffer’s story with the fluidity of a novel. Metaxas talks about Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When did you decide to tell Bonhoeffer’s story?
ERIC METAXAS: I first heard the story of Bonhoeffer in 1988, when I was returning to the Christian faith. I was so staggered by it — I’m half German — that I thought I must do something with it someday, but what? At the time I was planning to be a fiction writer, not a biographer. But after my first biography came out in 2007 (Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery), many people asked me who I would write about next. Some people asked me about whom I would next write. The latter were, of course, correct. I realized then that there was only one person besides Wilberforce who captured my imagination sufficiently to draw me into the rococo agony of writing another biography. That man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
LOPEZ: Isn’t he an atheist hero?
METAXAS: He’s not an atheist, but yes, he’s been a hero to atheists! It’s absolutely crazy, as if the Tea Party were to hail Stalin and Bernie Sanders as their ideological icons. On one level it’s really hilarious, almost on par with the late Foster Brooks’s brilliant performances on the Dean Martin roasts. Of course nothing could be that hilarious, but Charlie Callas came clos
But seriously, Bonhoeffer, the ultra-devout Christian, has been celebrated by Christopher Hitchens and the heretical Episcopal “Bishop” John Spong. They thought of him as some kind of “post-Christian humanist.” It’s sheer lunacy. In fact, the secular Left has since the 1950s hailed Bonhoeffer as an apostle of the so-called “God is Dead” movement. It’s all based on a number of myths about Bonhoeffer that I hope are once and for all exploded in my book.
LOPEZ: What are the most prevalent myths about him?
METAXAS: One of the big ones is that he was a pacifist, which he wasn’t. But the Sixties anti-war movement appropriated Bonhoeffer for their purposes nonetheless. They seemed to be under the impression that, had he lived, he would have been the third person in bed with John and Yoko. Another myth about him is that he was an advocate of income-redistributionist “social justice.” There’s just no actual evidence for that.
But the main myth about him is that while imprisoned by the Gestapo he drifted away from orthodox Christianity toward some kind of “post-Christian humanism,” that he became some kind of atheist. This one is based off of a single infamous phrase — “religionless Christianity” — that he wrote in a letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge. It turns out that Bonhoeffer meant precisely the opposite of what the atheists and agnostics said he meant. This is a classic case of the lie traveling around the world four times before the truth gets a chance to put its shoes on. There was no rebuttal to this misinterpretation for so long that it just got out there as a fact and stayed out there — basically until now, over 50 years later.
LOPEZ: How are you so sure you’re so right and they’re so wrong?
METAXAS: Because we now simply have all the information. In the Fifties and Sixties, when these three myths were born, there was little real information about Bonhoeffer. Eberhard Bethge’s great biography didn’t come out in English until 1970, and by then the damage had been done. So people based their ideas about Bonhoeffer on a very limited amount of information. Bonhoeffer was a Rorschach blot onto which the people could project their own fantasies, which they did in abundance.
And since the Bethge book, more and more information has come out to give us some context. When you see the big picture, which I try to give in my book, it’s all rather clear and simple. Now we have almost everything he ever wrote, including journals and letters and sermons, amounting to 16 volumes, and most of that has been translated into English. We also have the correspondence between him and his fiancée, which wasn’t published until 1992. When most of these myths were formed, all people had was Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. So the secular Left was free to create a Bonhoeffer in its own image. He became a combination of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Che Guevara.
Of course for the full story on all this, you’ll have to read my book. But let me just say that the one thing I’m proudest to have corrected is the awful misconception about the phrase “religionless Christianity.” Amazingly, we have the testimony of Eberhard Bethge himself, to whom the letter that contained the infelicitous phrase was addressed. I give Bethge’s full quote in my book. It’s clear that he was deeply disturbed by how that phrase had been misused.
For Bonhoeffer, the term “religion” meant a false substitute for true faith, so “religionless Christianity” meant true Christianity. Bonhoeffer saw that the people in Germany who called themselves Christians were mostly not real Christians. They were just churchgoers, going through the motions. But they weren’t deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ. So when the evil of the Nazis came, they were utterly unprepared and just floated along with the red-and-black tide. Again, to get the full picture, you’ll have to read the book. But it’s all pretty clear once you have the facts, which we finally do, thank God. Still, it’s awful to think how Bonhoeffer’s legacy has been besmirched for half a century.
LOPEZ: How does a Lutheran pastor wind up as a spy?
METAXAS: As I say, Bonhoeffer was no pacifist. He had been part of the conspiracy against Hitler and the Nazis from the beginning, but not in any official capacity. He mostly provided moral support to the resistance. But when the war started, everything changed. Bonhoeffer knew that he couldn’t pick up a gun to fight in Hitler’s unjust war of aggression. At first he escaped to the U.S., but no sooner did he arrive here than he knew God was calling him back to stand with his people in Germany. That’s when he got involved in the conspiracy in an official capacity, as a spy.
His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a leader in German Military Intelligence, which was actually a center of the conspiracy against Hitler. So Dohnayni hired Bonhoeffer. Of course both of them and many others in the Abwehr were actually working against Hitler and the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was specifically charged with getting word to the Allies — mostly to Churchill’s government — that there were Germans inside Germany trying to bring down Hitler.
Bonhoeffer had no theological problem with deceiving the Nazis. On the contrary, he felt God called him to do it. He knew that when God commands us not to lie, it doesn’t mean that if the Gestapo asks us if we are hiding Jews and we really are hiding Jews, we are obligated to say so. I write about this in my book. Bonhoeffer has a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of these things and he challenges Christians to go beyond mere religious pieties and to really serve God with our whole hearts. In his case, that meant deceiving the Nazis.
LOPEZ: How does a Lutheran pastor wind up in a plot to kill Hitler?
METAXAS: Well, this is an extension of that same idea. God does not say we shouldn’t kill, but that we shouldn’t murder. So we are forced to think about what murder really is. If I am trying to prevent the death and torture of millions of innocent Jews, am I allowed by God to take the life of the tyrant who is overseeing those horrors? Bonhoeffer didn’t have a flippant attitude about any of this, and he even thought that he might be wrong, but he cast himself on God’s mercy. He didn’t know for sure that he was right, but he didn’t lazily and comfortably ignore his responsibility to do what he thought was right just because he had doubts. He knew what was at stake and he knew he had to act.
LOPEZ: Does Bonhoeffer shed light on morality and capital punishment for you? Assassination? Just war? Torture?
METAXAS: Bonhoeffer sheds light on almost everything, so much so that I hope my book will lead people to read Bonhoeffer’s own writings on these subjects. He’s amazing. There’s just no one like him. His book, Ethics, is a masterpiece and is particularly instructive on all these issues. But I do think that his life itself sheds light on everything. That’s really been the missing piece in the great puzzle of Bonhoeffer.
LOPEZ: How was he a prophet?
METAXAS: In several respects. For one thing, he seemed to somehow see the future. But in another, he seems to have been called by God to speak out, specifically to God’s own people, the Church. Bonhoeffer was maybe the single most courageous voice in the German Church in the Thirties. Like all the prophets in the Bible, he took a lonely stand and was not much appreciated during his time. But in retrospect, we can see who was right.
LOPEZ: Why do you say Rome “brought everything together” for him?
METAXAS: Bonhoeffer went to Rome when he was 17 and it marked the first time he had seriously been exposed to Christianity beyond the rather parochial world of German Lutheranism. He attended Mass every day during Holy Week, at St. John’s Lateran and at St. Peter’s. On Palm Sunday, he saw Mass celebrated by men of every race and color and it struck him profoundly. He saw that the Church was something that transcended nationality and race, and this would change everything for him and would lead him to oppose the Nazis, who saw everything through the lens of race. It was a seminal moment in his life.
LOPEZ: What did you learn about politics?
METAXAS: For one thing, Bonhoeffer shows us that Christians have to be careful about allying themselves with a political party. Christian conservatives in Germany during this time were very badly deceived by Hitler. He played them for fools and won. It’s a real cautionary tale. But Bonhoeffer also shows us that Christians cannot avoid politics. Sometimes being a Christian means taking a political stand, period. When there is injustice, it is our job to speak out, to act. We can’t pretend that the Gospel does not extend into politics. We might not like that, but the fact is that it does. It must.
LOPEZ: What did you learn about courage from him?
METAXAS: Courage isn’t something we work up, like an emotion. Courage is simply acting on what we believe. Bonhoeffer simply believed Jesus Christ was Lord and everything followed from that. And he challenges Christians to ask themselves: Do we really believe what we claim to believe? If we do, we will live it; we will act on it fearlessly, knowing that God is with us. If we don’t act on it, we obviously don’t really believe it.
LOPEZ: What did you learn about love?
METAXAS: It’s related to the idea of courage. Love is an action, it’s not a feeling. Bonhoeffer’s love of God was neither a mere intellectual assent to some theological ideas, nor was it merely a warm, fuzzy feeling. His love of God was borne out in his obedience to God, even unto death. If you love God and others, you will act accordingly. You will obey his commandments.
LOPEZ: What did you learn about faith?
METAXAS: Again, this is related to the previous two ideas. Faith without action is simply hypocrisy. Bonhoeffer wrote about that in his book The Cost of Discipleship and he lived it. To say that one believes something must mean that one actually lives it. If one does not actually live out what one claims to believe, one obviously does not believe it. And one is, alas, behaving hypocritically. Bonhoeffer challenges us to really examine what is truth and then to act on that knowledge. That’s what faith is.
LOPEZ: What were you most surprised to learn about him?
METAXAS: That he played drums for Supertramp. Just kidding. I think I was most surprised to realize that, contrary to what I’d heard about him, he was a devout Christian all the way to the end. I had no idea what I would find when I did the research, but to really dig into his life and see who he was, was in some ways very, very surprising. He held a service for his fellow prisoners and preached a sermon 18 hours before going to the gallows. So he was faithful to the very end. Bonhoeffer is the real deal, authentic to the bottom. Anyone who has ever dismissed Christianity probably has not encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
LOPEZ: Why isn’t he a household name? Why should he be?
METAXAS: I think in part it’s because he became a darling of the secular Left and was co-opted by them for many decades, as I’ve said, which alienated him from mainstream America, who probably thought of him as effete and aloof. But now that we can know the real story of who he was, of his extreme courage, and of his profound Christian faith, he seems very different, so I do think that he will become much more well-known. We desperately need to know his story. He is a real hero and we need stories like his to encourage us. So stay tuned.
LOPEZ: Do you enjoy writing? You read like you do.
METAXAS: I mostly enjoy having written. But yes, sometimes I enjoy writing very much! I’m glad that’s evident from this book. I particularly enjoyed writing about Hitler and the Nazis, because I hadn’t known this period of history very well. I had many questions about how this all could have happened, and as I began to see answers I had a real passion to share them. This is such a fascinating period! The Nazis provide such a disturbing and clear picture of what happens to human beings when they push God out of the picture completely. The depravity of who we are apart from God is writ large in them, in a way that is powerfully instructive. At least I think so. It’s a warning we need to heed. And Bonhoeffer’s story gives us the full picture, of what can happen and how we need to behave if and when it does happen. I’m happy to think that my passion on this subject comes across in the writing. How many copies may I put you down for?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.