Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

It is rare that I will start recommending a book to people when I’m only a third of the way through the book. It’s unheard of that I’d start the book review post when I was barely halfway through the book. But I can act out of character at times; it simply takes an unusual book to make me do that.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was that unusual book. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. The book, written by Eric Metaxas, looks at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer while also looking at the history of Germany during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime. While Metaxas’s prose becomes a little much at times and while his evangelical and politically conservative views do occasionally sway his presentation of Bonhoeffer, overall, the book is excellent.

I was previously familiar with Bonhoeffer as the author of the book, The Cost of Discipleship, which I have not yet read but intend to read soon. I didn’t know much about his life, and I must begrudgingly confess that I occasionally confused him with his contemporary, Martin Niemoller. That’s not a mistake that I’ll be making again. Reading this book was like going on a retreat with Pastor Bonhoeffer and getting to know him and being inspired by him. It was an opportunity to read his thoughts on so many topics-relationship with Christ, marriage, and relationship with others to name but a few. 

To further explain my thoughts and reactions to the book, I need to tell a quick personal story. In January of 2016, I chaperoned a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Southfield, Michigan. At the beginning of our trip through the museum, our guide had us face a wall that on one side listed each of the death camps and the number of Jews who had perished in each camp and on the other listed each of the countries where the Jewish victims of the Holocaust had come from and the number of Jews who had perished from each country. She said to us, “Now you are witnesses to their deaths.”

That’s how this book made me feel. It made me feel that by hearing the story of Bonhoeffer’s life I had become a witness to his life. I knew from the outset how it ended. I knew that he met the end of his earthly life in Flossenburg in April 1945. (“This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”) Reading the book and learning his life story while reading his letters and excerpts from his speeches and writings made me a witness to his life.

As I said previously, reading the book was like taking a retreat with Pastor Bonhoeffer. Reading his thoughts inspired and encouraged me. I found myself praying as I read the book because I was inspired by his faith. His faith while suffering showed an immense love for God, and his determination to preserve the True Faith in Germany encouraged me. He helped me to believe that God will continue to raise up saints within His Church as long as there is struggle in the world. As someone who wants to support the building of community with both my church and the Church, I was encouraged by Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christian community and the importance of Christian relationships.

So what didn’t I like?

I was not a big fan of Metaxas’s prose. Yes, Hitler and his henchmen (Goebbels, Goring, and Himmler) were evil. Yes, they did terrible things. But Metaxas’s continued descriptions of them as devils or ghouls or demonic was frustrating for me. If someone is evil, show me that they are evil. Tell me of their demonic or ghoulish deeds. (And there are many examples out there for the choosing.) Don’t simple use adjectives to describe people. Prove it to me.

I enjoyed the book as an opportunity to get to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I enjoyed learning about who he was and the life that he led. I enjoyed how Metaxas explored the historical context of Bonhoeffer’s life and how that impacted both the pastor’s life and the country he loved. In giving that context, the author also gave important details about how the Nazis managed to convince ordinary Germans to accept their anti-semitic agenda, which was useful for me. Above all, the book is valuable in making its reader into witnesses to the life of Bonhoeffer and his compatriots.

Having been made a witness of his life, I would like to get to know Bonhoeffer further by reading him in his own voice. Reading his writing unfiltered by another person would be even better than the book itself. In retrospect, I have come to realize that what inspired me so much in this book was not the book itself but the life of the man whose story it told. I didn’t really want everyone I knew to go out and read this book so much as I wanted them to get to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer and to appreciate him in the way that I know do.

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