Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas ★★★★
Bonhoeffer’s is a story worth reading and well told by Eric Metaxas. It is the tale of a young German growing up in the academic circles of Berlin, deciding to go into theology, only to break away from the liberal tendencies in theology as found in Berlin. Through experiences as a young pastor and student in Spain, London, and NY City, Bonhoeffer matures in his faith towards seeing God not as a distant “other” but somebody with whom daily life interacts. Changes in the German political scene with the rise of Hitler and state interference with the church caused Bonhoeffer to form the separate Bekennendekirche (Confessing church) movement, as well as the institution of a seminary to train young pastors. Bonhoeffer then becomes involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Though jailed initially for other reasons, he ultimately is executed for his role in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.  The book reads well, though often would be better served by leaving long quotes as footnotes.
Metaxas develops Bonhoeffer as a remarkable person, able to see through the vapidness of his theology professors, yet still able to treat them with respect and honor. Bonhoeffer was a man who operated on principle, with an ever-deepening faith in God that controlled his entire life. Metaxas also paints Bonhoeffer as a person whose life raises serious questions. I will offer three comments.
1. Is he a model of virtue that we should all follow, especially in regard to our reaction to an evil state? My personal answer is that he is not. Bonhoeffer, being executed for his role in the plot against Hitler, and not for his role as a pastor, makes him an accomplice to an assassin and not a martyr. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer… yet if anybody suffers as a Christian let him not be ashamed” IPeter 4:15-16a. The test of time proved that attempts to assassinate Hitler were providentially ineffective, and God was able to handle Hitler and his henchmen quite nicely at the appropriate time.
2. Bonhoeffer proposes a graded absolutist ethic, which is fraught with intense problems. His ethic is not novel and is usually discussed in most ethics texts. In it, Bonhoeffer allows that a lesser evil (such as the murder of Hitler, or lying), is permissible in order to accomplish a greater good (freedom of the world from a tyrant) or to avoid a greater evil (the killing of masses of Jews). Unfortunately, this ethic essentially permits any action to occur, since all of our actions are designed to enact a “good”, either to ourselves or to a specific group. The arguments against graded absolutism would be very lengthy and not appropriate for a book review.
3. Bonhoeffer never divorces himself from the liberal camp, becoming at odds with Karl Barth not for his bad theology, but for his bad social approach to the Nazi regime. In his 1939 visit to New York, his identity with American Christianity was mostly limited to his exposure to the dead theology circles of Union Seminary. Bonhoeffer develops a deep spirituality, but this is in the context of social activism, and not in the context of seeking a correct theology. Never do we see a Bonhoeffer whose highest good is the truth. Put in a Christian context, Bonhoeffer holds that worship and obedience take precedence over truth, yet Bonhoeffer fails to see that in reality, they are indivisible, and orthodoxy and orthopraxy are intimately bound. Bonhoeffer’s interest in visiting Gandhi puzzles me. Not that Gandhi is not an admirable person, but that Gandhi does not provide a Biblical solution to man’s dilemmas and offers no explanation for the evil that comes out of man, which was soon to destroy Bonhoeffer.
This book is recommended as the spirited retelling of a life worthy of mention, and often an example for all of us in standing against evil. It is a warning of Christians to not compromise their beliefs in the accommodation to the state. It is a devotional plea to always live ones’ moments as corum deo. Thus, it is a book recommended to all.