Friday, November 28, 2014

Bonhoeffer Abridged by Eric Metaxas

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

This is, as the title indicates, an abridged version of Metaxas' monumental biography of theologian, pastor, and WWII Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had heard quite a bit about the book when it's original form was released. Metaxas is certainly a huge name and a respected scholar, but much of the criticism came from my friends in the peace movement, among whom Bonhoeffer is a sainted figure. The contention was that Metaxas glossed over some of the more radical and difficult teachings of Bonhoeffer, especially as they related to non-violence.

This is a difficult position since Bonhoeffer was, most definitely, eventually involved in the plot to overthrow (and assassinate Hitler), working as a double agent within the intelligence service. While Metaxas does a masterful job of illustrating the very confusing nature of elite German life during the war, at least in the abridged version of the book, I have to agree that Bonhoeffer has been, in some ways, domesticated - as a martyr for status quo Christianity more than a radical challenge to it.

The book is very much a history of the Third Reich. Beyond the obligatory early biographical information, the narrative simply retells the Nazi story from the inside and the ways in which this intersected with the life of those Christian pastors who attempted to maintain prophetic distance, led by Bonhoeffer. This is complicated precisely because of Bonhoeffer's social position within one of the leading families of the aristocracy. So many officers, intellectuals, and other leaders were against the manic aims of Hitler, but continued to work subversively within the German war machine. Perhaps the best contribution of Bonhoeffer Abridged is shedding light on the truly muddled nature of life in Nazi German (as opposed to the typical black and white treatment we so often get in the US).

Additionally, great pains are taken to portray Bonhoeffer as those around him understood him - a true man of God. The holy account of his final hours and the calm and peace which he maintained throughout as a real testament to the profound power of God in his life, overshadowing what is a scant treatment of his true beliefs about Christian ethics in human society. The final chapter is inspiring and emotional, but a poignant, appropriate tribute to a true hero of the faith.

That being said, I'm not sure the purpose of an abridged version (other than additional revenue). The audience likely to pick up a 200 page biography and not a 500 page one has got to be pretty small. This version is interesting enough to make me want to read the larger work, but it's also thorough and deep enough that I wonder if such a reading wouldn't be too repetitive. The writing is well done and the abridgment is noticeable in only one or two places (where there is clearly insufficient transition between paragraphs).

Bonhoeffer's life - a pacifist involved in killing Hitler - is a depressing contradiction to some. Metaxas attempts to use his personal piety and obvious holiness of heart to overcome the credibility gap here. I've found great comfort in the way Bonhoeffer spoke of himself. I tried (in vain) to find the quote I read once upon a time, wherein he deals specifically with his involvement in the conspiracy to remove Hitler and his own non-violent beliefs. Bonhoeffer refused to justify or condone the evil he supported, but instead explained it was the best option available to his limited vision and conscience. This perspective on Bonhoeffer is absent in Metaxas' work, but it does not make this biography any less important.

Bonhoeffer Abridged is a good book. If you are among those who would choose a 200 page biography over a longer, fuller version, by all means get this book. If nothing else, the abridged version may whet appetites enough to explore the actual writings of the man who's life and work has inspired deeply my own faith and those of countless others who find the status quo insufficient.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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