Discussing his recent and critically acclaimed book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the famed Lutheran theologian who was killed in the 1940s for opposing Nazism – author Eric Metaxas spoke to CNA in an interview, calling the pastor a man of “staggering” relevance for our time.
The late German theologian is the subject of Metaxas' recent work, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” which was published in April.
Speaking with CNA via e-mail, the author reflected on the relevance of Bonhoeffer's life and writings in contemporary society. He noted Bonhoeffer’s “extremely pro-Catholic” stance and refuted common misconceptions by “liberal theologians” who have “hijacked” the pastor's writings in support of atheism.
Addressing the significance of Bonhoeffer to the lives of modern Americans, Metaxas explained that there are “powerful parallels” between how “the American government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality,” as well as “abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research.”
In the same way, he noted, the “Third Reich was bullying the German church at that time.”
“Bonhoeffer's relevance to us today is staggering, and I confess that when I began writing the book I had no idea I would stumble over so many powerful parallels to our own situation,” Metaxas told CNA. “For one thing, the story of Bonhoeffer is a primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are.”
At the time of Bonhoeffer's Germany, the “state was trying to take over the German church and only a few brave souls like Bonhoeffer were up to the battle. We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front.”
Although Bonhoeffer was formed by Reformation Lutheranism, Metaxas said that the late pastor “was extremely pro-Catholic and much of his own theology was specifically formed by Catholicism.”
The theologian's 1923 trip to Rome “was extremely important,” the author noted. “He eagerly attended Mass every day … and he bought a missal and was deeply taken with what he saw and experienced.”
“It was nothing less than life-changing for him. At St. Peter's that Palm Sunday he saw celebrants on the altar from every race and color and for the first time in his life he thought about the church universal, beyond the parochial borders of German Lutheranism.”
“This caused him to ask the larger question: 'What is the church?'” Metaxas explained. “He would spend the rest of his life answering that question. It was the subject of both his doctoral dissertations and it was what ultimately caused him to stand up against the Nazis who were trying to define the church on their own terms.”
“Bonhoeffer also worked on his book ‘Ethics’ at the Benedictine monastery at Ettal in the Bavarian Alps,” the author added. “He lived there for three months and was on friendly terms with the Abbot there and with other monks, who were at that time studying Bonhoeffer's own book, 'The Cost of Discipleship’.”
“Also, in 'Ethics' Bonhoeffer brings in Catholic Natural Law theology. There was no such thing in Protestantism and he was glad to have primary access to Catholic theologians on this subject.”
When asked what the biggest misconceptions are that individuals have of Bonhoeffer and how some, particularly atheists, have some attempted to use his works to support their stance, Metaxas said, “In my book I write that Bonhoeffer is perhaps the most misunderstood theologian who ever lived. That's because his legacy was hijacked by theological liberals, most notably the 'God is Dead' movement of the 1950s and 60's, and it's taken until now to begin to seriously set the record straight.”
Commenting on the reason behind this widespread misunderstanding, Metaxas said that in “a private letter to his best friend he used the phrase 'religionless Christianity' meaning a true Christianity that is not just tradition and church attendance, but the real thing: a life lived in total obedience to Jesus Christ.”
“But this was widely misunderstood as meaning that Bonhoeffer advocated a kind of post-Christian humanism,” he explained. “On the one hand this is knee-slappingly hilarious, because it's the precise opposite of what he actually meant. On the other hand, it's sad, because so many people have gotten the wrong idea about Bonhoeffer from this.”
Ultimately, said Metaxas, Bonhoeffer's life and works merit a revisiting by those in contemporary society as the theologian has “a certain authenticity about him that is incredibly fresh, that seems to speak to us today, as though he had lived and written ten minutes ago.”
“But I also think that his life was a life of such devotion to Jesus Christ that he is a true Christian hero, one from whom we might all learn many things,” Metaxas affirmed. “There's something about his life that speaks to us directly, and that gives us much-needed inspiration as Christians, and in a way that is inescapably beautiful and moving.”
“I feel profoundly humbled and privileged to have been able to tell this story to our generation and it's my hope and prayer that it will draw all who read it to a closer walk” with God.