A few weeks ago I began reading Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I have another blog devoted to books I'd recommend. This book won't make that list. Mr. Metaxas writes from an Evangelical Christian perspective. I don't share that perspective, but in and of itself that would not make me overly critical of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What makes me critical is Metaxas's failure to tell the whole truth about Bonhoeffer and the Christians around him.
First, he has an animus against old-line liberal Christians of the sort who battled fundamentalists in the early 20th century. Of course, Bonhoeffer didn't think much of liberalism either, and given this is a biography of Bonhoeffer, we could expect it to reflect Bonhoeffer's viewpoints. On the other hand, one would like a biographer to introduce some balance or perspective on the matter. Not having been trained in post-modernist suspicion of authors, I tend to trust an author of a biography to get at and tell the truth about his subject, as much as possible. When I start to encounter errors or belabored opinions, I get suspicious. When the errors tend to run the same way, trust goes out the window, and with it my deference to the author's research. In fact, I get really angry that the author has forced me to do research to find and fix his mistakes in order to get the story straight.
Metaxas has gotten me angry. Here is a short list of things I'm angry about regarding his treatment of old-line liberals:
- On p. 332 Metaxas has a footnote in which he accuses the preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick of "appeasing" Hitler using the "moral equivalency" argument. Fosdick was a pacifist. Did this render him sympathetic to the Nazis? WTF kind of thinking is that? Was Dr. Martin Luther King sympathetic to white racists? Was Gandhi sympathetic to the British Empire? Metaxas's representation is false, as is pointed out in Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet by Robert Moats Miller. Now, you'd think that Metaxas would have read this book, given the similarity of the titles. But no, it doesn't show up in his listed bibliography. So, where did he get his idea about Fosdick's attitudes toward the Nazis? I have no idea, but apparently Metaxas didn't bother to double-check his source.
- Metaxas focuses on Bonhoeffer's interest in race relations in the United States and his attraction to African-American churches. Somehow, Metaxas fails to mention the fact that the majority of white American racists attended evangelical churches and justified their racism by the (mis)use of the Bible. OK, sure, this is peripheral to his task of writing about Bonhoeffer, but he also fails to mention that it was the old-line liberals at Union, including the despicable Harry Emerson Fosdick, who were in the Christian front lines against American racism.
- Out of all the encounters Bonhoeffer had with Henry Sloane Coffin as a student and visiting scholar, Metaxas singles out one assessment for mention. Bonhoeffer attended morning prayer led by Coffin and found the prayer "poor" (Metaxas's translation) or "pitiful." Metaxas neglects to mention that in another letter Bonhoeffer praised Coffin for recognizing the need to "preach Christ."
Then there's Metaxas's attempt to blame Nazism on the acceptance of evolutionary theory. This is a cliche among evangelicals, but completely false. I reserve comment for a later post where I deal with this slur in detail.
Finally, Metaxas fails to inform his readers about the crucial distinction between Bonhoeffer's modernist version of Christian orthodoxy and classical Christian orthodoxy. Here is a short list of things he misrepresents or just fails to mention:
- Bonhoeffer was an evolutionist. A piss-poor evolutionist to be sure, as are nearly all Christian theologians, but an evolutionist nonetheless. Metaxas doesn't mention it.
- Bonhoeffer thought highly of Karl Barth and his theology. Metaxas doesn't attempt to explain what Barth's theology was all about. Plenty of evangelicals have done so, and for the most part, they find it heretical.
- Metaxas fails to mention that Bonhoeffer learned a lot from Paul Tillich. Tillich is a nemesis of evangelicalism.
- Metaxas fails to mention that Bonhoeffer learned from and had some sympathy with Rudolf Bultmann's project of "demythologization." Bultmann is another nemesis of evangelicalism
- Metaxas attempts an interpretation of Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" that basically turns it into the classic neo-evangelical distinction between "religion" and "relationship," or alternatively, between "works righteousness" and "grace of God." That may be part of what Bonhoeffer was getting at, but by no means the whole thing or even the most important thing. Other writers have pointed out the long list of books Bonhoeffer had been reading in prison and the influence his conversations with his (non-Christian) physicist brother, Karl-Friedrich, had been having on his thinking. "Religionless" implied "not needing God" in a fundamental sense. Metaxas excoriates the radical "God is dead" theologians for misreading Bonhoeffer's late and fragmentary writings for a purpose far from Bonhoeffer's own intentions. Maybe, but that doesn't justify using them to turn Bonhoeffer into a clone of Bill Bright.
In light of this list of authorial abuses, it appears that Metaxas is attempting an evangelical hijacking of Bonhoeffer's legacy. If you want a truer picture, read Eberhard Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a biography instead.
Metaxas spends some time explaining Bonhoeffer's decision to deceive the Nazi authorities about his involvement in the plots against Hitler. Bonhoeffer lied to protect him and his colleagues and to prevent discovery of the plots. Apparently, Metaxas has taken Bonhoeffer's ethical guidance to a new level. For the greater purpose of defending genuine Christianity from liberal and modernist heretics, Metaxas decided that it is OK to tell his readers lies about the Christianity of Bonhoeffer and his American associates.