I stood among the shallow-minded Union Theological Seminary students whom Bonhoeffer encountered in New York. At 25 years old, Bonhoeffer was already eons ahead of them both academically and spiritually. He wrote that the Union students:
Talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of criteria … They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level (pg. 99).This quote has stuck with me since finishing the book. If I’m honest I find myself talking the same theological blue streak and exhibiting an equal deficiency of depth, insight and self-awareness. I see in myself a lack of maturity and charity and humility and biblical and theological wisdom. Bonhoeffer was the opposite, and as a young man he possessed all of these qualities.
Concerning the book, there are a lot of qualities deserving of comment (narrative style, judicious insight, interaction with sources, organization), but I wish to highlight three.
First, Bonhoeffer was a theologian. His life as a theologian and pastor, calls into question the dichotomy between the pastor’s role to preach and live theology, on the one hand, and the scholar’s role to produce theology on the other. Bonhoeffer was both. Perhaps Bonhoeffer offers a refreshing example of pastor-theologian to a new generation of pastors who wish to construct theology within the context of the church. Bonhoeffer’s work called the church to obedience rather than compromise, and that summons could only be invoked from a deep theological well.
Second, Bonhoeffer embraced ambiguity. Progressing through the narrative, I noticed Bonheoffer’s willingness to accept the murkiness of espionage and conspiracy as discipleship to Jesus. To Bonhoeffer, the ethical implications of faith weren’t separated into simple, clean-cut categories. In other words, killing the Furor was perceived to be God’s will. This provides an ethically uncomfortable question for us to consider (albeit in a comfortable vacuum): What if God’s will is “wrong”, as it’s normally understood? Bonhoeffer was willing to courageously pray and think through these unthinkable difficulties to discern God’s will, and then to put those conclusions into concrete action.
Third, Bonhoeffer was mature. In his relationship with his finance, his decision making, his view of responsibility, his spiritual disciplines, and his ability to endure great suffering that led to death, Bonhoeffer was sustained by Jesus Christ and His body. As you read his letters and books, you interact with a mature person in Jesus Christ.
Metaxas has done an excellent job in bringing us Bonhoeffer’s life-story. We need people like Bonhoeffer, ethically thoughtful, theologically rich, and responsibly Christian. His life challenges complacency, while drawing attention to Jesus Christ, His presence today, and discipleship to Him.
Review by guest contributor: Jameson Ross