Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy - An Interview with Eric Metaxas
As Adolf Hitler propelled himself into the dictatorship of Germany, then thrust that nation into not only a frenzied attempt at world domination, but also a plot to systematically destroy the Jewish race, a small group of brave opponents worked quietly to stop this evil. Among them were politicians, military leaders, college professors and even pastors. One such leader was a Christian theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life to help bring an end to the diabolical Third Reich of Nazi Germany.
In the first major biography of Bonhoeffer in forty years, New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas examines this German pastor's life, as both a theologian and a spy, and draws the two aspects of his remarkable life together to tell of his moral courage in the face of monstrous evil.
In this moving narrative, Metaxas uses previously unavailable documents, including personal letters, detailed journal entries, and firsthand personal accounts -- to reveal dimensions of Bonhoeffer's life and theology from a new perspective.
I had the chance to sit down with Eric to talk about this new Bonhoeffer biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Here is that conversation.
von Buseck: We spoke recently about your calling to share Jesus with our culture through storytelling and intellectual debate. Is this why you chose to write this biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Metaxas: I have never in my life encountered a Christian hero like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I have to say, if this story of Bonhoeffer could be known to most Christians in America, they would be blown away. I think most people actually have no idea of the treasure of the life of Bonhoeffer.
I remember hearing things about him and getting confused. I asked, "Was he theologically liberal? Was he going to visit Gandhi? What was this religion-less Christianity?" I didn't really know if he was a believer as I understand an orthodox Christian to be. I asked if he was a born-again, evangelical, theologically orthodox believer. And in my research, I have to say, with unbounded joy, I discovered him to be the most straight-up, theologically orthodox believer I have ever encountered.
He is as theologically orthodox as Saint Paul and Isaiah!
In a way the theological liberals have hijacked and muddied his legacy. I want to re-present him to the Church in America and say, "This man was the most obedient servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He obeyed Him unto death."
The story is so beautiful and so moving. People say, "It's so tragic that he was killed right before the end of the war." You know what, it was not tragic. He obeyed Jesus Christ right to his dying moment. He went into the arms of His Father with joy. Not with regrets -- with joy that he would have the highest honor that you could have as a human being, to go to your death in obedience to, and for the name of Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer was somebody who knew Jesus was real. He lived it. He breathed it. He had devotions every single day. He prayed for hours. He read Scripture. If we could emulate him, the church in America would be completely transformed. I am utterly convinced of this, and that's why this story is the first major biography of Bonhoeffer in forty years. I'm so excited. I cannot wait for the Church to get their arms around this story.
This is also the first full telling of the story of his engagement. He was engaged at the end of his life. There is no place where you can go to read that story other than in this book. There are little bits and pieces of it, but there is no place where the whole story is told. I tell the story of his love affair and of his engagement, literally for the first time ever.
I don't know how God gave me the privilege, but I can say that I know that people are going to read the full story for the first time. It's incredible. The documents were out there but nobody put it together and told the story. So that's something for the female readers especially, this was a passionate love affair between this incredibly godly man and this woman. I quote copiously from their love letters. It's so beautiful and so moving.
von Buseck: It sounds like it could be made into a movie.
Metaxas: There was a movie done a few years ago.
von Buseck: I did a review of the PBS movie, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.
Metaxas: PBS also did a documentary, written by Martin Doblmeir, which is spectacular. I became friends with Doblmeir and he helped me to actually meet some women who knew Bonhoeffer. I went to Germany and I met his niece, who is actually in my book. She's 82 years old.
I also got to meet the elder sister of his fiancé', Ruth Alice von Bismark, who is 87 years old. She hosted my wife and me for coffee and cake. She heard Bonhoeffer preach in 1935. And I got to sit with this woman. It was the greatest privilege.
von Buseck: What an amazing connection!
Metaxas: It was a gift, not just from the Lord, but through Martin Doblmeir, the Director of this incredible documentary. So I hope people will watch the documentary because my book will make a lot more sense. It will be a lot more fun to read my book if they watch this documentary -- and it is the best.
von Buseck: You said that Bonhoeffer obeyed the Lord even unto his death. He was in the United States. His friends had said, "Come to America and be safe until the war is over and then you can go back." But he chose to go back to fight the Nazis, and he was actually involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Metaxas: That's right.
von Buseck: From your research, why do you believe that he took that path?
Metaxas: The title of my book is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The reason I put the word prophet in there is that I believe, as a Spirit-filled believer, Bonhoeffer was a prophet of God. He heard from the Lord. And he said, "You can't be a Christian unless you hear from God. He wants to speak to you personally, not just in principles, and beliefs, and orthodox theology. But God wants to speak to personally." I believe the Lord spoke to Bonhoeffer and said, "You have to go back." The Lord called him back.
And for Bonhoeffer it was very simple -- he was going to obey Jesus. He felt the Lord wanted him to go back. And if the Lord wants him to go back, he's going to go back. He doesn't care about consequences. The only consequence for him was disobeying Jesus Christ, and he wasn't going to do that. He went back, knowing that he was obeying God, and he really didn't care. He was just going to follow the Lord -- and he followed the Lord unto his death.
I think people need to read my book to fully understand how the Lord led him in his involvement in the plot against Hitler.
von Buseck: Because that's very controversial.
Metaxas: It is controversial.
von Buseck: How can a Christian pastor plot to assassinate a political leader?
Metaxas: Well, he was not the one holding the gun -- but he would have been willing to do it. One key piece of this was that Bonhoeffer was a passionate friend of the Jews. Most people in Germany didn't know what was going on with the Jews.
von Buseck: Or chose not to know?
Metaxas: Well, I tell you the truth, most of them didn't know.
von Buseck: Really?
Metaxas: They didn't know, because it was a propaganda machine. The Nazi's didn't want the average German to know that they were butchering their neighbors.
von Buseck: I guess that was why they were sending the Jews to Poland?
Metaxas: People need to know that most Germans genuinely did not know what was happening to the Jews. It's kind of reverse racism to say that the Germans are inherently evil. The Germans are no different than Americans today. There are some good ones. There are some bad ones. They are all tainted by original sin and they all need Jesus Christ. Your average German did not know what was going on.
However, Bonhoeffer knew. He and his family were high level, culturally-elite Germans. They knew what was happening. He felt a responsibility before God to defend the Jews. He said that the Church has to stand with the Jews. To be a Christian is to stand with the Jews.
He spoke about this many times and there are many famous quotes. He said, "You have no right to sing Gregorian chants unless you are standing up for the Jews." Basically, you have no right to claim to praise God and to be a Christian unless you're standing up for the Jews. He said that publicly.
Bonhoeffer used this metaphor: if a drunken driver was driving down a main street, killing people left and right, I wouldn't say, 'Well, let me pray.' I would need to do anything I could to stop him.
Hitler and the Nazis were that drunken driver. If you're going to say, "I'm going to pray about it," let me ask you, are you going to pray about it just because you're afraid to get involved? God is calling you to step out. Just as if you see somebody killing a six-year-old girl, or raping a child, are you going to say, "I'm going to pray about getting involved?" No, you're going to take action because God would have you protect the innocent.
And Bonhoeffer fully believed that.
He fully believed that God called him to get involved in the plot -- that they had to stand up against pure evil. He believed that Hitler was possessed by pure evil and that they needed to stand up for the sake of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of His people, the Jews. There is no question that Bonhoeffer felt led of the Lord to do this.
The reason that my book is as long as it is, is that you really need to understand what I just said. There is a deeper story -- there are several levels to this story -- to really understand how he got there theologically.
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