Eric Metaxas' book Bonhoeffer is, perhaps, one of the finest biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have ever read. It is more than just a biography, though. What Metaxas does is to place Bonhoeffer squarely in German history. With extended sections explaining the political winds of Germany both before and after World War I, Metaxas provides the setting in which Bonhoeffer developed his theology as well as how he became involved with the resistance to the Nazi regime.
For many of the books on Bonhoeffer, the focus is his theology and his sermons. Expositions on the writings of Bonhoeffer and the like are all well and good. Yet few get behind the writings to provide an in depth description of the man Bonhoeffer. In understanding Germany, the post-WWI atmosphere, Bonhoeffer's education and extended family, Metaxas is able to provide a positively thorough description of Bonhoeffer, his time, and his thoughts.
Generously borrowing from Bonhoeffer's own writings, Metaxas does a great job of distilling the thinking and theology of Bonhoeffer, which in and of itself was very vivacious and alive: Bonhoeffer would never have simply settled to believe something - he had to wrestle with an idea and then continue to do so in an attempt to make sure he was truly understanding and living out his faith.
As the biography continues, the description of the political and religious winds of Germany that lead to World War II are clearly and effectively articulated. Bonhoeffer, the Church, and the Nazis had a complicated and dangerous relationship for some time before Bonhoeffer became a part of the resistance and would ultimately be arrested and executed by the Nazis. That aspect of the story, I feel, provides some fascinating and clarifying insight into how Bonhoeffer developed his theology and ideas about what it meant to be a disciple, which were most clearly laid out in Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship.
If one seeks to have a profound and clear understanding of Bonhoeffer and his legacy, this is the book to read. We may have never had the opportunity to meet Bonhoeffer, but Metaxas provides a clear and often moving portrait of the complicated and yet quite humble man of God.
It is a bit of a daunting read, clocking in at just under 600 pages, and one can get lost in the storytelling in good and bad ways: good in the vividness of it, but bad in that the narrative can take a side road to tell a story and one might lose sight of how Bonhoeffer tied in to the story. But those moments are few and far between.
The story also provides grand insight into many other German theologians of the day: Barth, Tillich, and many other notable theological names come in and out of Bonhoeffer's story as does the story of the dark descent of the Church in Germany into a puppet of the state. Clear, too, are Bonhoeffer's criticisms of the Protestant Church in the United States and the seeming inadequacies of the American higher education when it comes to theology.
The book makes no judgments of its own. Instead it often allows Bonhoeffer's judgments to be read clearly: and one has to decide how to take some of Bonhoeffer's criticisms as they can still sting a bit.
However, as with all of us, Bonhoeffer was who he was. The book does not seek to set him up as anything other than who he was through what he wrote and what has been written about him. As such, it is an excellent read.
Thomas Nelson, Publisher