Eric Metaxas penned one of the most celebrated books of 2010, a thorough and gripping biography of German pastor, Deitrich Bonheoffer. It’s a powerful book that is a must-read for serious Christian leaders, with life lessons spilling out of the pages of Bonheoffer’s highly courageous life.
Metaxas is also the other of several other books, most notably a widely acclaimed biography of William Wilberforce. His writing and career are eclectic—having written for Chuck Colson, Veggie Tales, as well as The New York Times, First Things, and Christianity Today. He is also the author of several children’s books, a noted humorist, and the founder of the Socrates in the City lectures. He appears on places like CNN and NPR as a cultural critic.
I am grateful Eric took time to chat with me for today’s Friday Five:
1) First you did William Wilberforce, then Bonhoeffer. What is that draws you to counter-cultural, Christian reformers? Do you see a theme in the two men’s lives?
Many people in history have accomplished great things, but with most of them, when you dig a little deeper you see significant flaws, which mitigate their greatness. With Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, however, I saw the opposite. The deeper I dug the more impressed I was. Their Christian faith was so authentic that they were humble and self-critical. When we encounter this all-too-rare level of faith, we cannot help but be inspired and moved. At least I was.
I was also impressed that their Christian faith led them to courageous action: Wilberforce on behalf of the enslaved Africans, and Bonhoeffer on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe. These men were the real thing and they gave themselves over to serving God for the sake of others.
2) Bonhoeffer is meticulously researched. How long does it take you to write and research a book like this?
I can never answer this question because I don’t know the answer myself. In both cases I first read all that I could get my hands on, to use the cliche. That took about a year or so. And then at some point the starter’s pistol went off — bang! –and I dove in to the writing. The writing process with both books was agonizingly and painfully intense. I felt like I was sprinting a fifty-yard-dash, chased by a hungry lion, who at the end of the fifty yards was still hungry and continued to chase me at the same speed for miles and miles. I thought my heart would burst, but I realized that if I slowed down the lion would get me, so I kept running as fast as I could and prayed my heart wouldn’t burst. Writing both books pushed me to the uttermost limit of what I was capable and I’m not inclined to repeat anything along these lines ever again. I mean that. I’m not sure why I wrote them this way, with this white hot intensity, but I do know that I’m glad its over and I don’t want to repeat it.
3) You gave great background and insight into the state of the German church prior to the rise of Hitler. Is it too simple to say that perhaps the Church had been so melded with German patriotic pride that it forget biblical Christianity?
Not at all. It’s painfully obvious to us, but at the time it was not at all obvious. But Bonhoeffer saw it. He had a perspective that very few others had at the time. He had been to America, of course, where he had experienced the separation of Church and State, and he had seen true Christianity in many forms outside of Germany. So he had a healthily ecumenical view of Christian faith and saw clearly that true Christianity was not bounded along nationalistic lines.
There is in the center of Berlin today the ruin of a once great church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and inside it you can still see the great artistic mosaics of the Kaiser and his family, right alongside images of Jesus. Any bright and sensitive soul will cringe to see it, the Church and State side by side like that, as though they were equals. It’s pretty ghastly. Bonhoeffer preached in that church and I’m sure was sensitive to the blasphemous side of all of this. In my book I write about how he preached in this church on Reformation Day in 1932, just before the Nazis took over. It’s chilling and should be a warning to Christians everywhere never to let one’s love for one’s country compete with or get confused with one’s love for God.
4) There has been some criticism that perhaps you paint Bonhoeffer as “too evangelical”. I thought this was unfair, that you had painstakingly given the whole of Bonhoeffer’s theology, even quoting lengthy excerpts. How do you respond to this criticism?
I find the criticism hilarious on the one hand, and tragic, on the other. Bonhoeffer and any other serious Christian is less concerned with being an “evangelical” — whatever that really means — than with being a Christian, a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. One thing I have said over and over: I never set out to paint any portrait of Bonhoeffer other than what I saw, for good or for ill. That some seem to think that I have put some English on the ball seems to say more about their expectations than about the reality of his life.
The facts are what they are: Bonhoeffer thought of the Bible as the living “Word of God” and prayed every day and pointedly criticized the regnant theological liberalism of his era (both in Berlin and at Union in New York) and called abortion “murder” and advocated a traditionally biblical view of sexuality and called for the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every realm in history and culture, and advocated obedience to God under all circumstances and spoke against mere “religion”… so, yes, he tends to look pretty “evangelical.” But that really is a label that is unhelpful when trying to understand him. Bonhoeffer was a devout disciple of Jesus Christ. That should suffice, I think.
Not that some ideologues on the left and right haven’t been annoyed, as you mention. But they are annoyed at reality, not at my depiction of reality.
It all really is somehow funny, though. It has to be noted that theologically liberal Bonhoeffer scholars have kept deadly quiet for decades, while chest-beating humanists like Christopher Hitchens and “Bishop” John Spong have claimed Bonhoeffer as one of their own. But when Bonhoeffer is portrayed as the robust and serious Christian that he was, they have howled with all their might and main and have practically scampered up palm trees to cast down their cocoa-nuts of bitter fury. One wonders where their priorities lie.
Fussy theological conservatives, on the other hand, who have accepted this false theologically liberal view of Bonhoeffer, are another story, no less tragi-comic. They bring to mind the guy on the beach with the metal detector and headphones, oblivious to the staggering beauty of the sand and sea and sky. They seem bent on discovering any scrap of evidence that “proves” Bonhoeffer was neo-orthodox, and if not that, then something else unpalatable — anything! I think even a cigarette butt in the sand would thrill them. They sometimes seem to be worshiping an idol of theological purity.
But to have perspective on it all, we must remember that both types, left and right, have always been with us. As a friend of mine once said: “They are like the children in the marketplace who say, ‘We played the pipe and you would not dance; we played a dirge and you would not mourn!'” Quel domage.
5) Do you have your sights set on a new subject?
Yes. But I cannot reveal who. Okay, I’ll tell you, but please don’t tell anyone else… my next biography, if I write one, will be on Charlie Sheen. There, I’ve said it. END