Great historical figures often lose their humanity—their heroism and goodness are all that is remembered, and the fact that they were human beings is forgotten or purposefully ignored. In his new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas reveals Bonhoeffer the man, and in so doing reveals a man even more heroic and good than the legends suggest.
The title might suggest otherwise. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has the ring of an espionage novel, which is almost true. A pastor who was ultimately killed for his outspoken orthodox Christian faith, who foresaw the evils of German Nazism and the future of evangelical Christianity, and whose understanding of the role of Christians in the state led him to active duty as a double agent and attempted assassin, Bonhoeffer was not larger than life—he was simply unequivocally alive for Christ.
Metaxas reveals aspects rarely explored. The son of German intellectuals, Bonhoeffer was given to extensive study from an early age, spending his youth and early adulthood learning from some of the leading liberal theologians of the early 20th century, and traveling throughout Europe. He first found genuine faith in the United States at the all-black Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. When the Third Reich began its rise to power, Bonhoeffer left the safety of America to return to Germany, believing it his duty as a German and a Christian.
Perhaps most surprising is Bonhoeffer's brief but passionate love for Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of a good friend with whom he corresponded and to whom he proposed. It's sometimes difficult to think of a man of such intellect and such activity being in love, but the interlude simply offers more insight into the hero that was first of all a man.
Bonhoeffer died young. Arrested for involvement in an assassination attempt on Hitler, he never saw 40, but he profoundly affected the way subsequent generations of Christians would perceive their faith and their role in the world. Metaxas draws heavily on journal entries, letters, and other source documents to present a complete profile of the man, and while the author's writing style leaves something to be desired (the narrative and style are somewhat choppy), the portrait of Bonhoeffer the Christian man he offers can only be met with admiration.