Recasting the Movie: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edition

Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.

Westminster Abbey's 20th Century Martyrs. (By photographer- T.Taylor - Public sculpture, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.)

Westminster Abbey’s 20th-century martyrs.

The Hero They Wanted.

In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.

He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.

You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.

Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.

Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.

You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.

His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.

Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.

I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.

The Movie in Their Heads.

Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.

For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”

We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)

In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.

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