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The Integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Please, Read Anything But Metaxas!

by Don Follis

June 14, 2020

With a shelter-in-place order in effect the last 12 weeks, I got a jump on some of the books that would have been pushed to my summer reading list. Here are a few that have jumped to the fore.

When everything shut down in March, I went straight for John Kelly’s “The Great Mortality — an intimate history of the Black Death, the most devastating plague of all time.” The horrific spread of this flea-born bacterial disease jumped from rodents to humans, showing no respect for anyone and nearly wiping out Europe. In great detail, Kelly traces how, beginning in 1347, the epidemic raced across Europe, killing 25 million people by 1355.

If you’ve had enough coronavirus talk, and Kelly’s punch to the gut doesn’t grab you, try Tommy Caldwell’s “The Push — a climber’s search for the path.” Caldwell is a legendary rock climber who tells his New York Time’s bestselling story with humility and tenderness. Admitting his vulnerability and fear make Caldwell’s moments of triumph even more intriguing. Caldwell is prominent in “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winning National Geographic documentary of Alex Honnold’s ascent of Yosemite’s famous 3,000-foot vertical El Capitan, using no ropes. I watched it twice. Both times, it took my breath away, as each time I thought Honnold would fall to his death. Both Caldwell’s “The Push” and the documentary “Free Solo” make this a must-read, must-see duo.

In late March Brant Hansen’s new book was released. A radio personality and podcaster, Hansen’s “The Truth About Us” explores how everyone, let’s be honest, is self-righteous. Hansen is a small-town boy from central Illinois who is funny, smart and theologically savvy. The book explores this question: “What good could possibly come from admitting that most of us are far more self-righteous than righteous?”

Incidentally, since the book was released in late March, it has garnered 130 5-star reviews on Amazon. One of Hansen’s earlier books I liked, “Unoffendable — how just one change can make all of life better,” has reaped more than 1,000 5-star reviews, a rare accomplishment in the world of Amazon book reviews.

Every Tuesday for the last 10 weeks, I have taken a class through Zoom on how to better tell and write your own story. Amazingly, almost 1,000 students across the globe join writer Leslie Leyland Fields as she lectures on her new book, “Your Story Matters — Finding, writing and living the Truth of Your Life.” For years, I have read books on how to be a better writer. This book captivates me like few others have. Fields believes anyone can write their story in a gripping way. She repeatedly says, “No one knows your story like you do, and no one can write your story as well as you can.”

More than 15 years ago, I read a book by Sarah Sumner called “Men and Women in the Church,” which I loved. Sumner helped me solidify what I had come to believe, that in fact all roles of leadership open to men in the Bible also are available to women, including pastoring a church.

In May, I read Sumner’s “Angry Like Jesus — Using his example to spark your moral courage.” Sumner explores the stories of Jesus’ anger in the New Testament, concluding that godly anger can stir the church to wake up and be more truthful. Arguing that godly anger is the cure for arrogance and senseless violence, Sumner believes we must allow our anger to be refined and made useful in the hands of God. Given the frustration with the coronavirus and the anger at the senseless killing of George Floyd, this book might just be the companion you need this summer.

I have just finished two books featuring two pastors, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both principal figures in Germany during World War II. Skidmore College history professor Matthew Hockenos wrote “Then They Came for Me — Martin Niemoller, the Pastor who defied the Nazis.” Niemoller was a controversial Lutheran pastor and theologian who initially supported Hitler but ultimately opposed Hitler’s “Aryan Paragraph” (saying all Jews should be banned from every area of public life in Germany).

Niemoller paid for his opposition. He was arrested and imprisoned from 1937-45. After the war, Niemoller was a key figure in helping rebuild trust in German churches.

Finally, a fascinating new book released this spring investigates the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the eyes of an American tour guide at Bonhoeffer’s childhood home in Berlin. Laura Fabrycky, who lived in Berlin from 2016-19, has written: “Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus — Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed Hitler more than Niemoller did, even participating in a failed assassination attempt.

For the rest of the post…

President Donald Trump is often compared to Hitler. And American Evangelical Christians are compared to the German Christians who supported Hitler and saw him as a savior for the nation. Sad to say, it seems that many Christians in America are placing more faith in Trump than Jesus. Leaders come and go, but the worship of Jesus will last forever. As far as Trump’s faith, I don’t know! I am a Trump supporter. Is he a brother in the Lord? I don’t know.

~ Bryan

Eric-Metaxas-Graphic-TBN

Stephen Haynes is the Albert Bruce Curry Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  He is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer scholar and author of The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship  in the Age of Trump (Eeerdmans, 2018). In this book, Haynes examines “populist” readings of Bonhoeffer, including court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Today Eerdmans has published the postscript to The Battle for Bonhoeffer.  It is titled “An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump.  Some of you may recall that Eric Metaxas recently published an op-ed at The Wall Street Journal under the title “The Christian Case for Trump.”

Here is a taste of Haynes’s piece:

Your embrace of Trump is eerily reminiscent of German Christians’ attachment to Hitler in the early 1930s. I make this point not to convince you that Trump is Hitler but to remind you of the troubling ways Christians have compromised themselves in endorsing political movements in which they perceived the hand of God. I developed a scholarly interest in the churches’ role during the Nazi era in part so I could help ensure that Christians would never repeat the mistakes they made under Hitler. Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes in part because he was able to resist the wave of Hitler worship that swept up many German Protestants.

Being familiar with this history, I have been struck by how reminiscent many of your responses to Trump are of the way Christians in Germany embraced a strong leader they were convinced would restore the country’s moral order. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many Christians in Germany let themselves be persuaded that Hitler was a deeply pious man, placed in power by God through a graceful act of intervention in German history. Hitler encouraged these ideas not by claiming any allegiance to Christ but by employing vague religious language, promising a return to the “good old days,” and posing for photographs as he left church, prayed, and entertained ecclesiastical leaders.

Here are a few examples of how Protestant Christian leaders in Germany spoke about God’s role in Hitler’s accession to power:

• “With National Socialism an epoch in German history has begun that is at least as decisive for the German people, as for example the epoch of Martin Luther.”
• “No one could welcome January 30, 1933 more profoundly or more joyfully than the German Christian leadership.”
• “Adolf Hitler, with his faith in Germany, as the instrument of our God became the framer of German destiny and the liberator of our people from their spiritual misery and division.”
• “[Hitler is] the best man imaginable, a man shaped in a mold made of unity, piety, energy and strength of character.”

For the rest of the post…

Lynda Edwards

A professor at Schenectady’s Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Haggard demonstrates why so many humans, from Harlem churchgoers to prison guards, found Bonhoeffer such great company. He was funny, brilliant, blunt, thorny, an avid outdoorsman whose hiking trips made him a hit as an inner-city youth minister.He still inspires antifascist activists worldwide. His writings are so fresh and sharp, echoes of his work can even be found in pop-cultural epics like “Game of Thrones.”

Haggard makes readers keenly aware of the long, joyous life Bonhoeffer could easily have had if he had fled Germany. While attending college in New York City, Bonhoeffer became good friends with fellow seminary student, Frank Fisher, who was black. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday School at Fisher’s Harlem church. A gifted musician, Bonhoeffer loved learning and gospel and spirituals.

At age 28, Bonhoeffer was safely employed in England in 1934 as Nazism swept Germany.

For the rest of the review…

The Rhythm of the Christian Life

Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2019.
Available at Amazon.com.

This book by my former PhD student Dr. Brian Wright resources Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a pattern of modern discipleship.

The foreword is by Timothy George!

Blurb: Most of us think that if we could simply balance our lives better, we would be happier. But what we actually need is to rediscover the rhythm. As Christians, our whole life consists of loving God and loving others, just like Jesus did. In this book, Wright invites us to find true joy as we embrace these two core realities and discover how they are meant to work in tandem. Explore The Rhythm of Christian Life and recapture the joy of life together as God always intended.

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A new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Gloryimplies that the German theologian experienced same-sex attraction toward Eberhard Bethge, his friend and confidante who later wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer and oversaw the collection of his works.

The response to the biography has been interesting. In his typically understated manner, Frank Schaeffer wrote an article, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It,” in which he predicted evangelicals would be up in arms about such an explosive claim.

In contrast, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported on how different Bonhoeffer scholars and evangelical leaders have responded. Christianity Today gave a positive review of the biography, as did The Gospel Coalition, though the reviewers saw the biographer’s focus on Bonhoeffer’s sexuality as distracting.

The facts in the case of Bonhoeffer are clear: he was engaged at the time of his execution, and he wrote about the fact he would die as a virgin. No biographer or scholar claims that Bonhoeffer engaged in a sexual relationship with anyone, male or female, whatever his attractions may have been.

I believe the conversation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality tells us more about life in the sexualized culture of the 21st century than it does about Bonhoeffer. In fact, if we pay attention, we will see how Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy directly challenges several commonly held assumptions today.

Assumption #1: Life lived to the fullest must include sexual fulfillment.

Bonhoeffer lived faithfully – emphasis on fully – as a virgin. One should not miss the countercultural reality on display in his life.

Post Sexual Revolution, people often define themselves by their sexual identity. For this reason, many people see any restriction or moral restraint on how sexuality is expressed as oppressive, a dagger to the heart of a person’s life and dreams.

For the Christian, such an exaggerated view of sexuality is a pernicious lie. It feeds the falsehood that, without sexual fulfillment, it is impossible for someone to live a full and engaging life. In contrast, Christians believe celibacy is not a pitiable choice but a beautiful calling.

Bonhoeffer’s witness (along with evangelical heroes like John Stott, not to mention Jesus Himself) testifies against the assumption that self-actualization must include sexual relationships. His life challenges a culture that says you are your sexuality.

Sam Allberry, a pastor in the UK who experiences same-sex attraction yet believes homosexual behavior to be sinful, is familiar with the accusation often made against evangelicals, that adhering to Christianity’s sexual ethic contributes to teenage angst and suicide. His response is spot on:

“No, the problem is a culture that says your entire identity and sense of who you are is bound up with fulfilling your sexual desires. You are the ones who have raised the stakes that high. So that the moment you don’t fulfill your desires, you have nothing left to live for.”

Society’s view of a Forty-Year-Old Virgin is Steve Carrell. Christianity’s view of a forty-year-old virgin should be Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Assumption #2: Affectionate male friendships must be romantic in nature.

History is replete with examples of robust male friendships that are full of affection and expressions of love and yet are not sexual.

Unfortunately, the sexual revolution has made it more difficult to imagine passionate philos apart from eros. That’s why revisionist historians read romantic notions into Teddy Roosevelt’s affectionate letters to his closest friends. People wonder out loud about Abraham Lincoln’s sharing a bed with his friend, Joshua Speed. It’s hard for our society to understand how King David could weep so terribly over the lost love of Jonathan unless there was some sort of romance between them. And now, Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge is put under the microscope of 21st century assumptions.

In fairness to the biographer, it is certainly possible that Bonhoeffer was attracted to Bethge, even though acting on such a notion was always out of the question. But it’s also possible, even likely, that Bonhoeffer’s friendship was, like many male friendships of the time, strong and affectionate, with a passion that did not include sexual desire.

The speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality distracts us from the greater loss of slowly disappearing same-sex friendships, the kind of love we see in literature between Sam and Frodo, relationships that many today can hardly conceive of, apart from some sort of sexual longing.

sam Assumption #3: Sexual attraction must define one’s identity.

Because our society has adopted the notion that sexual expression is wrapped up in our identity, some may think that getting to the root of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality is the only way to truly understand the man he was. But I suspect Bonhoeffer himself would dispute such a notion, and so would most people throughout history.

For the rest of the post…

In May of this year Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, published “An Antiracist Reading List” in the New York Times. His list popped my bubble of self-perceived, well-read, wokeness given that, to date, I’ve read one (yes, one) of the books on his list. I plan to correct that in the months ahead. His list, however, inspired me to come up with a list of my own. Not an antiracist reading list (I am not qualified to curate such a resource), but rather a books-that-inspire-me-to-be-better list.

“Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It takes brilliance and spiritual maturity to pack so much profound wisdom into so few pages. My copy dons various colors of highlighter and pen, revealing the many times I’ve returned to this book for a booster shot of biblically-shaped inspiration for not only my call to ministry but my call to human decency.

“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein details policy after government policy that continues to shape our country, oppress people of color and render racial equity impossible. Every white person in America needs to read this book. The sin I must confess is that of my surprise. My African American siblings know all too well the reality and scourge of these long-standing laws.

“Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention” edited by Seth Michelson. Read these poems and weep. Heart-wrenching and yet relentlessly hopeful, the words of these young people whose lives overflow with hardship humble and convict me. Christians should be flooding the halls of power and demanding better for the least of these languishing behind locked gates and prison bars.

“The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco. This beautifully written and illustrated children’s book speaks to young and old alike. Children with various disabilities are relegated to the classroom known as the “junkyard” only to be met there by a teacher who sees their value, giftedness and possibilities. Polacco based this book on her own childhood experience. Everything she writes unveils the glorious that lives within the junkyards of our world.

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), photographed in 1939.
Ullstein Bild / Getty
How the murdered theologian came to be a symbol in American politics.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
by Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, 208 pp., $19.99

You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. After all, people model themselves after their heroes—and sometimes model their heroes after themselves.

That’s the basic premise of Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, lives on today as a hero for American Protestants across political and confessional boundaries. Different readers and biographers of Bonhoeffer have made different things of him—so strikingly different that in 1964 theologian Harvey Cox famously called Bonhoeffer “a veritable Rorschach test.”

Bonhoeffer wasn’t always a hero for American evangelicals. For two decades after his death, his legacy was the near-exclusive domain of liberal theologians attracted to the concept of “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer developed while on death row. For those so-called “death-of-God” theologians, he was a prophet of a happy future in which Christianity would outgrow many of its traditional beliefs and practices. Needless to say, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were unamused.

But as death-of-God theology started to, er, die out, the growing evangelical movement began to claim Bonhoeffer as one of its own. New interpretations of Bonhoeffer and his ideas emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Haynes sorts these into four types: Bonhoeffer as a “Critical Patriot” showing liberal Protestants how best to critique their own government; Bonhoeffer as a “Righteous Gentile” whose advocacy for Jews models Jewish-Christian relations to this day; Bonhoeffer as a “Moral Hero” whose ecumenical battle for conscience transcended particular religious traditions; and the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” whose Bible-believing Christianity can be weaponized in today’s cultural battles.

Each new Bonhoeffer has required more abstraction than the last—and because each has relied heavily on the broad outline of his life (and, more importantly, the story of his death) for symbolism of heroism and holiness, the actual details of his life and his writings have taken a back seat. It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas but the model of his self-sacrifice that demanded emulation, asking of every American, as Haynes puts it, “What are you doing to arrest this ongoing assault on innocent life?” As for which “ongoing assault,” well, that’s up to the reader. In recent decades, Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired right- and left-leaning Americans alike, all insisting that if Bonhoeffer lived today he would be on their side. Haynes documents Bonhoeffer’s postmortem crusades against abortion, the Iraq War, President Bush, President Obama, and finally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this back-and-forth deployment of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Eric Metaxas’s bestselling 2009 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has a special place. Metaxas’s book and his subsequent attempts to employ Bonhoeffer to critique the Obama administration are significant not so much for changing anyone’s view of its subject but for amplifying the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” in its public role. Dismissing prior Bonhoeffer scholarship as “a terrific misunderstanding,” Metaxas made a Bonhoeffer from scratch, one who (as evangelical reviewer Andy Rowell put it) “looks a lot like an American evangelical—an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

Thanks in large part to Metaxas, the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” became a powerful call to arms, especially for politically conservative Protestants. And as Bonhoeffer’s symbolic importance grew, the need for facts, either about him or about present realities, diminished. In the battle over religious liberty, for example, Haynes notes that evangelical leaders used the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” almost without context. “Elaboration was unnecessary,” he explains, “because these leaders shared with their audiences an intuitive understanding of the expression.” The fact that the real Bonhoeffer might have disagreed strenuously with any number of the uses to which his name was being put doesn’t matter in the least.

At this point in the book, it looks like Haynes is about to ask why: Why do we still tie our political disputes today to the (usually far more dramatic) struggles of the last century? Why do the real details of those times matter so little to those who invoke them today? Why do our causes need to piggyback on the credibility of older ones?

But Haynes doesn’t ask. Instead, his narrative and argument collapse into the very misuses of Bonhoeffer that he criticized in the first half of the book. His analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision about same-sex marriage struggles to retain scholarly neutrality, and the closer the story gets to the 2016 election, the more it relies on personal views and anecdotes.

By the end, Haynes’s scholarly project is altogether abandoned.

For the rest of the post…

A Graphic Nonfiction Account of Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

By M.T. Anderson; Oct. 5, 2018

 

 

For a man accursed by history, Adolf Hitler led a grimly charmed life. He survived several well-planned assassination attempts through sheer luck. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a double agent claiming to spy for Hitler’s Reich, was actually involved in the resistance movement that planned a few of these plots. John Hendrix’s graphic biography, THE FAITHFUL SPY: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (Amulet, 176 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), intertwines two stories: the insidious rise of Hitler with his creed of hatred and Bonhoeffer’s development as an ethical thinker who believed that radical action was necessary, but that killing was a sin. Hendrix writes, “the conspirators needed to find a place where God would forgive them for plotting an assassination.”

For young readers, one could easily play the near-miss attempts to kill Hitler as a straightforward thriller. The plots involve deception, gut-wrenching timing and concealed explosives: a bomb in a gift package, a rigged docent conducting a tour of captured Russian weaponry and an explosive briefcase spirited into the heart of Hitler’s fortress, the Wolfsschanze. But Hendrix makes the bold and surprising decision to tell it as a tale of faith. He records Bonhoeffer’s powerful experiences, for example, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where the preacher Adam Clayton Powell fulminates: “Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!” Some readers will be irked by the focus on God in historical nonfiction; others will be soothed by it. Certainly, Hendrix’s implication that at Bonhoeffer’s execution, he met his God is more emotionally powerful than strictly verifiable. In an author’s note, Hendrix offers a passionate defense of presenting the story through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity: “If we look for a motivation for his decisions outside his furious belief in God’s certainty, we will miss the very lesson he offers. ”

What will catch the reader’s eye immediately is Hendrix’s striking three-color art. The book is not a panel-by-panel graphic novel, but rather an inventive combination of text blocks and illustration. Each spread has its own ingenious design, shuttling between the literal and the allegorical: As the text talks about Hitler undermining the power of President Hindenburg and the Reichstag (“teetering like a German spruce”), the illustration shows the Führer literally hacking down the tree of state, a startled German imperial eagle taking flight.

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In an era of intense polarization, as liberals and conservatives argue over the meaning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work, a Bonhoeffer scholar considers what it means to be a disciple in the age of Trump.

Scholars and theologians across the spectrum have long argued over the meaning of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work, but in recent years, those disagreements have intensified, spreading beyond the church and academy and into the political world, says Stephen R. Haynes.

“Basically everybody with an opinion who’s even heard of Bonhoeffer wants to use him to strengthen their case about whatever issue is under consideration,” said Haynes, the author of “The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump,” to be released this month by Eerdmans.

Since 9/11, and especially in the past few years, as America has become increasingly polarized, so too has Bonhoeffer’s legacy.

“People want to use him in a liberal way or a conservative way,” said Haynes, the Albert Bruce Curry Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. “They want to use him in a way that speaks not only for what they believe but against what they’re against.”

The politicization of Bonhoeffer became most apparent in the 2016 presidential election, Haynes said, when Eric Metaxas, author of a best-selling Bonhoeffer biography, and other conservative evangelicals cited Bonhoeffer in urging evangelicals to vote for then-candidate Donald Trump.

“For the first time, people are using Bonhoeffer to say specifically, ‘We need to support this candidate in order to salvage our democracy,’” Haynes said.

In his book, Haynes takes issue with Metaxas, who he said “normalized” Trump in a way that many Christians find “difficult to imagine.”

As one who grew up in the evangelical tradition, Haynes said he is trying to speak to evangelicals who support Trump.

“I’m talking to people I know and respect who are committed to Trump, to try to think outside the box, outside the voices that they hear all the time, and reconsider what they’re doing,” Haynes said.

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