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Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas speaks at Judon University’s annual Constitution Day chapel service on Sept. 26, 2018, near Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

LAS VEGAS (RNS) — Eric Metaxas might be the most perplexing evangelical in America.

A best-selling author and nationally syndicated radio host, Metaxas spent his early career writing children’s books and video scripts for Rabbit Ears Productions and VeggieTales before becoming a cultural commentator and author of popular biographies of religious figures like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther.

At one point, he was best known for founding Socrates in the City, a series of conversations with writers and thinkers like NT Wright, Francis Collins, Lauren Winner and Sir John Polkinghorne, where he developed a reputation for thoughtful commentary on faith and public life.

Then he discovered Donald Trump.

Since then, the once-genial Christian author who penned “Lyle the Kindly Viking” has become a full-throated supporter of the president and critic of the liberal forces he believes pose a threat to American culture.

His latest book, “Donald Builds the Wall,” features a blond-headed caveman dressed in an American flag saving his people from the forces of evil by building a wall to keep out swamp creatures and a “caravan of troublemakers.”

Metaxas was recently in Las Vegas to appear on a panel during a meeting of the Religion News Association. Bob Smietana, RNS editor-in-chief, spoke with him there about his support for the president and his concerns about the state of American culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you wish people would understand about your concerns for the future of the country that they don’t get?

Since the ’60s, we’ve kind of drifted away from some basics, and, as with everything, there are some good reasons for that. But at the end of the day, some of it’s gone very wrong. I think this kind of creeping disdain for the founders and the founding vision and the Constitution has now come to a point, unfortunately, where we no longer know what we believe.

We just go by our feelings.

The issue of religious liberty is the most clear example of this.

It’s something so basic, that was so taken for granted, that we’re now living in a time where people hardly know what it is. Every American is similarly supposed to be able to exercise his or her faith in a way that not only would the founders applaud, but they would encourage.

In other words, they wouldn’t just say it’s possible to exercise your faith in every part of life, but they would actually say it’s necessary that we have some large portion of the American electorate that is practicing its faith — that’s living out (its) faith. That’s part of the strength of freedom.

If somebody has a belief you consider backward or stupid, it is that person’s right in America to hold that belief. We should not force people to believe things.

And so to my mind, it’s this ignorance of religious liberty and the ignorance of the founders’ vision that has allowed this to happen. And I don’t just think it’s bad for religious conservatives.

I think it’s bad for America.

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

The issue of religious liberty often comes up in discussions about LGBT rights. Judges have begun to see discrimination against LGBT people as equivalent to racial discrimination. And despite the fact there were, for a long time, religious arguments made for race-based discrimination, we’ve rejected the idea that religion could be used to justify discrimination.

That is a false equivalence.

It stuns me that I have to bring up that it’s a false equivalence.

To me, it’s part of this victim culture that attempts to silence dissenting voices. You can’t even have much of a conversation about it because people immediately (think) you must be a bigot.

You always hear about slave-owning Christians, or you hear about people using the Bible to justify slavery. Well, even though that’s true, do you hear about the fact that it was what we would today call ‘Evangelical Christians’ who led the battle for the abolition of the slave trade?

They were in the front lines of saying that slavery is wrong — and you can look to the civil rights movement. It’s very similar. The churches were the place where you found that. The ignorance of that history makes it possible for us to kind of slide into this false equivalence between, you know, LGBT folks and blacks in America.

And yet the dominant groups in the United States who practiced slavery and Jim Crow were people who took the Bible very seriously — people in the Bible belt and Southern Baptists who believed slavery was God-ordained and who used the Bible and the doctrine of Ham to justify it.

What I’m trying to say is just because stupid people have existed and have misapplied the Bible is no reason to say that everybody who is taking the Bible seriously has been misapplying it.

Is it possible that intelligent people took the Bible seriously and misapplied it?

Intelligent people have always misapplied everything.

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas. Courtesy photo

The whole point is if you want to be sloppy and use, you know, loud clichés to silence people, there’s plenty of ammunition. But these things are way too important for that. People of faith do feel misrepresented and not listened to because of things like this. Because they know, for example, they’re not racist.

I think there’s a huge disconnect. That disconnect doesn’t just harm social conservatives. I really think it harms the fabric of America.

Because I can tell you most Christians that I know, if they really see racism or injustice, they get more angry about it than any secular people I know. They would rightly get outraged by it.

The idea that being a white evangelical means you are sort of comfortable with white privilege is deeply offensive to people — because not only do they disagree with it, but their whole lives are meant to represent the opposite of that.

Do you think there are long-term unintended consequences of the evangelical support for Trump? He is a person whose business practices and personal practices do not line up with the kind of morality that evangelicals have stood for in the past. Does their association with the president harm the evangelical witness?

A lot of people have said that. I have to disagree. There are many reasons (why) I disagree.

Let’s, let’s start here. JFK routinely brought prostitutes into the White House. This wasn’t something that he did 10 years before being elected. While he was the president.

His face is still on our coinage. We have an airport named after him. Lyndon Johnson behaved extremely swinishly during his time in office. We know, obviously, Bill Clinton did. We’re not talking about in their lifetimes, but while they were in the presidency. I think the idea that we would expect everybody in the White House to act like Mike Pence is silly.

Now, when you have a leader, let’s say, who commits adultery or who does anything like that? If you vote for them, are you voting for adultery or are you voting in spite of adultery? When you vote for Trump, are you voting for every bad thing about him? Or are you voting for him in spite of those things?

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, on Aug. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But I think with Trump, I think they looked at a guy like that and they said, ‘you know what, I’ve screwed up in my life. I know tons of people that have screwed up in their lives. I have a different attitude toward people who screw up than I would have in the past where I wanted everybody to be an upstanding citizen and never get divorced and never do this.’

So evangelicals are trying to process Trump very differently than they would have processed him 20 years earlier.

I think, people looked at him and they said, you know what, he can be really rough around the edges and he’s got some terrible stuff in his past. But looking at him now, I see a guy who actually loves his country or seems to love his country and in his, kind of wild way, seems to care about some of this stuff that I think is vital to freedom and liberty. And I am willing to take a risk on him.

Why?

Because the alternative is Hillary Clinton. If the alternative had not been Hillary Clinton, I think a lot of people would’ve said, nope, we’re going to go for this other person.

Do you think the president’s use of social media is problematic? Does it exacerbate the divides that are already in the country?

I think most people I know who voted for Trump would prefer that he not use social media as much as he does.

I wrote a biography on Martin Luther and there are bizarre parallels — because what happens with Trump, and it happened with Luther, is that they are both incorrigible counter punchers, and their friends, Luther’s friends would beg him not to do this, and he didn’t seem to be able to help himself and observe somebody attack him. He would attack back three times as hard.

What do you think Bonhoeffer would say about Trump?

I think there’s no question that, from a cultural point of view, Bonhoeffer would not have been a fan of Trump’s style any more than George Bush Sr. is a fan of Trump’s style.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. Photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman/Random House

My study of Bonhoeffer and of what happened in the ’30s initially made me dislike Trump. But at some point, I began to wonder if the kind of predictable narrative was not the real narrative.

In other words, I think that in the same way that the national socialists gained the upper hand in the ’30s, the cultural elites in America have slowly persuaded themselves, I guess, that they are right on a number of issues. And if it means going around the electoral process, if it means going around the usual procedure that they’re going to do what they must.

I think Bonhoeffer was very lonely in his opposition to Hitler because he was trying to wake up the church at the time and say, ‘Listen: This nation’s going to go down in flames. We’re going to be hanging our heads in shame for a hundred years unless we stand.’

And if in his sometimes ham-fisted way the president is any kind of a counterforce against that, you have to be glad he’s there because of the mad rush toward the left, it’s been so fast and so dramatic.

So to take it back to Bonhoeffer, I think that Bonhoeffer saw some things other people didn’t see, and he tried to wake people up, and he knew he would look unpopular. He knew he would look foolish. But at the end of the day, he had to do what he felt was right for Germany, what he felt was right in God’s eyes. And he knew that tons of people — good people, Christian people — would not understand him.

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. His (book, The Cost of Discipleship) was published after his death, and includes a section on what he calls “cheap grace”.

Cheap grace is the idea that we can obtain salvation and forgiveness of sins without any personal cost to ourselves. Faith in God becomes merely “fire insurance”, and there is no compelling reason to change the way we live. We’re saved and forgiven, therefore we can do as we please without another thought.

Here in Canada, we have relative freedom to practice our faith. We don’t face imprisonment or death, and there are laws to protect us from being fired from our jobs because of our beliefs. Have we forgotten that our salvation cost God everything? We so often live as though His sacrifice is nothing more than a Get Out of Jail Free card that requires nothing more from us.

I read an account of a man who visited a country where it is illegal to practice Christianity. Early one morning, his Christian hosts took him on a boat ride down a river. The boat was loaded with fishing equipment, but no one was fishing. About an hour into the trip, in the middle of the enormous river, they met up with another boat filled with what looked like fishermen. After a while, another boat joined them. A lookout was appointed to watch for other boats that might carry government authorities or law enforcement, because to be caught could mean their arrest or immediate execution. This group of forbidden Christians spent hours reciting passages of Scripture they had memorized, since no one owned a Bible. They prayed, sang hymns quietly, and encouraged one another. At dusk, with many tears and deep emotion, they parted and went their separate ways. 

Introduction:

The third reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact is his emphasis on a non-compromising faith. This was known as “costly grace,” Bonhoeffer spoke against the “cheap” grace within the church. His classic statement is found in the Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] To Bonhoeffer, this was basic Christianity. It was impossible to be a follower of Jesus and not live a self-sacrificing life out of obedience and love to him.

John de Gruchy, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, writes that Bonhoeffer first began to explore Christ’s radical call to follow him while he was an “unpaid lecturer” at the University of Berlin[2]:

During his two years (1931-33) at the university he became a ‘minor sensation’, attracting a significant number of students to his lively seminars. Many of the insights which later found expression in The Cost of Discipleship were first explored in the informal discussions which Bonhoeffer had with the circle of students who gathered around him.[3]

Bonhoeffer’s chief concern in the The Cost of Discipleship is that “grace…has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels.”[4] Bonhoeffer called this a “cheap grace”[5] and it had “been the ruin of more Christians than any other commandment of works.”[6] Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as:

…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[7]

“Costly grace”, on the other hand, is:

…is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.[8]

Of all the works of Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship is certainly his “angriest book—possibly his one ‘angry’ book…none of Bonhoeffer’s early works reveal him inflamed and vehement, as this book does. The tone throughout the book is entirely serious, rarely speculative, often rhetorically powerful—but always angry.”[9] There is an idea of Bonhoeffer’s anger in the first chapter of the book:

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have a drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ…To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists. Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace.

We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called to pay was all too cheap. Cheap grace had won the day.[10]

There was urgency for Bonhoeffer to complete the book because he believed that true discipleship was the only hope for Germany:

The conditions Bonhoeffer faced are simple reason enough why. He wrote the book between 1935 and 1937, while directing the seminary at Finkenwalde. Hitler by now had roused the German people to a nationalistic furor and an utter blindness to social responsibility.

The imprisonment and terrorization of Jews raged through the large cities. Any outspoken criticisms of the Nazi regime, including those from the Confessing Church, were quickly squelched. Germany had been, not too long ago, a “Christian” nation; now men and women continued to attend church services, but the real spirit of Christianity had dimmed to a darkness.

At this time Bonhoeffer wrote his strongest book, a challenge to Christian discipleship, because he believed that only a real return to the Christian faith could save Germany.[11]

Biblical Foundation:

Jesus said in Luke 9:23-25: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

Robert H. Stein comments that three conditions for following Jesus are laid out in this passage:

The first involves a need to deny oneself. This is much more radical than simply a denial of certain things. This mandates a rejection of a life based on self-interest and self fulfillment. Instead a disciple is to be one who seeks to fulfill the will and the teachings of Christ.

The second condition involves the need to take up one’s cross…Jesus’ own crucifixion reveals more fully to Luke’s readers that this call is a commitment unto death. There needs to be a willingness to suffer martyrdom if need be.

The final condition is the need to follow Jesus. In contrast to the other two conditions, indicating that following Jesus must be continual[12]

Jesus made it clear later in Luke chapter 9 that following him could actually mean sacrifice to the point of homelessness. In verse 57, a man came to Jesus and boldly declared: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Most people have a home to go to, but Jesus made it clear that some of his followers will be kicked out of their homes because of their commitment to him.

It was this commitment that Bonhoeffer wrote about. He wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church.”[13] To Bonhoeffer, grace should be “costly” because it cost Jesus Christ his very life. Grace is also costly because it costs people their very lives if they follow Jesus. Yet cheap grace had reduced discipleship to mere doctrine. Following Jesus has been cheapened by deemphasizing repentance, baptism, church discipline and the Lord’s Supper.

It is grace without biblical discipleship, that is, without the renouncing of personal ambition in order to follow and obey Jesus. The way of the cross means that we give up everything to be a Christ follower (Luke 14:25-35).

The Apostle Paul described it this way: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that, I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). It was Paul’s desire to discard everything that was once important and meaningful so he could be a better follower of Jesus.

Gerald F. Hawthorne interprets Paul’s words: “…were Paul to place the whole world with its wealth and power and advantages, its prestige and accolades and rewards in one scalepan of the balance and Christ in the other, Christ alone would overwhelmingly outweigh everything else in terms of real worth. Hence, from the standpoint of simple logic Paul cannot afford to gain the whole world if it means losing Jesus.”[14]

Bonhoeffer saw discipleship much like the Apostle Paul did. His own commitment to Jesus was tested in 1939, when professors Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann asked Bonhoeffer to come to New York City to assume a teaching position at Union Seminary and thus, escape the perilous situation in Germany. This would certainly keep Bonhoeffer out of harm’s way. With great hesitation, Bonhoeffer accepted the position. So in June of 1939, Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl-Friedrich made the voyage to the United States.

However, he quickly realized that it was a mistake. His time in America was short-lived. He explained his decision to return to Niebuhr:

It was a mistake for me to come to America…I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulation of this time with my people…Christians in Germany are faced with the alternatives either of willing their country’s defeat so that Christian civilization may survive, or of willing its victory and destroying our civilization. I know which of the alternatives I have chosen but I cannot make the choice from a position of safety[15]

To Bonhoeffer, true and biblical discipleship had to be costly and self-sacrificing. There really was no other way to follow Jesus. He returned to Germany because he was a “German and a Christian.”[16] As a Christian, he had to follow Jesus regardless of the cost to his own safety and position. If he had to suffer, then so be it in order to follow Jesus.

In the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his Master…If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him.”[17]

Application:

While twenty-first century followers of Jesus are not threatened by Hitler and Nazism, they do face the possible threats of materialism, pride and cheap grace. Thus, preachers must make doubly sure that their own commitment to Jesus is non-compromising and that their preaching and teaching does not side-step the costly demands of Jesus.

Further, the New Testament is clear that suffering will be experienced by the followers of Jesus. James 1:2-4 assumes that Christians will suffer: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

J.A. Motyer writes that “trials of many kinds” is a “true picture of life!”[18] Trials often bring distress and discouragement. Yet, according to James, since they are interwoven into the very fabric of our lives, they should be seen as a reality of life. Motyer continues: (James) “appeals, therefore, not for the adoption of a superficial gaiety in the face of life’s adversities, but for a candid awareness of truth already known.”[19]

Life’s adversities will result in the development of a perseverance that can lead to mature Christian character. That is, the faith of the Christian will be refined through the “slow and painful” process of testing. This refining through testing will lead to a “new facet of the believer’s character that could not exist without testing.”[20]

Suffering, to James, can result in true joy when trials are seen as essential tests for our faith. Joy can be experienced even at the onset of “various trials” because they can lead to positive results. The trials will vary from believer to believer depending on one’s circumstances. Yet, there will always be a cost in following Jesus.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 89.

[2] De Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] http://www.probe.org/history/history/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html#text2

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 43.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81.

[10] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 53.

[11] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81-82.

[12] Robert H. Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 279.

[13] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 43.

[14] Gerald H. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 139.

[15] Quoted in Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005) 19-20.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 91

[18] J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of James (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 30.

[19] Ibid., 30.

[20] Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary of James (Grand Rapids, 1982), 68, 69.

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Shortly before his death on June 7, 2019, David Powlison completed writing his final book, which has just been published by New Growth Press: Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles.

Here are among his final written words.


Six months ago, I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. As I write, I am facing the real possibility of my own death. By God’s grace I have been able to continue working, yet much of my work is bittersweet. I am handing off responsibilities and jobs to others. I am involved in making plans for the future that I am not likely to be a part of here on earth. Our family continues to grow with grandchildren. I wonder if I will be here to meet my next grandchild. Those I love are also in the midst of this battle with me—my wife, children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, friends at work. We are all confronted with the evil of death and illness. In the midst of this battle, the weapons Christ gives sustain and equip us to battle against the last enemy—death itself. . . .

Today I am called to fight this final battle with Jesus as my armor and his Spirit as my strength. . . . The world tells us that medicine is our only hope. We don’t want to get fixated on finding a cure. We want to be wise. So we pray. We armor ourselves with the truth that the Lord is near and will be our good Shepherd. We take up the sword of the Spirit and remember Jesus’s words that “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” and ask for help one day at a time (Matt. 6:34).

The temptation to slide off into various escapes is also present—television, sports, food.

My escapism takes an unusual turn: I am burying my nose in a long biography of Joseph Stalin. Nothing really wrong with reading! But the temptation to not engage is present. Yet I hear the voice of my good Shepherd. I remember Jesus on the cross, facing death, yet still fully engaged with life—caring for his mother, speaking words of life to the thief next to him—and I can stay engaged too. I can pray with and for my wife, Nan; my family; my friends; those I work with. I can trust their care to the great Shepherd of the sheep.

The temptation to listen to the lies of Satan is certainly still present.

I have devoted my life to helping people know how central and relevant Christ and his Word is to the real things they struggle with personally, interpersonally, and situationally. But I also know how many other voices are clamoring for people’s attention. Voices that shout, “We can explain your anxiety,” “We can solve your depression,” and “We can give you three tips that will improve your communication.” I know that it’s easy to listen to the voices of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. I know that our grasp of truth can be fragile. I am concerned that fidelity to the Scripture will be embodied, carried forward, and that we will step out and tackle the next set of challenges in a way that’s faithful to Jesus. When I worry, I turn to Christ. I gird myself with the belt of truth from the sword of the Spirit because it is Jesus who builds his church and the gates of hell cannot stand against it (Matt. 16:18).

As I reflect on this last battle, I can see that the Lord has been preparing me for this battle through my whole life. . . .

In the midst of my confusion, unbelief, and fear of death, God used Ezekiel 36:25–27 to bring me to faith. It was my first encounter with the belt of truth that Jesus gives his people. It was my first encounter with the sword of the Spirit that exposes and heals. At that moment, I knew the truth of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). It was God who shone his light into my heart and awakened me from the slumber of sin and death.

Now more than four decades later, I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The reality of death has made the truth of God’s Word come alive to me. I am now living out the end of 2 Corinthians 4:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (vv. 16–18)

At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death. One of my favorite hymns is “My Song Is Love Unknown,” written by Samuel Crossman in the 17th century. It begins, “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” And then goes on, “Oh my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend.”

Since the first day the Lord invaded my heart with his mercy and grace, I have never lost that sense of the friendship of Jesus, that he showed love to the loveless to make them lovely, that he befriended the friendless, that he befriended the unfriendly who were self-absorbed and all about themselves.

For the rest of the post…

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.

For the rest of the post…

How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

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…

Image result for standoffish

He (Bonhoeffer) was a loner. His Tübingen friends were more interested in seeing him than he was in seeing them. It was hard for any group of people to live up the standards upheld by the home on Wangenheimstrasse. Bonhoeffer himself admitted that newcomers to his home were put under the microscope. With background, he sometimes gave the impression of being proud and standoffish. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 66.

 

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…

JUNE 9, 2019 BY KELLEY MATHEWS

Did you know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous pastor martyred during World War II, planned to marry before he was captured and executed? Only after reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of the World War II German pastor did I learn that. In her upcoming novel, Amanda Barrett explores what might have happened between Dietrich and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. She writes it as historical fiction, based on a true story but fills in gaps with literary license, what-ifs, and maybes. It looks fascinating.

I’ve invited her into this space to share some of what she learned during her research and writing of My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Lost Love


April 9, 1945.

It’s early morning. For the guards at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, it’s a routine day, beginning with a routine task—preparing six prisoners for execution. Their crime? Participation in a conspiracy whose aim was the assassination of Adolf Hitler.

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