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Suffering
Graham Sutherland, The Crucifixion. Creative Commons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[1] posthumously published work Letters and Papers from Prison receives mixed reviews from various quarters, including Evangelical Christians. I do not think it is only ‘death-of-God’ interpretive moves by liberals like Bishop John A.T. Robinson, William Hamilton, Thomas J.J. Altizer and others, or his associations with neo-orthodox and liberal theological figures,[2] that lead to Evangelical wariness in many quarters. Given our particular theo-political imagination and Weltanschauung,[3] we also struggle with Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of the Christian God as weak, secular man or man come of age as no longer needing religion, religionless Christianity, Jesus as the man for others, and the church as a community for others. However, these emphases are not incidental to Bonhoeffer’s later thought, but envisioned as indelible to his future work; those who would seek to give a full and faithful assessment of Bonhoeffer must account for them.[4] Further to the points above on conservative Evangelical moral intuitions, our movement favors patriotism and nationalism. Generally speaking, American Christianity affirms strength and power politically and economically. Evangelicals also affirm a form of reason that is powerful.

How does all this bear on the subject at hand? Having experienced marginalization in political and academic centers of power for a generation following the Scopes Trial, why would we wish to affirm Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison where only a suffering God can help us, and where we don’t seek to take back America, or Germany, but must lay down our lives for the other? American Evangelicalism, like much of American theology, is in various ways still engaging in God of the gaps theology and practice, whereas Bonhoeffer would call us to a God in the gallows theology and practice that leads us to care for the marginalized. Such a theology challenges the dominant worldview or Weltanschauung orientation that reflects a theology from above rather than from below, and which has often served empire building.[5]

Whereas Eric Metaxas would take Bonhoeffer’s rejection of privatized religion to foster a public, “muscular Christianity” that features beating secularism in the public square (a popular view among many Evangelicals),[6] I take Bonhoeffer’s rejection of privatized religion to foster a public, suffering Christianity that moves us from the God of the gaps to God hanging in public on the lynching tree.[7] Bonhoeffer goes even further than Karl Barth here, for it is not simply God’s humanity,[8] but the God man, who suffers ridicule and shame. Unlike the long departed “undialectical shallow modernism” of the death-of-God theology that Eberhard Bethge dismissed in its heyday (but that Metaxas recently resurrects from the dead to beat its dead corpse and rebury[9]), this framework does not dismiss, discount and replace God’s deity, the church and its liturgy in favor of a Feuerbachian projectionist alternative. How can it, when in contrast to Ludwig Feuerbach, who projects our aspirations for infinitude onto the metaphysical void, the infinite God descends to be divine only in union with human finitude as the God-Man Jesus Christ for Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer’s Christology fully embodies God without remainder, unlike the logos asarkos and extra-Calvinisticum Christology and spirituality that continues to lay dormant existentially, culturally and politically in so many Christian circles.

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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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Generation Z, Justice, and the Gospel: A Call for Balance

Generation Z, Justice, and the Gospel: A Call for Balance

Writing about these “young evangelicals who have ‘expanded their mission’ to include social justice along with evangelism,” pastor and author Tim Keller says, “Many of them have not only turned away from older forms of ministry, but also from traditional evangelical doctrines of Jesus’s substitutionary atonement and of justification by faith alone, which are seen as too ‘individualistic.’”

And for all the good they’re doing—and they are—Generation Z Christians have become unbalanced. That’s not old fogeys like me or Tim Keller talking; it’s coming from one of their own: Jaquelle Crowe, the author of “This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years.”

Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Crowe says, “The fundamental problem is that we’ve created a false dichotomy. When you pit justice and gospel against each other, you miss the point of the Bible and devalue God’s heart for both. Justice fits squarely in the framework of biblical Christianity. It flows fiercely out of the gospel as a practical implication of loving God.”

Now, that’s a common theme of the Colson Center. John Stonestreet, my colleague here, has talked a lot about truth and love not being in opposition. And he’s exactly right. As the letter of James reminds us, what good is it to say, “Stay warm,” without giving someone a blanket? That is how we can begin bringing balance back to the gospel.

Pointing to the shining examples of William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Crowe says we need a biblical balance not of justice or the gospel, but of justice and the gospel. But Crowe goes a step farther. She says we need to make the gospel our priority, because only a right understanding of the human predicament before heaven will power our passion for justice on earth.

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Jon Ward

Senior Political Correspondent,
Yahoo News
Eric Metaxas speaks during the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C, on Jan. 27, 2017. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Image

The case of Eric Metaxas still remains a puzzling one to many of his fellow evangelicals.

How could the man who wrote an admiring, bestselling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the German pastor martyred for his opposition to the Nazis — become one of the most prominent evangelical supporters of Donald Trump, the most authoritarian, least churchly president in recent American history?

The answers to this question go to the heart of the cultural fears that motivated a large majority of white evangelical Christians to vote for Trump, opening an enduring split among evangelical elites.

“There are not many people … who truly surprised me in the 2016 campaign,” said David French, a conservative writer for National Review who was briefly mentioned as a possible third-party presidential candidate. “Of the publicly prominent Christians [who backed Trump], the two most surprising to me were William Bennett, author of ‘The Book of Virtues,’ and Eric Metaxas, author of ‘Bonhoeffer’.”

But it wasn’t just his credentials as an intellectual that made the Yale-educated Metaxas, on the surface, an unlikely Trump backer. It was his magnetic personality, the immaculate suits, the sharp-tongued humor and his public profile in New York City, where he hosted high-minded conversations with authors and public intellectuals at the Yale Club. Malcolm Gladwell made an appearance in January 2015.

Metaxas, the son of a Greek immigrant, began his career as a writer for the successful Christian children’s TV show “VeggieTales.” His wife, Susanne, is deeply active in the antiabortion movement as president and CEO of a pregnancy support center in Manhattan. And while Metaxas’ flamboyance has crossed over into excessive self-promotion at times, he is so talented, funny and sincere that his friends just laughed it off.

You can get a sense of his quirky, dry humor from his “Socrates in the City” events, like his 2014 conversation with former talk show host Dick Cavett, including an extended riff about how the gathering is really a “UFO cult.”

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Jim Gray: The Best Book I Read Last Year

I have just finished reading “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. The book is superb. It is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor of the “Church of Luther” during the rise and reign of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

This man of Christ conducted a principled fight against what Hitler and the corrupted Church of Germany were doing, and eventually was imprisoned and executed for his efforts and beliefs. But he was unafraid, because he was doing what knew his God wanted him to do. Regardless of our religious faith or beliefs, how many of us can genuinely say that we are standing up for our principles and Liberty for ourselves and others anywhere near to this degree? This is an inspirational book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone.

There are many lessons from the book for liberty lovers

Many insightful comments permeate the book, which all people who treasure Liberty should be aware of – today and every day. Here are some of them:

  • For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy, a great sin. This was Christianity’s chief difficulty, that it advocated meekness. (Meekness has its place but, as stated in the musical Camelot: “I find humility means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.”)
  • Bonhoeffer believed it was the role of the church to “speak for those who could not speak.” (Thus he saw Jesus Christ as a “man for others.”)
  • One of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts was “Absolute seriousness is never without a dash of humor.“ (We should never lose the ability to laugh at ourselves.)
  • The Nazi regime always cast their aggressions as defensive responses to actions against them and the German people. (Virtually always the justification for war.)
  • Bonhoeffer was the principal point of connection between his new “Confessing Church” and the Ecumenical movement, seeing the best and the worst in both. But each saw the best in itself and the worst in the other.  (Is this not how the various politically “warring groups” see themselves and others in our country today?)

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Living as Christians in a Deeply Divided Time

For many Americans, the most crucial factor in their Thanksgiving plans is who they’ll have to talk to across the table. More on being Christian in a divided nation. . . .

In the wake of last year’s election, many Americans decided to spend Thanksgiving with friends instead of family. This year, I suspect it will be even worse. After all, once Uncle Bill starts talking about President Trump, or Aunt Sally weighs in on transgenders in the military, or Cousin Phil announces why a Christian baker should or shouldn’t decorate a cake for a gay wedding . . . well, who knows what might happen.

I’m not that old—not nearly as old as Eric Metaxas, in fact—but I can’t remember a time when our country, our communities, and even our families have been so ideologically divided. Not only do we disagree but we tend to see others not only as wrong, but as our enemies. On news outlets, college campuses—certainly on Twitter—civility is out the window.

It’s one thing to say “I disagree with you.” It’s another thing to say “I can’t even share a meal or stand the sight of you.”

But it’s exactly here that Christians have something unique to offer.

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 Eric Metaxas

by Eric Metaxas
July 25, 2010

Discussing his recent and critically acclaimed book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the famed Lutheran theologian who was killed in the 1940s for opposing Nazism – author Eric Metaxas spoke to CNA in an interview, calling the pastor a man of “staggering” relevance for our time.

The late German theologian is the subject of Metaxas’ recent work, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” which was published in April.

Speaking with CNA via e-mail, the author reflected on the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s life and writings in contemporary society. He noted Bonhoeffer’s “extremely pro-Catholic” stance and refuted common misconceptions by “liberal theologians” who have “hijacked” the pastor’s writings in support of atheism.

Addressing the significance of Bonhoeffer to the lives of modern Americans, Metaxas explained that there are “powerful parallels” between how “the American government is today trying to bully the church on certain issues of sexuality,” as well as “abortion and euthanasia and stem-cell research.”

In the same way, he noted, the “Third Reich was bullying the German church at that time.”

“Bonhoeffer’s relevance to us today is staggering, and I confess that when I began writing the book I had no idea I would stumble over so many powerful parallels to our own situation,” Metaxas told CNA. “For one thing, the story of Bonhoeffer is a primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are.”

At the time of Bonhoeffer’s Germany, the “state was trying to take over the German church and only a few brave souls like Bonhoeffer were up to the battle. We would do well to take our lead from him in our own battle on that front.”

Although Bonhoeffer was formed by Reformation Lutheranism, Metaxas said that the late pastor “was extremely pro-Catholic and much of his own theology was specifically formed by Catholicism.”

The theologian’s 1923 trip to Rome “was extremely important,” the author noted. “He eagerly attended Mass every day … and he bought a missal and was deeply taken with what he saw and experienced.”

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April 10, 2017 by

Between my own blog, this one, and a couple others, I’ve written about 1,500 posts in the last six years. I try to do it well, with a less formal tone and much greater pace than typical academic writing but still reflecting a reasonably careful degree of prior research. But I’m afraid that my haste sometimes leads me to sloppiness — worse yet, sloppiness on topics where I’m writing outside of my fields of direct expertise and already at risk of stepping heedlessly into scholarly minefields.

As in the case of something I wrote over the weekend…

On Saturday I encouraged readers to seek out Come Before Winter, a new movie about the last days of the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I mentioned that it featured clips of an interview with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German scholar whose 2006 biography of Bonhoeffer was published in English in 2010. At least among American readers, I noted, that work “was overshadowed by those written by Charles Marsh and Eric Metaxas….”

But then I went on (unnecessarily, I fear) to point out that Schlingensiepen has criticized both Metaxas and Marsh “for wrenching the German martyr out of his historical and theological context.” I quoted the following passage from Schlingensiepen’s dual review of Marsh’s Strange Glory and Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer:

Metaxas, BonhoefferMarsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

In retrospect, I think I did wrong to include this quotation — or, at least, to include it without adding any kind of critical comment. Here’s why:

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An interesting read that goes to show that DB and his teachings can be interpreted differently. BG 

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer mit Schülern im Frühjahr 1932.” On this day in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sent to the camp where he would be executed. What is his legacy today?Wikimedia Commons

The German pastor and theologian is famous for his rich, profound, provocative writings, and the challenge his own life presents as the pacifist who was killed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On this day, February 7, 1945, Bonhoeffer was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, where the Nazis tortured, experimented on and killed tens of thousands of its prisoners. Three months later Bonhoeffer was executed there, just days before the war ended and the Allies liberated the camp. The sombre anniversary provokes a reflection on the legacy of Bonhoeffer for the Church and the world.

As a hero who stood firm for his faith in a time of crisis, Bonhoeffer has often been used as a guide for the political present. Conservative evangelical writer Eric Metaxas authored the Bonhoeffer biography Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy but received criticism for his depiction of the theologian as a close ally of American conservative evangelicals. In the 2016 election, Metaxas implored Christians to vote for Donald Trump, calling the choice a ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ of grave moral significance, and likening Hilary Clinton to Adolf Hitler.

Metaxas was excoriated by Bonhoeffer scholar Charles Marsh, who explained why Metaxas’ appropriation of Bonhoeffer as a “white evangelical family values Republican” was inappropriate and delusional.

As experts on the man and his message, the International Bonhoeffer Society is well placed to explore the relevance of the German theologian to today. Last week the group issued a statement relating Bonhoeffer’s legacy to current political events in the United States. It emphasised that the best way to relate Bonhoeffer to today is not to draw direct political analogies, but to consider Bonfoeffer’s self-understanding “as a citizen in his own times” and draw on that.

Resistance to Trump

“We speak noting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself taught the profound relatedness of all human persons and, indeed, of peoples and nations. We therefore feel called to raise our voices in support of justice and peace, and in resistance to every form of unjust discrimination and aggressive nationalism,” the statement began.

“The United States has undergone an unusually contentious, bitter, and ugly election that has brought us to an equally contentious, bitter, and ugly beginning of the presidency of Donald J Trump.” The statement added that “we are gravely concerned by the rise in hateful rhetoric and violence, the deep divisions and distrust in our country, and the weakening in respectful public discourse” and warned: “Some of the institutions that have traditionally protected our freedoms are under threat.”

Life for others

The society highlight the maligning of minorities in America as a key concern: “This election has made the most vulnerable members of our society, including people of colour, members of the LGBTQ communities, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, the poor, and the marginally employed and the unemployed, feel even more vulnerable and disempowered.”

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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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