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The following was written by Jack Heppner, an obvious anti-Trumper. It is amazing to me how often I have read of those who compare President Trump to Adolf Hitler. It is an incredible leap when you consider that Hitler was a monster, responsible for tens of millions of deaths in World War II. Many times, when this comparison is made, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets dragged into the discussion because his response to Hitler can help serve as our response to Trump. I know many people cannot stand Trump, and he is far from perfect, but to compare him to Hitler is absurd. I would love to get Eric Metaxas’ take on this post.

Bonhoeffer on Politics

While travelling in the United States recently I was at the same time working my way through Eric Metaxas’ epic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (2010). I couldn’t help but notice how similar political and religious dynamics in Germany in the 1930s were to those presently unfolding in America. In this essay I will reflect on the political similarities I see. In the next essay I will consider similarities on the religious front.

On the political front, I will argue that many of the authoritarian moves Hitler made in the 1930s are mirrored, at least to some degree, by Donald Trump today. I don’t think Trump will be able to elevate authoritarianism to the level Hitler did. American democracy has more than two centuries of experience and has built-in checks and balances powerful enough to thwart the authoritarian impulses of any president. On the other hand, democracy was first thrust upon Germany in the wake of WWI and so had not developed institutional protections against the abuses of authoritarianism.

I must say at the outset, that I was greatly disheartened to learn, after reading Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, that he is presently an avid supporter of Donald Trump. This is hard for me to fathom, given his exposure of authoritarianism under Hitler in the Bonhoeffer book only eight years ago. Nevertheless, I will proceed to note the reflections of Adolf Hitler that I see today in Donald Trump. I will do this largely by quoting directly from the Bonhoeffer book, making a few observations and then allowing the reader to connect the dots.

“Germany wanted to restore its former glory…So the people democratically elected the man who had vowed to destroy the democratic government they hated. Hitler’s election to office destroyed the office” (114).

Trump’s enduring slogan has been to “Make America Great Again!” However, since being elected he has regularly demonized and tried to manipulate institutions designed to rein in an authoritarian president, including; the Congress, the judiciary, the free press and the FBI. By doing so he has brought the office of the presidency into great peril.

“Klaus and Diedrich agreed that Hitler and the Nazis could not last long, but the damage they were doing to the nation was grave” (158)…

Based on Trump’s erratic behavior from day one of his presidency, many predicted he would last perhaps a few months, at the most a year. But both Hitler and Trump were able to out-maneuver their opponents and hang on to power in spite of the damage they were doing to their nations.

“There was still hope that this madman might not be so mad after all or that his wildness might yet be domesticated” (249).

At first many were predicting that following Trump’s dizzying rhetoric of hate, fear and division on the campaign trail he would calm down once in office. However, that hope was never realized.

“We will have to move through a very deep valley, I believe much deeper than we can sense now, before we will be able to ascend the other side again” (374).

Given the intense partisanship Trump has reveled in and exacerbated from the outset it is hard to see a quick exit to the morass the country finds itself in. Some are hopeful that midterm successes of the democrats will quicken the process, but in any case there is a long road ahead, in my opinion.

“One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He certainly was not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain” (165).

Prior to entering politics there were no indications that Trump was a Christian. However, once he intuited that he needed the evangelical base to win and keep power, Trump began making statements about how important God was to him. He allowed a Christian chaplain into the White House, appointed numerous openly evangelical people to high office, and frequently invited large groups of evangelical pastors to the White House to cultivate a “Christian” relationship.

“Hitler worshipped power, while truth was a phantasm to be ignored; and his sworn enemy was not falsehood but weakness. For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy a great sin” (168).

It is no secret that Trump regularly says things that are simply not true. Fact checkers have documented thousands of untruths he has told while in office, many of them on Twitter. I just don’t get it. In Canada just one lie can be enough to bring down someone in high office. And even more troubling is the fact that many of those lies are made in a ruthless way to put down or “punish” those who disagree with him.

“Required of all army personnel: ‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich…’” (232).

Trump values personal loyalty above truth and competence. It is clear to me that the many firings within the White House revolve around the question of loyalty to Trump.

“But as he (Hitler) was every atom a petty man, he was accustomed to diverting exceedingly precious resources of time, personnel, and gasoline for the purposes of his own revenge” (529).

Pettiness and revenge are never far from the surface for Donald Trump. Hoping to pitch an image of strength, he instead projects the impression of a deeply wounded child who has never learned that love and trust will always trump pettiness and revenge.

For the most part I have refrained from writing about politics on my blog.

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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.

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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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