Posts Tagged ‘Metaxas’

Thanks to my friend John Matthews, a small publishing house in Minneapolis has expressed interest in my Bonhoeffer manuscript. I’m reviewing the text now to get it ready to send off. Kinda’ scary!

My purpose in writing the book was to look at Bonhoeffer’s life and writings through evangelical eyes (though I’m no longer sure what the word “evangelical” means). I’ve tried to do a careful job of showing that Bonhoeffer’s last works (Ethics and Letters and Papers) were no more radical than his earliest writings, dating back at least to 1928. I hope I’ve also effectively shown that even in his most radical ideas, Bonhoeffer (though not being an evangelical) was not far from the best of American evangelicalism.

For example, when I first became a Christian in the early 60s, there was an idea I heard often: “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I liked it then and I like it now. It is not substantially unlike Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity.” It’s so close, in fact, that I am actually puzzled that evangelicals haven’t been excited about it.

Eric Metaxas did little to help, mouthing the old view that Discipleship and Life Together are good books while claiming Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to know that anyone takes seriously his last works. I hope the day comes when Metaxas realizes what a foolish view he has propounded.

I’ll let you know if my book ever makes it into print!


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Sometimes a liberal newspaper like the NY Times shows a greater understanding of Christianity than does the “evangelical” wing of the Republican party. I’m copying here in full an opinion piece by Times writer Peter Wehner. He attributes a quotation from Paul to the Jesus but other than that he shows far greater sensitivity to biblical Christianity than do people like James Dobson and Eric Metaxas.

I have just one comment about Metaxas: His biography of Bonhoeffer shows that he actually read very little of Bonhoeffer’s writing and that he is as ignorant about Hitler as he is about Bonhoeffer’s theology. I do not use the term “ignorant” lightly. Metaxas wrote an entertaining biography but failed very seriously to comprehend what Bonhoeffer taught and what the Nazi context was like. His ignorance makes it possible for him to say about Trump exactly what many people said about Hitler: “the “last great hope” for his country.

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The Theology of Donald Trump

SINCE Donald Trump assures us that the Bible is his favorite book, it’s worth asking: Just what is his theology?

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him.

Dr. Dobson is not alone. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has praised Mr. Trump’s life as in many ways exemplary and said that he believes that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.” Eric Metaxas, who has written popular biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has rhapsodized about Mr. Trump and argued that Christians “must” vote for him because he is “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.”

And should your conscience tell you that Mr. Trump might not be the right choice, Robert Jeffress, the influential pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, explains that “any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee” is “motivated by pride rather than principle.”

This fulsome embrace of Mr. Trump is rather problematic, since he embodies a worldview that is incompatible with Christianity. If you trace that worldview to its source, Christ would not be anywhere in the vicinity.

Time and again Mr. Trump has shown contempt for those he perceives as weak and vulnerable — “losers,” in his vernacular. They include P.O.W.s, people with disabilities, those he deems physically unattractive and those he considers politically powerless. He bullies and threatens people he believes are obstacles to his ambitions. He disdains compassion and empathy, to the point where his instinctive response to the largest mass shooting in American history was to congratulate himself: “Appreciate the congrats for being right.”

What Mr. Trump admires is strength. For him, a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it. In his comments to that gathering of evangelicals, Mr. Trump said this: “And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.”

In eight sentences Mr. Trump mentioned some variation of power six times, to a group of individuals who have professed their love and loyalty to Jesus, who in his most famous sermon declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the meek,” who said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” and who was humiliated and crucified by the powerful.

To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that resistance is overcome.”

Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “Übermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump.

Those who believe this is merely reductionism should consider the words of Jesus: Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Mr. Trump’s entire approach to politics rests on dehumanization. If you disagree with him or oppose him, you are not merely wrong. You are worthless, stripped of dignity, the object of derision. This attitude is central to who Mr. Trump is and explains why it pervades and guides his campaign. If he is elected president, that might-makes-right perspective would infect his entire administration.

All of this is important because of what it says about Mr. Trump as a prospective president. But it is also revealing for what it says about Christians who now testify on his behalf (there are plenty who don’t). The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

The French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote: “Politics is the church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” In rallying round Mr. Trump, evangelicals have walked into the trap. The rest of the world sees it. Why don’t they?

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Eric Metaxas, in his very readable but poorly informed biography of Bonhoeffer, says that Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find us today taking his letters and papers from prison seriously. They contain too many wild fantasies, too many ideas not yet thought through, to suit Metaxas.

Metaxas is a good writer but a very poor reader and a worse theologian. Oddly, he seems not even to have read his own material. In the first half of the book, he points out that some of Bonhoeffer’s early ideas will show up again later but when Metaxas finally gets to a discussion of those later writings, he has forgotten his earlier observation. He calls Bonhoeffer’s prison writings “inchoate,” which means premature, immature, undeveloped.

As I have continued to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that, like many men of genius, Bonhoeffer knew his mind very early and then spent the rest of his lifetime exploring and expanding his insights.

I will mention just three of his early convictions which stayed with him throughout his days. First, his view of the Bible.Though he never articulated a formal “doctrine of inspiration,” Bonhoeffer knew even while still a university student that the Bible is the Word of God which gains its power from the Holy Spirit. This did not mean for Bonhoeffer that the Bible was always to be taken literally or that it was infallible. It did mean that to hear the Word of God spoken into our hearts, we must listen first to the Spirit speaking in and through Scripture. We learn Bonhoeffer’s view first in his 1925 (age 19) paper for Professor Seeburg entitled “The Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” (Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 9, pp. 285ff.).

Second, the living and present Jesus Christ is the center and circumference of all life. Bonhoeffer never let the doctrine of the Bible or even the doctrine of Christ become the center. It was always and only the living person of Jesus Christ that commanded his utmost loyalty and devotion. This was first articulated (so far as we have record) in a lecture the 22 year old Bonhoeffer delivered in Barcelona, Spain, in the fall of 1928. It was entitled “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity.” That letter is as radical as anything he wrote from prison 16 years later. It is found in Works, 10:342.

Third, in another Barcelona lecture delivered a few days after his 23rd birthday in 1929, Bonhoeffer insisted that Christian ethics consists solely in being responsive to the living Christ, never in rules and regulations. There is, therefore, no such thing as a “Christian ethic” which can prescribe the rules of right living. If you grapple with this lecture, you’ll then find no surprises in his later book Ethics. This lecture is also in volume 10, page 359.

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During the Christmas season we are reminded that the baby Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. And we are always challenged to make room for him now in our hearts.

In his prison letter of April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

It always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety. I’d like to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.

These are fascinating words. They help us see our own inclination to use God as the fixer of the problems that are beyond our control, while having no use for him when life seems under our control to our satisfaction.

I recall reading as a new Christian the little book by J. B. Phillips called Your God Is Too Small. I was especially impressed with Phillip’s charge that we often treat God as a fireman called in to put out the fires of our lives, than sent back to his station to await our next emergency.

With an image like that in my head for more than half a century, I cannot find anything surprising about Bonhoeffer’s words. The idea is the same but Bonhoeffer is trying to plunge deeper into its meaning. God is not just at the edges of our abilities but in the center even of our strength.

That means we are to be followers of Jesus in all times and in all ways, not users of Jesus on an occasional basis. Is that really such an odd thought that Evangelicals such as biographer Eric Metaxas have to dismiss Bonhoeffer as having gone off the track in his last few years? Isn’t Bonhoeffer simply being biblical, just simply and directly biblical?

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As I study I mark passages in the books/articles I read, then type the quotes into my computer. I’ve got more than 50 pages of notes, very small font, from Bonhoeffer. I decided this morning that, as part of my study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I need to review my notes from all his earlier writings to draw connections between his early and his later thinking.

In part, I want to do this just to help relieve the irritation I’ve always felt toward the biography written by Metaxas. I’ve never read a biography which so badly mangles the thinking of its subject. Metaxas is a good story teller but he was incredibly inept in dealing with Bonhoeffer’s theology. I don’t believe Metaxas actually read very much of what Bonhoeffer wrote.

I will skip over the most obvious connection, that between his Ethics and his 1928 lecture in Barcelona: Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic. If you’ve read the essay, you’ve already dealt with half or more of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in Ethics.

Let me instead look for a moment at a less well known work, an article published in 1932 in the American publication called The Journal of Religion. It was first written as an essay for a class at Union Seminary in New York. Entitled “The Christian Idea of God,” the article distinguishes between philosophy and theology by pointing out that philosophy deals with ideas while theology deals with the person of God. While theologians may create intellectual constructs, they must always remain faithfully committed to the personal center of their work. It may have ideological dimensions but is essentially personal. (Therefore, among other things, their cannot be a true theologian who is not a person of faith!)

On page 452 of volume 10 of the DBWE, Bonhoeffer writes:

“Thinking does violence to reality, pulling it into the circle of the ego, taking away from it its original ‘objectivity.’ Thinking always means system and the system excludes the reality. Therefore, it has to call itself the ultimate reality, and in this system the thinking ego rules. It follows that not only the other man but also God is subordinated to the ego.”

When we create a system of thought [whether in theological or ethical matters] we are the creators and masters of that system. This, we observe, is a reflection of the original sin, supplanting “God by deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong, true and false, good and evil.

The important thing here is not that Bonhoeffer was thinking of ethics in the 1932 article — he wasn’t — but that his way of thinking was exactly like that which marks his Ethics. It is the thinking that is at the root of all Bonhoeffer’s work: we are called to be centered on God, honoring and heeding the living God and God alone in all we do and think. No system of thought or set of ethical rules must be allowed to supplant God as known in Jesus Christ.

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This brief story, published in 2001 and subtitled “Radical Integrity,” has not attracted much attention in the years since its publication. It suffers from a certain lack of focus. It is in story form but is not sufficiently imaginative to be called a novel. It is a biography but too centered on Bonhoeffer’s last years to be very broadly informative about the man. Bonhoeffer was an extremely complex person and thinker but the book is simplified to about a 10th grade level.

Nonetheless, as an introduction to Bonhoeffer the book is not without some value. Unlike the biography by Eric Metaxas, who is a better story teller but is quite incompetent when discussing theology, Van Dyke has not sought to evaluate the theology of Bonhoeffer. He simply reports what Bonhoeffer said and thus avoids the trap into which Metaxas stumbles, that of completely misreading Bonhoeffer’s theology.

No one can write an historical novel, of course, without making up details about conversations and thoughts. Van Dyke does this in a restrained way so that he does not end up creating a whole new portrait of Bonhoeffer. His imaginative details seem not to distract from the story or from its fairly accurate reflection of Bonhoeffer.

Another biography written at a similar level is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God” by Elizabeth Raum. The author does a good job of simplifying Bonhoeffer’s story but includes enough detail that the reader gains a slightly fuller understanding of the personality, life, and work of her subject.

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Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Mataxas was interviewed by Glenn Beck on December 10, 2010. It is available on YouTube. Beck begins with comments about how – in his view – the “Left” has badly misunderstood Bonhoeffer by saying “he is a social justice guy.” It is clear that both “Left” and “social justice guy” are pejorative code words for Beck, needing no explanation.

Metaxas then makes the important point that, contrary to what some have thought, Bonhoeffer did not leave his biblical and theological foundations in his later years but remained a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer, Metaxas emphasizes, was never like the liberal theologians with whom he studied. Unfortunately, showing a certain American provincialism, Metaxas seems to assume that if a Christian is not a liberal, he must be an evangelical. That is a very poor assumption which is not supported by the facts at all. Bonhoeffer and the modern Evangelical are much alike in many ways but overlapping ideas and commitments does not make us identical twins. Metaxas demonstrates this very conclusively by not correcting Beck about “the social justice guys.”

When Dietrich wrote in 1933 that the church must protest against injustice at the hands of the state and bind up the wounds of those injured by the state’s injustice and even do whatever it can to stop the wheels of the state’s injustice, was he not describing “social justice” very perfectly? And did he not live out this prescription very fully?

The juxtaposition of Beck with his code words and Metaxas with his unexamined assumptions is almost comical. They reinforce one another’s blindness.

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