Book Review: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich

Posted May 2, 2011 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich

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Eric Metaxas

biography that was published by Thomas Nelson on April 18, 2010 and has 608 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Other books by this author which I have reviewed include Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

An incredible biography of a truly Christian man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fought to save people…not just Christians, not just Jews, not just…but people.

In 2013, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich won an honorable mention for the Phoenix Catholic Award in Foreign Author; in 2011, it won the ECPA Christian Book Award and the John C. Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

My Take

I began reading this story when my online book club, Readers Against Racism and Prejudice, chose this as our book for March [2011].

On page 38, Dietrich has made his choice to make his career in theology and his brother, Karl-Friedrich is angry that Dietrich is turning his back on science while a friend states that “theology…[was] not highly respected in those circles [the academic elite of the Bonhoeffer family]. Yet, the earlier part of the book goes on and on about how important being religious is for the Bonhoeffer family. That, while papa, Karl, was not religious, as he did not believe in anything that could not be scientifically proven, he did support his wife’s strong religious feelings. So much so that religion took up a large part of everyday life.

Bonhoeffer had such an incredibly nurturing, supportive family who promoted each child’s self-confidence!! I want one of those!

Someone Agrees with Me!

I do like Bonhoeffer’s comment about the art in Rome that “the current art historians are the worst guides” for their arbitrary interpretation of the artworks. I don’t think any art historian or critic can comment on why or what the artist was trying to convey through the art without actual input from the artist. I have encountered too many docents and guides who tell me what the artist is saying when I have been in that artist’s studio or involved in a critique session with the artist and what the artist was saying is nothing like what the guide is saying. I have no objection to interpretation and what the guide thinks it feels to him/her, but to place that interpretation in the artist’s mouth…no.

Church and Being a Christian

I like Bonhoeffer’s first realization of “church” at the mass at St. Peter’s in Rome when he saw the “universality of the church”. Isn’t it a shame that this cannot be realized in every church no matter what the denomination or origin? ALL Christians should be tolerant of other Christians, Jews of other Jews, Muslims of other Muslims, let alone accepting of the different beliefs between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. (No offense to the other religions in the world for not mentioning you; please interpret my comments as incorporating EVERYONE whether you are Buddhist, animist, vaudun, Hindi, +++++.)

Of course, this goes right along with what Barth and the Provisional Committee of the World Council of Churches says “that race, national identity, or ethnic background have [nothing]…to do with actual Christian Faith.”

Oh, now wait a minute…! “…to be a Christian, one must live with Christians”??? I don’t think so. Bonhoeffer must be schizophrenic…he says this earlier bit about Christians, and then he believes that Jews are supposed to be part of the German church.

On page 286, Bonhoeffer goes off on the rails as to what he was taught as a child, in my opinion, when he says “Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation.” I beg your pardon?? What an incredibly intolerant thing to say.

On page 57, he points out that we [Catholics and Lutherans] pray the same Lord’s Prayer and share the same rites with the only importance being God’s word. That Jews are just as much God’s people as are the Germans. Doesn’t that mean that it’s okay to live with Jews as well as Christians? And, if they’re Jews then they probably attend temple…not…gasp…the Confessing Church…

I like Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “man-made ‘religion'” and “the real essence of Christianity”. I agree that we seem to have lost our way here. On page 82, he points out that we have relegated Christianity to Sundays for a few hours, that “one cannot give him only a ‘small compartment in our spiritual life’.

I do agree that Christian life must be modeled. And that doesn’t mean going through the outer rituals of church/synagogue/mosque. Bonhoeffer stated “Jesus did not only communicate ideas and concepts and rules and principles for living. He lived.” Can you imagine what Jesus would think of our world today??

Then he goes on to say ” ‘religion’ and moral performance are the very enemies of Christianity…because they present the false idea that…we can reach God through our moral efforts” but isn’t that part of being a Christian…being moral? And not just for a few hours on Sundays!

On page 447, Bonhoeffer believes that “one must sacrifice oneself utterly to God’s purposes, even to the point of possibly making moral mistakes. One’s obedience to God must be forward-oriented and zealous and free, and to be a mere moralist or pietist would make such a life impossible”. Isn’t this pretty well what the radical Muslims believe???

Metaxas mentions that Bonhoeffer has a central theme to his sermons — “supporting the earthly, incarnational aspect of the Christian faith” as opposed to the Gnostic idea “that the body is inferior to the soul or spirit”. Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “God wants to see human beings not ghosts who shun the world”. But in some ways isn’t the central tenet Bonhoeffer embraces one of giving up on the world? It ties in with my conflict over the whole “turn the other cheek” exhortation.

Bonhoeffer fervently believes that prayer is the way to accomplish what is needed and yet, he still engages in campaigning against the Ecumenical Church of Germany for its caving in to Hitler. On the other hand, I’m guessing (I’m only up to page 358) that Bonhoeffer plans to rely upon prayer to get him through jail. I’m so angry that he didn’t stay in America [in 1939]. That he felt he had to be in Germany to help. I also understand why he felt he had to be there, and I’d like to think I would do the same. I dunno… I like Emmi Bonhoeffer ripping at him for being “unwilling to get your own hand dirty and do it”. It’s that cheap grace issue Bonhoeffer keeps on about. He mentions that “merely talking about God, but…[not] getting his hands dirty in the real word…was bad theology”. And, eventually, he does come to realize that “merely speaking truth”, “resisting by way of confession” is a form of cheap grace and is exactly what he’s doing which tips him over into joining the conspiracy. Now he’ll be “confessing by way of resistance”.


I have to disagree with Bonhoeffer’s insistence that reading the Bible is God speaking to me. The Bible wasn’t even written until 200 years or so after Jesus died. You can’t even get the same sentence to go around a dining table of people and have it come out as the same sentence and that only takes about 10 minutes. How many minutes in 200 years???

Although. On page 136, Bonhoeffer says that one can read the Bible like any other book…viewpoint of textual criticism…[but] that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface”. That one must ” enter into the words of the Bible”. My interpretation of this is that it’s the ideas in the Bible that are important not the actual words. More like the moral behind a parable.

Hitler and War

Yeah! It is about time!! It’s more important to get rid of Hitler and save a heckuva lot of people than it is to try and save a few military asses. Duh…

What an asshole! Winston Churchill has been wanting the army guys to commit, so they finally make a try, and he condemns them????

On page 141, Bonhoeffer points out the difference between “real leadership and the false leadership of der Fürher”. Under Kaiser Wilhelm, the state was teacher, statesman, and father with the responsibility of caring for the citizens of Germany with limitations to his authority whereas Hitler saw taking over the leadership of Germany as an opportunity to impose his desires with no rein on his actions…”self-derived, autocratic…[with]…a messianic aspect.”

Please, please, please can we keep the lesson of the National Socialists front and center, so we never repeat such horrific actions ever again?!? There are many aspects of the start of the Nazi takeover of Germany and its citizens that make me think of Homeland Security with its paranoias. Hitler too started off small, eliminating small civil liberties. Disguising the T-4 “solution” with its questionnaires and using the Junkers’ natures against them to drive Germany and Germans deeper and deeper into Hitler’s pit.

Oh lord, then Hitler comes up with his plot to invade Poland while painting himself as the poor, put-upon victim. Give me a break! How could this have fooled anyone??

On page 349, when Bonhoeffer writes the letter in which he’s “stunned by this news” of brother Theodor Maass’ death. Please. It’s war. What was he thinking? That people don’t die in war? Besides, what the devil do they mean by agreeing to fight in Hitler’s war when they know it’s wrong?? That’s taking the easy way out and supposedly that’s what Bonhoeffer’s been going on about throughout the entire book. Not taking the easy way but doing what is right. Yes, I understand his reasons for waffling about his going into the army although, in my heart of hearts, I think he was wrong. He should make his own decisions and allow others to make their peace their own consciences.

World War II should never have happened, heck, World War I shouldn’t have except for a power-mad Kaiser who just had to prove his own worth and used millions of people to do it. I can’t really blame the Allies for jumping down the Germans’ throats for all the damage they did, and yet it is exactly the extent of that jumping that pushed the Germans into enjoying the initial fruits of the second war. I wonder if that is why the U.S. was so generous after every war since in helping their enemies build their countries back up?

Still, the Germans did have punishment coming for what they did in WWI. How they could be such assholes when they were the ones who started the first is a total mystery to me! Don’t play if you can’t pay.

Thoughts on Immigration and Prejudice

When Bonhoeffer returns to New York in 1939, he mentions that New York is more international than London with its many immigrants, and I got to wondering if so many Americans resent them because we feel threatened that they will bring their lives and cultures here and overtake our own.

I don’t really understand that as we’ve had several centuries of immigrants bringing the richness of their own cultures over resulting in it mingling…or melting…into the pot we do have. I certainly wouldn’t give up my Christmas tree, Guinness, moo shu pork, tom yum soup, gyros, or falafels for anything…!

Separation of Church and State

The more I read, the more grateful I am that America has that separation of church and state. One of the reasons the pastors in the Confessing Church had such a difficult time going against the Nazis was that those same Nazis provided their income. Then there’s the fact that the German people saw the kaiser as the father of the church, i.e., the government was the head of the church so it would be fairly natural for them to transfer that view over to their new Chancellor as well. Could you imagine Homeland Security in charge of every church in America?


OK, it’s sweet that Dietrich and Maria are in love…where did they find the time?? It feels like they met some three times — yeah, I know it really was more, had to be didn’t it? — but it still feels too seldom and too little exploration for it to be realistic.

God and Religion

On page 467, Bonhoeffer makes an excellent point about how we view God these days. That he’s useful for “explaining” those bits and pieces that science hasn’t yet figured out. It feels like that’s how we see him today, and Bonhoeffer was seeing that back in the early 1940s…eek!

Lovely question: “What is the will of God?” Wouldn’t we all love to get that one answered?

And I love this one: “embrace the good things of this world as gifts from the hand of God rather than as temptations to be avoided”.

Oh boy, this is heavy on page 484 where Bonhoeffer finds that “one must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself…[but] …to throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

His last quote that grabbed me was “that being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will”.

I feel so angry that Bonhoeffer manages to escape and then chooses to throw it all away to go back. It ‘s so hard to choose between safety for self or a sure imprisonment just to be there in the thick of things, although, one does have to live with oneself. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have made the same decision. The agony of not knowing what was happening. Believing that one took the easy way out, even if one could justify it by publicizing what was happening in Germany, countering Hitler’s spin.

If Bonhoeffer knew he would be imprisoned and executed within a few years, would he have stayed in the States?

The Story

The biography of a German who fought through prayer against two enemies: Hitler and the casual attitude people had toward religion. The family in which he was raised encouraged their children to speak when they had something to say, not to waste their words on gossip or frivolity, and to be true Christians. I wish there were so many more people like this in the world.

In the prologue, Metaxas writes that “The family trees of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer [Dietrich’s parents] are everywhere so laden with figures of accomplishment that one might expect future generations to be burdened by it all. But … seems to have been a boon,…each child seems not only to have stood on the shoulders of giants but also to have danced them.”

When Hitler began his rise to power and began interfering with the Lutheran Church in Germany, Bonhoeffer took an early stand and campaigned against this gross interference by the state in the church, eventually spinning off the Confessing Church and attempting to make it the only, legitimate church in Germany as a way to get around what was an end run around church authority — Hitler using the church to establish his own rule.

The Cover

Good, strong cover — a three-quarter full-on of Bonhoeffer’s face with a determined look. Although, I think the author is much cuter…