Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Culture Warrior?
I was horrified upon finishing the audio recording of Eric Metaxas’s biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer — Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — to learn that Metaxas had an agenda in writing the biography that a) never occurred to me, and b) seems entirely at odds with Bonhoeffer’s own words and deeds. Metaxas used Bonhoeffer’s life story to draw a parallel between the Third Reich’s takeover of the Lutheran church and the U.S. government’s attempts, among others, to mandate access to birth control and uphold Roe v. Wade. Metaxas believed these to be evidence of a dangerous federalism encroaching on church freedom of belief. In addition, he wanted readers to understand Bonhoeffer’s absolute rejection of Hitler as a model for American reactions to Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban. While I appreciate the urge to enlarge the circle of those who appreciate Bonhoeffer, I find Metaxas’s move to parachute Bonhoeffer into the middle of contemporary American culture wars ahistorical and problematic.
In retrospect, I can identify parts of the biography where Metaxas tipped his hand – and I wish I’d picked up on these cues earlier. Metaxas focused on Bonhoeffer’s defiance of family opinion to pursue a career as a pastor rather than as an academic. To Metaxas, this served as an early sign of Bonhoeffer’s unwillingness to join his family’s place in Germany’s liberal, cultural elite. When Bonhoeffer studied in Manhattan at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-31, he was most inspired by the vibrancy and passion of African American worship and gospel singing. To Metaxas, this was evidence of Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the liberal intellectual strains of American Christianity he encountered at Union. Metaxas further underscored this rejection when he chronicled Bonhoeffer’s return to New York and Union in 1939. Bonhoeffer chose not to worship on Sundays at The Riverside Church with the city’s liberal elite. Instead, he frequented a church where sermons were firmly rooted in scriptural analysis. To Metaxas, this was a sign of Bonhoeffer’s rejection of liberal, intellectual theology focused on issues of social justice.
Reviewers far more qualified than I have explained why Metaxas should be taken to task for making these kinds of associations. In articles here, here, here, and here, they complained that Metaxas engaged in “terrible oversimplification” to create a political and theological “polemic.” Clifford Green, executive editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, advised readers to use metaphorical “bifocals” to keep an eye on the interviews Metaxas gave as well as the text he wrote. “Polarization,” Green wrote, “is the structural motif of the whole narrative.” All reviewers cited Metaxas for factual errors, which, they argued, allowed him to ignore what he either didn’t like or didn’t understand in Bonhoeffer’s theology. The biography, Victoria J. Barnett wrote, is “consciously evangelical” in a U.S. context. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, explained Barnett, who is general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works and director of church relations at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. At the same time, she cautioned mixing “faith” and “ideology,” which Bonhoeffer, himself, identified as leading to trouble. Because of Metaxas’s perspective, Clifford Green wrote in his review, he hasn’t actually written a historical biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Instead, Green concluded, Metaxas’s “real target is liberals.”
Further fishing on the Internet led me to a study guide publishers included in the book. Though Metaxas may not have written the questions himself, he surely gave the go ahead. The questions are leading. They force readers to start their analysis of Bonhoeffer from a fundamentalist position. They range from historically presentist to outright offensiveness. “Are there efforts today to silence those who would preach the full gospel? Where? What attempts are being made to stifle Bible truth?” (603). “Where should a servant of Christ draw the line in adapting to his/her surrounding culture?” (597). My biggest objection to this line of questioning is that it encourages readers to ignore Bonhoeffer’s honest interest in the ways people of many faiths chose to uphold the ethical principles Jesus articulated in the Sermon on the Mount, whether they believed Jesus was the son of God or held the promise of eternal salvation. To Metaxas, such a position – which he denied Bonhoeffer — leads to watered down, inauthentic Christianity. To Christians such as Barry Alter and her circle – and, indeed, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself – this is the position from which lived Christianity begins.
Metaxas included a passage from a letter that gets at the heart of the interpretive dilemma. In this letter from London that he sent his paternal grandmother Julie in 1934, Bonhoeffer expressed interest in traveling to India to live and study with Gandhi.
It sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in [India’s] ‘heathenism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Christianity did in fact come from the East originally, but it has become so westernised and so permeated by civilised thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us.
Though he had a letter of introduction to Gandhi, and though Gandhi extended an invitation to him, Bonhoeffer never made the trip. I suspect that Metaxas focused on the word “thought,” questioning the role of ideas and intellectual inquiry in faith. Bonhoeffer’s words indicate something entirely different. He was setting east and west in opposition, perhaps romanticizing India in the ways that cultural and political critic Edward Said would have called “orientalism.” But Bonhoeffer wasn’t putting down India. He wasn’t calling Hindus heathens – that’s why he put the word in quotes. Bonhoeffer was genuinely interested in exploring the ways people of faith around the world managed to live principled lives. To Metaxas, that kind of approach smacks of wishy-washy cultural relativism. To me, this shows that Bonhoeffer wasn’t coming at Christian evangelicalism in the trope of “the west to the rest.”
Indeed, it’s these qualities of curiosity and openness that have drawn me to my project, In the Midst. My conversations with Barry Alter and those of her cohort who survive have helped me gain a clearer understanding of the many ways people of great moral and ethical character have strengthened their commitments to their own faiths and also celebrated different ways of experiencing the Divine. Barry, for instance, studied with the French Catholic mystic Abishiktananda. She meditates and contemplates during her daily devotions. Her mantra is “dwell,” which she tells me helps bring her closer to the Holy Spirit. When Barry finishes her meditations, she sings hymns from a book her father, a Congregationalist minister, gave her when she was a child in 1930. Most of those hymns date back to the nineteenth century and are rooted in Quakerism.
My goal in producing In the Midst is to explore ways that deeply ethical, principled people have used the Bible and Christian teachings to “save the world” now, on earth, not just to concern themselves with salvation after death. Their “mission” converges with the Jewish commandment to engage in tikkun olam, the vital, practical work of repairing a fractured world. As you’ll hear when I post audio of Barry’s thoughts on the Thief on the Cross and the Rending of the Veil, Barry believes that actions as much as words lead to salvation. If there is life after death, it is open, Barry argues, to all who live as Jesus did, challenging authority, questioning accepted hierarchies, and finding community with those of any faith who work for justice. I don’t know that Barry’s understanding of Christianity precisely mirrors Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s – but I do know that they both grounded their faith in action. In both approaches to Christianity, there is no room for exclusion or fear.
Filed by Catherine Corman, March 22, 2013