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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—Book review

“What are we waiting for? The time is late.”

Bonhoeffer-by-Eric-MetaxasIt’s World War 2 from an insider’s perspective.
It’s a challenge to faith.
It’s a call to boldness.

I hesitantly decided to read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy when it became free to BookSneeze bloggers.

Its length scared me:
610 pages from the Foreward to Reading Group Guide.

But it was worth every page, even though I wasn’t prepared for how profoundly those pages would weigh on my heart.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German by physical blood and a brother by Christ’s blood, is one of my 20th century heroes of the Christian faith. I’ve read his The Cost of Discipleship years back, but this book showed a fuller look at the man down deep.

He lived a life of prayer and active discipleship, constantly striving to keep Jesus at the center.

He saw the destructive nature of Nazism early on. He sought to strengthen the church so she could stand against it. He traveled abroad to solicit support from those outside Germany to help those within Germany who were trying to bring down Hitler. He joined the Abwehr (the Germany Military Intelligence Office) to better position himself to assist in assassination attempts against Hitler, a cause he wrestled with but finally made peace with.

Thankfully, he was a man of many letters and sermons and writings. The book is full of his own words to others.

In a letter dated April 7, 1934, to Henry Louis Henriod, the Swiss theologian who headed the ecumenical World Alliance, Bonhoeffer wrote,

I would very much have liked to discuss the situation with you again, since the slowness of ecumenical procedure is beginning to look to me like irresponsibility. A decision must be made at some point, and it’s no good waiting indefinitely for a sign from heaven that will solve the difficulty without further trouble. Even the ecumenical movement has to make up its mind and is therefore subject to error, like everything human.

But to procrastinate and prevaricate simply because you’re afraid of erring, when others—I mean our brethren in Germany—must make infinitely more difficult decisions every day, seems to me almost to run counter to love. To delay or fail to make decisions may be more sinful than to make wrong decisions out of faith and love… [I]n this particular case it really is now or never. “Too late” means “never.”

…We must shake off our fear of this world—the cause of Christ is at stake, and are we to be found sleeping?

…Christ is looking down at us and asking whether there is anyone left who confesses faith in him.

dietrich-bonhoefferHe refused to back down from God’s truths either for the sake of security or comfort.

This eventually led to his arrest in Germany and his hanging from the gallows in April 1945, just three weeks prior to the Nazis' surrender.

So while I initially feared the length of the book (I committed to reading 10 pages a day), I could have read more.

Author Eric Metaxas writes beautifully and intelligently. While I did have to look up a few words along the way (always a good thing), Metaxas’ sentences flow effortlessly.

The main message was always clear, despite occasional difficulties for me in following German names.

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security.

To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hands of the Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.

Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.
~ “Peace Speech” at the Conference at Fano, 1934, age 28

* * *Unbroken

Interestingly, at the same time I was reading Bonhoeffer, I was also reading Unbroken, another World War 2 book, but this one about an American soldier in Japanese prison camps. [Read it, too!]

In both books, I was amazed by two extremes in two separate countries: of human cruelty to other humans, and of unbreakable spirits (and often unbreakable bodies) opposite that cruelty. [Disclaimer: I paid the price with bad dreams. Jeff said I hit him once in the middle of the night with my pillow; I have no recollection at all.]


Adoption Mama said...

I have read both books...moving, stirring and contemplative.

Lisa notes... said...

Exactly. Even though both books disturb me, it’s a good disturbing (if that makes sense—it probably does to you since you read them both).

My husband is listening to the audiobook of Unbroken to and from work so it’s nice being able to talk with him about it. And I initially suggested it to my 16-yr-old, but after I had a couple nights of bad dreams, I told her she could lay it down if she wanted. ;-) But of course now she wants to read it even more. ha.

My 17-yr-old neighbor read Bonhoeffer before I did and loved it. I figured if she could get through it with her rigorous school schedule, surely I could too. I’m so glad I did.

And I’m glad to know now that you’ve read both too! There’s something bonding about reading the same books…

Lynn Severance said...

Lisa - wonderful post.

I had to go to the audio book of "Bonhoeffer" because of my visual energy limitations. It is a wonderful one to "read" via audio ( letting someone else read those German names to me! ). And it flows so well. I still have the book by my side and have underlined so many powerful passages. I am only half way through but I am getting there - to its end. What a journey.

It will become a classic. It has just been published in German. A month ago, 250, 000 copies had been sold. I am not sure if that included the downloads of it for KIndles, etc.

We need Bonhoeffer's words and passion for his call ( our call ) in today's world more than ever. I am reminded in so much of the text that we may not have moved very far from the issues being dealt with in his time - not so long ago - in our churches. Where is the passion and committment to Christ, to the point of dying to self that He can be raised and in the forefront?

I am in awe of how Metaxas was able to weave so much material into a flawless narrative that carries we readers right along with Bonhoeffer's amazing life and the history surrounding it.

Suzy Q said...

Thank you for this detailed recommendation.
I have always been fascinated by Bonhoeffer and will look this one up.
Thank you so much for stopping by my "Imperfect Prose" post :)

Lisa notes... said...

I would have done well to listen to the book for proper pronunciations. :-) Same with Unbroken (which I do have access to for the remainder of the week, but still haven’t utilized).

Yes, it is quite a journey. Knowing how it was going to end made for a bittersweet journey, but also a more poignant one.

How interesting that it’s becoming a bestseller in Germany too. I guess he is “theirs” first. ;-) I have to admit I hadn’t been aware of how many Germans, inside and outside of the military, were NOT sympathetic with Hitler during his reign of terror. I learned so many different lessons from this book.

You’re so right that we still need Bonhoeffer’s words and passion as much today as ever. As I read, I thought of things in my own little world that I need to be more bold about and more self-sacrificial with. Christ first and always; it’s a message that is timeless.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I continue to look forward to your own book being published so many more can see what a great writer, thinker, and Christian example you are. I know many will be blessed and comforted as they deal with pain because of what you’ll share.

Love you!

Trisha said...

Thanks for the review, Lisa. I've read so many mixed opinions about this book. I actually have it on my Kindle...bought it when it was very inexpensive. Alas, can I make myself read a book that big on my Kindle? We'll see. At least you've inspired me to give it a try.

Lisa notes... said...

I know how you feel, Trisha. I am reading “Spiritual Depression” right now on my Kindle and I don’t think it’s a very long book, but it feels like it’s taking me forever.

Even though we get those little dots as signs of progression in a Kindle book, it’s not the same satisfaction as moving your bookmark in physical pages and seeing exactly where you are and how far you have to go. However, the beauty is that even very long heavy books are now just a thin sliver to carry around on our Kindles. :-)

a joyful noise said...

Here in America we have our own "Hitlers" and as the Bible instructs us to pray for our leaders, that is about all we can do other than vote soon. I enjoyed your post, and your thoughts. Your daughters are sweet and like their mother!

Jenn said...

Lisa-- Thank you so much for you sweet comment and coming by my blog. I loved reading this post :-) Sounds like a great book I want to check out. You are a great writer! (sounds like know how to pick a great book to read!)

Jackie said...

I found your blog when you stopped by mine and left a transparent comment. I always appreciate it when people feel the freedom to be themselves. Thank you for your encouragement in that way.

I really liked your book review. It is encouraging to hear that you were intimidated by the length and the subject matter. I feel that way too. It makes me feel better to know you were able to make your way through it and get so much out of it. It is such a wake up call when we realize that physical persecution is not only in the bible. I am traveling to India in 14 days for a mission trip and the pastors we are going to be visiting have been facing overwhelming persecution. I find myself so aware of the darkness that is coming. And in awe that God sees me fit to play any part in encouraging other believers.

Anyway, it is nice to meet you. God bless. :)

Lisa Spence said...

My husband has both books on Kindle and I'm thinking I need to dive into one or the other!

Laura said...

This is on my must read list, Lisa. Though I confess, I think it is the length that has kept it on the list! Thanks for reassuring me on that issue. I'm sold. Such a brave, brave man of God.

Barbara H. said...

I've been daunted by the length as well. I don't know much about Bonhoeffer except what I have read in reviews like this. As a very slow and careful decision-maker, I don't know if I agree with "To delay or fail to make decisions may be more sinful than to make wrong decisions out of faith and love," but then there is a time for action and urgency as well.

Lisa notes... said...

Nice catch, Barbara. I agree with you that we have to be careful about that particular statement. I probably shouldn’t have pulled it out of context like I did…Bonhoeffer was speaking of the church’s delay in speaking out against things that were blatantly contrary to scripture because they wanted to get everything lined up just perfectly first. In the meantime, things just kept getting worse and worse.

There’s definitely a call for us to be careful before we act, but yes, there also comes a time when we must act, even if we don’t fully understand. It’s sometimes hard to know where that line is.

tinuviel said...

This is on my Kindle but I haven't started it yet. Bonhoeffer is such a challenging thinker and personality. I appreciate your thoughts here.

My sister read "Unbroken" and doesn't think I can handle that one. I have found a similar contrast/comparison between Japanese and German camps in reading "The Hiding Place" and Darlene Deibler Rose's "Evidence Not Seen."

I so appreciate your thoughtful analyses and reading ideas. Grace and peace to you in Jesus, Lisa.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful review. I have both books on by TBR list. :)


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