Saturday, January 22, 2011

FW: Bonhoeffer: Liberal, Evangelical, or None of the Above?

On Bonhoeffer…


Feed: Touchstone Magazine - Mere Comments
Posted on: Thursday, January 20, 2011 5:54 PM
Author: Jordan J. Ballor
Subject: Bonhoeffer: Liberal, Evangelical, or None of the Above?



Tim Challies wonders about the picture we get of Bonhoeffer from Eric Metaxas' new and very popular biography. Challies considers the concerns raised by a number of academics about Metaxas' "evangelical" Bonhoeffer: "They may well be right in suggesting that Metaxas got in over his head; and they may be right in suggesting that the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me—the kind of person who read, enjoyed and enthusiastically recommended the book."

In response, I'll point out that part of the academic critique is simply what academics are wont to do when looking at a popular book. There isn't enough nuance here, this detail is wrong there, and so on. As I've said elsewhere, Metaxas' biography is not a substitute for a scholarly biography like Eberhard Bethge's. Still, it does show some surprising sensitivity for a popular biography. Metaxas rightly notes that Bonhoeffer was seeking to articulate a Protestant form of natural law in his Ethics , an aspect of Bonhoeffer's work that has largely escaped the notice of academics. Perhaps you don't get a modern political left/right dichotomy in scholarship all that often, but in Bonhoeffer's case you do get a Barthian/liberal theology divide.

And so academics have their own vision of Bonhoeffer that they are invested in, too, and so they are not simply objective or unbiased observers. Clifford Green's criticism is summarized by Challies: "The purpose of his article is to say that Metaxas essentially hijacked Bonhoeffer, tearing him out of his own time and context and rewriting him in such a way that he would appeal to contemporary evangelicals." But Green is the same scholar who, as discussed previously in the comments section here , rips Bonhoeffer's criticism of abortion out of its own context of a discussion about marriage and the family and instead reads it as simply a rebuke of eugenics and forced abortion by the Nazis.

We must realize that it is a real temptation to appropriate Bonhoeffer (or any famous moral example, such as Martin Luther King Jr.) and exploit them for other contemporary purposes. It is true that Metaxas is quite sanguine about depicting Bonhoeffer as someone who would undoubtedly support the Manhattan Declaration , for instance. I doubt, despite what many at the institution would claim today, that Bonhoeffer's opinion of Union Theological Seminary would have improved in the intervening years. But even though I'm sympathetic to Metaxas' biography, I don't think its so clear at all what Bonhoeffer would look like in a modern context. Would he be evangelical? Liberal? Other?

On this point it is worth reading Alan Wolfe's lengthy and helpful review of Metaxas' biography in The New Republic (my own review is introduced and linked here ).

And in related news, the Becket Fund has announced that Metaxas is going to be the recipient of the 2011 Canterbury Medal. Archbishop Chaput made the announcement earlier this week, and Becket Fund president Kevin J. "Seamus" Hanson said, "Eric Metaxas has written a prophetic biography of a prophetic figure.  His account of Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis is more than just the heroic story of one man of conscience standing tall against a monstrous evil of the past. Rather, he reveals Bonhoeffer's life as a template for all people of goodwill who find themselves confronting evil states and ideologies. It is a bracing-- and timely-- call to conscience."

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