I’m drawn to biographies of inspiring men and women. This summer, I enjoyed Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer, of course, was imprisoned for his participation in a conspiracy against Hitler, ultimately paying the ultimate price of his life. Several things gripped me about his story, however.
First, Bonhoeffer lived a bold, risky, and public faith. He got it, and got it when he was still very young. He and his family saw through Hitler’s narcissism and racism, and many family members (including his inspiring grandmother!) stood against the growing tyranny. Bonhoeffer took on ecclesial authorities, friends, and mentors…often at great cost.
Second, Bonhoeffer started seminaries. At first, this does not sound radical. But, in a generation when pastoral education had become stale and irrelevant, Bonhoeffer went off the grid. He started schools to educate a new generation of pastors, valuing the importance of life in community, prayer, theological integrity, and cultural engagement. This was short-lived vision, as he was found out, but the lasting impact is seen in a good number of influential friends and students made during these days.
Third, Bonhoeffer was a scholar-practitioner. In other words, Bonhoeffer was a leading thinker and a leading doer. At different points, he sacrificed the privilege of being either/or. He turned down prestigious teaching positions. And he left prestigious pastorates. This is because he saw no dichotomy between the two. His clear thinking about the implications of Christian faith led him to an irreversible lifestyle of costly discipleship – eventually costing him his life.
It’s easy to think about Bonhoeffer in idealistic ways, as if he were a saint without fault, or a disciple who took the road-less-traveled at every turn. Metaxas shows a very human Bonhoeffer, a man we can all relate to. He documents Bonhoeffer’s edgy and angry personality, which often erupted in sharp letters. He shows Bonhoeffer’s pride and self-pity. He shows an uncertain and confused man, wondering which path God would have him take. He shows a man falling in love amidst a world in conflict. And he tells of a man who seems to be vacationing and playing as much as he is risking and studying. In other words, he shows us a saint for our own time, an imperfect life, but a life to which we can aspire.
Biographies have an amazing capacity to inspire. The best biographies tell the whole truth, which tell our truths. The great novelist Frederick Buechner says in his memoir that our stories tell something of our own humanness, our capacity to achieve great things and make horrible mistakes. Every good story has its peaks and valleys. Mine does. I’m sure yours does too.
Every good storyteller will tell this story. And Metaxas tells it well. Bonhoeffer inspires, in part because he risks in ways in which I long to risk, and in part because he’s your average Joe – laughing, loving, playing, working, loving, and looking to live a meaningful life in the meantime.
His “meantime,” of course, was at the height of Nazi Germany.
Yet, does our “meantime” hold any less risk or promise?