New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas will speak at Woodside Bible Church at 7 p.m., Tuesday, February 19 on the life of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Confessing Church in Germany
Bonhoeffer became a leader of the Confessing Church in Germany, a dissident church that resisted the state-controlled German Christians. He wrote his most famous works The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together while teaching at the Church’s underground seminary in the 1930s.
A Visit to America
According to his friend Jean Lasserre, Bonhoeffer became a pacifist while watching the movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” in New York City. They observed American children laughing and cheering when Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French.
Thin Theology in America
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had studied and taught with the best of German theologians and wrote home about Union Seminary, “There is no theology here ...”
Bonhoeffer was disgusted with the preaching, too: “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.”
Metaxas writes, “the one, notable exception, Bonhoeffer again observed, was in the ‘negro churches’”, such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Later he would connect the status of blacks in America with Jews in Germany.
In New York City at the time, modernism was in vogue and Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union graduate was now the pastor of the new liberal Riverside church. Fosdick had been featured on the cover of TIME magazine; the church had been modeled after the Chartres cathedral in France.
Background - The Presbyterian Controversy
In 1922 Fosdick had preached a sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Metaxas writes that in it he laid out an “Apostate’s Creed,” raising doubts about many of the basics of the historic Christian faith, including the virgin birth, the resurrection, miracles, atonement and divinity of Christ, and the Bible as the Word of God.
J. Gresham Machen fired back with “Shall Unbelief Win?” This controversy raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s and ended with some conservatives withdrawing over unbelieving missionaries being sent overseas. Whole congregations that withdrew from the Presbyterian Church lost their property much as Episcopal churches have today.
Theology and Property Battles in 2012
The historic Falls Church, founded in 1732, which gave the Virginia town its name and where George Washington attended, must leave its historic building with 75 people to take care of it while a thriving evangelical Anglican congregation of 4000 must start over by renting space in schools and other churches.
Return to Nazi Germany
In 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer left the safe haven of America to return to Hitler’s Germany to advance the gospel of Christ there. Bonhoeffer was also opposed to Nazi rule and Hitler’s euthanasia program.
Bonhoeffer realized that Hitler’s racism against the Jews, Poles and all other non-Aryans must be stopped. He likened it to a drunk driver on a crowded pedestrian street.
Eventually he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was imprisoned, and finally was executed by the Nazis as the Allies closed in on Flossenbürg, the concentration camp he and others had been transferred to from Tegel prison in Berlin.
“The Only Good German is a Dead German”
I’d heard this said of the Native Americans – it’s understandable once the bullets start flying. There are sometimes atrocities on both sides, but mostly it’s people defending their homes and livelihoods.
When I was younger I watched “Das Boot”, the story of a U-boot crew told from the German perspective with English subtitles. I grew up on Hogan’s Heroes and of course knew that the Germans were not bumbling idiots as POW captors.
I was shocked to read in Metaxas’ biography that “The Only Good German is a Dead German” was told in the latter parts of the war in England – understandable, though, when your sons are being killed in battle in the second world war started by Germans.
From Pacifist to Conspirator
Not all Germans were Nazis; some were, and others stood by out of fear. Some just didn’t know about the Nazi atrocities, or didn’t want to know. Among the high ranking military officers some resisted the ethnic hatred of the SS and secretly plotted to stop Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels.
Hans von Dohnanyi and Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) were conspiracy leaders. Some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s family members were involved and eventually he joined in.
Fast-forward to the end of the story, told at the end of Eric Metaxas’ engaging four page introduction.
Bishop Bell Arranged a Memorial Service – Post-war Healing
Metaxas writes about Bonhoeffer’s July 27, 1945 memorial service in London, arranged by one of his colleagues in the ecumenical movement. It was when his parents in Berlin finally learned of his death via radio.
“It would even be said that the only good German – if one needed to use the phrase – was a dead German. That lack of nuance was also part of the hellishness of war.”
“But now the war was over. …” Here in London were gathered the few who knew of Bonhoeffer’s death.
“In the pews were the man’s thirty-nine-year-old twin sister, her half-Jewish husband, and their two girls. They had slipped out of Germany before the war, driving at night across the border into Switzerland. The dead man took part in arranging their illegal flight – although that was among the most negligible of his departures from National Socialist orthodoxy – and he helped establish them in London, where they settled.”
“Across the English Channel… in Berlin, an elderly couple sat by their radio. …A month earlier they had finally heard of the death of their third son, Klaus. But about their youngest son, Dietrich, they had heard nothing. Someone claimed to have seen him alive. Then a neighbor told them that the BBC would the next day broadcast a memorial service in London. It was for Dietrich.
At the appointed hour, the old couple turned on their radio. Soon enough the service was announced for their son. That was how they came to know of his death.
As the couple took in the hard news that the good man who was their son was now dead, so too, many English took in the hard news that the dead man who was a German was good. Thus did the world again begin to reconcile itself to itself.
The man who died was engaged to be married. He was a pastor and a theologian. And he was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
This is his story.”
I enjoyed reading Metaxas’ highly acclaimed best-selling biography of Bonhoeffer, learning a lot about German and European history during that time period.
To be added to the list is the Eric Metaxas biography of William Wilberforce, who worked for years to end the British slave trade. The movie Amazing Grace about the efforts of Wilberforce, Prime Minister Pitt, former slave trader John Newton and others gripped me and I want to learn more.
Eric Metaxas was interviewed on AM 1500 Saturday and said he hopes to portray the essence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on February 19: a grace-filled response to what God has already done for us in Christ, not a works-righteousness.
Tuesday night at Woodside, Metaxas will also have advance copies of his new book “7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness”, which profiles the lives of Christians George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, John Paul II, and Charles Colson.