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I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in seminary. It wasn’t his theology that initially grabbed me. It was his story.

My systematic theology professor, J. Kenneth Grider, began my seminary education with a lecture entitled, “Theology Wears Overalls.” Dr. Grider spent two class sessions describing how great men and women of the faith took their theology from theory to practice. More than thirty years later I don’t remember much detail from those lectures, but I do remember the passion and depth with which Dr. Grider spoke. I also remember being captured by two martyrs included in those lectures: the “young Boston College Ph.D.” who changed the course of race relations in America, and a German theologian who was sent to Hitler’s gallows for his stand against the Third Reich. So I spent time trying to learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 2010 when Eric Metaxes published a new biography of Bonhoeffer, I knew I’d want to spend time with it. Well, because of school, ministry and the busyness of life, I didn’t get to it until 2012.

Whether you’ve studied Bonhoeffer, read a little about him or are completely new to him, I would greatly encourage you to dive into Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Don’t let the size of the book—542 pages—intimidate you. Most of the chapters are fairly short, so you can read it over time in smaller segments.

I’ve always thought that the power of Bonhoeffer’s ideas was found in his life. His was not abstract theologizing that was intended for academics only. His work was always the task of discovering how we live out the life of Jesus Christ together in this world.

While I’m certainly not a Bonhoeffer scholar, I would offer one critique of the book. Metaxas spends a good deal of time explaining Bonhoeffer’s problems with theological liberalism and his fascination with the Fundamentalists he encountered in America. What Metaxas neglects doing is helping the contemporary American reader understand what those terms actually meant in Bonhoeffer’s setting as opposed to what they mean today. The term “liberal” is often thrown around today in ways that have little to do with what it meant in terms of the theology being taught at the University of Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Metaxas calls Bonhoeffer a theological conservative. That would be accurate when compared to the Berlin theologians with whom he studied and taught. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bonhoeffer’s theology would be comparable to today’s fundamentalism. In fact, I’m certain that American Fundamentalists would not claim Bonhoeffer as one of their own.

That being said, Metaxas has given us a great gift with this biography. You’ll see the man’s shortcomings, the ethical dilemmas, the demands of discipleship and the intense suffering that obedience often brings. But above all, you’ll see an obedient—though often misunderstood—servant of Jesus Christ.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)

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