I am devouring Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer. I know that many Bonhoeffer scholars have criticized Metaxas for overdrawing conclusions, making Bonhoeffer more like American Evangelicals than likely, and for not utilizing all the resources he could. If I were a Bonhoeffer scholar, I would feel the same way. However, all of the critics admit he is an amazingly gripping biographer and story-teller. I have tried, before, to read a biography on Bonhoeffer and it was so challenging I did not make it through the first chapter! Personally, I think it is worth the inaccuracies to expose the wider reading community (of non-specialists) to the inspiring life of Bonhoeffer. My guess is that on the major elements of his life and thought, Metaxas is close enough to make it worth it.
Anyway, I have finished reading about Bonhoeffer’s life up to his 25th birthday. What made Bonhoeffer so special and uniquely capable of recognizing the serious problem of Anti-Semitism and extreme German patriotism that was corrupting his own nation through Nazi propoganda? Was it a “theological epiphany”? Perhaps, but certainly not all at once, and there were so many things in his early life and upbringing that shaped his perspective on the world.
1. He had a first-class education – this may be the obvious one for those of us who study, but he also had what many in the world (not only Germans) would have considered the most demanding and highest quality theological education. His education (among many other things), taught Bonhoeffer to think deeply and critically (in a good way) about theology. I am afraid sometimes our seminaries are too soft on students. Bonhoeffer benefited from a very rigorous education.
2. He traveled far and wide, with others - His international and multicultural experiences (whether in Rome, America [esp. Harlem and the South], England, Spain, or Mexico) gave him outside perspective on the best of the cultures and people he was groomed to hate (like the French or British). When he saw Black/White hatred in America, he was struck by it, but on his one-year at Union he did not think there was anything remotely like it in Germany, so it was a peculiarity to him (the kind of anti-Semitism of the Holocaust was not present in Germany at the time Bonhoeffer was at Union in NYC). However, meeting that fellow student from Union who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church was his connection to a world he could not have understood as a “tourist.” It is important that he traveled with others. He was constantly processing his experiences with friends, and also through letters he sent home.
3. He journaled. Bonhoeffer thought about his experiences and the world around him all the time. He was every part a social anthropologist and student of “cultures” as he was philosopher and theologian. It helped that he loved adventure and new experiences. But it was not just fleeting entertainment. He even spent time reflecting on “bull-fighting” and why people love it so much.
What can we learn?
Two things seem relevant to our education and academic experiences.
1. Seminary students need to have a semester abroad – esp. in a place unlike their natural setting. Go to Croatia for a semester. Go to Jerusalem. England is good, but not as jarring. Don’t just go to sit in a library, but get a real experience of the culture, people, and atmosphere. Travel around. Be adventurous. [Note: Bonhoeffer grew up in a wealthy household, but by the time he went to New York, he was not personally wealthy; he often ran out of money and could not travel around. He was very creative and relied a lot on friends for lodging. He camped out a lot. One time next to a herd of pigs - unknowingly, of course]
2. Process your experiences more. I probably will never journal. My wife does. I have tried before, but it doesn’t feel natural. I guess I will do it by blogging
That’s all for now.