I could have as easily titled this post "The Egregious Eric Metaxas's misuse of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," because, make no mistake, Metaxas is egregious, and the cottage industry he has cultivated in selling right wing Christian self-righteousness under the banner of comparing their moral sclerosis to the genuine courage and moral risk taken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is disgusting and offensive. And the fact that he has done it through a biographical hatchet job that has become successful by flattering the delusions of American evangelicals that they are embroiled in a struggle for the soul of America that is in some way equivalent to that of the German Confessing Church just piles offense on offense.
So, when I read that, once more, Metaxas is peddling evangelical victimology under the cover of Bonhoeffer, I am both unsurprised and appalled. His latest comes in the form of an interview on a conservative Christian radio show, where he states, while comparing the struggles of Bonhoeffer (who, as a reminder, was murdered by the Nazis for his involvement in a conspiracy against the Reich):
I’m talking about the theological liberals in the mainstream church that is just getting off in a whole other direction where they are just failing to teach biblical orthodoxy, failing to teach the Bible as the word of God and yet they still think of themselves as the church,” he said. “We see that obviously happening in issues of sexuality, but how can you say that most mainline denominations in America today are profoundly Christian when they have given up the ghost on all of these fundamentals of the faith? You had the exact same thing happening in Germany. It’s just setting things up so that when evil comes, where do people turn?
So, just to be clear: Metaxas is hijacking the legacy and reputation of a man who, in a state of great moral and spiritual conflict, chose to resist what is commonly understood to be the most evil and despicable regime of the 20th century, a regime that corralled and murdered, among many others, homosexuals, and using that legacy to argue that the welcome extended by liberal churches to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is somehow "the exact same thing" as the complacent acceptance of Nazism by German Christians in the 1930s.
I'm sorry, but this is a crime against history and an offense against Christianity. It's bad theology, bad biblical criticism, and bad ethics. There is simply no basis for anyone to grant Eric Metaxas any credibility as an historian or as a commentator on Bonhoeffer, let alone a spokesperson for what constitutes "biblical orthodoxy" (a term I want to come back to in a moment). But of course, we've known this for a long time. One of the first -- and best -- reviews of Metaxas's Bonhoeffer biography was written by Clifford Green in The Christian Century and it completely and utterly dismantles the book. A small sample of that review:
Two aspects of Bonhoeffer are so disturbing to Metaxas that he has to deny them outright or try to explain them away. Bonhoeffer, he insists, was not a pacifist. While pacifism as usually understood is not a good word to describe Bonhoeffer's position, his Christian peace ethic was rooted in the core doctrines of his theology—his Christology and his understanding of discipleship, his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and his doctrine of the church. He did not abandon his peace ethic while working to kill Hitler and end the Nazi regime. Just one sign of this stance is the fact that even during the war Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics and spoke to his fiancée in support of conscientious objection. These matters of theology and ethics are too subtle for Metaxas; consequently his treatment of the Lasserre-Bonhoeffer friendship in New York falsifies the sources and wallows in sentimentality.
Worse, if possible, is Metaxas's embarrassment about Bonhoeffer's writing in Letters and Papers from Prison about "religionless Christianity." In a Trinity Forum interview he even stated that Bonhoeffer "never really said it," but then had to retract that because, well, Bonhoeffer did say it. But, Metaxas continues, he wrote it privately in a letter to Bethge and never intended anyone to see it because it was "utterly out of keeping with the rest of Bonhoeffer's life." He calls Bonhoeffer's theological prison reflections a "few bone fragments . . . set upon by famished kites and less noble birds, many of whose descendants gnaw them still."
Green concludes that "Given all this, the most descriptive and honest title for Metaxas's book would perhaps beBonhoeffer Co-opted. Or better: Bonhoeffer Hijacked." But, here, because he completely deserves it, let me pile on a bit from another review:
The result is a terrible oversimplification and at times misinterpretation of Bonhoeffer’s thought, the theological and ecclesial world of his times, and the history of Nazi Germany. There are numerous errors, some small, some rather stunning. The most glaring errors occur in his account of the church struggle, which is portrayed as the battle between the Nazi-controlled German Christians against Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who here leads the Confessing Church together with Martin Niemoeller. In Metaxas’ version, the Barmen declaration repudiates Nazi anti-Semitism, the Confessing Church breaks away from the Reich Church, and the neutral or intact churches are completely absent from the scene (there are not even index entries for Bishops Wurm, Marahrens, or Meiser, the last of whom is referred to but not named). Bonhoeffer of course leads the way, both in the name of true Christianity and on behalf of the Jews. This oversimplification of the battle lines and the complexities of the church struggle (and of Bonhoeffer himself) characterizes the portrayal of the entire period. National Socialism and its leaders are of course unambiguously anti-Christian. Most of the generals in the resistance against Hitler, we learn, are “serious Christians”. Luther’s anti-Semitism is attributed to his digestive troubles, and Metaxas does not address how anti-Semitism, whatever its source, had permeated the mindset of German Protestantism and the wider culture. ... In some places it is offensive, as when Metaxas argues that supporters of the Aryan paragraph were not really anti-Semitic: “Some believed that an ethnically Jewish person who was honestly converted to Christian faith should be part of a church composed of other converted Jews. Many sincere white American Christians felt that way about Christians of other races until just a few decades ago.” (Why, some of their best friends …). Along the way Metaxas inserts shorthand summaries that range from the silly (Luther as “the Catholic monk who invented Protestantism”) to the bizarre (the difference between Barth and Harnack is compared to contemporary debates “between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design”).
There is only one reason that Metaxas hasn't been completely laughed out of any and all serious conversation about Bonhoeffer, and that is because he flatters the self-conception of conservative evangelicals.
I should probably just end there, but it is worth noting a couple of the underlying problems in Metaxas's whole approach, particularly in this interview. First is his insistence that the dividing line between his evangelical cohort of followers and "liberal Christianity" is over this idea of "Biblical orthodoxy," which is of course another way of saying "Liberal Christians don't go out of their way to condemn homosexuality," a topic that occupies all of about five verses in the entire Bible. "Biblical orthodoxy" never seems to attend such issues as, for example, nonviolence, which was central to Jesus' teaching, or charging interest on loans (known in the Bible as usury, but known in the United States as "the engine of our economy").
But then again, evangelicals of the kind who like to be flattered by Metaxas's historical distortions aren't really all that concerned with war or economic injustice, both of which are much more central to the moral concerns of the Bible than any issues of "sexual orthodoxy." It's passing strange when your conception of what constitutes orthodoxy of any sort revolves around the isolated focus on such a minuscule aspect of the Biblical text. It's even stranger when your conception of orthodoxy focuses, not on questions of God's nature, Christ's incarnation, the nature of his sacrifice or the possibilities of salvation, but instead on one question that was culturally marginal at the time the Bible was written and has become crucial today only because a subset of the human family has decided that it would very much like to be treated as fully human thank-you-very-much. If that's orthdoxy, I'll take heresy any day of the week.
In fact, it's worth noting that, if we were looking for any group who was acting "just like" the Nazis with regard to gays and lesbians, we'd be far more likely to be successful if we looked to those conservative evangelicals who have been hard at work in Uganda over the past several years trying, ultimately successfully, to get legislation passed to declare homosexuality a crime and to put gays and lesbians in prison. These are the same brand of conservative evangelicals, it should be noted, that seem to conform to what Metaxas means by "biblical orthodoxy." So please, Eric, be careful where you are swinging your Nazi comparisons.
Of course, the whole evangelical hermeneutic could best be described as "interpreting the Bible while pretending we're not interpreting it. It would be more honest to say that conservatives of the Metaxas strain and liberals have different interpretations of the Bible, and then inquiry as to which interpretation best comports with what we can say of about God's will based on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. But that approach would lead inevitably to the conclusion that the conservative obsession with other people's sex lives is utterly ridiculous and anti-Christian, and they can't have that.
But finally, I think a word has to be said on behalf of Bonhoeffer. Insofar as Metaxas has set himself up as the go-to contemporary interpreter of Bonhoeffer, he has done a huge disservice to the complexity and ambiguity inherent in Bonhoeffer's thought. Evangelicals have an understandable attachment to earlier works like Discipleship and Life Together, while liberals are often fascinated by the fragmentary material collected in Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. The earlier books have a strong emphasis on obedience to God and personal Christian commitment, ideas that have a strong resonance in evangelical circles, while the latter books point to the difficulties of discerning God's will in ambiguous circumstances, and imagine the possibilities of a "religionless Christianity" that approaches things from the perspective of those on the margins of society.
The unfortunate truth is that, because he was murdered, we have no way of knowing what direction Bonhoeffer's thought might have taken after the war. It's therefore worth displaying a bit of humility in attempting to assert with confidence what Bohoeffer "really" thought near the end of his life. However, if we were looking for an interpreter on that front, Eberhard Bethge would be a far better choice than Eric Metaxas, as Bethge was the editor of Bonhoeffer's prison writings, the compiler of the Ethics and one of Bonhoeffer's most frequent prison correspondents. Bethge himself seemed content to let Bonhoeffer's words and action speak for themselves, without filtering them through the anachronistic lenses of contemporary disputes. The truth is that there is something in Bonhoeffer for those on the political and theological left as well as those on the right. Metaxas is not totally wrong when he sees those elements in Bonhoeffer that are attractive to conservatives. But his utter dishonesty in his presentation of those issues, his shoddy scholarship, and his repulsive comparisons of liberals to Nazis should be enough to render everything else he has to say irrelevant.
So now, let us finally be done with Eric Metaxas. May I never have to hear his name or discuss his "work" ever again.