A Review of “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas

A photo of my copy of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.Ever since seminary, I generally read something either by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least once annually. Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians to my thought and spiritual life, and, as most know, the story of his life and martyrdom is compelling and powerful. After a few years, I’ve read almost all of his work, as well as a good deal of work about Bonhoeffer. I had always avoided Metaxas’ biography, though. I’ve always wanted to read it, as it’s recognized as the authoritative biography on Bonhoeffer’s life. To be honest, the sheer weight of the volume is off-putting. I’m not sure I’ve read something that long and that dense sense (ironically) reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics in seminary (the running joke was that not even Barth had read all of those volumes).

And that comparison is not altogether trivial, because Metaxas does his share of theology in this book. There was some controversy, as I recall, when this biography was initially published, because Metaxas was said to have asserted, against traditional perspective, that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. That alone is compelling reason to read the book, but, as I said, just hefting it from the shelf in the bookstore is enough to give one pause unless you have a magnitude of free time on your hands.

Of course, a lot of us have more free time than usual on our hands due to world events lately, so I decided that it was time. I am so, so very glad that I did.

Let me say up front, if you haven’t assumed this already: this is not an easy read. The difficulty lies not in the writing style…Metaxas avoids being overly academic and I found his style to be very approachable, although he is given to a strange change of voices at times. The difficulty lies in the subject matter. You can’t study Bonhoeffer’s life and thought separate from the historical context, and WWII Germany is not an easy historical period to study. This is also one of the gifts of this book, though. I have learned more about this period of history, as well as the events that lead to it, by studying Bonhoeffer’s life than I did in any history class, but Metaxas takes this a step further. The reader walks away with a historical education as an added bonus for their time.

This speaks to the strength of the biography, and what ultimately makes any biography great: the depth of the research. Metaxas’ research is meticulous. He has obviously spent time with primary sources and studying the available material to an extent that most academics would envy, and it shows in the nuances of his record. One of the reasons that this is a heavy read is because you don’t just move through it at a normal pace, but rather you frequently need to stop to really digest what you’ve just read, to begin putting together disparate pieces of the puzzle of a man’s life into a cohesive whole. You begin to see how all of the pieces fit together, to truly see a portrait of Bonhoeffer’s life. Metaxas walks us through minute details of Bonhoeffer’s childhood and family background, through his experiences in traveling the world, to the best sources we have of his last moments before he was martyred. The depth of the image we have of Dietrich Bonhoeffer after reading this book is why it is considered the primary biography on this influential theologian.

I truly appreciate that Metaxas pauses regularly to unpack Bonhoeffer’s theology. All examination of Bonhoeffer’s thought is given to some speculation, because he didn’t live long enough to fully formulate his theology. His thoughts as we have them, though, are nothing short of prophetic, especially within their historical reference, and the reader gets to spend time with them here. Metaxas specifically walks through Bonhoeffer’s popular concept of “Religionless Christianity,” what he is convinced that it meant in its context, and how it has been so drastically misinterpreted by modern theologians (I happen to agree fully with his assessment).

I think that the only place in which this amazing book didn’t do what it says on the tin is to convince us that Bonhoeffer’s label as a pacifist was inaccurate. Metaxas actually works against his own assertion here by quoting one of Bonhoeffer’s colleagues from his time at Union Theological Seminary, in which his colleague identified the moment in which he realized Bonhoeffer had become a pacifist. Metaxas moves forward seeming to provide the support for his claim to the contrary as he puts together Bonhoeffer’s life, but ultimately makes an assertion late in the book that feels to not be supported by evidence. In short, Metaxas says Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist, because he was a spy willing to commit assassination. I’m not convinced. What we do see is what is to be seen from thoughtfully scrutinizing Bonhoeffer’s life, and that is a man struggling with the weight of an incomprehensible evil and how to reconcile the abhorrent actions that he concluded must be taken with his faith, concluding that not acting for fear of doing wrong is the greater sin. The depth of the struggle is felt by the reader in all of its weight, and this is a great credit to Metaxas’ work.

Placing “Bonhoeffer” on my shelf was one my top accomplishments this year. I think that it goes without saying that I would recommend this book for anyone, not just those who have previously found Bonhoeffer’s life inspiring. Yes, it is intimidating, but it is also very much worth whatever time it takes to complete this book. Your spiritual life will be better for the effort, just as all of our lives are better for Bonhoeffer’s thought.

Hot Wheels Recollections

Every boy is into cars at some point. This fact is, as they say, as American as apple pie. I wasn’t any different. When I was a boy, the popular choice was Hot Wheels, which, until writing this, I had no idea were still such a big deal. And, though I would soon move on to action figures and comic books by the time I was leaving elementary school, I still managed to put together a decent collection of toy cars.

A collector's case for my toy Hot Wheels (and Matchbox) cars from childhood.
The collector’s case for my toy Hot Wheels (and Matchbox) cars from childhood.

Eventually, my parents bought a collector’s case in which I could store these cars (they were likely tired of always finding them underfoot). That case returned with me after last summer’s vacation, and our kids have quite enjoyed giving the cars contained within a second life. Last week, our oldest, ever inventive, strung a rubber band between the legs of a dining room chair and discovered that she could launch the cars to spectacular effect. She couldn’t wait to show me, and I was immediately enthralled in the game. I was fascinated by how these cars, long dormant until a few months ago, could still roll with such speed, and I have much respect for the fact that they were built well enough to still withstand the collisions and blows that come with serious play. They just don’t make them like that anymore (said every Dad ever).

One of the cars that my daughter pulled out was a Bell Systems van, modeled after the vans that workers of the regional “Baby Bell” phone company drove in our area. My father retired from “the phone company.” When I was little, he bought me that toy van because it was identical to the one that he drove for work every day. I had forgotten how we had bonded over “racing cars” in my childhood, which proved to be so important for our relationship as I think that Dad struggled to relate to my later interests. I recall one Christmas morning racing cars around the toy track that I had opened that morning, surprised later as my Dad played back the audio of the morning on a cassette tape that he had made with his new stereo system. Those were different times, and so foundational to us keeping our relationship as I moved from an obsession with comic books and superheroes to music in high school, and later to writing and theatre in college. When I came home on weekends, we would still sit down and watch a basketball game together, and those car races were, I’m convinced, the reason why. They had grounded us somehow, provided a connection.

There are signs in the mundane, tiny monuments to help us recall essential and explanatory moments from our pasts. Across all of those years, that toy van helped to connect us in a very similar way that it did for my father and I. That evening, my daughter had found a tiny miracle contained within a Hot Wheels car, without even realizing that she had done so.

I am so glad that she did.

The old toy Bell Systems van that was a gift from my father all those years ago.
The old toy Bell Systems van that was a gift from my father all those years ago.

Temporal Anomalies

A Lego clock.

Recently, one of my colleagues unexpectedly announced his resignation. This was actually his second resignation in a couple of years…he had left and then returned…but this time was moving on for good. This happens with some frequency in today’s world, and not just in my field. These days, anyone with a marketable skillset shifts jobs with some frequency.

I think of my father, who worked for the same company throughout my childhood, finally retiring while I was in college after decades of “service” to the company. The idea of this is foreign in today’s vocabulary. Workers just don’t do this anymore. As soon as something becomes too irritating with the setting of one’s employment, one moves on.

In a way, I think that this is a sign of a positive change in the power dynamic within the workforce. Those with in-demand skills ultimately hold more power in the employer-employee relationship, because they can (often quite literally) have a new and competitive job tomorrow if they suddenly decide that this one isn’t working out. The burden of performance lies with the company to take care of its workers and keep them happy, and this is a good thing. I wish that it were more widespread.

All the same, I’m convinced that the lack of permanency in our culture is damaging, because it makes our human interactions more fleeting. When we lived in Raleigh, I did a contract gig in which I worked with a completely remote team. I really liked all of the people with whom I worked, but I never met most of them. We were spread out all over the world, and, despite some great conversations and a lot of commonalities between our different cultures (parents just understand each other), you never form the sort of connection that you do when you interact with someone face-to-face. I feel as though I came so close to forming a real relationship with some of those colleagues, but never really achieved a connection.

Synergy is one of those things that just happens with a team, something that’s either there or not. Despite what organizational coaches try to teach, you can’t force a creative spark and camaraderie. When this connection happens, it’s great. I’ve experienced it profoundly in ministry groups and professional settings, and it’s motivational to keep going back and doing the work. The issue is that, in the business world, these groups are almost always, in my experience, broken up because of some organizational shift that is perceived to have a greater potential for profit.

Or, as happened a couple of weeks ago, because people just simply move on. The resulting impermanence breaks the connection.

I think that this is why marriage is intended to be permanent, and also why parent-child relationships are so strong…because the permanence is just hard-wired in. There is no choice in that relationship. My child is my child, and I am her parent, forever.


I’m left with the thought that I need to make more of an effort to remain connected with people in my life. I exchanged contact information with my colleague, but we haven’t spoken since he left. I don’t want my friendships to become victims of this impermanence. Even with some of my oldest friends, the act of remaining intentionally in touch with each other is more difficult because we have moved to different geographic locations. Essentially, we’ve introduced yet another type of impermanence in doing so. Is it possible to keep these friendships intact? I have to think so. Before emails people wrote letters, and many friendships endured for years over great distances.

Yet, we’ve moved on. I still recall a theatre group with which I volunteered years ago. We were a ministry group. They were my close friends. I still wonder at times today what advice they would give me for situations with which I am confronted. I can almost hear their words to me…they echo in my head. Yet, I haven’t spoken to them in so long.

The relationships withered because I moved away, because there was a greener grass on the other side, because it was what had to be done. There was motivation, there was dissatisfaction, some valid and some otherwise. This created impermanence, which drew my friends and I apart.


When my colleague moved on, I sighed, adopted a “chin up” attitude, and kept going through my day. One can’t let oneself become sad about these sorts of things. People move on…it’s what we do. Just as I have moved on from so many friends, from so many places, in search of the next thing.

I’ve gained a lot. Yet, I’ve lost so much.

Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.