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Was Bonhoeffer an evangelical? – or, Why you need multiple perspectives when reading history

Eric Metaxas‘ well-known biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has received quite a number of very positive reviews from prominent evangelicals. By all accounts, it’s well written, accessible, engaging, and presents Bonhoeffer as someone evangelicals can identify with and learn from. (In the interests of full disclosure, though I’ve read several reviews, I have not yet read the book itself.)

The problem is that the book has received significant criticism from a number of Bonhoeffer experts. As Clifford Green states in probably the most widely-read critique of Metaxas’ work, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,”

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text….I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent…..

And, he then launches into all of those problems that he will discuss – overly simplistic argumentation, lack of scholarly research, dismissal of aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology that don’t fit neatly into Metaxas’ presentation, and more. Green’s general conclusion, echoed by others, is that Metaxas has tamed Bonhoeffer in order to present him as someone palatable to contemporary evangelicals.

As Tim Challies, who has written a very positive review of the book, commented earlier today:

I did not want to believe what those authors (and authors) are saying about Metaxas and his biography. But I am inclined to believe them as they bring the weight of scholarship and experience. They may well be right in suggesting that…the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me—the kind of person who read, enjoyed and enthusiastically recommended the book.

Now, I’m not actually commenting on this to engage Bonhoeffer himself or even Metaxas’ biography. I’m a baby when it comes to Bonhoeffer and I am far from qualified to address the particulars of these critiques. I’m sure this is a discussion that is just getting going and it will be interesting to see how Metaxas (and maybe others) respond to these arguments.

My real point was to comment on the need to be careful with biographies. Biographical writing, like all historical writing, is a necessarily limited and subjective exercise. Each historian uses the subject matter to tell a particular story – leaving out some details and highlighting others. Thus, every biography shapes the subject according to the interests of the historian. That is unavoidable. The solution is not to avoid biographies (or history in general), but to recognize the subtle shaping  that accompanies  any particular “telling” of history and make sure that you engage the subject matter from multiple perspectives. Of course, even if you do this well, you won’t necessarily end up with “the whole story” either. You are also a part of the shaping process, molding the subject matter to fit your own subjective interests. But, it does mean that you’re more likely to develop a more adequate understanding of the whole than otherwise.

All this to say, if you really want to understand a historical figure, you can’t read just one biography. Come at the person from several directions and see how they look from different vantage points. When you’re done, you’ll find that you think some of those perspectives were more faithful representations of the person than others, but you’ll have learned from them all.