Joel Belz's informal survey of WORLD readers (May 8, May 22, June 5 issues) showed that 75 percent were pessimistic concerning the future of America, and more than half of those thought that things would become "really bad." Joel's attitude, and mine, is that horrible times might come, or might not: God is in control, and none of us knows the future.
But what if? What if we found ourselves living under dictatorship, with our children and ourselves given daily instructions to kill those who disagree? Our runner-up for book of the year is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (April 2010, Thomas Nelson), by Eric Metaxas. This year brings the 65th anniversary of the Nazi hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler, and that martyrdom is well known-but Metaxas illuminates, mile by mile, the road to full resistance. Early this summer the book rose to The New York Times bestseller list, suggesting contemporary resonance with its 20th century themes.
Metaxas describes a man of aristocratic background and intellectual talent who descended from social and university heights to do the hard work of ministry. In doing so he placed himself on a collision course with Hitler, a man who so envied and hated aristocrats and academics that he devoted his life to forcing them and millions of others to bow down to him.
Bonhoeffer felt secure in the love of his parents and God, but few of his countrymen did. The "higher criticism" that originated in Germany in the 19th century had eaten up most of the land's seminaries and churches by the 1920s. The liberal theology proclaimed from pulpits left both war veterans and the younger generation searching for a different savior.
Bonhoeffer in 1933, at age 26, understood these holes in souls and gave a radio talk on the problem only two days after Germans elected Hitler to be their chancellor. He said, "Whereas earlier leadership was expressed in the form of the teacher, the statesman, the father . . . now the Leader has become an independent figure. The Leader is completely divorced from any office; he is essentially and only 'the Leader.'"
Bonhoeffer continued his critique of the Führer principle: "If he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility . . . then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. The true Leader . . . has to lead the individual into his own maturity. . . . He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted."
And that, of course, is what Hitler refused to do: He demanded worship. As Metaxas skillfully shows, he manipulated weak churchmen for his own purposes and had his prime propagandist, Alfred Rosenberg, create a plan for a "National Reich Church." Metaxas quotes Rosenberg's plan: "The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany. . . . The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Führer's Mein Kampf is the greatest of all documents. . . . On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf."
Bonhoeffer vehemently opposed such plans and those of the "German Christian" movement, as enunciated in 1933 by Reinhold Krause: Get rid of the Old Testament "with its Jewish money morality and its tales of cattle merchants and pimps." Rewrite the New Testament so it presents a Jesus "corresponding entirely with the demands of National Socialism" and removes the depressing "emphasis on the crucified Christ."
Bonhoeffer also opposed liberal Christianity that, like secular totalitarianism, attempts to conform the Bible to the trends of modern society. He critiqued such kissing up and criticized "cheap grace," by which an intellectual assent to Christian truth seems sufficient: No confession, repentance, discipleship, or discipline needed.
Metaxas illuminates Bonhoeffer's belief that "it was the role of the church to speak for those who could not speak." He fought Nazi attacks on Jews and called for "costly grace" by which Christians would give up comfortable lives to follow Christ's call: "Costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."
Metaxas lays out the cost and Bonhoeffer's willingness to meet it over nearly 600 thorough but immaculately readable pages. We can pray that none of us will have to face the choices that Bonhoeffer faced. We can pray that if we do, we'll be willing to pay the price.