Nearly two years after it was released, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas continues to draw readers. Now out in paperback (Thomas Nelson, $19.99), the biography of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to No. 1 on The New York Times' list of best-selling non-fiction e-books in September.
It tells how Bonhoeffer, considered one of the 20th-century's greatest thinkers and heroes, opposed the Nazis and was executed in 1945 for his role in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
A commentator, historian and best-selling writer of books for adults and children, Metaxas, 48, will speak about Bonhoeffer in two free public lectures next week in Central Kentucky.
We talked to Metaxas by phone earlier this week from his home in New York. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
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Question: You dedicate the book to your grandfather in German. What does the dedication say, why is it to your grandfather, and why is it in German?
Answer: Part of the reason I wrote this book is my mother grew up in Germany during this period. My grandfather was a genuinely reluctant German soldier. He would listen to the BBC when he was home with his ear literally pressed against the radio speaker because if you were caught listening to the BBC, you could be sent to a concentration camp. ...
I heard this story about Bonhoeffer for the first time in my life in 1988, when a friend gave me a copy of The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer's 1937 classic study of the Sermon on the Mount). He said, "Do you know who Bonhoeffer is?" And I said, "No." And he said, "He's a German pastor who, because of his Christian faith, got involved in the plot against Hitler and spoke out against the Nazis and spoke up for the Jews and was put in a concentration camp and killed by the Nazis."
I was so moved by this, mainly because I was thinking about my grandfather. My grandfather was a man who had no power, who had no ability — like so many Germans — to do anything because they feared for their lives, and he lost his life (as a soldier during the war in 1944). That whole period has haunted me.
And so Bonhoeffer seemed to me the first ray of hope that there were people doing the right thing, speaking up not just for the Jews of Europe but for Germans like my grandfather, who were not on board with what the Nazis were doing. I was really moved by that, and so when I came to write the story of Bonhoeffer, I immediately thought of my grandfather.
I'm named after him. There were Germans like Bonhoeffer who were not only not Nazis but who were anti-Nazis. My mother was 9 years old when she lost her father.
The quote is from the Gospel of John (6:40) where Jesus says, "For my father's will is that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." So it's pointing to the resurrection. I think the reason I put it in German was just because it was so intimate, in a way, and it needed a little bit of veiling by putting it in another language.
Q: You've said of Bonhoeffer that "there is no daylight between what he says he believes and his life." How does a person become like that?
A: Well, I would say it's what you see in my book. How does Bonhoeffer live his life? God does not call us to be "religious." Bonhoeffer is always pointing out the difference between religion and real faith. Because you can be religious: You can have this little corner in your life where you go to church, and you don't sin this way and this way and this way and, you say, "OK, that makes me a Christian" Well, that's not what the Bible says. It's clear that Bonhoeffer is trying to wake up the German church and to say, "That's not what it means."
What it means to be a Christian is to give your whole life to God and to understand that he made you and he has a purpose for you. And you have to have a relationship with him that informs your whole life. That's really the way God wants us to live. ... God wants us to enjoy life. To be involved with sports, to be involved with music, to be involved with friends. It doesn't mean to be in a little religious corner.
At the same time, God wants us to give all of these parts of our life to him so that we can really live the life that he created us to live. And Bonhoeffer makes it very clear when you're doing that, what you say you believe and what you believe become one thing. It's not meant to be impossible. God wants us to be able to not be hypocrites. God wants us to joyfully obey him and live the life that he created for us to live. Bonhoeffer is a great example of that.
That's one reason why the story of Bonhoeffer is so important, because he shows us a model of what that can look like. ... It's not some impossible goal. It's not meant to be for this holy few. It's really for all of us. And Bonhoeffer's life helps us understand that.
Q: How has the book been received in Germany?
A: So far tremendously well. It's selling very well there. In fact, I'm going to Germany right after Kentucky to speak in a number of cities and churches. I couldn't be more excited about that, honestly.
Q: Is there any chance the Bonhoeffer book will be turned into a movie?
A: There is a chance; I would say a good chance. In fact, I am working with some people on that right now. I can't say much more than that, but I would expect that a movie will happen.
Q: What's next for you? Do you have another project in mind?
A: I'm working on a book called Seven Men, which will be brief biographical sketches of seven men from history who, like Bonhoeffer, represent God's idea of a man. What does it mean to be a man? I think we have a crisis of manhood in the culture and we need models. And Bonhoeffer is one of the best, but there are others. That should be out next spring."