The Trump Will Set You Free

Free to criticize that is.

In 2014 when Charles Marsh’s highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer came out, the author avoided taking on Eric Metaxas. In an interview with John Fea, this is the worst he could do:

I’m pleased that Eric Metaxas has inspired such a spirited and intense conversation on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell the story anew by relying primarily on a treasure of recent archival and scholarly discoveries, on letters, journals, and other documents, as well as my own interviews. I spent a lovely afternoon in the home of Eberhard Bethge, shortly before his death, talking candidly about aspects of Bonhoeffer’s character that had been largely ignored. Metaxas’s book also offered me a cautionary tale on the political misuses of biographical writing; had I not been able to see what havoc his own heavy-handed political agenda wreaked on the telling of Bonhoeffer’s life I might have been inclined to tweak it in the direction of my partisan biases.

In his review of Marsh’s book for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Wiman even faults Marsh for failing to correct Eric Metaxas’ popular biography of Bonhoeffer:

Mr. Marsh does not even mention the Metaxas book or the enormous attention it brought to Bonhoeffer. He is a scholar, and Mr. Metaxas is a popular biographer, and it’s possible that Mr. Marsh found no new information in the Metaxas book that he needed for “Strange Glory.” Still, though Mr. Marsh deals quite well with the intractable contradictions of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and actions, he misses the chance to situate the theologian and his ideas more clearly within the contemporary context. A simple preface would have helped.

That is why Marsh’s recent post about Metaxas was a surprise:

WRITTEN WITH BUT the slightest familiarity with German theology and history, Metaxas’s best-selling Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was published by Thomas Nelson in the spring of 2010 and launched at the Young Republicans Club of New York City. Christians in the United States needed to learn some very important lessons from Bonhoeffer’s story, and Eric Metaxas, who some followers call “the American Bonhoeffer,” had been called by God to deliver these lessons in our own hour of decision: It is not the role of the state to take care of people. America is the greatest nation in the world. People can take care of themselves; small government is the best government. Germans turned to Hitler to do the things that other people ought to be doing, and we in America are in danger of the same mistake. People who like big government don’t believe in God; they’re secularists and can be compared to the Nazis. We need Bonhoeffer’s voice today—Metaxas told an interviewer—“especially in view of the big government ethos of the Obama administration.”

With a literary background that includes a popular biography of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the VeggieTales children’s series, Metaxas said that his purpose in writing the book was to save Bonhoeffer from the liberals, from the globalists, the humanists, and the pacifists. His Bonhoeffer was a born-again Christian who espoused traditional family values.

This is complete nonsense.

What explains the change? Metaxas has endorsed Trump and Marsh disapproves. The Trump will set you free.

But the editors at Religion & Politics and Dr. Fea should remember that just because Marsh is agreeable about Trump, it doesn’t make him right about Bonhoeffer. In fact, both Marsh and Metaxas may reflect their own “American” perspective. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German biographer of Bonhoeffer, sure thought so:

Marsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

Years ago Charles Marsh described his Bonhoeffer biography project. This reviewer remembers a passage about him wanting to approach the topic in a more ‘writerly’ way than Bethge, using a talent for storytelling for which the Southern States are famous. It is true that his book surpasses that of Bethge in terms of writerly skill, but is has become ‘A Life of Bonhoeffer’ that never existed in this form. A number of mistakes found in Marsh’s book have been referred to above. There are more, but I have deliberately concentrated on those that do most to distort the picture of Bonhoeffer.

I have no doubt that Schlingensiepen would disapprove of Trump. I do doubt he would let his view of Trump inform his understanding of the past.


6 thoughts on “The Trump Will Set You Free

  1. Do Marsh, Wiman, Schlingensiepen, Fea — or anyone else — ever address the use of “Martyr” in the title of Metaxas’s book?

    Bonhoeffer helped plot to assassinate Hitler and was hanged for that political act.

    Regardless of how justified the decision to assassinate may have been, how does that make him a martyr?


  2. Metaxis is a lightweight follower of Colson and Francis Schaeffer. Marsh is a follower of the Niebuhrs read through Martin Luther King.

    Mark Nation (author of Bonhoeffer the Assassin?) responds to Roger Olson’s American evangelical argument that we should honor Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill even though it failed to accomplish anything: —-” We have argued that Bonhoeffer underwent a conversion between 1929 and 1932 that changed his approach to Christian ethics. In February of 1929 we see Bonhoeffer saying in a lecture that love of his own people will sanctify war, will sanctify murder. He also says in this lecture that the Sermon on the Mount is not to instruct us in how to live in the present.

    By 1932 Bonhoeffer is saying the opposite in lectures he presents. He is telling Christians they should live by the Sermon on the Mount and that this includes not killing in war. What happened in between? . In 1930-31 he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there he was deeply influenced by Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor and pacifist, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and to embrace pacifism.

    In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Zinn, in January 1936, Bonhoeffer says that sometime before 1933 he came to see “pacifism as self-evident,” which he had previously argued against passionately. (This sentence is left out from this quote, pp. 123-4, in the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxis of Bonhoeffer—indicating the lengths some will go to to establish that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist.)

    Did Bonhoeffer return to the convictions he held in 1929? Did he reverse his understanding of the centrality of Jesus for understanding ethics? The textual evidence suggests he did not. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. Moreover, he specifically affirms the book, Discipleship, in prison in the summer of 1944. What we see in Bonhoeffer’s life s consistent with this affirmation of what he on occasion referred to as pacifism, Beginning in 1932 often in ecumenical speeches he called on Christians not to kill in war and to consider conscientious objection. When military conscription was re-introduced into Germany in 1935, he commended conscientious objection to his seminary students…. As Sabine Dramm’s book’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance makes clear, the central reason Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr was to acquire a “UK” status, a status that granted him immunity from serving on the front lines, killing as a soldier, because his work was essential to the welfare of Germany. What becomes clear when we read transcripts from his trial is that the judge realized his “essential” work for the Abwehr was a fiction created to grant him what was effectively a role as a conscientious objector, but without it leading to his execution (as a straightforward claim to be a c.o. would have done).”.

    Mark Nation–I too have read the magisterial biography by Eberhard Bethge. In fact, I outlined the whole of the first edition of this book. And I have, with the revised 2000 edition, read the section dealing with Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy multiple times and have carefully outlined that section. I’ve come to realize that though all of us who study Bonhoeffer owe an incredible debt to Bethge, that does not mean we cannot question some of his interpretations (especially now with the sixteen volumes of collected works available along with lots of secondary sources).

    Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy is especially helpful in her discussion of the Abwehr, giving much more and careful detail than Bethge….I realized that Bethge’s references to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” in the conspiracy and especially specific plots to kill Hitler were all quite vague. And I discovered there was a reason for this. When one lines up the facts about specific efforts to kill Hitler alongside Bonhoeffer’s life, it becomes obvious that he had nothing to do with any of the details related to any of them.

    One gets the impression from Bethge that most of the employees for the Abwehr were involved in efforts to kill Hitler, and thus working for the Abwehr in itself was incriminating. I was stunned to discover that of the 13,000 employees only about 50 were involved in efforts to kill Hitler. And then only on certain occasions and in relation to certain attempts. Some attempts were made by others in other military organizations. For instance, the two attempts to kill Hitler in March 1943 were planned by Colonel Henning von Tresckow, of the Army Group Center (not the Abwehr).

    Bethge implies in the 1983 documentary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, that Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943 because of his involvement in these attempts in March. But that is definitely not true. No one was arrested because of these attempts on Hitler’s life. They were not discovered by the authorities. Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his involvement in an effort to save the lives of fourteen Jews. Authorities who were suspicious of the Abwehr had discovered financial irregularities related to this act. That’s why he was arrested. And Bonhoeffer was imprisoned because the judge realized he had effectively been a conscientious objector as an agent with the Abwehr.

    Bonhoeffer was later executed because after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944 the Reich went on an irrational rampage of executions of any perceived to be “enemies of the state,” which Bonhoeffer had been accused of since at least as early as 1936.

    Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, says that “Though Dietrich was from the very beginning [convinced that Hitler has to be abolished, he felt that’s not his business as a theologian.” However, she also replays a conversation she had with Dietrich sometime after he had returned to Germany in 1939, clearly indicating that he had told her that Christians should not kill. How do these two statements fit together? How does her earlier statement fit with his views in Discipleship, etc.? Again, Bethge is right that one should place the greatest weight on what we know from texts and the facts as best we know them, not memories of informal conversations.”


  3. ‘When one lines up the facts about specific efforts to kill Hitler alongside Bonhoeffer’s life, it becomes obvious that he had nothing to do with any of the details related to any of them.”



  4. Meanwhile, one candidate does her impersonation of Nixon:

    On July 30, 1974, Nixon was forced to turn over a series of taped recordings related to numerous meetings and conversations conducted at the White House. These tapes included enough damaging evidence to put the final nail in the coffin on Nixon’s administration. It was also revealed that 18.5 minutes of tape had been erased. The furor that erupted from all corners, including the media, was enormous. It was considered one of the most reprehensible single acts in the history of American politics. Unforgivable, unconscionable, disgusting—all of those outcries were fair and appropriate.

    But this is no longer 1974, and we are no longer talking about Richard Nixon. It is 2016, and we are talking about Hillary Clinton. Her staff and their accomplices have erased some 33,000 emails; they have had hard drives acid-washed; they have crushed multiple cell phones with hammers; with the help of the FBI, they have had laptops destroyed. The reaction to all of this from our esteemed mainstream media? “She’s answered all of these questions. It’s time to move on.”

    Can the academics buy a vowel of historical perspective?


  5. DGH, do you remember from your Freshman chemistry what a reagent is? A chemical that can be used to test for the presence or absence of something else. Donald Trump is the perfect reagent – apply a drop of two of him to the typical History Department denizen and you will confirm the presence or absence of any sense of historical perspective. Or critical distance. Etc., etc., etc. What’s lert? Tribalism all the way down. .Never seen anything like it. BTW, I consider you atypical – most of the time. In a good way, of course. 😀


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