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.