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Metaxas visits Calvin, discusses Bonhoeffer

A take on Eric Metaxas' Calvin College lecture on the life behind his recently published biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is the author of four books, including a biography of William Wilberforce, titled, Amazing Grace:  William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and Everything You Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask), which has a sequel. In addition to being a New York Times Bestseller, Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy won the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association "Book of the Year."

Eric Metaxas did not set out to say anything new with his biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. He simply wanted to tell some stories that various populaces—academic elites and the Church among them—“need to know.” That’s what he told an overflow crowd in Calvin’s Covenant Fine Arts Center on January 9th, 2012.

Metaxas, an author, cultural commenter, and lecturer, came to Calvin as part of the college’s annual lecture installment—The January Series—which spotlights prominent public voices and brings them to the community free of charge.  His lecture, like the biography, told stories and culminated in a conclusive need-to-know exhortation on the importance on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life work, most notably his resistance of German dictator Adolf Hitler. 

Never short on humor, Metaxas opened with a self-introduction that was tongue-in-cheek and conscious of the denominational makeup of his audience.  He mentioned his nominally religious childhood in the Greek Orthodox Church; “which I don’t think is reformed,” he joked. 

He then quickly narrated his life, how, after he found more answers in cubicle-conversations than the Ivy League, he accepted the Christian faith and became intent on bringing that faith to the academic elite that so often reject it.  A pair of Christian books and a biography on William Wilberforce later, Metaxas committed to another biography; this one on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German pastor and theologian whose anti-Nazi legacy is heralded by Christians and humanists alike.  Metaxas recalls hearing Bonhoeffer’s story and noting its value for the broader public, specifically academic circles that typically shun religion, like the one he encountered in his undergraduate years at Yale.

The biography, released April 9th, 2010, the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death, promotes his heritage as a Christian devout in orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy.  The lecture did much of the same as it began with Bonhoeffer’s upbringing in an academically and morally outstanding family and followed his brief stint in New York City, where he attended a predominately African-American church and developed a heart for the vibrant worship he found there.  Metaxas then transitioned to Bonhoeffer’s time in Germany, where, by the time he returned, Hitler’s Nazi Party had surged to popularity. Two days after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer used his characteristically measured and calculated tone while resisting his authoritarian leadership style on German radio.  And though Metaxas’ goal was never originality, he also briefly discussed some little-known elements of Bonhoeffer’s life, like his engagement, which was immediately followed by his imprisonment.

In describing these experiences, Metaxas was spare and witty, rarely passing on an available punch line.  But the lasting impression of his speech was his unwavering commitment to his subject. 

“He has clearly done his homework,” said Ian Gackowski, recent Calvin graduate and attendee of the lecture.  In an earlier, smaller session, Metaxas mentioned journals, essays, and letters as some of his primary glimpses inside Bonhoeffer’s life. Gackowski also praised sincerity of Metaxas’ admiration of Bonhoeffer, which firmly framed Metaxas’ narration of Bonhoeffer’s life.

But, like the book, Metaxas’ retelling refuses to cling to public conceptions of Bonhoeffer.  While some have painted him as a humanist more than a Christian at the end of his life, Metaxas asserts than Bonhoeffer’s faith was only bolstered as he resisted Hitler until his eventual martyred death in 1945. 

The lecture culminated in determined praise of Bonhoeffer’s courage and a call for likewise action within the Church.  Metaxas was most earnest in conclusion, because, as he repeatedly stressed, Bonhoeffer’s story is one that people “need to know.”

Metaxas’ speech, as well as his biography, makes that possible.  They are, in his words, a “look again at Bonhoeffer’s life to hear about what his prophetic voice was saying.”  Though, according to Metaxas, his telling of Bonhoeffer’s story is hardly anything new, it is certainly something worth reexamining.

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