Stephen R. Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump

417IQf5NqGLThere is a lot going on in Stephen Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer. As a blow against Bonhoeffer hagiography it is very effective, showing how Bonhoeffer was, like most people, complex, ever-evolving, and a person who sometimes fell quite short of his own ideals. This book will go a long way toward demolishing overly-simplistic and romantic depictions of Bonhoeffer while increasing the reader’s appreciation for Bonhoeffer in many ways as it shows that Bonhoeffer’s acts of great courage truly were committed by a real, flesh-and-blood, flawed human being. I appreciated the book’s assault on the kind of hagiography in which Christians across the spectrum oftentimes indulge when it comes to Bonhoeffer. (I have been guilty of the same!)

As an evaluation of the Bonhoeffer industry in the United States the book is also effective. Haynes does a good job of demonstrating how Bonhoeffer truly is a phenomenon in the United States by chronicling the various books, movies, plays, and other offerings that show no sign of slowing down. I really was not quite aware of just how big this phenomenon is, though I did know it existed and seemed to have picked up steam since the Metaxas biography.

As a take-down of Eric Metaxas and his Bonhoeffer biography, Haynes’ book is devastating. I must say that I have grown increasingly wary of Metaxas’ book even though I wrote, I now believe, a naive review of it nine years ago when I first read it. Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer is very well-written and I think I was a bit caught up in it. I suspect one reason for this was I had spotted and still do spot liberal appropriations of Bonhoeffer that I think are absurd and appreciated that Metaxas’ was hitting back against such. But I am not trying to excuse my review. I see it now as too optimistic to say the least. I am leaving my review of it up but have added a caveat to it concerning my own changing views on the book.

Haynes does a masterful job of demonstrating what anybody who follows Metaxas on Twitter (as I did before I got off of Twitter) knows: that for a champion of Bonhoeffer Metaxas holds some shockingly non-Bonhoefferian views. I shan’t go into them now. Feel free to follow Metaxas then read Bonhoeffer. It should be evident pretty quickly. Anyway, yes, following Metaxas on Twitter will make one, retroactively, very cautious and curious about his book and will, upon further reflection and review (along with listening to Bonhoeffer scholars), lead one to be much less inclined to agree with Metaxas’ recasting of Bonhoeffer as essentially an American Evangelical in his sympathies.

That being said, one may (a) recoil at some of the musings of the post-Bonhoeffer-biography-Metaxas and (b) agree that the book is indeed hagiographic (contra my own regrettable assertion to the contrary when I first read and reviewed it) and yet (c) not necessarily go as far as Haynes goes in condemning the Metaxas book. I personally now believe, the more I read Bonhoeffer himself, that he is very difficult to categorize. I feel that Haynes, in his efforts to lampoon the Evangelical appropriation of Bonhoeffer, at points overstates his case, even though, as I said, his critique is devastating overall. (Does that make sense?). For example, while Haynes references a number of times, and seemingly dismissively, Evangelical appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s condemnation of abortion in his Ethics, he never actually explains why Evangelical appreciation of this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought and application of it to the modern scene is necessarily misguided or represents the same kind of crass appropriation of Bonhoeffer by Evangelicals in other areas. (By the way, I have long found the notes on Bonhoeffer’s abortion section in the Fortress Press English critical edition to be laughable.) What Bonhoeffer says about abortion in Ethics is damning indeed and one may argue that Evangelicals do read him rightly on this point while conceding that Evangelicals have read him wrongly on others. The efforts of more left-leaning Bonhoeffer scholars to argue that we must be careful not to draw any substantive equivalency between Bonhoeffer’s views of abortion in Ethics and the modern abortion scene ring, in my opinion, hollow and betray a tendency on the left to shape Bonhoeffer to their desired ends just as Evangelicals have been guilty of doing in other ways. (I do note that Haynes is indeed aware of the reality of the liberal appropriation of Bonhoeffer, and acknowledges this in his book.) But enough about all that.

This seems like a good way to segue: As an evaluation of how both the theological/ecclesiological left and right claim Bonhoeffer, Haynes evidence is helpful, though it is weighted very very heavily against the right’s baptizing of Bonhoeffer with much less (I do not say “no”) attention given to the left’s tendencies to do this. (And I consider the pass and even legitimacy that Haynes grants to Marsh’s theories about Bonhoeffer’s alleged homosexuality to be inconsistent. He admits that this view is held by a minority of Bonhoeffer scholars even as he uses it to swipe at Evangelical employment of Bonhoeffer for the cause of traditional marriage. This seemed strange to me.) To be clear, Haynes, a former Evangelical, for all of his admirable efforts to remain balanced, cannot help but grind some axes along the way.

As a commentary on the modern American political situation, the book is predictable though helpful to a point. One may largely agree with Haynes (I do) without completely agreeing with Haynes (I do not). One may find oneself saying (as I did), “True enough. Good point. Of course, on the left…” etc. etc. etc. I do not say this to relative and dismiss his argument. I essentially agree with the thrust of his argument. Bonhoeffer, I rather expect, would indeed have much to say about our President. How can one deny this? But if one honestly thinks, after reading Bonhoeffer, that he would not also be horrified by certain emphases on the left, one has done violence to the Bonhoeffer legacy from the other side. (Take a look, for instance, at Bonhoeffer’s letters to friends concerning the vacuousness of the liberal theological pursuits at Union when he was in America.)

It’s an interesting, if sometimes irritating book. I don’t regret reading it, though I did chafe a bit under the book’s indecision (again, it seemed to me) about what it wanted to be and also against some of the imbalances in it. Of course, in the book’s final section, Haynes makes it clear that his goal is not to be a dispassionate observer. He has a point to make, and he’s free to make it. I appreciate much of the point he made. Other aspects I found short-sighted.

Overall, I think the book is worth reading. See what you think.

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