[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0802876013″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/41FJC0NHHeL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Misappropriating Bonhoeffer
A Feature Review of
The Battle for Bonhoeffer:
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2018.
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Reviewed by James Dekker
The ten chapters and postscript “Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump” of Stephen Haynes’s Battle for Bonhoeffer are some of the densest I’ve ever read outside of graduate theses, but it is far more engaging than any thesis. Dense is by no means bad. Battle is carefully organized, clearly written and always compelling. And well it should be, since this closely-argued discursus explores possibly the most incandescent questions in American Christians’ conversation since the Vietnam War: “Why and how has Dietrich Bonhoeffer become a hero to evangelicals in the first twenty years of the 21st century, when for decades after his death his theology was widely suspect outside mainline Protestantism? Why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump?” Such rocky geography covers the American evangelical battleground that Stephen Haynes attempts to delimit.
As theology professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and author of four books on Bonhoeffer, in addition to post-Holocaust studies, Haynes is eminently qualified to explore such confounding questions. In Part One he combs the literature to introduce the German theologian as “Critical Patriot, Righteous Gentile and Moral Hero.” Most colors for these Bonhoeffer portraits come from the varied pallet of mainline Protestant academic authors. That is fitting, since this “Battle for Bonhoeffer” takes place mostly in the minds, hearts, books, and churches of American Christians. Not surprisingly, this fight bewilders, to the point of incomprehension, Bonhoeffer students in other nations and societies.
After surveying scholarly academic writing on Bonhoeffer, Haynes continues to the current evangelical embrace of what he calls the “populist Bonhoeffer.” This recent Bonhoeffer portrait finds its often hagiographic sources more from historical fiction, plays and biographical films than scholarly writing. Based on his deep and long study of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, Haynes sees Bonhoeffer’s status as an evangelical hero in American culture and political wars as an unpredictable, illogical, even untruthful lurch from serious, deliberative scholarly theological examination.
Haynes offers a lucid articulation of Bonhoeffer’s influence and reputation among changing audiences since his execution on April 9,1945, days before Germany’s surrender. To do that he fittingly dips into his own earlier books on Bonhoeffer, presenting a thorough, if not exhaustive review of the vast Bonhoeffer literature.
Yet when early on he uses the term “populist Bonhoeffer,” Haynes dives into the cesspool that alienates the very people he hopes to address in his concluding “Open Letter.” Many evangelicals flinch at “populist” as condescending or arrogant, considering it hardly different from Hillary Clinton’s injudicious epithet “deplorables” shaming Trump supporters.
Yet it would be inaccurate to consider Haynes’s analysis as one-sidedly anti-conservative evangelical. For example, he debunks the aspirational status of “righteous Gentile” that notable scholars have applied to Bonhoeffer. That technical term is not to be used lightly. Rather it should respected as intellectual and spiritual property of Jerusalem’s “Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.” As rightful user of that honorific, Yad Vashem’s leaders have several times declined to name Bonhoeffer a “righteous Gentile.” While recognizing that he did address the Jewish issue in his writings, Yad Vashem concluded that he did not risk his life in attempts to aid Jews during Nazi rule (16, 17).
An equal opportunity critic, Haynes accuses progressives and conservatives of misusing Bonhoeffer’s legacy. He charges the 1960s’ “Death of God” theologians of misusing Bonhoeffer to promote the paradoxical, even nonsensical “Christian atheism.” That exaggerated and damaging gaffe did much in those years to develop evangelical caution, even opposition towards Bonhoeffer’s theology.
Though respected (Australian) New Testament scholar Leon Morris’s appreciated certain parts of Bonhoeffer’s work, he shied away from “religionless Christianity.” He understood Bonhoeffer to advocate abandoning necessary Christian disciplines as corporate worship. How accurate are Morris’s and other evangelicals’ evaluations remain moot.
While throughout Haynes’s tone and diction are far from careless, he reveals his persistent target in chapter three’s title “The Evangelical Bonhoeffer before Metaxas.” Haynes’s temperature rises every time he refers to Eric Metaxas and his 2010 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. That book hugely popularized Bonhoeffer before Trump. Yet Haynes alleges that popularity is shallowly rooted in a counterfeit portrayal of the German theologian-pastor. Based on his career-long study of Bonhoeffer, Haynes infers that Metaxas had not read all of Bonhoeffer’s work or earlier biographies. Neither did he steep himself in German political and theological history. As a result, Metaxas selectively quoted Bonhoeffer, depicting him more as an American evangelical than a complex person writing during a fraught and dangerous time in his homeland.
Not surprisingly, Haynes considers Metaxas, the most influential evangelical apologist for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and current administration, a careless writer. Although a sizable number of serious evangelical scholars have come to share Haynes’s evaluation, his tone occasionally leaves the firm roadbed of dispassionate critical analysis, nearly sinking into the quicksand of ad hominem ire.
Despite such personally aimed rhetorical kicks, Haynes makes a strong case that the entire “Battle for Bonhoeffer” constitutes serious misuse of the man’s theological and social legacy. He strongly faults the (mis)reading of the “populist Bonhoeffer” as promulgating egregious support of Donald Trump. He asserts that Trump is no Hitler or fascist, as not a few progressive evangelicals claim. Still, he is alarmed that Trump knows fascists and white supremacists who have flocked to his camp. Meanwhile he also condemns previous hyperbolic evangelical vilification of Barack Obama. Allegations that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision would supposedly impose Hitlerian fascism and shrink religious freedom misunderstands the independence of American courts from the Executive Branch.
Haynes consistently argues that American Christians—whether progressive or conservative—are seriously misguided in trying to equate contemporary America with Germany under Adolf Hitler, to whose terrorized society Bonhoeffer returned from safety at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. As an antidote to such theological and political travesties, Haynes advises all Bonhoeffer warriors to step back, call a ceasefire and examine far more respectfully all of Bonhoeffer’s work and life. The goal is to discern sensibly and responsibly Bonhoeffer’s contribution to American social, spiritual and political weal, without drawing false historical parallels to today’s political scene.
Will American evangelicals heed Haynes’s convictions? I fear that his call may remain one more articulate, authoritative voice unheard in the raucous, destructive war engulfing fellow Christians.
James Dekker is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor, living in St. Catharines, Ontario, who as a dual citizen has long voted in both the US and Canada.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com