One Man’s Calling
About the Guest
New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas talks with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine about the controversial life and ministry of the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Eric MetaxasEric Metaxas is the New York Times bestselling author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. His writing was first published in Atlantic Monthly, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Regeneration Quarterly, Christianity Today, National Review Online, Beliefnet and First Things. The American Booksellers Association chose Metaxas's The Birthday ABC as a 1995 Pick of the List and Amazon.com honored his Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksg...more
Eric Metaxas talks about the controversial life and ministry of the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
One Man’s Calling
Bob: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian. At age 21, he already had his PhD. His biographer, Eric Metaxas, says even though he understood the Bible, it hadn’t really penetrated deep down yet.
Eric: He comes to America and he goes to Union Theological Seminary. He bumps into a fellow student at Union named Frank Fisher, an African-American student from Alabama who was spending some time doing some work up in Harlem at a church called Abyssinian Baptist Church. He asks Bonhoeffer, “Would you like to visit with me?”
Bonhoeffer, of course, was very curious. So Bonhoeffer says, “Yes, I’d like to go up.” He goes up to Harlem one Sunday morning in late 1930, and he enters this church. His experience in this African-American congregation totally blows his mind.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, February 2nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to learn more today about the remarkable German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the author of the book Cheap Grace. His biographer, Eric Metaxas, joins us. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think we need to let our listeners know who decided that we were going to have this particular guest on the program; don’t you?
Dennis: Are you speaking of Barbara?
Bob: Yes. I just think folks ought to realize that sometimes you’ll come and say, “Let’s have this guest,” or I’ll say, “How about this guest?” but this was a Barbara Rainey—this was an edict that came down from her office.
Dennis: Yes; you said, “No,” a couple of times, as I recall. (Laughter)
Bob: I did not say, “No.” I was happy to have the guest on. (Laughter)
Dennis: She read this book; and she said, “Man! We have got to get him here on the broadcast to let our listeners peek into a life of a very famous martyr.
Bob: And as our listeners have already heard, we have our staff joining us for today’s program. They are here in the studio audience today. (Applause)
Dennis: I’m tempted to ask you, “Why aren’t you at work?” (Laughter) I guess we did invite you to come here; didn’t we?
Bob: Yes, we did.
Dennis: It really is a treat to have Eric Metaxas to join us on FamilyLife Today. Eric, welcome to the broadcast.
Eric: I’m thrilled to be here, even if you pronounce Metaxas completely incorrectly. (Laughter) I’m not hurt.
Dennis: Did I mispronounce it?
Eric: I’m not hurt at all; I want you to know. I know it was your wife’s idea to bring me here, and I’m just not going to bring that up again.
Bob: She would have gotten the name right!
Dennis: Eric Metas-kis?
Eric: That’s close enough, I think.
Dennis: Is that not it?
Eric: You know, for Arkansas. (Audience Laughter) I know there’s not a lot of Greeks.
No, no, that’s not an Arkansas slam. It’s just that I know you don’t get to pronounce Greek surnames around here. So Metaxas is tough. I’ll give you it. I’ll give you it.—
Bob: Everybody wants their “metax-es” lowered. (Laughter)
Dennis: Okay, we got it!
Bob: That’s how you remember the name; isn’t it?
Eric: That’s not how I remember it, but I think they’ve probably—
Dennis: Eric Metaxas joins us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to the broadcast, Eric.
Eric: Honestly, it’s a great privilege to be here. I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you, Barbara, for helping me get here.
Dennis: She did read this book; and she said, “We have got to have him on the broadcast.”
Just to let our listeners know who Eric is—he is a New York Times best-selling author. He has written a ton of books for children—over 30. He’s especially known as a contributor to the Veggie Tales series as a writer there.
Bob: Are you one of the voices for one of the characters?
Eric: Yes, I am.
Dennis: Which character?
Eric: Well, actually, I’m the voice—this is not a joke—I’m the voice of the narrator on the Esther video. The narrator is a non-pictured vegetable. It’s a vegetable universe—so, you know, I’m a vegetable—the narrator’s a vegetable, but you don’t know what kind of vegetable. I think I’m a broccoli, Bob, but I really don’t know. (Laughter)
And I’ve been a writer for Veggie Tales. I wrote the Hamlet “Omelet” parody on Lyle, the Kindly Viking, and I’ve written a number of books for Veggie Tales, yes.
Dennis: You live in New York City with your wife and daughter.
Eric: I live in New York City with my wife and daughter; that’s correct.
Dennis: He has written a book called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. You know, as you pick up a book like this—that, by the way, weighs over 40 pounds. (Laughter) It’s really a piece of work you’ve got here. I was admiring that.
I just want to pull back to your life—where you grew up, and how you grew up, and how you came to faith in Christ.
Eric: Well, the Bonhoeffer story is actually a part of that. My parents came over from Europe. My dad came from Greece; hence, my surname, Metaxas. My mom came over from Germany. They met in English class in New York City. I was raised in New York, and then Connecticut, in the Greek Orthodox Church, which was really a cultural Christian upbringing. I did not know the Lord; did not hear the Gospel, particularly.
I had some kind of an incipient Christian faith, and then I went off to Yale University. In case you didn’t know, Yale University is extremely, aggressively secular. So, by the time I graduated, I was thoroughly confused. The moral of the story is, “Don’t go to Yale with an open mind.” (Laughter) That’s a bitter joke. We’ll cut that out in post. (Laughter)
Dennis: No, we won’t.
Bob: No, we won’t.
Eric: No, Yale. Yale, like most of the Ivy League, and like most of academia, is very aggressively secular. I graduated totally confused, and I wanted to be a writer. I tried to do that, but there’s no plan—“How Do You Become a Writer?” It was really tough; and in the midst of this misery, trying to be a writer, I got a job as a proof-reader at Union-Carbide in Danbury, Connecticut. In case you’re wondering, that’s a boring job. (Laughter)
I think the closest word that I can come up with is Gehenna. I don’t know if anybody gets that word—
Dennis: Yes, we do.
Eric: That’s just what popped into my mind.
Dennis: What did you proof?
Eric: That’s just a rema word of knowledge I got. I don’t know if that’s your theology, but I get the word Gehenna. (Laughter)
Basically, I will tell you, it was so bad—such a difficult time in my life—that, to be semi-funny about it, I was willing to consider the claims of the God of the Bible. I was searching spiritually because I was so unhappy. In the midst of this, a man—a dear friend now—his name is Ed Tuttle—he was sharing with me. He was a real believer, and he very sensitively and patiently was sharing with me from the Scriptures. I was in enough pain to want to hear more, but I wasn’t ready to go to church. I wasn’t ready to have a Bible study or anything.
But the months passed and I am taking this stuff in very, very slowly. I’m being weaned from my (sort of) secular Yale influences because I’m living at home with my parents and going to this awful job. I think my intellectual objections to Scripture were worn down slowly, slowly, slowly. Then one night—and I won’t tell this story because it’s a long story—but I had a dream. The Lord made Himself extremely real to me in a dream. It was one of these things that, if it happened to anybody else and he’d had this dream, he wouldn’t even know what to make of it. But to me it was extremely clear. I woke up, totally changed—4 that Jesus is Lord and the Bible is true. All this stuff that I would have mocked a few weeks earlier (or at least been skeptical of), I knew, “This is true.”
I say it’s like going to sleep single and waking up married. It just happened, and it had nothing to do with me any more than Lazarus had a lot of faith to be resurrected. I was a spiritual corpse, and I was just there. God acted in His grace. That was over 20 years ago, and it dramatically changed everything. There’s a video on my website of the dream. My website is just my name, EricMetaxas.com. It’s an amazing dream and how the Lord spoke to me. I have absolutely never been the same since.
Dennis: There are all of these stories from The Jesus Film being shown overseas of where Jesus has appeared to people, and there have been these conversions.
Dennis: Even where the written Word (of the Gospel) has not yet been produced in a language. So, I know that can happen and has happened in times past.
You did become a writer, however.
Dennis: You ultimately tore into a topic that is curious in and of itself. I’d love to go there for a moment; but what I would like you to do, since you have spent—how long researching Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life?
Eric: Well, I’m 48, so I think it feels like 80 years. Can I say that? (Laughter)
Eric: I don’t know. It was a long time.
Dennis: Some of our listeners may not know him or know a lot about him.
Dennis: Could you just give us a brief introduction into who he was?
Eric: Yes; this actually gets back to the summer that I came to Christ. The man at Union Carbide, who was leading me to faith, hands me a copy of Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. He says, “Eric,” you know, “you’re German. You went to Yale. Probably this would interest you. Have you ever heard of Bonhoeffer before?”
I said, “No. I’ve never heard of Bonhoeffer before. Who’s Bonhoeffer?” He tells me, “Oh, Bonhoeffer is a German pastor who, because of his faith in Jesus, stood up against the Nazis—spoke out against the Nazis—spoke up for the Jews. He was killed in a concentration camp in 1945.”
I remember hearing this story and thinking, “You’re kidding! There’s a man who, because of his faith in Jesus, did these things? Spoke against the Nazis?” I had never heard these kinds of stories. I was so moved by that, that I thought, “Someday—maybe someday—I would do something with this.” I never dreamt I would write a biography. I never had an ambition to write a biography; but, of course, that’s what happened.
Dennis: Take us into his home life and where he grew up because that was fascinating to me. You spend a good bit of time, in the book, going into that.
Eric: Yes. I was absolutely fascinated by his upbringing and by his family. I said, “I’ve got to write about this in the book” because anybody who reads it—anybody who has read the book—knows that when you read the story of his family, you cannot help but almost be jealous because it seems like such a delightful family. Even if you have a wonderful family, you can’t help but feel, “Boy, the Bonhoeffers—this was it!” It really touched me because, I thought, “Some people don’t arise out of a vacuum.”
Bonhoeffer is an example of that. He grew up as the son of an amazing mother and father who created one of the most beautiful family environments of anything I’ve ever experienced (just to read about this). It’s pretty clear that who they were made him who he was. All of the brothers and sisters, really, it seems, were extraordinary human beings. This is because of this mother and father. They were a united front; there was real harmony. It doesn’t mean that they agreed on everything, but they presented a united front to the children.
They loved each other; they respected each other. You can see how this touched the whole family and it had a ripple effect into the decades and decades beyond because all of these brothers and sisters grew up with courage and with the ability to be their own person in the midst of, you know, Nazi Germany, where it was pretty tough to do that.
Bob: At the beginning of the 20th century in Germany—when you talk about churches, theology—you’re not talking about conservative, evangelical thinking. I mean, this was a time in church history when the Bible was being disregarded or torn apart. Bonhoeffer was pursuing theology in a time when being a Christian—when embracing the Gospel was not in vogue.
Eric: Right; and this is what’s so fascinating. It’s why so many people have been confused about Bonhoeffer. They sort of assume that anybody studying under Harnack; studying at Berlin University; studying at Union has got to be a theological liberal. Well, guess what? Bonhoeffer was absolutely not that. He had such intellectual confidence and integrity that he was perfectly happy to be among them and to learn from them—to learn to speak their language, but he was not a theological liberal. He had a very robust, biblical faith (the kind that we would recognize); but most of his colleagues were not on that page.
Bob: Let me ask you about that because it wasn’t long after your book came out that I remember seeing an article that kind of took you to task, saying you ignored aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and painted an evangelical picture that wasn’t entirely accurate?
Eric: Yes, he smoked a cigarette once, so obviously he’s going to hell! I missed that part. (Laughter)
I think Bonhoeffer—you know what it is? Some people are so complicated—that I would say other people are almost unworthy of understanding them. You get this impression with Bonhoeffer. Over the years, he has been thoroughly misunderstood on both left and right. You get people on the left who fall in love with certain aspects of Bonhoeffer so they try to make Bonhoeffer in their own image, which is really intellectually dishonest; but they were able to get away with it for about 50 years and paint a picture of Bonhoeffer as theologically liberal. That’s simply not true. Anybody who looks at him seriously knows that you can’t conclude that.
But the problem is that you get people, sort of on the theological right (and I would describe myself as among them)—you get people on that side who are almost so theologically fussy that they’re just looking for one thing that he said or he wrote to brand him as, ”Oh! He’s not one of us,” which is really, ultimately, ridiculous; but they’ve bought into the liberal view of Bonhoeffer, which is just not true.
The controversy over my book kind of cracks me up because I didn’t try to put a spin on Bonhoeffer. I try to tell the story of who Bonhoeffer is; and I think any fair-minded person who reads about him recognizes, “This is somebody who—this is my brother in Christ. Lord, give me the strength to live with a tithe of the obedience to God that this man had.” He was absolutely passionate in serving the Lord—not just in preaching about the Lord, but in living also for the Lord. Yes, the controversy just kind of—it just cracks me up. I don’t know what to say.
Dennis: You chronicle his spiritual life, obviously, in the book and talk about how his mom had a profound impact on him, spiritually speaking—really introducing the truth of Scripture—how he became a student of theology at the age of 13 and then kind of hid it—
Dennis: —hid it from the family, so to speak—how he went to seminary and got a PhD at 21 and then got a second PhD at 24. Then he came to America. It was in America—his first trip to America—
Dennis: —that he had a profound spiritual experience that involved the African-American church.
Eric: Yes, it’s amazing. Of course, I live in New York City, so I take great pride in the fact that here this brilliant theologian, and he was utterly brilliant—accomplished—to get your PhD at 21! He comes to America and he goes to Union Theological Seminary, which is decidedly theologically liberal. Now, Bonhoeffer, as I said before—he respected theological liberals in Berlin. He disagreed with them, but he respected them; he could learn from them.
Now he comes to New York, and he’s really looking down his nose at what passes for theology at Union and in New York’s kind of mainline Protestant circles. He understands that it’s nothing but knee-jerk anti-fundamentalism. It’s nothing but the social gospel. It’s nice to feed the hungry and to serve the poor; but you don’t call that Christianity; you know? That comes out of Christianity—but, “Show me, where is your faith?” and, “Show me the connection.” Well, that was not happening in New York City.
So Bonhoeffer didn’t really get much theologically; but what happened to him in New York, which is life-changing and it really makes the story, is that he bumps into a fellow student at Union named Frank Fisher, an African-American student from Alabama who was spending some time doing some work up in Harlem at a church called Abyssinian Baptist Church. He asks Bonhoeffer, “Would you like to visit with me?”
Bonhoeffer, of course, was very curious; very culturally curious. The Bonhoeffer family was like this—they would visit and travel and they knew every painting. They would love to experience every aspect of life. So Bonhoeffer says, “Yes, I’d like to go up.” He goes up to Harlem one Sunday morning in late 1930, and he enters this church. His experience in this African-American congregation totally blows his mind. There’s just no question. He’s never seen this kind of Christianity. This is robust, Gospel-preaching. The preacher was Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
You’re hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached with fire and with clarity, and these people are living it out. They’re doing things in the community that are an outgrowth of their faith in Jesus. Bonhoeffer was so moved by this and so moved by the worship, he vows to go back to Abyssinian up in Harlem every Sunday that he can. Here you have this blonde, bespectacled, Berlin academic going up to Harlem in 1930 and 1931 every Sunday—not just to worship there—but to teach Sunday school and to get involved in the lives of these people.
There seems to be little question, at least in my mind; but I think in most folks’ who are familiar with the story, that this had an impact that changed him forever. He goes back to Germany and everybody says, “What happened to you?” He didn’t change his theology, but somehow it’s become real. Somehow he knows it’s not about being a theological genius. It’s about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Bob: This was happening in the early 1930’s in America—
Bob: —while there was a storm brewing. We need some time to unpack that storm and his involvement in that storm, but a part of what happened in New York was preparation for what was ahead for him.
Eric: No question because now he goes back to Germany in 1931, and people can see that he’s changed somehow. Now he was theologically a Christian before that. If you read what he writes before that, he was not some heretic. He was brilliantly Christian. I mean, his writings are just extraordinary! But now he comes back and his heart has changed; and Germany has also changed. Germany is now decidedly moving in the direction of Nazism—National Socialism and Hitler.
Bonhoeffer seems to know right out of the blocks that this is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So many Christians in Germany didn’t see it. They were blind; they were confused. Bonhoeffer seems right from the beginning to know that the path of National Socialism will bring us to war with the church. The church of Jesus Christ cannot go along with this. From the day—two days after Hitler becomes chancellor—Bonhoeffer is publicly opposed and speaking out, calling the church to be the church in the midst of this maelstrom that was happening in Germany at the time.
Bob: You know, it’s hard for us to even imagine that you could be a follower of Christ and be blind to the fact that the Nazi party is antithetical to that. It makes me wonder about my own blind spots.
Eric: As well it should! That’s the whole point, I think, of these stories. The reason the Lord gives us stories like the story of Bonhoeffer is to help us look at ourselves and to try to ask that question, “Am I perhaps missing something?” And, of course, we’re missing something. The Lord’s job is to help us to see those things.
Bonhoeffer really was prophetic in Germany at the time to try to get the church to see what it was blind to seeing, and he was, you know, a Cassandra—well, like all the prophets, really, his voice was not heeded. Thousands of years later, we say, “Oh, wasn’t Isaiah great? Wasn’t Jeremiah great?” but at the time, the people of God didn’t think they were so great. They thought they were just hotheads, and Bonhoeffer was one of those folks. He saw these things, but so many people were confused.
We have to be fair, and gracious, and understand that we probably would have been confused, too, because it’s not as if Hitler came out of the chancellery and said, “Oh, by the way, let me tell you German people—I’m going to be serving Satan for the next ten years.” He was, like all emissaries of Satan—he was a liar; he was a deceiver. He was very good at telling people what he thought they wanted to hear so that he could gain more power.
That’s precisely what Hitler did! Hitler pretended to be some kind of Christian, and he instructed all of his top lieutenants to do the same because he understood this gave them political cover. We all know that just to say you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. In fact, there were many Germans who thought they were Christians, who when you realize what happened in Germany at the time, you realize their Christianity was worth nothing—and that’s not true Christianity—that’s not faith in Jesus Christ.
That’s always the battle for us—to know, “Am I merely being religious? Am I just some guy who goes to church, and I don’t do these sins?” Well, that doesn’t make you a Christian. To be a Christian is to have a robust faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It’s easy to fool people, but you can’t fool God. That’s kind of where Bonhoeffer was during this time.
Dennis: A biography like this does a couple of things for me. One is it reinforces the importance of a mom and a dad at home, to teach their children to respect other people, to embrace the truth, and to fall in love with Jesus Christ at a young age. It gives great hope and encouragement at that level, which we need to be giving today. On a personal level, as an adult, for all of us, his courage and commitment to truth and unequivocal surrender to Jesus Christ.
I don’t want to spoil kind of the end of the story, but there was a doctor who watched Bonhoeffer die. He basically said, “I’ve never seen anyone who has been so surrendered to Jesus Christ, like this man.” That, to me, speaks through the ages and challenges us today to be those kinds of men and women in our culture.
Bob: Well, that’s a part of the compelling nature of this story. It’s a story that you have captured beautifully in your biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. If you’ve not read Eric Metaxas’ account of the life of Bonhoeffer, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy of the book. Again, our website is FamilyLIfeToday.com; or call toll-free 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. Ask about the book by Eric Metaxas on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we’ll be happy to send it out to you.
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We hope you can be back with us tomorrow when we’ll hear Part Two of our conversation with Eric Metaxas about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That comes up tomorrow. Hope you can be back.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
Bob: Didn’t he do a nice job?
(Applause from studio audience)
Eric: They’re still here. That’s a good sign!
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