Bonhoeffer Scholar sets the record straight

By Sam Scott

Staff Writer

Noted Dietrich Bonhoeffer Scholar Pat Kelly used a lecture on the German icon as an opportunity to correct some of the falsehoods put forth in Eric Metaxas’ bestselling biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. A priest and resistance leader during World War II, Bonhoeffer is also the author of the theological classic The Cost of Discipleship, written while he was imprisoned for a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Kelly was invited as part of DuPont’s Friends of the Library series, a celebration of the Sewanee institution’s fiftieth anniversary. The author of one the definitive Bonhoeffer biography and translator of a sixteen-volume collection of his work, Kelly responded to the request to speak on anti-Fascist activist with “is the pope Catholic?” He gave his lecture, “A Modest Proposal on Bonhoeffer and Biography” in the library’s Torian Room, accompanied by a powerpoint. He took issue with Metaxas reduction of Bonhoeffer to a paper saint, saying that “his story is not easy to reduce to simplicities.” Instead, Kelly used his platform to draw attention to Bonhoeffer’s equally strong grounding in a concrete faith in “inclusive revelational reality,” in contrast to the fundamentalistic idealist that Metaxas claims he was. Though he praises Metaxas for exploring the conflict between Christian pacifism and Bonhoeffer’s violent activism, he also took some time at the beginning of the lecture to point out several more specific “Metaxas errors.” Among the most glaring mistakes: Metaxas claims the German city of Bonn is in Switzerland, and that Hitler became Chancellor by majority vote. The bestseller also makes a big point of Bonhoeffer reading scripture and praying every day, while Kelly points to a letter that show him admitting that was impossible at the beginning of his stay in prison. And, to quote Kelly, “I could go on.”

Rather than the fundamentalist theology he was exposed to in America, as Metaxas claims, Kelly makes a case for Bonhoeffer’s adult religious convictions coming from a trip to Europe where, the German writes, “I turned from phraseology to reality.” He uses this biographical information to argue the importance of Bonhoeffer’s belief in Wirklichkeit, or concrete truth, and proves his thesis, while disproving Metaxas’ more simplified portrayal through readings of Bonhoeffer’s work throughout his life. He looks at writings where Bonhoeffer uses the word “religion” as a negative concept to describe treating God as a deus ex machina and Christianity as an escape from the responsibilities and Wirklichkeit. By looking at Bonhoeffer’s entire oeuvre, Kelly gave a fuller picture of the toughness of his faith that is not present in the pious conservative of Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, taken mostly from his late works. Or, as Kelly himself says, when recommending better sources on the man’s life, “I would trash it. I don’t care how much you paid for it.”