Tag Archives: Book review

Sometimes winning means you lose everything (part 2)

As I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during an intense two-week period of travel, I slowly came to feel like I knew the man. It was almost as if he was travelling with me, sharing his stories, describing his adventures. That was until the last page was turned and I finished his story. The power of that journey is still with me and as I reflect on my few days with Dietrich Bonhoeffer a number of important lessons spring to mind:

  1. The two paths for God’s people – the path of adversity and the path of prosperity. Bonheoffer’s adult life was marked by adversity: he was misunderstood by his fellow pastors, opposed by the established state church, suspected and finally imprisoned by the Gestapo, separated from his fiancée and martyred for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler. Yet though it all there was a peace and a confidence that he was doing God’s will. Those of us who live in times and places when we are fortunate enough to regularly walk along the path of prosperity need to remember that this is not the normal experience for the Christian. God, in his grace, may allow us to be very blessed materially, but many of our brothers and sisters only ever know the path of adversity. Our momentary visitations or swift passage across this path are nothing compared to living every day on it.
  2. He was always ahead of the pack – he saw the danger of Hitler’s version of Positive Christianity before any of the other church leaders; he saw the pitfalls of the impotent Confessing Church as it finally took a stand against the “German Church”; and he saw that German had to lose the war if Christianity in Europe was to be reborn. “Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him” (page 248). Often he was so far ahead of others that his logic was misunderstood and his appeals ignored. Yet he faithfully proclaimed and lived out his prophetic message. It reminds me that there will always a part of prophetic insight that means the prophet will be lonely, by the very fact that they see things earlier and speak more clearly than most people are ready for.
  3. He was holistic in his life and ministry. He blended the best of academia and culture, Christian community and intellectual rigour. He loved music and the arts, trained as an academic, lived as a pastor, discipled others by teaching, example and exhortation. He was a holistic person who believed the scriptures should not, indeed could not, be studied without daily prayer and meditation. He sought to build a living Christian community but rather than become isolationist, they purposefully discussed the most pressing issues of the day and Bonhoeffer pushed them to understand the times.
  4. He was a true anti-celebrity. Not only in the way he lived his life, but also in what he wrote, Bonhoeffer saw through the mirage of success and fame. “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best an object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done…The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard (from his book Ethics)”. Metaxas’ adds his own postscript that Bonhoeffer realised that “God was interested not in success, but in obedience” (page 363).
  5. The Christian life must be modelled. For his students he would seek not just to impart knowledge, but a way of life, he always wanted to model what he believed the Christian life and Christian community should be. “Bonhoeffer’s interest was not only in teaching them as a university lecturer. He wished to disciple them in the true life of the Christian. This ran the gamut, from understanding current events through a biblical lens to reading the Bible not just as a theology student, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ” (page 128).
  6. The challenge of direct action. When evil surrounds and it is your nation’s darkest hour, what direct action would your conscience allow you to take? More to the point, what does God require of you in that situation? Bonhoeffer was prepared to enter unchartered territory, arguing that he followed a God who “demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture”. Metaxas’ again sums up the issue “here was the rub, one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin” (page 446). In the mayhem that was Germany in the height of World War II, Bonhoeffer challenged people to rethink their scruples: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (page 446).
  7. The willing embrace of death. Unlike our anaphylactic reaction to the topic of death, Bonhoeffer often considered what it meant to die well; he was ready to die for a noble cause. “We hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted” (page 447). 
  8. The affirmation of a redeemed humanity. In the midst of enormous suffering, horrendous violence and world war Bonhoeffer fell in love. His engagement to Maria gave him a greater appreciation for, and affirmation of, God’s earth. Bonhoeffer “was constantly trying to correct the idea of a false choice between God and humanity, or heaven and earth. God wanted to redeem humanity and to redeem this earth, not to abolish them…Bonhoeffer was trying to reclaim everything for God.” He understood the blessings of marriage and argued that “the “desire for earthly bliss” is not something we steal from behind God’s back, but is something that he has desired that we should desire. We mustn’t separate that part of life and marriage from God, either by trying to hide it from him as belonging to us alone or by trying to destroy it altogether through a false piety that denies its existence” (page 457).

Bonhoeffer was passionate about figuring out what it meant to be a disciple of Christ in one of the darkest times in world history. However, he was not only committed to academic excellence, but also devotional living. He was prepared to model, and die for, what he believed. This is his challenge to me – to model what I believe God is saying to me in these days. I feel like I have much to learn in each of the areas highlighted – but I am seeking to understand how this works itself out in today’s church and society.

Through it all Bonhoeffer stands as a man who overcame adversity, temptation, doubt and fear. Even the Gestapo could not defeat him, they could only remove him. The same picture played out in the church; God was using the persecution to refine his church. Ruth von Kleist-Retzow commented to Dietrich “We live in strange times, but we should be eternally thankful that poor, oppressed Christianity is acquiring greater vitality than I have ever known in the course of my seventy years. What testimony to its real existence!” (page 295). God was winning. Even though his people were losing everything they had, they were overcoming their enemies. We too live in strange times; oh that God would renew and revive his church in this day to demonstrate its true vitality to a sceptical world.

(For part 1 of my review click here.)

Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!

So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.

Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.

Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.

But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:

  1. His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  2. His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
  3. His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
  4. His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
  5. His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.

Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.

Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness. 

In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.

For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?

There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).

It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.