“Why do you read so many biographies?” asked my wring coach, who may reads more biographies than I do. My answer is simple. Reading biographies is a way to stretch my mental boundaries by immersing myself in the lives of exceptional people.
Maybe one person in 10 million has a biography written about him /her. Such people must be remarkable for a biographer to give a year or more to researching and writing their story. Biographies may explain what drives or calls such exceptional people. We seek inspiration from their lives and hope we might become who we were created to be.
The subtitle of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lets you know that Bonhoeffer is not your traditional subject of a biography. The subtitle describes Bonhoeffer as “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.”
It’s hard today to imagine the options and privilege he started with. Bonhoeffer was born into a noble family with an impressive heritage. His father was a professor and a leading authority on psychiatry. His ancestors included artists, theologians, lawyers, and soldiers.
By 15 he had chosen to become a theologian and he devoted his life to it. In ordinary times he could have been a prominent professor or a leading churchman. Instead, he spent most of his last five years trying to stop Hitler, including being actively involved in plots to assassinate the Fuehrer. It seems like a contradiction. Who could imagine a pastor being active in a murder conspiracy?
His intellect gave him the capacity to think through extremely difficult questions. His heritage trained him to go deeper than most others would. Because of his connections, he learned about Nazi cruelty and annihilation programs before 99% of the nation. Bonhoeffer was a consistent source of incomprehensible atrocities to British and American leaders.
Bonhoeffer cared more about people than money. From his early years to his dying day, he shared his abundance with people he had just met and who could never repay. His gifts were used for others’ benefit, not his gain. His early assignments included serving rowdy, “at-risk” teenagers in England. Throughout his life, people were charmed and blessed by his generosity. He was able to teach and inspire without talking down to people with fewer advantages.
Bonhoeffer was brave enough to learn the truth and then confident enough to pay the cost of doing what he believed was his calling. Within days of Hitler becoming chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a national radio address warning against a leader with extensive power. Later after Hitler’s government had begun killing Jews, taking their property, and desecrating synagogues, Bonhoeffer routinely reminded people that Jesus was Jewish.
While Hitler was effectively silencing opposition from both Catholic and Protestant clergy, Bonhoeffer, along with Karl Barth, Hanns Lilje, and others, was instrumental in organizing a minority of pastors and congregations into a distinct arm of the church that bore allegiance to God and would not submit to the powerful national leader.
Most of his friends didn’t know what he knew and didn’t understand many of his choices. To travel and learn how Britain might respond if Hitler were killed, he needed face-to-face discussions overseas. Amazingly the solution involved serving in a German spy agency. Many of his academic and church associates wondered if Bonhoeffer had sold out to evil. He couldn’t explain his choices to many people dear to him.
Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before the allies liberated the camp. In his dying minutes, his faith empowered him to be generous, humble, and dignified. His faith gave him astounding strength and poise when most people would crater or fail.
Of course, he made mistakes but typically corrected them promptly. Friends arranged to get him to the US before Poland was invaded. Many expected during the war he would enjoy a prestigious pulpit or an honored academic position in American safety. However, he quickly concluded that he was needed in Germany and must return even though the return might and did cost him his life. He trusted God enough to be obedient.
Bonhoeffer gave special weight to Jesus’ sermon on the mount for years. Jesus instructed followers to love their enemies. My reflections are not meant to condemn or disagree with him. Yet even though his character was admirable, his intellect astounding, and his love obvious, I am still surprised that he became a conspirator to murder. Author Eric Metaxas, a man of faith and quite bright, spent more than a year studying Bonhoeffer before writing the book. The author is convinced that Bonhoeffer felt a genuine call from God.
The volume was a great story, well told. If like you like hero stories or intrigue, or if you are a person of faith this book is worth your while.
Your turn: Please share a movie or book that inspired you.
Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.”