Book review: Bonhoeffer Abridged

Bonhoeffer Abridged: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy confused me in its title. Not having heard of the 2011 original by Eric Metaxas, I expected a sampler of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings. Instead, the book is a condensed version of a much longer one published three years ago. I didn’t realize that until several days after finishing the book, and now the reading makes more sense. While the abridging was done well, the narrative feels as if something is missing. Some scenes are described in great detail, while other parts are left untouched. Particularly jarring is the set of paragraphs that briefly dismiss claims of anti-Semitism against Martin Luther. While that may be the informed opinion of a scholar who has devoted much time and research, the issue is too weighty (and too tangential to Bonhoeffer’s story) to mention and undercut in the same breath.

My favorite part of the book is the description of his meeting, courtship, and engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer. In the midst of a grim tale about one of humanity’s darkest times, the tenderness of their story appealed even to the cynic inside of me. Snippets of their letters to each other are contextualized in a wonderfully humanizing touch. Well done.

If I have any criticism of Bonhoeffer Abridged, it is ideological rather than structural. The story’s pacing is a bit uneven and could have been trimmed more gently. I personally would have liked more description of his childhood, but that’s a quibble.

However, this portrait of a gentle, pious man who plotted murder fails to examine its subject’s contradictions. Is this a failing of the book? Not necessarily. Metaxas’ writing is lucid and accessible, if sometimes a bit simplistic. The simplifying, however, is necessary to keep the writing accessible to a general audience. But the real issue, for me, is Bonhoeffer’s jaw-dropping defiance of his church and society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a name spoken in hushed tones today, a name that commands respect and devotion. If he lived in our current society, though, he would be reviled by at least some who would view him as a troublemaker, renegade, and imprisoned criminal.

Would Bonhoeffer want a legacy of safe, complacent Christianity that congratulates itself for its deeds? I doubt it. I would have liked to see at least some reference of this in Bonhoeffer Abridged. On the other hand, there is a curious paradox of writing: The better the book, the better I expect it to be. If I wanted more from Bonhoeffer Abridged, it’s because Metaxas’ writing and scholarship are capable of it.

Well worth the read. I’m thinking of buying a copy for a Christmas gift this year.


Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing


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