Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Seven Men by Eric Metaxas

For those of you who were interested in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas but were scared of the 624 pages, you should pick up a copy of Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness (April, 2013), which is only about 200 pages.

I read the Bonhoeffer book, and enjoyed it immensely, but it would have been a better book without about 150 pages (don’t ask me which 150 pages to cut, though).

In Seven Men Metaxas tells the story of, yes, you guessed it… seven men.  The 624 pages of Bonhoeffer is condensed into a chapter of 24 pages, alongside similarly sized chapters telling the stories of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Charles Colson.  

Before going any further, I must say I’ve loved reading Seven Men and will recommend it to the rest of my family, particularly my two teenage sons.

While it is not obvious from the title, Metaxas focuses on the faith of these individuals, which include two athletes (Liddell, Robinson), three politicians (Washington, Wilberforce and Colson) and two professional Christians (Bonhoeffer, JPII).  I would have liked to know how he decided upon these seven–why these seven?

And while I might be tempted to critique him for not including great Christian men from all over the globe, I appreciate the fact that he didn’t just include 7 Americans.  He chose:
3 Americans (Washington, Robinson and Colson),
2 English (Wilberforce, Liddell),
1 German (Bonhoeffer) and
1 Pole (JPII).

Here are some of the best bits (no spoilers yet, although see below):

1) Washington: The Father of our nation had no sons of his own.  He could have made the US into a monarchy with him as king.  Shortly before he died he rewrote his will to free all his slaves.

2) Wilberforce: Metaxas  wrote Amazing Grace the book because he was invited to do so by a publisher so that it would coincide with the film, Amazing Grace, that was already in the works.  Wilberforce memorized Psalm 119 (and I can’t even finish writing my blogs on the chapter).

3) Liddell: He discovered that the 100 meter trials would be on Sunday, not on the boat (as in “Chariots of Fire”), but the previous fall.  The story of him in the internment camp in China at the end of WWII was deeply moving.  He was scheduled to be freed in a prisoner swap shortly before the war ended, but he gave his place up to a pregnant woman.

4) Bonhoeffer: He was willing to learn from people he disagreed with, like liberal academics like Adolf von Harnack at Berlin University.  An African American from Alabama (Frank Fisher) had a deep impact on him while he was in New York and Fisher brought Robinson him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.  While in NY, he attended there every Sunday.

5) Robinson: His faith was crucial to his ability to not respond violent to horrific racism.  Branch Rickey (GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers) guided Robinson to the Sermon on the Mount to help him deal with racism (“turn the other cheek”).

6) Pope John Paul II: Before JPII, it had been 456 years since a non-Italian was chosen as Pope (Adrian VI, a Dutchman).  I love that Metaxis, a Protestant, chose a Catholic in this list.  I’m sure he’ll take flack for that decision.  I applaud it.

7) Colson: He single-handedly took a creative image of 2nd birth from Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus (John 3:3) and transformed it into a catchy book title (Born Again), which then became a cliche in Christian culture.  His conversation was surprisingly emotional for an ex-Marine / Nixonian Watergate hatchetman.  Metaxis and Colson had a close personal relationship.

An unexpected perk, the hardback version stayed open nicely while I was riding on my exercise bike.

Spoiler alert: All seven have now died.

So, who are your top seven?  

Good Friday and Two WWII Prisoners (Bonhoeffer and Zamperini

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Louis Zamperini.  Two WWII prisoners of war.  One imprisoned in Germany, the other in Japan.  One survives, the other is killed.  Two books published in 2010.

I’ve just finished reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (by Eric Metaxas, author of Amazing Grace) and Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit).

I didn’t say, “Hey, I feel like reading books about WWII prisoners of war.”  It was rather random.  My father recommended Bonhoeffer and my neighbor Steve recommended Unbroken.  But as I was reflecting upon life and death on this Good Friday morning, I was struck by the similarities and differences between these two men, and wondered about their fates.

Why did Zamperini survive his multiple-year imprisonment and Bonhoeffer didn’t?

louis zamperini

Zamperini was an Olympic athlete (5000 meters), who actually met Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  In 1942, he was part of a US Air Force crew that was forced to take out a damaged plane on a rescue mission and their plane crashed into a remote region of the South Pacific.  For 47 days he and the pilot floated in a raft, until they were picked up by the Japanese.  Unbroken tells his amazing story of survival in the midst of starvation and torture.  He should have died multiple times, but miraculously survived.  Not really a spiritual man, he prayed for deliverance along the way.  (As they say, “No atheists in fox holes.”)  God heard his prayer and he survived.  Zamperini had a more dramatic conversion post-war involving Billy Graham.  He’s still alive today at 96 years-old.  There are some gruesome bits in the book, but overall it’s a great story.  I highly recommend it.  Hopefully, to be made into a film like Seabiscuit.

Pastor_Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was a theologian (which doesn’t sound as exciting as a martyr, prophet or spy, but trust me, our lives are just as exciting as spies) who stood up to the Nazi’s during WWII.  His books are classics: Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship (#1 Seed in Greatest Christian Books of All Time, March Madness edition).  While at times I thought Metaxas’ book included too many quotations from letters, books and other documents, everything written by Bonhoeffer was gold.  A great read.  Personally, inspiring to me, as I humbling try to follow Bonhoeffer’s example (not getting killed by the Nazi’s though, hopefully).  Bonhoeffer was captured in April 1943 and executed in April 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp.  What a waste!

So, why did God allow Bonhoeffer to die at age 39 when he could have written so much more?  What was God thinking?  One might assume that God would be more interested in preserving the life of his devoted servant (Bonhoeffer) more than Zamperini, who was far from living a pious life.

Of course for that matter, I guess the same could be said for Jesus.  What a waste!  He could have done a lot more if God had allowed him to live to a ripe old age like Louis Zamperini.  But then, our sins wouldn’t be atoned for.  That would be a bad thing, particularly for those of us like me who have a lot of sins that require atonement.  So, in a twisted way, I’m glad God didn’t spare Jesus’ life.

Thanks, God for sending your son to die for me, my family and my friends.  

I know Bonhoeffer’s death wasn’t necessary to atone for the sins of the world, so why did God not allow him to survive?

It’s good to be afflicted…

BonhoefferMy dad called yesterday.  He was clearly excited.  He left a message at my office then called me at home.  He was reading through the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The allusion to the George Smiley novel might be enough to entice one to read it.

“David”  (My Dad calls me by my full name.)  “I just read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s favorite verse in the Bible.  Guess what it is.”

“There’s a lot to choose from, Dad.  I have no idea.”  (It was about 5:00 pm–I’m low energy at that point in time.)

“Make a wild stab at it.”

“OK.  How about something from Psalm 119?”

“Yes.  Actually, Psalm 119, verse 71–It was good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.  You and Bonhoeffer share a love for Psalm 119.”  (See my 40-plus blog posts on Psalm 119.)

“Yes, Dad.  That’s true.”

Bonhoeffer was reflecting on this verse as he decided to leave the US to return to Germany, where within 3 years he would become a martyr.

While my health problems the past 5 months have seemed brutal to me, my afflictions are mild compared to what Bonhoeffer experienced.  But I am forced (reluctantly) to agree with the psalmist and the martyr, it is good to be afflicted. It forces us to be more dependent upon God and God’s word.

Based on my father’s enthusiastic endorsement, my wife Shannon just ordered the Bonhoeffer book for me.  I’ll let you know how it is.

So, how do you feel about affliction?