Eric Metaxas, author and editor of an eclectic mix of writings, never intended to write biographies. Nonetheless, it was his work, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, that brought him to Samford University Tuesday, March 1, to accept Beeson Divinity School’s 2011 John Pollock Award for Christian Biography.
The Lord, “who is beyond logic,” said Metaxas, clearly led him to chronicle the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed in a concentration camp after opposing Adolph Hitler.
At the award presentation and worship service, Metaxas explained the beginnings of the Bonhoeffer book, which followed his well-received earlier biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.
“I knew if I ever wrote another biography, it would be on Bonhoeffer, a German pastor standing up for Jesus and standing against the Nazi’s,” said Metaxas, who has been a writer for Chuck Colson’s syndicated radio program, Breakpoint, a writer of children’s books for VeggieTales, and author of three books in the “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God” series.
His Samford audience in A. Gerow Hodges Chapel included students, faculty and community members who have become fans of the honoree through his public appearances and writing projects. Metaxas responded with a brief account of his own spiritual journey, and an overview of Bonhoeffer’s.
Bonhoeffer, born in 1906 to a large, accomplished family, decided as a teenager to become a theologian, said Metaxas. After earning a doctorate at age 21 and coming to the U.S. for seminary study in New York City, he was deeply affected by a visit to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. There, he found a “suffering congregation” living out its faith, and a fulfilling worship experience that was missing from his mainline Protestant church in Germany.
When he returned to Germany in 1931, it was as a more intense Christian himself, and to a different nation. “Germany had changed. The people were looking to the Nazi’s to lift them out of the shame of losing World War II. He saw how Germany had conflated church and state, and things of this world and things of God,” said Metaxas. Bonhoeffer, he said, saw that Germans were worshipping something not of God.
As the Nazi’s curtailed his public speaking, and he saw his possibilities for serving God become narrower, Bonhoeffer briefly fled to America in 1939. Back in Germany, however, he engaged in a conspiracy against Adolph Hitler. That involvement with the Third Reich as a double agent and his knowledge of a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler resulted in his being hanged in April, 1945.
While it is tempting to think of the ending of his life as merely an act of God, Bonhoeffer would rebuke that, said Metaxas. If God calls us for such a purpose, he will make something beautiful out of it. “Bonhoeffer went to the gallows with the peace of God.”
“If one really is a Christian and not just a churchgoer, and knows Jesus, there is no sting in death,” said Metaxas. “The story of Bonhoeffer encourages us to have that kind of faith.”
In presenting Metaxas with the Pollock Award, Beeson divinity dean Dr. Timothy George noted a Bonhoeffer quote that was printed on the morning’s worship program: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The Pollock award honors the prolific British writer and Christian biographer John C. Pollock, now in his nineties.
“He would be very pleased to know that this year’s award is going to Eric Metaxas,” said George.