Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and the Uses of History

I'm very pleased to post the following from my friend Carolyn Dupont, Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University and author of a forthcoming, very important study entitled Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, a revision of her Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Kentucky. Oh, and in her spare time, she runs marathons. 

By Carolyn Dupont

A few nights ago, I heard prolific author Eric Metaxas talk about his new book, Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.   The book continues to garner glowing reviews and to sell briskly after reaching the top slot on the New York Times bestseller list last September.  Not surprisingly, Metaxas drew a large and friendly audience.  Funny, engaging, and openly evangelical, he recounted—to the extent possible in a one-hour lecture—the life, theology, courage, and final end of the German pastor who openly opposed the Nazi regime, joined a plot to kill Hitler, and paid with his life.  Metaxas argued that an increasingly secular society has buried such stories of faith-inspired heroism, and he has embarked on a mission of recovery. The audience clearly found the talk inspiring.

Metaxas emphasized Bonhoeffer’s willingness to engage hard questions and his devotion to rigorous thinking. Yet disappointingly, he did not invite his audience of conservative Presbyterians to a similar examination.  Instead, he offered a simple story of heroism that drew a straight and uncomplicated line from “real Christianity” to Bonhoeffer’s courageous deeds.  Against the knowledge that adherents of the Christian faith have eagerly abetted the very worst social injustices—material familiar to the readers of this blog—such a narrative requires interrogation. Explaining only that Bonhoeffer “believed the Bible was the Word of God,” embraced very “orthodox” beliefs, and criticized the liberal theology of his German coreligionists, Metaxas implied that his audience would recognize Bonhoffer’s version of the faith as much like their own.

Yet, little in the denominational history of the church where Metaxas spoke suggests their faith resembles the German pastor’s.  This communion, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), formed in 1973 when fundamentalist elements withdrew from the Southern Presbyterian Church. The personnel and institutions that created the new communion came largely from the Deep South, and many had engaged actively in resistance to the struggle for black equality.  Among them, Dr. Donald Patterson of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi chaired the steering committee that founded the new PCA.  Leaders of the Citizens’ Council (a grass-roots group devoted to white supremacy) enjoyed positions of power and responsibility in Patterson’s congregation; his church openly denied admission to black worshippers and had established a Christian school in 1965 to service the needs of whites when public school segregation collapsed under the demands of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Another important architect of the PCA, G. Aiken Taylor, labored prodigiously to undermine the quest for black equality as the Magnolia State writhed in turmoil in the mid-1960s.  Most noteworthy among these endeavors, he corresponded with Erle Johnston, head of Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission, feeding him information in an effort to sabotage civil rights activity and asking him to supply similar intelligence for use in articles in the conservative Presbyterian Journal.  Taylor especially sought material that might challenge the religious legitimacy of black Mississippians connected to the struggle.

Personal and institutional connections aside, the new communion enshrined a theology—a version of real Christianity, if you will—that had supported and serviced these believers well as they rejected black demands for equality and personhood.  Among the PCA’s most prized doctrines, they regarded the church as a spiritual institution that had no business “meddling in political affairs.”  In fact, this group regarded the new denomination as necessary to preserve their own more pure theology against the accursed “liberalism” and weak commitments to biblical inerrancy of the parent denomination.  This more liberal theology of the parent faith balanced of “spirituality of the church” with a notion of social justice based on the life and teachings of Jesus and had informed its support (belated though it was) of black Americans’ struggle for equality. 

Indeed, understanding the nature of “real Christianity” in times of social crisis becomes precisely the problem.  Never are arguments about the meanings of the faith more vociferous and salient than in times of extraordinary upheaval.  When on the cusp of dramatic alterations to the social order, people find themselves hotly debating the meanings of their faith—as in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime, on the eve of the American Civil War, or during the American civil rights movement.  Not coincidentally, Christianity fragments in these times, as abstractions about the essence and implications of faith acquire the most concrete consequences. 

Drawing an uncomplicated line between Christian faith and Bonhoeffer’s heroism (Metaxas’s depiction) obscures a central problem: people deeply implicated in evil social systems from which they benefit find it difficult—nigh unto impossible—to identify the wickedness in these systems.  What, exactly, differentiated Bonhoeffer’s faith from the presumably counterfeit versions that sustain and defend heinous corporate crimes?  How exactly did Bonhoeffer, who “believed the Bible was the Word of God,” determine that God willed him to help assassinate the Führer rather than to “be subject unto the higher powers” as admonished in Romans 13:1?
A rich irony rang as this PCA congregation in Lexington, Kentucky, so committed to a theology that undermines social justice, celebrated Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of their own.   Most of the sincere and decent people who worship there probably know little of their history, and they likely fail to appreciate their theology’s utter inadequacy for challenging systemic sin.  Perhaps congregations serious about discovering and living out “real Christianity” should entertain some of the questions above in order to discover why the faith so frequently fails to live up to its benevolent and ameliorative promise.  Given my understanding of the man, Bonhoeffer might have asked just these questions.


Paul M. said…
Great post, Carolyn. Thank you. I'm looking forward to your book.

I'm reminded of this lack of introspection every MLK Day when many of my evangelical Facebook friends post quotes from MLK Jr.
Elesha said…
The PCA narrates its split in terms of gender roles rather than race. Makes me wonder how much gender was the/an issue originally, and how much the narration changed after, as Seth Dowland writes, Southern evangelicals shifted their energies from defending no-longer-defensible racial segregation to defending "traditional" gender roles.
John G. Turner said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John G. Turner said…
I heard Metaxas speak on the same topic several years ago. He was indeed incredibly witty and very engaging. Your critique is well founded. I left wondering exactly how Metaxas thought Christians today could learn from Bonhoeffer's courage and boldness.
Curtis J. Evans said…
so good to see your post. One of your most profound comments that really struck was the following: "Christianity fragments in these times [of dramatic alterations to the social order], as abstractions about the essence and implications of faith acquire the most concrete consequences." Looking forward to your book being published. Any articles on the way?
Carolyn Dupont said…
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all. Elesha, it is very interesting that some of the PCA material I have just before the split doesn't discuss gender at all, but race and theology are everywhere! Curtis, thanks for asking, but no new articles until I put the finishing touches on this book manuscript.
Jeffrey Gang said…
Thank you for this excellent post on Metaxes' take on Bonhoeffer, and those who are attracted to his reinterpretation this great man.

It astounds me how Evangelicals happily bypass many of his theological views, of which I think are essential to Bonhoeffer, in order to claim him as their own.
Doug Anderson said…
I sent round here (Northwestern College, RCA) to my colleagues your post, since I know folks have read or are reading Metaxis. I commended it as provocative for thinking about evangelicals and heroes. However, I got a response from a colleague who is a grad of Covenant Seminary, St. Louis. (My colleague is not, however, PCA, nor is he a blogger.) My colleague raises some things, however, about which I wonder how you would answer: viz., the PCA you describe is not what he experienced. Furthermore, there is a 2004 Pastoral Statement on Racism. Thus, the colleague wonders if your reflections about the PCA are too shaped by the past (your dissertation-becoming-book) and are thus misrepresenting the current PCA? "Misguided synedoche" is the phrase my colleague used ... I am RCA, myself, and was raised PCUSA, so, I have no experience with the PCA past or present. But, there is a PCA congregation in town now (a new start), so, I am interested as a friendly but ignorant bystander.
Carolyn Dupont said…
Doug, Thanks for sending this and for sharing my post with others. The PCA has repudiated racism, as has the SBC and other religious groups who were not exactly champions of racial equality. And the PCA also brought in some other groups later (in the 1980s) that had no association with the kind of activity I describe in my piece. So my point is not that the PCA are racists (which of course, is not the same as supporting systems that oppress!) Rather, I demonstrate that their origins have a great deal to do with the struggle against the civil rights movement. Perhaps even more important in my piece are the points about their theology. The essential doctrines they embrace (and which they formed the PCA to protect) did not help them in recognizing and combating social evil a la Bonhoeffer--quite the opposite. In fact, some of the Christian leaders with whom Bonhoeffer associated (Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr to mention two) are the very theologians that PCA founders repudiated. Thus I find it disappointing that Metaxas doesn't dig deeply into the question of how Christians can recognize social evils--he simply assumes that they will. As historians know, it just simply isn't the case. And Christians who want to be a force for good in the world would do well to ask what theological approaches have historically motivated Christians to "do the right thing." Of course, figuring out what is that "right thing" is the first problem!

Hope that helps! Carolyn
Doug Anderson said…
Thanks, Carolyn! I've forwarded your further comments to my colleague. (... and I will try to spell Metaxas correctly this time ...)
Russ said…
"The book continues to garner glowing reviews..." Perhaps, though I have yet to see a positive review of the book from a scholar of Bonhoeffer or 20th c. Germany. Consider, for example, reviews from Clifford Green (general editor of the new editions of Bonheoffer's works) in Christian Century, or by Richard Weikart, an historian of Nazism.

Popular Posts