Volume 44 - Issue 2

The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump

by Stephen R. Haynes

Over the past 15 years, Stephen Haynes, Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, has been the leading surveyor of the cultural reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the United States. Haynes’s work has demonstrated the varieties of Bonhoeffer interpretation from various segments of the theological spectrum, ranging from the liberal Bonhoeffer to the conservative Bonhoeffer. In particular, Haynes’s work The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portrait of a Protestant Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) mapped out the territory of Bonhoeffer reception, indicating the ways in which various theological traditions tend to focus on particular works of Bonhoeffer while downplaying others, and demonstrating that Bonhoeffer’s theology has been notoriously easy to bend towards the readers’ predilections. In The Battle for Bonhoeffer, Haynes continues his project of surveying the use of Bonhoeffer in America by focusing on the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer in the era of Trump, analyzing how Bonhoeffer has been utilized in the political and cultural battles raging in the lead up to and during the first stages of the Trump presidency.

Early in the book, Haynes tracks the evangelical engagement with Bonhoeffer in the years before the presidency of George W. Bush. In doing so, Haynes analyzes how the reception of Bonhoeffer’s theology among evangelicals moved from a period of reservation about Bonhoeffer’s liberal theological education and worry about concerning aspects of his theology to a full embrace of Bonhoeffer as a moral hero. In this short survey, the main theme of The Battle for Bonhoeffer emerges: What explains the evangelical embrace of Bonhoeffer? Why has he been placed into the pantheon of evangelical heroes alongside Lewis, Graham, and others? Haynes believes this move to evangelical sainthood occurred because, as the culture wars were heating up in the 1980s and 1990s, evangelicals needed heroes who could be guides in that war. Making connections to Bonhoeffer’s battles with the emerging forces of Nazism in the 1930s, and his role in resisting Nazism, evangelicals found a figure who could be a guide to faithfulness to following Christ in a hostile culture. Focusing primarily on Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship allowed the evangelical church to absorb aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology that were most amenable to evangelicalism and so raise Bonhoeffer’s status as a guide to the church in dark times.

Haynes then turns to evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer during and after the Bush presidency, with the hinge figure in this story being Eric Metaxas, who established a new audience for Bonhoeffer in popular evangelicalism through his best seller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). Metaxas offered a full-throated endorsement of Bonhoeffer as a foil to the liberal cultural dominance of the Obama years, providing a picture of Bonhoeffer as one who was aligned with the evangelical cause and so able to guide evangelicalism through the sense of being under attack in the American culture. Haynes continues the book by tracking “the Bonhoeffer moment” in evangelicalism, by which he refers to the increase in engagement with Bonhoeffer in the era of the Trump presidency. He shows that numerous influential evangelical commentators, often dependent upon Metaxas’s depiction of Bonhoeffer, appealed to Bonhoeffer in the key issues of the culture wars and the evangelical desire to maintain power and influence over the culture. A populist Bonhoeffer has arisen in the intersection of Metaxas’s biography and the rise of Trump. Haynes offers a searching critique of this populist Bonhoeffer, demonstrating the incompatibility of this figure with the historical Bonhoeffer.

Haynes’s book puts before evangelicalism important questions regarding our relationship to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: What is the place of Bonhoeffer in the era of Trump? What should be the relationship between Bonhoeffer and American evangelicalism? While there is plenty in his theology that evangelicalism can and should utilize, we must honestly recognize that Bonhoeffer is not an American evangelical. Metaxas’s book has deep flaws, and Haynes is right to query evangelical devotion to Bonhoeffer if that devotion is based on him being one of our tribe. He is not. Haynes offers insight into how and why Bonhoeffer has been forced into the mold of evangelicalism, and how this has resulted in evangelicals being unable to grasp Bonhoeffer’s own theological commitments and purposes fully. If evangelicalism is to appropriate Bonhoeffer as a guide in our time, then we must do it with integrity, recognizing the places of difference between Bonhoeffer and the evangelical tradition. Haynes’s book should be read by evangelicals who look to Bonhoeffer as it provides us with a needed perspective on Bonhoeffer’s theological inheritance and the areas where we are prone to misappropriating Bonhoeffer’s theology. Rejecting the populist Bonhoeffer doesn’t mean rejecting Bonhoeffer; rather, it means having a more nuanced, and so more honest relationship to Bonhoeffer, and a better understanding of the ways he can be a resource for evangelical theology.

Joel D. Lawrence

Joel D. Lawrence
Central Baptist Church
St Paul, Minnesota, USA

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