Tag Archives: biography

Review: Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas | biography

Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Subtitled “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,”
Bonhoeffer traces the shaping of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and life from childhood until his execution in 1945 as an enemy of the Third Reich.

This interesting and educational account is scholarly enough for academics yet accessible to the average reader. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly intelligent as well as intensely committed to living out his faith. Some of the quotes from his writings, shared to illustrate the progression of his understanding of his calling, are more intellectual than I easily digest, but others are practical enough for all.

Watching Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent destruction of the German nation helps readers understand the times. It reveals how this man, a committed Christian and a conscientious objector to fighting in the German army, could feel compelled to be part of a plot to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s observations of the German church (and the American church) troubled him. “What is the church?” (as in what is the church supposed to be) was his life-long question. To him, it involved listening to God and obeying Him in full trust and submission. His part in the church came to mean working to end the injustices inflicted on the Jews, the handicapped, and those who opposed Hitler’s evil ways.

The description of the “well-meaning Christians in Germany” raised troubling parallels in the present day:

They were convinced that if they bent their theology a bit, it wouldn’t matter—the results would be all right in the end. Many of them honestly believed that under Hitler the opportunities for evangelism would increase. [p. 155-156]

At times I felt the writing was overly complex:

Public figures eager to curry favor with the increasingly popular dictator would outdo each other in contorted calisthenics of sycophancy. [p. 307]

At other times, I appreciated the chance to laugh:

Indeed, for two days the British engaged in diplomatic back and forth, but at some point someone lent Chamberlain a vertebra, for against Hitler’s calculations, on Sunday, Great Britain declared war. [p. 348]

Perhaps what impacted me most was a quote from Bonhoeffer about grief:

Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. [p. 349]

Thought-provoking discussion questions offer readers the chance to process what they’ve read—and to apply it to the times in which they live.

The book was published to honour the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death and went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Eric Metaxas has written biographies of other Christian figures as well as other books, including over 30 books for children. For more about the author, visit ericmetaxas.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Champlain’s Dream, by David Hackett Fischer


Champlain’s Dream, by David Hackett Fischer (Knopf Canada, 2008)

I don’t read a lot of biographies or lengthy non-fiction, partly because they’re – well – long and potentially dry. But when a friend told me about an interview she’d seen with the author of Champlain’s Dream, it caught my attention.

After all, Champlain is part of  my local history. And I’d just read Susan Young de Biagi’s novel, Cibou, set in the same time frame. Plus, based on my friend’s report, Samuel de Champlain sounded like a genuinely nice person.

Author David Hackett Fischer is a well-respected historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book, Washington’s Crossing. I’m not in his league, and make no pretence of reviewing this book in a scholarly light (although 100 pages of source notes and a slew of detailed appendices support my impression of its integrity).

Champlain’s Dream is a good read, at times compelling, laced with surprising touches of humour and sensory details to draw the reader into key scenes. The author clearly knows his settings first-hand. He also knows how to bring a wealth of research to life in engaging prose. My fears of dry academia were unfounded. (Although I didn’t push it to read the appendices.)

The book is a balanced portrayal of a key historical figure – neither idealized nor vilified, but objectively and fairly drawn. As a fiction writer, I appreciated how Professor Fischer traced the development of Champlain’s character in his formative years during France’s terrible wars of religion. As a Christian, I found it refreshing to see Champlain’s faith treated with the same respect given to the other facets of his life.

Professor Fischer writes, “Champlain believed that Christianity made men more free, ‘plus libre’ in his phrase. He was thinking of grace as liberation from sin, and of Christianity as the freedom to be one with Christ in communion with other free souls.” [p.319] Works for me!

Samuel de Champlain was a man of his time, similar to us in some ways but with an outlook that was in other ways very distant from ours today. His politics, relationships and faith were part of his worldview.

Champlain’s vision was of a new world where people of all nations could live together in freedom, with mutual tolerance and respect. His command and tactical abilities, problem-solving skills and thirst for exploration made a great contribution to the development of a large section of North America, and his writings and maps are a rich legacy.

Champlain’s Dream is currently available in hardcover and audio book, with a trade paperback version coming in October 2009. For an overview of the contents, visit the Knopf Canada website.

To read an excerpt from the introduction to Champlain’s Dream, click here. By the way, this is one introduction you don’t want to skip. It’s interesting and lays the groundwork for the rest of the book.

Thank you, Professor Fischer, for introducing me to a remarkable man (and opening my eyes to how few explorers shared his largeness of heart). He sounds like a genuinely nice person indeed, and it’s good to know there’ve been a few.