By Gustav Niebuhr
How many Americans, over their first cup of coffee of the day, ask themselves, “I wonder what our 43rd president is up to?” The question is likely to be left hanging, as relatively little information seems to make its way to print from George W. Bush’s life back in Texas. Except, that is, for this week, when a nugget appeared in the Post’s “Political Bookworm,” informing us that the former president is reading a new biography of one of the greatest Christian figures of the 20th century, the theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The source of the information? None other than the former First Lady, Laura Bush.
The book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, hit the stores a few months back. To judge by reader reviews on Amazon.com, it’s got a lot of fans. It’s also nearly 600 pages long.
You could argue, easily, the book’s size is necessary to do justice to Bonhoeffer, whose searching moral decision to join in a plot against Hitler will likely render him a compelling figure as long as people remember the demonic Third Reich.
And yet, not to be snide–I mean it–rather few people would automatically associate reading a 600-page book with the second President Bush.
Why is that? The former president often publicly mangled his syntax, as the news media liked to point out. But that says nothing about a person’s reading habits. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove said, time and again, that his boss read–apparently, for pleasure.
But we needn’t take Rove’s word for it. Look at the obvious: Bush married a librarian. Yes, that was Laura Bush’s profession. A Southern Methodist U. grad, with a bachelor’s degree in education, she taught school, then got her master’s in library science at UT Austin. Profiles describe her as a dedicated reader. What do you think sits on their nightstand?
Add to that, as president, Bush never shied from discussing his Christian faith. Why shouldn’t a book about a historically remarkable Lutheran pastor appeal to him?
The more interesting question is, what Bush is getting from his reading? Does Bonhoeffer challenge, confirm or add to the former president’s understanding of Christianity?
The question is as difficult as it is intriguing, made more so by the radical distance between a comfortable life in consumerist America (which so many of us lead) and the utterly rare dedication displayed by Bonhoeffer when he unflinchlingly placed his allegiance to God far above the loyalty demanded by the Nazi state, which regarded itself as godlike.
Bonhoeffer stepped out on a road that would lead to his martyrdom almost from the day Hitler took power; twice, he rejected opportunities for lengthy absences in India and the United States because he believed he belonged in Germany. A fierce critic of “cheap grace,” he lived the toughest grace a human being can earn, which is why so many accord him the status of martyr– and of a special kind–the human being who works with purpose and dedication (but shorn of debilitating pride) against rank evil.
But even then, Bonhoeffer eludes our attempts to reduce him to mere hero. His appeal is across the Christian theological spectrum (and to non-Christians, as well). A complicated character in a hellishly harrowing time, Bonhoeffer offers us different aspects that can be taken for the whole man.
Faced with a nation that worshipped Hitler, he declared Christ above all. On his first stay in the United States, in 1930, he found the Social Gospel preached at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem so profoundly affecting that he retained a lifelong belief in partnering with God to help the poor and oppressed. There was Bonhoeffer the Christian man of action, who did not absolve himself of guilt in his political activities. And there was the theologian who found the world’s realities in the image of Jesus on the cross.
“… Long did we seek you, freedom, in the discipline, action and suffering,” he wrote, in a poem from prison, before his April 1945 execution, on Hitler’s orders. “Now that we die, in the face of God, we behold you.”
Which Bonhoeffer is George W. Bush encountering? As noted, with his dedicated focus on Christ, Bonhoeffer has long appealed to people who lean toward the theologically conservative, especially American evangelicals. His commitment to social ministry inspires many ranks of more liberal admirers. And Bonhoeffer’s clear status of an a man of action, who put all at risk to defy Hitler–well, who doesn’t find that moving?
I guess I want to know what Bush does next. Will he move on to Bonhoeffer’s own works, including his prison writings? Will he be so intrigued as to make a trip to the library to check out Eberhard Bethge’s comprehensive biography of Bonhoeffer, re-published a decade ago by Fortress Press? Talk about going to the source! Bethge was a student of Bonhoeffer and later married the theologian’s niece.
Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography clocks in at somewhere under 1,100 pages. As an ex-president, Bush must have some time on his hands.
Dear Readers, is reading about Bonhoeffer likely to affect Bush? And, if so, how?