Posted in book reviews

One man who changed the world

WilbeforceOne of my favorite movies is “Amazing Grace,” the 2006 film recounting the life of William Wilberforce, the late 18th/early 19th century crusader against the slave trade. When buying Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Monarch Books, 2007), I wondered if it would be as good as the cinematic production. The answer is: It’s not as good. It’s better.

Metaxas brings the sure hand of a veteran storyteller to his subject matter. Though he did much research for the book, he avoids footnoting, preferring instead to move the narrative along at a brisk clip, unburdened by any academic apparatus. (At the back of the book, he points interested readers to more scholarly books on Wilberforce). With wit and an engaging style, the author transports the reader back to the time when the slave trade every year saw 50,000 Africans kidnapped (mostly from the West African coast) and transported in horrific conditions across the Atlantic to the West Indies and the American colonies. Those who survived – sometimes as few as half on-board – lived short and brutal lives on sugar plantations on Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitt.

Through the pages of Amazing Grace, one key lesson emerges: If you know your cause is just, never give up. It took twenty years of sweat and toil as a team of abolitionists led by Wilberforce for Parliament to finally outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire. Though tempted at times to give up, the MP from Yorkshire – a mere 5 foot 3 inches and sickly – proved to be small but mighty.

Yet Metaxas tempered this heroic portrayal in important ways, humanizing the protagonist. Wilberforce’s cause took him away from his family, so much that one time his young son didn’t recognize his own father when Wilberforce took him screaming from the house maid’s arms! Metaxas also noted Wilberforce’s tendency to jump from one topic to another, finding it hard to discipline himself and stay focused on one subject. Wilberforce himself attributed this to the raucous lifestyle that he lived at Cambridge as a young man, where he never learned to focus sufficiently on study. To what degree this was influenced as well by his decades-long dependence upon opium to treat his colitis is also not clear.

Metaxas’ biography makes at least two major contributions that go beyond the film. First, he delves much deeper into Wilberforce’s Christian faith, talking about his conversion (the “Great Change”) and how he was influenced by Methodism, the stricter form of belief promulgated in the 18th century by George Whitefield and John Wesley. In contrast to those giants of faith, the author does a commendable job showing how Wilberforce lived a much sunnier form of evangelical faith including a ready wit and positive celebration of life’s wholesome joys. Secondly, Metaxas explains how Wilberforce’s Christian faith informed his concern for the numerous other social causes he promoted. These included prison reform, successfully passing a bill through Parliament to open up India for missionary work (which included abolition of the ritual burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands) and founding the SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

All-in-all, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery does an excellent job of providing further details necessarily cut-out of a 2 hour movie. I read the book in about 12 hours over two days and found myself pulled along by the story, impressed by the skill of the author. Other than two very small errors in the text, the editing was excellent and the still color photos from the movie welcome. Christians who marry personal piety with social action informed by faith will appreciate this well-drawn portrait of a great man.


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Posted in book reviews

Bonhoeffer: a new portrait for a new generation

bonhoeffer_featureI’ve always enjoyed a good biography, but have to tell you: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010; Kindle edition) is not good. It is very good.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a world-class theologian who opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler and ultimately was jailed and hanged for his involvement in the plot on the Führer’s life. That episode is the best-known part of the German martyr’s story. What Metexas adds is a vivid description of Bonhoeffer’s life prior to that chapter, painting with a clear and readable style a sympathetic portrait of the man celebrated for The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.

Much in Metaxas’ portrayal was new to me, including the extent to which Karl Barth’s theology influenced Bonhoeffer and the latter’s distaste for the liberal theology prominent at New York’s Union Theological Seminary where he studied  in 1930-31. Also endearing was Bonhoeffer’s love of music – he was an accomplished pianist – and the details of his engagement and letter writing to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

The book is replete with excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s books, addresses, and letters. These reveal how important he thought practical and recurrent experience in pastoring was. In this way, theology never becomes distant or detached. Instead, it was to be hammered out in the life of the community of faith. He pastored churches in Barcelona and London, and always sensed tension between his hunger to pursue both the life of theological academia and the work of a parish minister.

Here’s a sample of some of the sections I highlighted as I was reading:

“For many Germans, their national identify had become so melted together with whatever Lutheran Christian faith they had that it was impossible to see either clearly. After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was any more.” – Metaxas, p. 174

“The question is really: Christianity of Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day, the better.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 183

“He was convinced that a church that was not willing to stand up for the Jews in its midst was not the real church of Jesus Christ. On that, he was quite decided.” – Metaxas, p. 186

“First they came fo the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller, cited by Metaxas, p. 192

“Bonhoeffer was constantly joking, whether verbally or in other ways.” – Metaxas, p. 201

“Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 241

“Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him.” – Metaxas, p. 248

“Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise. To me it seems that peace and social justice are such things, as is Christ himself.” – D. Bonhoeffer, cited by Metaxas, p. 260

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a Protestant saint. For this reason, it is frowned upon to criticize him. To his credit, Metaxas does not present him as a perfect man. Bonhoeffer’s doubts and fears emerged particularly in his conversations with Eberhard Bethge, who was a close friend and became a confessor to him. In Metaxas’ estimation, Bonhoeffer could also come across as an elitist, stand-offish to the point of seeming arrogant. These are darker shades that add texture to the canvas.

One weakness in the book is the tone of the discussion questions at the end. They are written in a time and culture-bound way, from an American, right-wing Republican perspective. This is unfortunate for the international reader, introducing a parochial and ephemeral element to a book that otherwise deals with universal, lasting themes.

The book’s and Bonhoeffer’s weaknesses aside, there is much to admire about the young German man who was not content to rest in the realm of theory. Instead, he moved to action at a time when action and not merely discussion was most needed. Eric Metaxas is to be commended for winsomely introducing a new generation to an exceptional leader.


Image credit: Baylor Institute