Bad Scholarship, Bad Theology

Let’s be perfectly clear here: Eric Metaxas is nothing but a political hack. Nothing. But.

A writer for Culture Warrior Chuck Colson’s Breaking Point and a current hack author and talking head for evil political network Fox News and hack news network CNN, Metaxas read some stuff on the complex German theologian and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and wrote a book about how Bonhoeffer would have written for Breaking Point and commented at Fox News if he were alive now. Or something like that.

Metaxas, like much of White Evangelicalism, takes an iconic and rebellious figure like Bonhoeffer and whitewashes him. White Evangelicalism – particularly the more conservative wings, but not solely – consistently does the same with other radical movements and figures.
White Evangelicals claim the abolitionist movement as their own*, and the Civil Rights movement as their own. And Martin Luther King, Jr. as their own.

And if Dr. King were alive today, he would be against Affirmative Action and pro-color blind. Because restorative justice is racist, apparently. 

Jesus would want us to buy guns and shoot bad people.

And the same guy who wrote the radically egalitarian anti-hierarchical statement, “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free-born,” would want women to be subservient, want the rich to control the earth, and Americans to control everything else.

Not only do they defang these leaders, re-haloing them for their purposes, they completely co-opt them for a double-negative impact – both taking away from their messages of radical inclusion and justice and re-purposing them towards an agenda that is exclusionary and privileged for a small minority of people – particularly those who can afford privileges. And so Metaxas compares Bonhoeffer and his Barmen Declaration with conservative Evangelicalism and its Manhattan Declaration (this, by the way, is old hat for this group. They’ve already compared the MD, which is a religious-cloaked cultural assault against homosexuals and the poor, to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

[W]ere he alive today and living in America, costly grace for [Bonhoeffer] would likely mean preaching what the Word of God teaches about human sexuality**–even when activists and their allies in government try to suppress his work and attack his church***. Costly grace would mean standing against churches that mix radical new doctrines about marriage with Christian truth. Costly grace would mean standing up to a government attempting to force him to buy health insurance that violates his beliefs—even if it led to his arrest.
And costly grace would, I believe, lead him to sign the Manhattan Declaration in defense of human life, marriage, and religious liberty, just as he signed the Barmen Declaration, which I quote at length in my book.
Now I must say that Chuck Colson had the Barmen Declaration in mind when he co-authored the Manhattan Declaration. Chuck saw many parallels between what the church faced in Nazi Germany in the thirties and what faithful Christians are facing today in America.

Nazi cat forces you health care and gay marry.

Such views are based on bad scholarship, as Victoria J. Barnett, the editor for the English edition of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, and the Director of Church Relations for the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum explains. She speaks of Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer as “badly flawed.”

There are two central problems [with the subtly-named Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich]. The first is that he has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period. Hence he has pieced together the historical and theological backdrop for the Bonhoeffer story using examples from various works, sometimes completely out of context and often without understanding their meaning. He focuses too much on minor details and overlooks some of the major ones (such as the role of the Lutheran bishops and the “intact” churches). The second is that theologically, the book is a polemic, written to make the case that Bonhoeffer was in reality an evangelical Christian whose battle was not just against the Nazis but all the liberal Christians who enabled them.

But Metaxas also misunderstands the type of teaching that he promotes here:

All of this, however, leads to a selective misreading of Bonhoeffer’s theological development and a profound misunderstanding of what happened to the German churches between 1933 and 1945. The failure of the German Evangelical Church under Nazism was not that it was filled with formalistic, legalistic Lutherans who just needed to form a personal relationship to Jesus, but that it was filled with Christians whose understanding of their faith had so converged with German national culture that it tainted both their politics and their theology. (As an interesting aside, when I first interviewed Eberhard Bethge in 1985 he explicitly compared this kind of Protestantism to what he had seen of the American religious right. A thoughtful evangelical reading of the development of Bonhoeffer’s extensive writings on the church-state relationship and the public role of religion would be a major contribution to the field, but Metaxas doesn’t even mention that aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought). What Metaxas fails to grasp is that there were many devout, well-educated, Bible-reading Christians in Germany who read their Losung each morning and fully supported National Socialism.

You can read the whole review (and these critiques are just the tip of the Nazi iceberg) here. And then read Clifford Green’s critical review here. Green, by the by, is the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.

Descending to insult, even insulting the subject of his own book, is a sure sign that an author is in trouble. Why does he do this? Ostensibly because the death-of-God theologians, those “liberals,” have “hijacked” Bonhoeffer. But why whip a few writers who made a brief splash 40 years ago and who have had little or no influence on theology or the church? Because they function as straw men in his polarizing narrative about “orthodox Christians” and “liberals.” His real target is liberals, and not just theological liberals, but political liberals too.

Metaxas insults Bonhoeffer throughout his book by misrepresenting him. And he continues the insults on every given opportunity with bad scholarship, bad analysis, bad politics.

Such bad scholarship is based itself on bad theology – a theology that teaches its adherents to displace and de-contextualize whatever it is studying to fit our own prejudices. The bible, according to such theology, wasn’t written by men and women who live in a specific time and addressing specific issues for specific audiences and specific times – it was written, they believe, in a placeless heaven and has the same impact for White Conservative Evangelical Republicans as everybody else at all times. Which then means that other readings of the bible are incorrect because they are not understood through the particular lens of White Conservative Evangelicals. 

Metaxas’ “scholarship” leads conservative Evangelicalism to deny poor and marginalized people common rights and access under the guise of the “true” “Confessing church” – which he misrepresents.

But the true Confessing Church will not deny access. It will swing wide open the Kingdom of Heaven for all to enter. It will seek healing. It will feed. It will clothe. It will forgive debts.

That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is about. Not White, Middle Class Christian Hetero privilege.

*Yesterday, on a shared link from the Left Cheek page, I saw a woman argue that white Christian women were the ones most responsible for protesting slavery and freeing slaves in America. No shit. Guess all the black slaves were too busy enjoying their slavery to protest it.
Also, you know who the second largest proponents of American slavery was? White Christian women. Right behind White Christian men.
**ie, Gays can’t marry other gays! That’s gross and ungodly somehow or another!
***ie, Allowing gays to marry gays is persecution!!


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