President Bush meets Pastor Bonhoeffer (in 600 pages!)

By Gustav Niebuhr How many Americans, over their first cup of coffee of the day, ask themselves, “I wonder what … Continued

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, 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?

Gustav Niebuhr
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  • joe_allen_doty

    During his teen years, George W. Bush, had a paperback Bible. He made his mother think that he read it everyday. In G. W. Bush’s “official” biography, it was Billy Graham who led him in the “Sinner’s Prayer.”But, two other evangelists did the same thing before George H. W. Bush set up the meeting with Brother Graham.When I told one of my sisters about this, she asked, “How many times does a person have to repeat the Sinner’s Prayer before it takes?”

  • bdunn1

    I just hope Bush doesn’t try to tie Bonhoeffer to the Twin Towers attack like he initially blamed Saddam Hussein.

  • colahanb

    Gustav Niebuhr tries to set up a false dichotomy in Bonhoeffer’s thought by separating Bonhoeffer’s “lifelong belief in partnering with God to help the poor and oppressed” and Bonhoeffer’s finding “the world’s realities in the image of Jesus on the cross.” These are not two different ideas for Bonhoeffer. They are directly connected. By understanding the world through the image of Jesus suffering on the cross, Bonhoeffer sees the world from the perspective of the suffering people on this earth–the poor and oppressed. Christ is revealed in the poor and oppressed; to serve Christ is to serve them.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    When I told one of my sisters about this, she asked, “How many times does a person have to repeat the Sinner’s Prayer before it takes?”Posted by: joe_allen_doty Not even the christ of Billy Graham, I suspect.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    onofrio,HI! Please read John Mark Reynolds’ essay. It’s right up your disciplinary alley, ripe for comment. Mixing metaphors with desire, I hope you reply!

  • guyachs

    I guess the argument that can be made against Bush reading is the lack of information he seemed to bring to any discussion. That and his innate lack of curiosity about all subjects except sports. If he were well read, I believe he would have reacted quite differently to many situations. For instance he would have known there are tribes in Iraq and they don’t get along. He invaded that country knowing absolutely nothing about them and showed no interest in learning anything about them.

  • asizk

    In fcat clueless bush has nothing to do with Christianity: Christ was all bout peace and love-while bush was all about war and oil:he launched a war of choice on Iraq, destroyed it real badly, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, turned four million Iraqis into refugees and exiles and instigated an ugly secterian civil war-no such war ever ever happened in Iraqi history.Why are not bush and his criminal gang not standing before the international court of justice or a US court of justice for war crimes and crimes agianst humanities?

  • onofrio_

    I would suggest that Bush is being seen to read about Bonhoeffer because Bonhoeffer has become a brand that evangelicals sport to show that they’ve got gravitas, are conscientious about truth and justice, are hands-dirty about their theology…and other fantasies. They’ve recast Bonhoeffer as one of them – *Hey, our guy was trying to kill Hitler* – and anoint their egos in the shared aura of martyrdom. What’s being done with Bonhoeffer by the evangelicals is similar to what they’ve done with C S Lewis. The latter has been pre-digested and packaged for easy evangelical consumption – they invoke his name whenever they want to posture as intellectually engaged.

  • tojby_2000

    … I guess this means he’s turned in his book report on My Pet Goat.

  • hstahlke2

    I hope Bush goes on to read the Letters and Papers from Prison, the newer edition. There he’ll run into a theology that DB was growing into, one that transcends denomination and even Christianity itself. Evangelicals don’t talk about DB’s later writings. One of the great losses in DB’s death is that we never got to see how he would develop a religionless Christianity.Herb

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    It is pretty obvious that former President Bush was not much of a reader, no matter what his wife, or anybody else, might have us believe.

  • bigbrother1

    I guess he has a Secret Service agent on call to read the big words for him.But it doesn’t matter what Bush is “reading.” He proved long ago that his mind is completely sealed shut. No new information is ever allowed in. He just decidifies based on what he already thinks he knows.

  • letemhaveit

    Excuse my sceptcism that this idiot manchild would read. What about his ruinous two terms in power indicates that moron w is a reader or even literate.

  • gladerunner

    From the great literary work “A Fish Called Wanda”:Otto: Apes dont read philosophy.Wanda: Yes they do, Otto, they just dont understand it.