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Finding Faith in a Rich and Tragic Pallette

A review of The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

Published on:
October 15, 2018
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4 min.
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John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler propels one of history’s hero tales into a colorized world. Words matter in this biography of Bonhoeffer, the pastor who broke with country and conventional wisdom in World War II Germany to conspire against Adolf Hitler. Hendrix writes with words that both wax poetic and render historic judgment.

Taking the form of a graphic novel, the book’s images carry the drama from history to the heart, infusing Bonhoeffer’s story with tints of nuance and pure emotion. While Hendrix relies on a relatively small palette, adding deep green and glowing red to black and white, it presses into the Technicolor tensions of Bonhoeffer’s fateful last years, and testifies that doing the right thing often comes with more questions than answers.

The format appeals directly to young readers, yet offers wisdom to adults. And Hendrix manages to hold these audiences together, reaching youth at a critical moment of spiritual and ethical formation and advising adults who daily realize how much we still don’t know. While Bonhoeffer’s name has become synonymous with resistance, the book reorients our thinking. His story is not primarily a political one, but that of a churchman seeking ultimate fidelity to an institution he loved and longed to see revived.

What Is the Church?

Hendrix documents a restless churning within Bonhoeffer, a growing conviction that the church is not an academic exercise or spiritual enclave, but an agency of light in a dark world, a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Early in the book, Bonhoeffer recognizes the passive, primarily intellectual nature of his relationship to God.

 “Dietrich felt like he studied God as if he were an animal in a zoo, making careful observations and measurements but always at a safe and comfortable distance,” Hendrix writes. “Was he merely becoming God’s zookeeper?” Dissatisfied by what he sees in and around him, Bonhoeffer finds himself cinched by the grip of a question wraps that would refuse to let go: “What could this universal church do if it left the comfort of the sanctuary?”

 The inception of an answer comes on a journey to America, where his interactions with the black church—as well as seminarians from elsewhere in Europe—flesh out a picture of who the church is and what it can be. Through these experiences, Bonhoeffer absorbs a truth we would do well to observe: We will never influence culture from inside ideological or theological bubbles. Rather our identity and mission find fulfillment only when we situate ourselves within the universal church.

Visual History 

Hendrix provides a fresh expression of these revelations through his visual language. Cartoon panels, infographics, family trees, symbols, and timelines carry the weight of history. Both fantastical and painfully realistic images relay the stakes of Bonhoeffer’s predicament.

Bonhoeffer absorbs a truth we would do well to observe: We will never influence culture from inside ideological or theological bubbles.

 Often, Hendrix situates Bonhoeffer alone on the page. Despite being joined by a strong supporting cast of co-conspirators, this visual choice conveys the loneliness Bonhoeffer felt, hiding his mission from loved ones, coming to terms with the fact that saving his beloved country required him to sever most of his ties with it.

Hendrix’s color choices also play an important role in the story he tells. Reds represent the bloodshed and brazen hatred of Hitler’s regime. Greens become shorthand for forces ranging from morally neutral to life-giving and sustaining. When these colors share the page, they produce striking contrasts: Jesse Owens bathed in green against a red backdrop; a cathedral in green and a red rope lying in wait to pull to church’s righteous feet out from under it.

Some images sear evil’s portrait into the conscience in a way words alone fail to do: Nazism as a hydra rising from watery depths to strangle all the life around it; Hitler chopping down the tree of German culture at its roots. In one of the book’s simplest yet most staggering images, a red phone remains silent against an expanse of green—the evidence of a failed assassination attempt and a call that never came. On several occasions, Hendrix casts Hitler as a bloodthirsty, fanged “feral wolf . . . capable of anything . . . even eating his own young.”

To Love Is to Sacrifice

Yet Hendrix avoids recreating Bonhoeffer as Hitler’s equal, the superhero to history’s super-villain. On an early page, young Dietrich identifies with the courage of biblical heroes, such as David. Later, Hendrix portrays him with a stone and sling, engaged in a staring contest with a Nazi Goliath.

Hendrix’s Bonhoeffer exhorts us to push beyond false choices and broken binaries and live faithfully in a world of rich and tragic colors.

As the pages turn, Bonhoeffer becomes a hero of biblical proportion. But that means growing more conflicted, ever dependent on grace. He wades through the same sea of question marks that threatened to swallow up David, Moses, Joshua, and others. He labors to balance Martin Luther’s counsel—“sin boldly”—with the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Evoking Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller from this year’s First Reformed, Bonhoeffer wonders whether sins of commission or omission require greater forgiveness.

But Hendrix does not leave Bonhoeffer alone. The final pages chronicle a powerful dream sequence in which Bonhoeffer uses his last breaths to swim toward a savior who has loved him all along and will keep him through the end. 

Consonant with his approach, Hendrix poses one final question to readers, then leaves enough space for any number of answers. All the vivid imagery and conflict, external and internal, crescendos to a simple yet profound thought: What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?

 “Dietrich spent his life writing about how his belief in ‘the other’ interacted with reality,” Hendrix writes in his author’s note. “I hope that you, the reader, can think about where you encounter ‘the other’ in your life, and consider how you treat them. Dietrich believed that love was the same thing as sacrifice. In fact, he saw personal sacrifice as merely reflecting God’s love for us—as we are his cosmic other.”

To assume we could—or should—respond to historic evil like Bonhoeffer isn’t the point of Hendrix’s book. His life isn’t some sort of litmus test. Rather The Faithful Spy sounds a necessary call for our day, and every day: to live our lives and make our choices out of love for God and neighbor. Hendrix’s Bonhoeffer exhorts us to push beyond false choices and broken binaries and live faithfully in a world of rich and tragic colors.

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

Cover photo by Eric Ward.

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