The title of Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, comes from one of Bonhoeffer’s own sermons, a line that also serves as the epigraph: “It is a strange glory, this glory of God.” The quotation establishes two themes, which run throughout Marsh’s treatment—namely, the historical strangeness of Bonhoeffer’s life and the theological strangeness of Bonhoeffer’s God. For all his popularity these days, Bonhoeffer was a man out of sync with his time. He was a classically trained German academic who never secured a full-time university post, an international journeyer in a time when blood and soil meant everything, a practitioner of a robust, mediating theology when the masses aligned at the extremes, a devotee of the lived experience of the faith who rarely felt at home in an actual church. Bonhoeffer was the perennial outsider, the prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness, the glorious light in a very dark point in history that burned out at just 38 on a lonely German gallows.
Precisely because of this strangeness, since his death in 1945, Bonhoeffer’s many biographers, both in print and in the blogosphere, remake him in seemingly infinite images, made to serve a variety of purposes. The most egregious display in print in recent years is Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The flaws of this book have been helpfully detailed elsewhereand need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say, in Metaxas’s hands, Bonhoeffer becomes a conservative, masculine, evangelical American in the age of Obama. Marsh’s singular achievement in his biography, coming just four years after Metaxas’s bestseller, is his refusal to take this well-worn and unhelpful approach. Marsh is a historian, and his account is a historical portrait of Bonhoeffer, drawn from an astute analysis of both his actions and his thought in works, sermons, and letters, set in the backdrop of Nazi Germany. Like a good historian, Marsh follows the sources where they take him, refusing to cast the die for the reader. Notably absent from Strange Glory, for example,is either an explanatory introduction or conclusion dedicated to grappling with the meaning of the figure in question, so common to this genre. Rather, Marsh allows Bonhoeffer to speak for himself, leaving to the reader the work of final interpretation.
As a result of this historical approach, Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is not the saintly hero martyr of popular imagination, much less Metaxas’s evangelical prince, but rather a flawed man of his time. He embraced a theological vocation through personal ambition, much as a young German of his time might choose politics or a career in the arts. His early works show a penchant for nationalism so common to German thinkers of the time, and his ambition often supersedes his concern for people. However, in the last decades of his life, partly due to personal development and partly due to the extraordinary nature of his time, he adopts a prophetic role standing strong, at times by himself, against the apostasy of the German Evangelical Church. The book takes a noticeable turn in chapter eight, which details the rise of National Socialism in 1933. Marsh’s trenchant prose, which marks much of the narrative, captures this shift and new-felt urgency: “Bonhoeffer’s life was now set on a collision course with Hitler’s” (158).
Nevertheless, even when moving into the well-traveled areas of Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi resistance, Marsh shows how he remains the flawed young German throughout, at times grasping his way as if in the dark. To cite a few examples of these flaws, Marsh details Bonhoeffer’s penchant for the finer things of life at a time when most Germans were suffering the effects of the global depression, as well as his lifelong sense of self-importance and pride and the irascible jealousy he could display in close friendships. All of these features are certainly jarring for one familiar with the popular image or the polished content of works like The Cost of Discipleship. To cite perhaps the most iconoclastic example of this honest historical approach, Marsh portrays Bonhoeffer’s role in the plot to undermine the Nazi government and, perhaps, to assassinate Hitler not as the crowning achievement of his life, but rather as a frustrating pivot away from the heroic, non-violent resistance he had been steadily cultivating the previous decade. Marsh searches for an explanation to this most important question but, in the end, comes up empty. Thus, Bonhoeffer’s participation in the resistance reveals an inconsistency between his thought and actions, which strips his death of the martyrdom status many ascribe to it. Marsh even questions the historical validity of his famous last words—“This is the end; for me, the beginning of life”—due to the scant verifiable eyewitness testimony. Given what little came of Bonhoeffer’s espionage activities, the reader is left with the impression that his efforts were ill conceived, the only real effect of which was to rob the world of an important, mediating theological voice that could have done much good in the post-war years. But true history rarely achieves the harmony and satisfaction of invented narratives. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer, warts and all, is a real person.
The trap which many historical accounts fall into, however, is an a priori decision to relegate all causes to the realm of the material. Marsh avoids this trap by fully engaging theology as a mover of history—the second great theme of his book, both in the larger twentieth century German context and in Bonhoeffer’s own life. Through his description of Bonhoeffer’s education at Tübingen and Friedrich-Wilhelms in Berlin early in the book, Marsh effectively establishes the theological context of the Protestant Liberalism that dominated Germany in the years leading up to the establishment of the Third Reich. With the deft hand of a theologian, he summarizes the thought of Kant, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach and, Bonhoeffer’s own teacher, Adolf von Harnack, tracing the transformation of German Protestantism from Luther’s sola scriptura theology of human depravity and God’s grace to an experiential theology where “knowledge of God must be based on some mode or dimension of human experience” (178). The result for the Germans is an overconfidence in the goodness of human nature and a domestication of God to the realm of human activity. For Marsh, this theological context, more than any material cause, explains the quick capitulation of the German Church to Nazism. If God is fully identified with humanity, then the Führer speaks for God.
Marsh also uses the prevailing Protestant Liberalism of Germany to narrate Bonhoeffer’s theological development both before and after the decisive turning point of chapter eight. The book’s opening vignette, a charming story of his earliest encounter with the divine in the contemplation of eternity with his twin sister Sabine, introduces the dual themes of the strange God and the importance of Christian community that mark his more mature theology. Skipping ahead, while fully immersed in the German Protestant Liberal tradition through his university studies, Bonhoeffer is awakened to these classic critiques through his encounter with the work of Karl Barth, whose second edition to his commentary on Romans was published shortly before Bonhoeffer enrolled. Marsh develops the personal and theological relationship of Bonhoeffer and Barth throughout the work, detailing their many meetings and correspondences. While Bonhoeffer and Barth are not identical in their thinking—Bonhoeffer is more ecumenical and appreciative of Catholic tradition than is his Swiss counterpart—Barth’s emphasis on God as “the new, the different, the unexpected, the wholly other” becomes a dominant theme in Bonhoeffer’s own work and the primary motivator of his prophetic stand against the Nazified German Church (53).
Following Barth, Bonhoeffer turns to Christ as the center of his theology, for Christ alone secures the otherness or, in his own words, strangeness of God. Marsh narrates this central theme through cogent summaries of Bonhoeffer’s major works, including his two dissertations and various letters, sermons, and lectures. For Bonhoeffer, Christ reveals God’s strangeness by identifying not with those in power but with those on the margins. “He enters [the world] in such a way as to conceal himself in weakness, not to be known,” Marsh quotes from Bonhoeffer’s 1933 lectures.“He goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, an outcast among outcasts, a figure to despair among the despairing, dying among the dying…a sinner among sinners” (172). Here again, Marsh draws the connection between theology and history, Bonhoeffer’s strange God and strange life, showing how he not only speaks thusly about Christ but actually finds Christ in the unexpected places. He is not in the lecture halls of Union Seminary but in the exiled Black churches of Harlem. He is not in the glories of the Reich Church but in the wilderness of Finkelwalde. He is not in a traditional marriage, but in a deep and abiding friendship with Eberhard Bethge. And he is not in the political power of the fatherland, but in a barren prison cell and, ultimately, in the gallows. Bonhoeffer’s death is thus recast not as a glorious martyrdom but as the full embrace of the incognito Christ, toward which his life had been building. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is a real person, then, not simply through his actions, but through his interior theological life that motivates those actions.
The strangeness of Bonhoeffer’s God as revealed by Christ and the strangeness of his own life coalesce in his short time as director of the seminary at Finkelwalde, which forms the subject matter of chapter ten and is another gem of Marsh’s work. The seminary was established in 1935 to train pastors in a brand of monastic theology that would help them to resist the tide of German nationalism then sweeping the churches and fully embraced by the German universities. Bonhoeffer formed the community and curriculum after an eclectic mix of influences from his past, including Barth’s Christocentric theology, Niebuhr’s Christian realism, Catholic monastic ideals, and the American Black Church tradition. In many ways, then, Finkelwalde was a community formed in his own image and the culmination of his life’s work. It was here that he experienced authentic Christian community for perhaps the first time. It was here that he penned his most famous works, Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, both of which receive extended and helpful treatments by Marsh, connected as always to the historical events occurring at the seminary and in the larger German culture. And it was here that he met Bethge, himself a student of the seminary four years Bonhoeffer’s younger, who would prove to be a soul mate of sorts for the remainder of his life. Bonhoeffer himself noted how at home he felt in the new monastic community, noting to his brother in a letter, “I do believe that at last, for the first time in my life, I am on the right track. And I am often quite happy about that” (217). Finally, his prophetic stance against Hitler and the apostate German Church reached its climax at Finkelwalde and was both more effective and influential than his small part in the active political resistance against Hitler for which he was killed.
The appearance of Bethge in the Finkelwalde chapter introduces a relationship that dominates the remainder of the book. While little content is new here (Bethge wrote the definitive early Bonhoeffer biography), Marsh’s unbalanced focus on the relationship pushes an interpretation of Bonhoeffer as a latent homosexual, which, at times, seems forced. Indeed, this is the one part in the work where the reader wonders whether the historian Marsh is no longer following the sources where they lead but pushing his own image of Bonhoeffer. One can understand why he pushes this narrative. It is, in many ways, the image, which provides the ultimate antidote to Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer. (Metaxas has criticized Marsh harshly for this aspect of the book, betraying his view that making Bonhoeffer a homosexual is worse than making him a Nazi.) More to the point, the actions of Bonhoeffer and Bethge certainly display an uncommon affection, particularly in the years after Finkelwalde and before prison. (The two lived together, spent holidays together, gave joint Christmas cards and presents, and the like.) Likewise, Bonhoeffer’s letters at times seem to hint at his own sexual desires for Bethge, as for example when, in a letter which Marsh paraphrases, “he made a pitch for ‘strong sins’ and ‘sins of strength’—sins dared for the sake of the other, for the purpose of ‘nurturing intimacy with others’” (372). Nevertheless, Marsh gives little space for developing Bonhoeffer’s relationship with his fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer or a comparative analysis of their many letters, which likewise reveal a deep and abiding shared affection. (These letters have been collected into a book entitled Love Letters from Cell 92, and they provide the content of a recent historical narrative entitled My Dearest Dietrich by Amanda Barratt.) While Marsh’s final word on the friendship is more measured—“Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations” (384)—he leaves the impression that only prison and Bethge’s lack of reciprocation prevented the relationship from consummation.
The problem with Marsh’s treatment is not, as Metaxas seems to think, that Bonhoeffer’s homosexuality would somehow undercut his witness or importance. Indeed, in some ways, though obviously not sympathetic to all kinds of Christians, Bonhoeffer’s homosexuality would increase his importance. The problem, rather, is that Marsh’s clear pushing of this narrative precludes the more mundane interpretation that Bonhoeffer and Bethge experienced a deep, loving friendship, the kind that C.S. Lewis famously said was the highest of all loves. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s letters and actions with Bethge all support this interpretation, as does the occasional possessiveness and jealousy he could exhibit in the relationship. This interpretation can even sustain Marsh’s belief that Bonhoeffer’s hasty engagement to Maria was a pretense to remain close to Bethge who had also recently been engaged, while better accounting for the genuine affection displayed in those letters. Surprisingly, however, Marsh does not leave the possibility of this interpretation to the reader.
Perhaps Marsh’s reasons for this oversight are less due to pushing a narrative and more to not recognizing the ultimate strangeness of such a platonic friendship. Friendships that evince the intimacy of marriages or sexual relationships apart from the conjugal act are extremely rare in the modern world, to say nothing of the church, which, in many parts, all but fetishizes marriage and the immediate family. Nevertheless, these friendships have a long history in the Christian tradition, particularly within monastic communities of the kind Bonhoeffer was forming at Finkelwalde when he first met Bethge. As Marsh himself notes, Bonhoeffer at different times in his life pursued just this sort of relationship (one thinks of Sabine and the sadness he experienced when she was married or of Franklin Fisher while in New York, or of his close relations to his professors from Harnack to Niebuhr to Barth). When his friendship with Bethge is put in this interpretive context, it emerges not so much as frustrated, unrequited love, but as the fulfillment of all he had been hoping for by way of human connection, the individual counterpart to the community at Finkelwalde. Bonhoeffer’s life is not understood fully apart from his relationship with Bethge, but Marsh could have better applied to it the historical sensitivity he shows everywhere else, leaving open this other, equally strange and compelling interpretation.
But this critique is ultimately a small quibble given the balance of the importance of Marsh’s work. My reservations of his treatment of Bethge aside, I celebrate Marsh’s historical and theological achievement in this work. It comes as a much needed, fresh portrait of the strange man, whom so many think they know, and his strange God, whom so many think they worship. Unfortunately for those steeped in the hero-martyr-masculine image of Bonhoeffer, he may never have uttered those famous last words—“This is the end; for me, the beginning of life”—but regardless, Marsh’s biography has offered the real Bonhoeffer a new beginning.