Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh
After reading Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography on Bonhoeffer, I wasn’t sure how I would like this new biography on Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. Marsh in this bio, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has mined through a vast amount of new archival material that comes out clearly in his presentation of Bonhoeffer. This biography by Marsh is thorough, detailed, and insightful in both a personal and historical manner. Marsh goes to great lengths to draw us into the early life of Bonhoeffer, his primary influences, and his theological and ethical message.
Marsh brings out in Bonhoeffer’s early life the brimming intellect of Dietrich among his peers. There was a kind of matter of fact nature about both the privilege of his upbringing and excellence of his mind. “Only later in life would the sin of pride become a project for spiritual correction; in his school years, Bonhoeffer regarded his superior intellect as a plain fact (11).” His intellect and grasp for music led him to try out for the freshman class at the Berlin Music Conservatory only to be told by teacher that he lacked “expressive color” (16). Yet, what was more telling is Marsh’s comment that, “Yet, he ultimately found his passion for music not as great as the one stirred whenever his thoughts turned to God, or simply when he read in one of his uncle von Hase’s leather-bound volumes of theology (16).” What was an oddity of sort is that most of Dietrich’s brothers and his father were not in the least bit fascinated by the study of theology and church life, however, his mother nurtured this side of his passion. From a very early age, Dietrich was moved by the cadences of the Scriptures, by a clear engagement with theology, and keen focus on the nature of the church.
Marsh does an excellent job at seeing the awkward position Bonhoeffer was in during his university days. Marsh writes, “And so Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a rare bird in Berlin: a liberal who nevertheless admired Barth and felt strong affinities for the spirit of so-called dialectical theology; who radical approach to God’s transcendence cast aside the natural explanations of everyone since Aquinas as well as the recondite metaphysics of Germany’s brightest lights (54-55).” For Bonhoeffer, Barth’s writing was a breath of fresh air in the dry sails of Germany thinking and theological investigation. Barth, for Bonhoeffer was lyrical and dynamic, speaking a theology that engages the experience of the believer in the world. Marsh draws on this view of Barth by saying that, “Barth wrote theology with the ferocity of a soul on fire (52).” I believe it was Barth who played a formative influence upon Bonhoeffer to help change his theological work into a sort of political theology.
This biography also makes the landscape of Nazi Germany during the war apparent to its readers in the form it took in the church. The passing of the Aryan Paragraph by the Reichstag on April 7th was a huge move toward the assimilation of the Protestant Churches into unity with Nazi rule. Marsh writes, “Muller’s election set in motion the nazification of the German Evangelical Church, igniting the long but futile Kirchenkampf , and the movement of dissident Christians to protect the regional churches against the imposition of Nazi will (164-165).” Bonhoeffer responded by writing the “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a statement rejecting the Aryan paragraph and stating that anyone wishing to remove Jewish Christians from the church might as well remove Christ from the church (166).
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the relationship that Bonhoeffer had with Eberhard Bethge, one of his first biographer’s. Writing about Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Bethge, Marsh writes, “Bonhoeffer had never felt such a bond with a female, with the exception of his twin, Sabine. But her marriage he relegated her to the ranks of those near him whom he nevertheless held at a certain distance. This unguarded closeness was something different, and felt exhilarating. Some seminarians, indeed, wondered whether Bonhoeffer had fallen in love with the boyish country pastor (236).” Marsh seems to not so slyly evidence that Bonhoeffer could have had a homosexual relationship with Bethge. Yet, I wonder if this misses the mark due to the fact that one of Bonhoeffer’s reasons for opening the seminary at Finkenwalde was to grow in unity with brothers of the faith. I do think it odd at times at the way Bonhoeffer refers to Bethge, but I think reading too much into it is a problem.
Overall, this biography on Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh was excellent.
Thanks to Blogging for Books for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.