A Strange Glory

I just finished Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s entitled A Strange Glory: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In short, it’s brilliant, spellbinding, and full of new information. Marsh gives us a portrait of Bonhoeffer in all of his complexity. He comes across as almost hedonistic at times and irresponsible. Marsh depicts his desire for companionship and his desire for community, but points out the irony that while he wrote a dissertation on the importance of Christian community, he rarely attended services while a theology student.

Marsh is especially strong on the importance of Bonhoeffer’s time in America in raising his consciousness about injustice (racism) and as the location where he first fully engages in Christian community (at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem). In Marsh’s perspective, the quest for community would drive Bonhoeffer for the rest of his life.

It’s been thirty years since I’ve read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer so I don’t recall details, but Marsh is working with new archival finds and he has scholarly distance from his subject that Bethge could not have. What impressed me most about Marsh’s reading of Bonhoeffer was the central role of Bonhoeffer’s deepening spirituality, the spiritual disciplines that became central in his life, his desire for Christian community, and his shaping of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde by the monastic communities he encountered in England and elsewhere.

He’s also very strong on Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge. We learn that two lived for a number of years as a couple, sharing a bank account, giving Christmas gifts with both names, traveling together (and Bonhoeffer’s annoyance when Bethge brought friends with them on their journeys). Marsh also makes clear that whatever the relationship was, it was not consummated sexually but that Bethge was the one who had to establish clear boundaries. Incidentally, within two weeks of Bethge becoming engaged to Bonhoeffer’s niece, Dietrich himself became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.

Bonhoeffer is widely regarded as a hero of the faith, a martyr and his legacy has been contested. Marsh stresses Bonhoeffer’s early opposition to Hitler and does a very good job of showing his theological and ethical development, especially on the issue of Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot against Hitler.

I own well-worn copies of the Letters and Papers from Prison in both English and German and have always been fascinated by the rigorous and revolutionary theological insights he articulates there as well as by the deep Lutheran, even pietistic spirituality that he expresses.

As I was reading Marsh’s biography, I was intrigued by the continuing relevance of those theological insights in our very different cultural context and wonder what a theological voice steeped in Bonhoeffer might have to say in the post-Christian, neoliberal culture of the twenty-first century.

Christian Wiman’s review in the Wall Street Journal