Pastor. Martyr. Prophet. Spy. Those are the four words that Eric Metaxas used to describe Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his magisterial biography of the famous German-Lutheran pastor/theologian. The Bonhoeffer that Charles Marsh offers in this new biography of Bonhoeffer could be aptly described by those four words as well, however he adds two new words to the description of Bonhoeffer – “Strange Glory.”
Marsh’s biography follows the same general contours of most Bonhoeffer biographies. Bonhoeffer is born into an academic-socially elite family. He lives a life of privilege even during a time of economic hardship through Germany. He goes to school where he studies theology among some of the most important theological minds of his century – Harnack, Holl, and Seeberg. He was exposed to the theology of Barth. He took up pastoral posts in Spain and London. He took a trip to America to study at Union, this trip would forever change his life. He came back to Germany as Hitler’s power began to rise. He helped lead the dissident churches and founded an underground seminary at Finkenwilde. He took part in the Abwehr’s plot to overthrow Hitler from power. Eventually he was arrested and killed for taking part in resisting the Nazi government. So what makes Marsh’s biography stand out above the other biographies that have already been written? It’s his notion of “strange glory.”
According to Marsh, Bonhoeffer’s life is fraught with contradictions. At once he is driven by earthly and worldly passions yet so much of him is dedicated to the transcendent Christ. This strangeness is especially evident in some of his letters – in many of his letters you catch a glimpse of two sides of Bonhoeffer, he writes about Christology, the resistance, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Moments latter, within the same letter, he might go off into a rant about a relative sending him the wrong pair of clothes. He will describe in detail his fashion “needs,” days spent lounging at cafés drinking coffee or wine, visiting the opera and fantasizing about vacations taken to exotic parts of Europe. Another part of this “strange glory” is his relationship with Bethge – which many other reviews have already commented on.
There are several key things that make this biography stand out above many others.
Marsh’s ability to engage in complex theological discussions – Whether it’s a discussion of Church dogmatics, Hegel’s Philosophy, or the intricacies of Liberal Protestant Theology Marsh “gets it.” He is able to concretely summarize and engage with Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries. Also, Marsh takes the time to engage with Bonhoeffer’s theology, presenting discussions of Ethics, Life Together, Christ the Center, Sanctorum Communio, and Act and Being in depth.
It gives a different take on Bonhoeffer’s first Trip to America – It has been well noted that Bonhoeffer was extremely disappointed by the state of Christianity in America (except for African-American churches). Most biographies allow Bonhoeffer’s feelings during his time in America to color their interpretation of how important this trip was. While in America, Bonhoeffer was highly critical of American theology, which was essentially politics and humanitarianism. However, latter on in Bonhoeffer’s life we see how deeply this trip affected Bonhoeffer. Much of how he resisted the Nazi government and his defense of Jews in Germany was shaped by his time in America.
It paints a vivid picture of Bonhoeffer’s emotional needs – More than any other book on Bonhoeffer that I have read, it paints a picture of Bonhoeffer as a man who not only craves, but needs Bonhoeffer seems to be an emotionally needy person. Whether its his relationship with his sister Sabine, his close community at Finkenwilde, or his friendship with Bethge, Bonhoeffer seems to be a person who cannot do life alone. He consistently seems to move from person to person, seeking to find some sort of fulfillment. He seems absolutely depended upon reciprocal love and attention from others.
He does a good job explaining the apparent contradiction between Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and his willingness to kill Hitler – this apparent contradiction is resolved by making use of Lutheran theology, essentially Bonhoeffer knew that whether he took the route of action or inaction he would be guilty of sin, so following the (apparently) Lutheran principle of “sin and sin boldly” Bonhoeffer was able to justify taking part in the plot to kill Hitler.
This is an excellent and highly entertaining biography. It is very well written; at times it felt as though I were reading a novel, not a historical biography. But more importantly than that it is comprehensive, it goes beyond merely reporting the standard story, but instead strives to get into Bonhoeffer’s mind. It does that very well. Marsh understands Bonhoeffer’s theology, and he seems to understand some of the things that really acted as driving forces in Bonhoeffer’s life. I recommended that you read this biography alongside of Eric Metaxas’ biography so that you will be able to form your own picture of who Bonhoeffer really was.
(Note: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.)