Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Reviewed by Bob Cornwall
[This review originally appeared on the reviewer’s blog, and is reprinted here with his permission]
There are people who seem to transcend the confines of history. They are bigger than life, casting long shadows, and inviting multiples of interpretations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be counted as one of those figures. For a man who died at the age of thirty-nine, while spending the final two years of his life in prison, Bonhoeffer has left an immense legacy for later generations to mine and ponder. He has been the subject of numerous biographies and academic monographs. His collected works, which includes his books, letters, papers, sermons, and lectures, comes to sixteen volumes. He was a theological genius, but he was also a participant in one of the most challenging struggles the church has ever faced. While his early works were standard theological fare, his later works emerged during the German Church Struggle against the demonic (if I can use that word) presence of National Socialism. It is these later texts, both the ones that emerged from his underground seminary and then during the years of conspiracy and then imprisonment that have proven fruitful to later generations.
I am among those who have been influenced by Bonhoeffer’s story and his written works. I first read Cost of Discipleship in college, and then in seminary I read further and deeper (part of this came as result of a class focusing on his Ethics). Like many, I found his Letters and Papers from Prison to be intriguing and challenging, pushing me in new directions. I read also read Eberhard Bethge’s standard biography, which helped me better understand this person who had written so powerfully about church, theology, society. In the years since seminary, I’ve continued to read Bonhoeffer’s own works along with the more recent biographies, including Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s outstanding biography. Now along comes another biography, this time written by Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. I believe that it will take its place among the standard interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life, and hopefully cure those infected by the Metaxas book.
Each biography offers a different vantage point on Bonhoeffer’s life, which has taken on an almost mythical aura. His death at the hands of the Nazi’s just days before the camp he was being held in was liberated, stirs the imagination. Many stories have been told about his road to death, and his final moments (the later in the realm of speculation). While Charles Marsh explores all of the important elements in Bonhoeffer’s story, from birth to death, he goes a long way to broadening the picture, thereby re-humanizing Bonhoeffer. You might say that Marsh does for Bonhoeffer, what Bonhoeffer’s contemporary Rudolph Bultmann did for Jesus. He demythologizes Bonhoeffer.
As Marsh tells Bonhoeffer’s life story, he shows us a different side of the man than we’ve often been treated to. That is, we are introduced to a Bonhoeffer who grew up in an upper middle class professional home. His father was a famed psychiatrist. Neighbors in Berlin included Adolph Von Harnack. He could be arrogant and self-centered. He was very concerned about how he presented himself in public, making sure he was always immaculately dressed. There was in him a nationalist streak that would get exposed during his year in America. His interest in theology came as a surprise to all in the family, except his mother who was the daughter of a well known theologian and pastor. His older brothers had little to do with religion. While his mother provided him with an introduction to the Christian faith, the family rarely attended church. It was almost an act of rebellion to choose the study of theology, and even after he began his studies which culminated in his dissertation published as Sanctorum Communio and his Habilitation thesis published as Act and Being. These all came into existence before Bonhoeffer turned twenty-five. While he was a prodigious writer, a highly regarded tutor and lecturer at the University of Berlin, and did well during his internship in Barcelona and at a Berlin church, he never held a fully funded position at the university and his only pastorate came in the early 1930s in London. For most of his life, his parents supported him – providing him with clothes, housing, and funded his many travels. It wasn’t until he returned from America, took up a post in London, that he began to focus seriously on his calling.
Marsh identifies the year spent in America as a key to Bonhoeffer’s evolution as a theologian and as a pastor. There were a number of contributors to the transformative nature of this period. It is important to remember that at the time he was only in his mid-20s. He had recently finished his habilitation, essentially a second doctorate enabling him to teach (published as Act and Being). During his year at Union Theological Seminary, he was introduced to the Social Gospel and the Pragmatism of William James. It was during this sojourn in America that Bonhoeffer was introduced to the African American Church. One of his fellow students at Union was Frank Fisher, an African American student who introduced him to New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he would worship and even teach Sunday school. It was Fisher who helped Bonhoeffer understand the unique situation of the African American community, an experience that helped form his later commitments to stand with the Jewish community in Germany. He would also get an inside view of the condition of this community during a trip to the South.