Getting back to the myth of martyrdom, I think it is appropriate that we place him among the saints of the church. His willingness to stand up against Hitler is to be commended, but he was not the only one to die, with many of his friends being executed long before him. He was able to evade that fate as long as he did in part due to family connections. But most importantly, Bonhoeffer didn’t seek martyrdom and didn’t see himself as a martyr. He sought to escape his fate. He looked forward to beginning a new life with his fiancé Maria and continuing his long friendship with Bethge. He wanted to further develop the insights he had come to in prison, especially the concept of religionless Christianity. But such was not to be.
Charles Marsh has written a masterpiece of a biography. He explores Bonhoeffer’s writings and shares the key stories of Bonhoeffer’s compelling life. What makes this book especially poignant is the way he takes us deep into the humanity of the great theologian. He isn’t out to destroy Bonhoeffer’s reputation, but he does seem interested in offering us a well-rounded portrait of the man. Unlike some interpreters, he doesn’t try to imprint an ideological stamp on Bonhoeffer. He is neither the property of radical liberals nor conservative evangelicals, though his writings provide fodder that can be picked up by both extremes.
So, what we find in Marsh’s portrait is a man of great complexity. He’s a traditionalist at points and a provocateur at other points. He combines a commitment to a deeply thought out, if somewhat eclectic theology, with a commitment to action. He is an ecumenist who becomes disillusioned with the ecumenical movement and the English church for refusing to recognize the Confessing Church as a true church instead of the Nazi-infiltrated German Protestant Church. I highly recommend this telling of Bonhoeffer’s story to any interested in the man’s life, but especially to those who know little of his life. It is well written, thoughtful, provocative at times, but most important for the novice – it is readable. But, Charles Marsh’s book will prove enlightening even to those of us who have spent considerable time exploring Bonhoeffer’s life and work.