Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a remarkable man and theologian. A conservative Lutheran who joined in the plot to assassinate Hitler, his multi-faceted and complicated life deserves quite a bit of study. Throughout the years, many biographers have stepped up to offer insights, and this year was no different with its offering of Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and what theology of his I've read have had a profound impact in shaping my own theology, and I gladly seized the opportunity to review the latest work about him.
The angle Marsh chose to take, however, was extremely disturbing.
Excerpt taken from the Amazon Book Description:
The scion of a grand family that rarely went to church, Dietrich decided as a thirteen-year-old to become a theologian. By twenty-one, the rather snobbish and awkward young man had already written a dissertation hailed by Karl Barth as a “theological miracle.” But it was only the first step in a lifelong effort to recover an authentic and orthodox Christianity from the dilutions of liberal Protestantism and the modern idolatries of blood and nation—which forces had left the German church completely helpless against the onslaught of Nazism.
From the start, Bonhoeffer insisted that the essence of Christianity was not its abstract precepts but the concrete reality of the shared life in Christ. In 1930, his search for that true fellowship led Bonhoeffer to America for ten fateful months in the company of social reformers, Harlem churchmen, and public intellectuals. Energized by the lived faith he had seen, he would now begin to make what he later saw as his definitive “turn from the phraseological to the real.” He went home with renewed vocation and took up ministry among Berlin’s downtrodden while trying to find his place in the hoary academic establishment increasingly captive to nationalist fervor.
With the rise of Hitler, however, Bonhoeffer’s journey took yet another turn. The German church was Nazified, along with every other state-sponsored institution. But it was the Nuremberg laws that set Bonhoeffer’s earthly life on an ineluctable path toward destruction. His denunciation of the race statutes as heresy and his insistence on the church’s moral obligation to defend all victims of state violence, regardless of race or religion, alienated him from what would become the Reich church and even some fellow resistors. Soon the twenty-seven-year-old pastor was one of the most conspicuous dissidents in Germany. He would carry on subverting the regime and bearing Christian witness, whether in the pastorate he assumed in London, the Pomeranian monastery he established to train dissenting ministers, or in the worldwide ecumenical movement. Increasingly, though, Bonhoeffer would find himself a voice crying in the wilderness, until, finally, he understood that true moral responsibility obliged him to commit treason, for which he would pay with his life.
Charles Marsh brings Bonhoeffer to life in his full complexity for the first time. With a keen understanding of the multifaceted writings, often misunderstood, as well as the imperfect man behind the saintly image, here is a nuanced, exhilarating, and often heartrending portrait that lays bare Bonhoeffer’s flaws and inner torment, as well as the friendships and the faith that sustained and finally redeemed him. Strange Glory is a momentous achievement.
First of all, let me give Marsh the credit he deserves. His research is impeccable; the footnotes in the back, and the sheer amount of work he's poured into Bonhoeffer deserve their meed of praise. Even in the tiniest details about clothing, weather, and Bonhoeffer's travel notes, Marsh takes meticulous care, and the main text of this book is full of direct quotations in nearly every paragraph. Every biographer should strive for that level of integrity.
Second, the objective Marsh claims for writing this work is also a noble one; he wanted to write Bonhoeffer in an unbiased manner, something that Bonhoeffer's closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, simply couldn't do. While everyone has a bias, and Marsh certainly had his, it's a worthy goal to strip away some of the gloss that close connections tend to put on historical figures.
Thirdly, Marsh truly brought to life a time of Bonhoeffer's young adulthood that I knew little to nothing about. I smiled time and again as Bonhoeffer asked his parents to upgrade travel tickets to first class, sent laundry home by post to be washed and returned, and took trips with his brother, sometimes changing their route without giving his parents advance notice. He was a brilliant academic from a young age, and yet had a measure of obtuseness in his relationships that was a combination of endearing and exasperating.
These points, indeed, deserve their vote of merit.
However, as I continued further in the book, my reactions for the most part were an alternation between grief and frustration, so much so that after some serious prayer and wrestling, I decided to abandon the last two and a half chapters.
The complaints, as well as the merits of the book, are threefold.
First of all, as a reader I like to know where an author comes from religiously. I hold strongly to the belief that an author's religious leanings set the tone and conclusion of their work. It is simply inescapable--what or who you worship is your driving force, and it would be the epitome of blindness to deny that a man's religion does not bias his work, however much he wishes to be objective. After attempting to do some research on Marsh, I could not find where his religious beliefs lie. The acknowledgements at the back didn't contain anything of a religious nature, so I turned to the internet. He's a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia; that in itself doesn't clarify much, as religious studies run a wide gamut. There seemed to be some Christian leanings--but to what exactly they tended was impossible to determine. I couldn't tell if he was orthodox Christian, or all-inclusive to many religions, liberal or conservative. That concerned me, though it's really the smallest bone I had to pick.
Secondly, a good deal of Marsh's commentary on Bonhoeffer's theology was simply inaccessible to the above-average intelligent reader. I don't have what I would consider an extensive vocabulary; at the same time, I'm no unschooled redneck either. But most of the time I drew a blank, especially in the sections where Marsh discussed the different theologians Bonhoeffer encountered in America. Comments on the Nicene Creed, comments on social reform--the majority left me at a loss. And Bonhoeffer is confusing enough in himself without the added confusion of complicated prose. Half the time I couldn't judge if Bonhoeffer's ideas were sound, because they weren't clearly and concisely stated. While I'm not a proponent of dumbing down hard concepts, there is such a thing as appropriate simplicity--and that's something this biography lacks.
"The greatest liberal theologian of the era, Friedrich Schleiermacher, would try mightily to rescue the reality of the numinous from the maw of a Kantian reality limited to the world as conveyed to the senses."
Thirdly, the major last half of the book contained a constant, subtle shifting of Bonhoeffer from friend, pastor, and fiance of a young woman, to closet homosexual.
While I do not wish to write this review as close-minded denial of any flaws on Bonhoeffer's part, I think it fair and honest to say that Marsh does seem to want to reach the conclusion of a sympathetic, tortured homosexual.
Right off the bat, let me say that Bonhoeffer may have struggled with homosexual attraction. I simply don't know, and it would be premature to say either way. However, I would take it a step further to say that even if he did, doesn't mean that he either liked it, or endorsed it. Committed Christians can struggle with any kind of sexual sin, and that may have been a legitimate thing he had to fight against. That doesn't tarnish what the man did theologically, and Trevin Wax wrote an excellent article on this point here.
At the same time, it would be wrong to say, based on the reading of this biography alone, that he did struggle with it. Marsh definitely slanted all Dietrich's affection towards Bethge in that light, and I took out a pencil and started underlining things that he mentioned. The section about Bethge's first meeting with Bonhoeffer had very little citation in the back on the homosexual point--I would have liked to see direct quotes and discussion from both sides, like Marsh used for other aspects of Bonhoeffer's life. Also, Marsh's commentary on the subject was filled with words such as 'must' in it's 'might' sense, and other qualifiers subtly put in place to guide the reader's conclusion. This sentence in particular disturbed me: "Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, as well as their children and their families, kept any reservations they had about the duo to themselves, and soon welcomed "Herr Bethge" into the family circle." Yet Marsh doesn't bother to document direct proofs he found that made him think the family had reservations in the first place. He simply puts the sentence in without citation.
Our current generation loves warping male friendships. You can't browse Pinterest without finding pro-gay gifs about Frodo and Sam. But not only were these fictional characters not gay, there are plenty of real-life, deep and abiding friendships that were what you could even call 'soul mates' without either man having sexual desires for the other. Luther and Melancthon come to mind, as well as David and Jonathan.
I know many other reviews of Strange Glory have stated the same thing, so I don't wish to parrot out repeated criticisms, but just because Bonhoeffer and Bethge signed their Christmas cards together and shared a bank account doesn't mean they wanted to be a couple. As one older gentleman said, who saw me reading this book and knew some of the controversy surrounding it-- "Lincoln shared a bed in his office. Doesn't mean he was homosexual. I shared a bed with my brother growing up, too." Which is a little beside the point, as Marsh never mentions Bonhoeffer and Bethge sharing the same bed, but he definitely insinuates deep feelings on Bonhoeffer's part.
That in itself was another source of frustration--if Marsh had enough legitimate proof to suspect that Bonhoeffer had homosexual leanings, then why not come out and say so openly? Why quietly slip in mentions of Bethge at every point of the last half of the book, along with half-veiled comments about Bonhoeffer's liking for him? Why not be honest and say, "While I can't prove this conclusively, I have good, solid reason to believe this to be the case?" Marsh left half of the accusation unsaid to niggle in the reader's mind, and yet he never let the reader forget that it was there.
Towards the end of the book, Marsh's focus on the Bonhoeffer and Bethge relationship started to undermine the biography's integrity, as far as I could see. Bonhoeffer's engagement to Maria received a passing mention, and Marsh used it to hint that Bonhoeffer engaged himself to cope with Bethge's marriage. There were so many other points of Bonhoeffer's life that Marsh could have illumined better. But because he kept harping on the one, he focused on the inconsequential and missed the utmost lesson in Bonhoeffer's life: how this pastor could reconcile being a pacifist and plotting to kill the Fuhrer.
Indeed, Bonhoeffer's participation in that plot receives very little screen time. His choices, his wrestling over spy ethics--Marsh rushes over them for details that in the end, struck me as rather unimportant. Indeed, though he offers a good bit of new detail, by the end of my time with the book, I realized just how little the sum total of the details seemed to matter--Marsh developed Bonhoeffer's theology in his younger years, but after a certain point, the theological information, as well as the extent of Bonhoeffer's work in the war, waned away.
In summary, Marsh's biography illuminates points that don't seem very consequential, and contains others that are downright speculation. Do they flesh out the man a little further? Yes. But while Marsh's research seems meticulous in most aspects, the end result is probably unnecessary for all but the most avid of Bonhoeffer scholars. Even then I think their time could be better spent elsewhere. And the subtle, constant hints at homosexuality will definitely be a deal-breaker for the majority of conservative Christian readers.
Suffice to say, Strange Glory is not a book I recommend.
"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."