“Where within the reality of the world does the new life confessed by Christian become real?” That is the question that the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, set out to answer in his first dissertation. But I think he would wrestle with the answer all the way up until his premature death at the hands of his Nazi captors.
Professor Charles Marsh has undergone the task of writing a biography based on the life of the great theologian, and in doing so, has helped the reader to better understand the theological and ethical tension that existed for Bonhoeffer trying to live out his Christian calling in the lion’s den of a militaristic tyrant. Of course, when Bonhoeffer wrote his first dissertation, nobody, including Bonhoeffer, could envision a Hitler rising to power in such a way that would force Bonhoeffer to answer his own question with his very life.
“Strange Glory”, the new biography by Marsh, is a fantastic exploration into Bonhoeffer’s life, thinking, ministry, and relationships. It is a chronological telling of the German’s life from childhood through his university days, then from his ministry days until his arrest and execution. But where Marsh excels is in helping the reader understand the theological nuances of not only Bonhoeffer, but Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many of the other theologians that Bonhoeffer was exposed to. I mention Barth and Niebuhr intentionally, because it seems that each of them had completely different answers for Bonhoeffer’s dissertation question. Barth, with his affection for the transcendent, saw nothing “real” here, whereas Niebuhr and his “realism” saw all things here as real. Bonhoeffer would count on Barth for his theology, but scratch his head at the Swiss giant’s lack of an ethical framework, only to invert the formula for his American friend (Bonhoeffer was frustrated at Niebuhr’s Christianity without a Cross).
Many hastily describe Bonhoeffer as “the Christian that tried to kill Hitler.” And I think that is a mistake. Was he involved in various plots to assassinate Hitler? Sure, on the fringes as bound by his convictions. Can the rabid dog be left alone to kill innocents? Is it murder to kill the man who is killing others? These are not easy questions, and Bonhoeffer struggled mightily with how to best answer them. Marsh is brilliant in his retelling of Bonhoeffer’s conviction to call evil out, his uncompromising stand in the face of certain death, but also his constant battle to know and do God’s will.
Allow me to add one bit of criticism to Marsh’s “Strange Glory”. Once the narrative introduces Bonhoeffer’s dear friend Eberhard Bethge, Marsh is determined for the reader to know that Bonhoeffer had homosexual feelings (unfulfilled) towards Bethge. I am not convinced that he did, as it appears that Marsh is projecting a 21st century zeitgeist onto Bonhoeffer’s story without providing explicit proof. Were they close? Very. But in my mind, more David and Jonathan than Alexander and Bagoas. If there is explicit proof of Bonhoeffer’s homosexual feelings, than please, produce the body. But Marsh’s conclusions, without real evidence I found to be both distracting and disappointing. It is this kind of statement that I found most concerning, “Proclaiming the truth of the gospel while pondering the end of Christianity, as he would do in the coming years; plotting the assassination of Hitler while affirming the ethics of pacifism; celebrating the sacrament of marriage while binding his affections joyfully to another man-Bonhoeffer came to embody some of the perplexing contradictions that modernity had imposed upon the faith. (pg.302-303, emphasis mine). I understand conjecture, but for Marsh, he seems totally convinced. With the evidence presented, I am not.
Regardless of Marsh’s conclusions regarding Bonhoeffer and Bethge, I recommend the book. His prose is engaging and smooth. The narrative flows like a good novel. Marsh’s understanding of the theological positions is very helpful and to be commended. And easy recommendation for all that can read with a discerning mind.
The life of Bonhoeffer is profound. He was brilliant, he was passionate, he was loyal, he had conviction. But to whom much is given, much is required. And all of those gifts would lead Bonhoeffer into a place that very few Christians living in the West have had to wrestle with. And wrestle he did. Because “when God calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided.