Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh
A Book Review by Gil Stafford
Twenty years ago Ray Anderson introduced me to the enigmatic Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My seminary professor taught me that to understand Bonhoeffer I had to read across the span of his short life and compact theological career. To read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship outside the context of Life Together is to see someone who is, yes disciplined in the faith, but without community. But, to read either without daring to wade into the challenging waters of his Ethics is to miss the opportunity to be witness to his evolutionary theology. Still, to read Letters and Papers in Prison, as did the “God is Dead” contingent of the 60’s without the backdrop of Bonhoeffer’s entire work is to give it a disservice that would lead one to unsound theological conclusions.
Anderson’s enthusiasm and guidance led me to write a dissertation five years later using Bonhoefferian Christocentric theology. Bonhoeffer’s post-modern, post-church, post-Christian theology has much to say to our world. In him, I found Christ in the face of the other. This was, as still is, my model for leadership. My interest in the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has continued. Admittedly, however, after writing a dissertation, I had little interest in reading yet another biography of Bonhoeffer, especially after having consumed the thousand pages of Eberhard Bethge’s definitive Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography; Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times. Bethge was after all, Bonhoeffer’s best friend and confidant. Who could add anything to Bethge’s twenty-year commitment to the biography? Actually, no one really dared until five years ago. But upon a quick glance, I surmised those two authors had little new to offer.
What then, enticed me to read Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? The reviews said Marsh had access to primary documents that few scholars had seen before. Marsh also had committed to writing his book without the use of any secondary reference material. The lure of something new was too much to resist.
Marsh’s non-fiction narrative reads like a novel. His access to new information, creative style, and provocative insights make Marsh’s book worth the investment of time to read. Whether you are interested in Bonhoeffer, the life of a provocative Christian, a theology for a new age, World War II, or biographies, I recommend this very approachable, yet erudite and extensively referenced work.
Marsh is Director of The Project on Lived Theology, which “explores the social consequences of theological commitment.” The website http://www.livedtheology.org/ is intriguing. Marsh calls “lived theology,” unleashed theology—a theology that is removed from academic restraints, grounded in the life of community, translated into the world, messy. The effects of Bonhoeffer on Marsh are obvious. I look forward to Marsh’s work with more in depth, especially with its implications on my own new endeavor as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Arizona.
Given all that, however, I wonder if Marsh didn’t overreached his felt importance of theology in his book on Bonhoeffer. In his analysis of the German Christian Church’s theological impact on Adolf Hitler and Nazism, he states that “Theology has always mattered: the heretical turn of the German Christians can be directly connected with the catastrophe that followed.” This causes me to pause. Even Marsh’s later analysis of Hitler seems to contradict his provocative statement on the power of theology in the German modern world. What importance does theology play with those who do not have ears to hear? While I agree that theology matters, the question is to whom? And if not to everyone, does theology that is misguided then, drive an entire national scheme into evil? What does Marsh think that has to say about the pluralistic world in which we now live?
Regarding Bonhoeffer as a man, Marsh presents him stripped of the “mythology” and “hagiography” that has built up around the theologian. The author paints Bonhoeffer as spoiled, privileged, pretentious, yet artistic, athletic, and brilliant—a young man who seems to be in constant search of a meaningful relationship with God, community, and the other. Aside from his twin sister, Marsh says Dietrich was a lonely man. Bonhoffer’s longing for a personal intimate relationship, Marsh concludes, was eventually realized in his “soul mate,” Eberhard Bethge. Was Bonhoeffer gay? Marsh never uses the word. He leaves what he considers to be the obvious conclusion up to the reader.
Marsh’s “new” revelation that Bonhoeffer might have been gay will probably throw Dietrich under the conservative’s bus. For years, however, in Bonhoeffer circles, the thought that he was queer was readily accepted. But, I must give Marsh the credit for having the courage to print such a likely notion. I think, though, with the access Marsh had to fresh primary documents, letter, and papers, he missed a real opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer’s inner world. For Dietrich, this realm of self-discovery was where he would connect in an intimate relationship with the divine, nature, humanity, and his own personhood. Regardless of Bonhoeffer or Bethge’s sexuality (which Marsh assures the reader Bethge was not gay and the two never sexually consummated their relationship)—I am interested in what might be learned from the “soul mate” relationship between these two men. A model of an intimate soul mate relationship between two men seems to be absent in the twenty-first century. Marsh could have explored Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and ideas in order to develop a theology for intimate love between two men that might not include sex.
Instead of looking into the soul of Bonhoeffer, Marsh seems to be annoyed by his apparent “immaturity.” At twenty-one, with two doctorates, Marsh expected Bonhoeffer to be a wise old soul. Dietrich’s father, who was a neurologist and empirical psychiatrist, disdained Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. This, Marsh says, influenced Bonhoeffer’s apparent unwillingness to do any interior self-reflection. Interestingly though, while Marsh constantly cites Bethge’s biography, he decided not to mention Eberhard’s statement that Bonhoeffer had a copy of C.G. Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Given Jung’s last chapter of that book, I have to wonder what effect it might have had on Dietrich. I also wonder if Marsh missed an opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer’s psyche in deeper light. In Modern Man, Jung is clear to point out that anyone in the first half of life (Bonhoeffer was executed at thirty-nine) is not ready to make non-individuated life choices. Then, as conflict arises, individuation begins. At those many moments of tremendous stress we see Bonhoeffer making dramatic shifts in his worldview and maturation. Being that Marsh is so willing to make constant analysis of Bonhoeffer’s personality, I wish he had used Jung’s book to provide a well-informed reference point for a look into Bonhoeffer’s psyche.
All that said, the proof of Marsh’s work for my own life is found in my desire to sit down with him and have a long conversation about Bonhoeffer. The author has opened a new page in a fresh journal for my return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who has had a profound impact in my own theological work in this “world come of age,” a world that is still moving towards, “a religionless Christianity.”
In this new era in which we live, Bonhoeffer has much to say about the Christian life, theological education, and the church. Each must be agile (to use a new business term), pragmatic (in the world), and relevant (for the world). And finally, the Christian who dares to live a radical life in our murky era must always ask him and her self Bonhoeffer’s most relevant question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?” Marsh did an excellent work in confronting us once again with that profound and haunting question.