Book Review: Strange Glory
by Charles Marsh
Readers undaunted by the odd cover design of Charles Marsh’s hefty new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (cover designer Stephanie Ross sprinkles little golden sparkles over a light-saturated partial photo of Bonhoeffer, for all the world as though she were strongly considering asking him to the Senior Prom) might still be daunted by the prospect of another hefty biography of the Lutheran pastor famously martyred by the Nazis only days before the approaching Allies might have saved him. After all, it’s only been a few years since Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, which was very long, very detailed, and quite eloquent. Weary and clock-watching readers might legitimately wonder if they really need to set aside an entire weekend’s reading time for yet another Bonhoeffer book.
They should. Although Marsh has trawled the same vast Bonhoeffer archive that Metaxas did, he’s produced a book that’s every bit as good as its predecessor but quite different. Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, and one of his earlier books on Bonhoeffer drew praise from no less a source than the late Eberhand Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s best friend and the person to whom Bonhoeffer willed the aforementioned literary archive. He’s perfectly placed, in other words, to tell Bonhoeffer’s life story, from his birth in Breslau in 1906 to his studies at the University of Tubingen and Berlin University, to his postgraduate studies in 1930 a the Union Theological Seminary, where he studied for a time under “the indefatigable Reinhold Niebuhr,” and where, as Marsh is perfectly willing to admit, our hero could be a handful:
In noting Bonhoeffer’s reactions to Union, one should, of course, not forget how peevish he’d been about graduate school in Berlin, too. “I’m supposed to be intellectually creative and grade excruciatingly dumb seminar papers!” he had written of that airless realm overseen by the imperious air faculty of Dortotheenstrasse. Eventually, as the weeks passed in New York, he would learn to be amused and not merely appalled by his surroundings. After all, his notes and letters written on the eve of his journey suggest he expected just another fine jaunt in his charmed life.
As readers will know, the skies over that charmed life darkened almost immediately upon Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany in 1931. He was quietly appalled by the rabid nationalism of the Nazis who came to power in 1933, and in addition to continuing to produce the theological works (such as his epic Ethics), that were the main focus of his life, he embarked on a fearlessly outspoken program of public opposition to Hitler. Bonhoeffer and some of his fellow clerics helped to found the beginnings of the Confessing Church dedicated to that opposition, although as Marsh points out, Bonhoeffer had to look elsewhere for real stiff-backed resistance to the country’s new overlords:
The Confessing Church had finally cowered before the Fuhrer. Its officials and caretakers of the Word had become bystanders to evil. By contrast, Bonhoeffer’s new secular comrades in the resistance fastened themselves to the concrete reality with brave defiance. This puzzling divergence inspired Bonhoeffer to cultivate an appreciation of the “good people” and propose “the beatification of those who are persecuted for the sake of a just cause.” The world full of depravity and menace … might seem a more accurate reflection of the Zeitgeist. But in Ethics, Bonhoeffer moved well beyond such depictions, and their implied division between God and humankind; his goal was a singularly intense and all-pervading Christomorphic order, in which all reality conforms to the divine love, taking shape in the incarnation.
(The extremely intelligent reading-back of Bonhoeffer’s theological thinking onto the events of his life is something Marsh does very nearly to perfection throughout his book; I ordinarily view the technique with a good deal of skepticism, but in this case it produced genuine “aha!” moments in every chapter)
Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazi regime (and their increased persecution of him) drove him into the ranks of the Abwehr, the nexus of political opposition to Hitler, and in 1943 he was arrested and shunted into the concentration camp system, eventually ending up at Flossenburg, where he was in time led naked to the gallows. Right up to the end, Marsh is by his readers’ side, clarifying and clearing away the too-pretty details that always accrue to a saintly life:
The famous last words attributed to Bonhoeffer in the hour of his death – “This not the end for me; it is the beginning of life” – are those of a British intelligence officer writing five years after the war. They are an eloquent farewell, and true to Bonhoeffer’s eschatological hopes, but the officer was not present when Bonhoeffer was summoned to the gallows in Flossenburg. In any event, his last written words seem more fitting for the pastor who had come to feel uneasy with pious language: “Please drop off some stationary with the commissar.”
Knopf has done this important book proud; it’s a pleasingly dense production, with dozens of black-and-white photos inset into chapter pages (rather than clumped together in the more standard blocks you usually find in modern hardcover biographies). It’s a thoroughly presentation of Marsh’s masterpiece – and the masterpiece itself deserves the widest possible readership.