I often have wondered what kind of work we would have seen from Bonhoeffer if he hadn’t been executed three weeks prior to the liberation of his concentration camp in 1945. Ethics is the last manuscript we have from him, and Letters and Papers from Prison sheds light on some of the final ideas he was having about “religionless Christianity” and “a world come of age,” leaving us bewildered at the most enigmatic theologian of the 21st century. We’re stuck with what he have, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something to be said of the life he lived.
If you buy a copy of one of his works new today, you’ll get a fifteen page biography of sorts in the front, touching on a little bit of his childhood, his time in New York, and his work under the Nazis, leading up to a botched assassination attempt, imprisonment, and death. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, but it fails to shed light on the depth of context that Bonhoeffer draws from.
I’m also not sure I know what’s supposed to make a good biography. It seems today that we can reconstruct what a person was like by merely choosing which aspects of a life to focus on. Those aforementioned bio-blurbs almost make Bonhoeffer sound like someone who didn’t learn true theology until he came to New York (‘MURICA). There’s also Eric Metaxas’ biography, which seems to make him out to be more about espionage and assassination of Hitler than it is about theology (I haven’t read it, but this is a common criticism I hear). What I think I can say, however, is that Marsh’s work Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents the most real Bonhoeffer I’ve ever read about, and that’s what makes a good biography, to me.
Marsh’s work is dense. Let’s get that out of the way. If there’s a detail he wants you to know about, he stuck it in there. You’ll know the names of the most important theological scholars at Friedrich-Willhems University in Berlin and what their focuses were because that’s who Bonhoeffer learned from. You’ll know all about his time as a vicar in Barcelona, the details of the seminary at Finkenwalde, the Confessing Church, everything. If you want to truly know a person, you have to know where they came from, and Marsh kills it.
Marsh also pulls no punches; he has no problem showing the life of privilege Bonhoeffer came from, or how he exhibited some scary nationalistic tendencies during his doctoral work. He explores inner torment, faults in personality, and any other shortcoming Bonhoeffer might have displayed, but displays them right next to his achievements. In short, he makes Bonhoeffer human. This is also where Marsh’s research shines through; you’d think he’d have interviewed Bonhoeffer in person, then went through all his stuff to fact-check the things he said. Not a stone unturned.
No biography goes without some speculation though, and Marsh’s particular examination isn’t without controversy. He spends time taking a look at Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Ebherhard Bethge, a fellow member of the monastic community at Finkenwalde, whom Bonhoeffer was inseparable from. The two men lived together, shared a joint bank account, signed Christmas cards as from “Eberhard and Dietrich,” and caused an arched eyebrow to many of Bonhoeffer’s family members. Now, I coudn’t care less, but the examination of this relationship has caused something of an uproar in conservative circles, who find it appalling that their beloved Bonhoeffer might have been gay. I say read about it for yourself and get over it. Again, Marsh isn’t out to whitewash or destroy Bonhoeffer; he’s aiming to tell the whole truth. It doesn’t change the massive impact the man has had on 20th- and 21st-century theology one bit.
Overall, I find Marsh’s work to be positively excellent, if not perhaps a bit exhausting at times. Go check it out.
I received this book for review purposes from the SpeakEasy, run by Mike Morrell.