Charles Marsh has chosen an apt title for his worthwhile new biography of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. “Strange Glory” is a reference to a passage in one of Bonhoeffer’s sermons on the nature of God. But the phrase also captures the life of Bonhoeffer himself.
In Marsh’s telling, Bonhoeffer was a bundle of contradictions. A pacifist who condemned all violence, he joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. A neo-orthodox Lutheran who criticized liberal Protestants for their lack of Reformation rigor, he came to champion the very un-Lutheran idea of monasticism as a way to restore the church. By the end of his life, he was talking about the need for a “religionless” Christianity. He was a mystic who liked fine clothes. Marsh jokes that Bonhoeffer was perhaps the only monk ever to be described by his brothers as a sporty dresser. He could be pompous, arrogant, and childishsolitary and a bit of a misfit.
Yet Bonhoeffer was a genuinely beloved pastor who brought comfort to many, including his fellow prisoners. He was an inspiring, charismatic teacher. He saw, earlier and clearer than most, how Hitler was manipulating Christian imagery to evil purposes. Only two days after Hitler became chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address condemning Hitler’s offer of a twisted narrative of national redemption in place of the Christian message of salvation. As Marsh writes, Bonhoeffer’s “voluble opposition to Hitler was a stirring counterpoint to the compliant rhetoric of most Protestant ministers, paralyzed as they were by a typical Lutheran veneration of the state.”
And he was exceptionally brave. In 1939, he left Germany for a visiting appointment at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He surely could have remained safely in America for the duration of the war. Indeed, he could have enjoyed the life of a celebrity emigre. But his sense of duty made him return to share in the suffering of his people. Once home, through connections, he managed to install himself in military intelligence, and for years he worked as a double agent, pretending to be a German operative while acting as a spy for the resistance. Eventually the Gestapo caught up with him, and he spent the last two years of his life in prisons and a concentration camp, where he was executed a few weeks before the end of the war.
A professor of religious studies, Marsh spends a great deal of time on Bonhoeffer’s theological writings. He also devotes much attention to the exceptionally close relationship Bonhoeffer had with a former student, Eberhard Bethge. Marsh believes Bonhoeffer had sexual feelings for Bethge, but never acknowledged them, much less acted upon them. (Bonhoeffer became engaged to a woman shortly before being arrested). If Marsh is correct, Bethge was the one love of Bonhoeffer’s life. Marsh makes a good case, but the evidence is circumstantial, and I was left wondering whether his interpretation of the relationship isn’t a bit anachronistic.
The Bethge angle is going to receive a lot of attention, I guess, given our current preoccupations, but it really isn’t the heart of the book. Among theologians, Bonhoeffer is known for his idea of “costly” as opposed to “cheap grace.” Costly grace means discipleship and the Cross, an acceptance of suffering in the name of Christ. Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached, at great personal cost. In this, he was a true Christianand very rare. As for the contradictions in his life, perhaps he would have worked them out in time. When he died, he was not yet forty.