Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by charles marsh
knopf, 528 pages, $35


Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s appeal is no mystery: charismatic pastor, brilliant theologian, dedicated ecumenist, and anti-Nazi conspirator whose death at the age of thirty-nine terminated a life still ripe with promise. Interest in him in the English-speaking world blossomed when his prison writings first appeared in translation, and it has only grown with time. In recent years, however, that legacy has been complicated by those who have exploited his moral prestige by inducting him into the culture wars currently dividing the churches.

Admittedly, Bonhoeffer, a man of many turns, lends himself to a number of widely different readings. Do we favor the student of Harnack or the devotee of Barth? The pacifist or the conspirator to kill Hitler? The child of privilege who never lost his taste for the finer things or the man who identified with the marginalized and the outcast? The celebrator of the earthy sensibility of the Old Testament or the proponent of “a new kind of monasticism” who never married?

Charles Marsh’s Strange ­Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer approaches these questions on Bonhoeffer’s terms rather than our own. Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, gives us a sympathetic and theologically informed portrait that emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s close and enduring ties to Christian orthodoxy, but also his restless curiosity and experimentalism. This balance extends to his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s personal life, which gives us the man in full, freed from sentimental projections.

Marsh has the right idea in bringing Bonhoeffer down to earth. Hagiography is not history, and Bonhoeffer’s story is so compelling that apotheosis is hard to resist. It’s refreshing to be reminded that not everyone who met the zealous young advocate for life in community and the Sermon on the Mount was ­equally impressed—Hardy Arnold, son of the founder of the pacifist Bruderhof near Frankfurt, thought Bonhoeffer a bit of a dandy and a romantic when Bonhoeffer visited there in 1934. We learn about Bonhoeffer’s fussiness about dress, his financial dependence on his parents (to the point of mailing his laundry home), and his pleasure in traveling first class. These habits weren’t dented by the Depression, from which he seems to have been wholly insulated. But none of this is a serious mark against the overall character of the man, whom Marsh regards with unabashed affection and profound respect.

That applies too to his candid presentation of Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Eberhard Bethge, his former student, collaborator, interlocutor, and eventual relative after Bethge married Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate. Readers of this review probably know by now that Marsh treats the friendship as a de facto love affair, at least from Bonhoeffer’s side. On the evidence he presents, in the form of quotations and accounts of various incidents, the characterization is convincing. This was a rich and deep friendship, and its intensity did not lack a certain erotic charge. I don’t know how that can come as a great surprise to anyone with much experience in human friendship, whether same-sex or different-sex. Simply put, Bonhoeffer was in love. While we should hesitate to pass an anachronistic judgment on his behavior, we can at least restrain the celebrations of his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, as his true love, the heroine for the perfect hero—celebrations that were inspired by the publication of their correspondence in Love Letters from Cell 92. Von ­Wedemeyer would never match the role that Bethge played in ­Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and ­emotional life.

Marsh’s first book was a study of the philosophical background for ­Bonhoeffer’s early writings, especially the two dissertations, Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1929). Here he helpfully shows how themes and even formulations from these works endure throughout ­Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre. Marsh’s research on the religious roots and inspiration of the civil rights movement enlivens his account of Bonhoeffer’s turn “from the phraseological to the real,” an awakening in social conscience that occurred during his year as a post-doctoral resident at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930–1931. The chapter covering this period is one of the best in the book, with its careful account of how Bonhoeffer’s censorious judgment of the superficiality of American religious liberalism gradually gave way to admiration for the central place of social justice and for the vital religious faith of the oppressed black Christians whom he met at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Bonhoeffer’s complex relationship to religious liberalism constituted one of the enduring themes of his life. Marsh demonstrates how ­Bonhoeffer’s original liberalism, nurtured in the University of Berlin seminars of Adolf von Harnack (also the Bonhoeffers’ immediate neighbor in the tony Berlin suburb of Grunewald), was reversed by Barth’s radical transcendentalism, further altered by his identification with the marginalized and by his respect for the ethical rigor of the Sermon on the Mount, and then reemerged, thoroughly changed, in the prison letters. A ferocious critic of accommodationist Christianity, ­Bonhoeffer, within a short time of leaving Berlin, had shed forever the martial nationalism that was ­Harnack’s public posture, as well as the softer type of political acquiescence that went with traditional Lutheran “two kingdoms” theology. But he always respected Harnack’s intellectual freedom (the endnotes contain Bonhoeffer’s eloquent testimonial to Harnack near the time of his death), whereas the personality cult and triumphalism that emanated from Barth’s circle repulsed him.

Bonhoeffer always wanted to bring the Word into contact with the real. It was experiential religion, whether Catholic Holy Week liturgies in Rome, black Baptist call-and-response preaching and hymnody in Harlem, or Anabaptist communitarianism, that never failed to grab him. Insofar as liberalism meant simply the flattening of mystery into moralism—as he saw happening in sectors of mainstream American Protestantism—he found it appalling and said so. But the thread running through his letters and papers in prison is the dawning awareness that historical change was gutting much of Christianity’s inherited doctrinal and structural apparatus, forcing believers to ask who Christ was and how he was to be preached and worshiped in a “religionless” world.

And the base line of Bonhoeffer’s answer—the cantus firmus, to adopt his favorite metaphor of polyphony—was the thorough embrace of the godless world as nonetheless God’s world: “Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” The roots of that utterance were Barthian, but the conclusions Bonhoeffer drew from it were not. Bonhoeffer’s declaration that, when it comes to personal salvation, “there are more important things than that question (perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more important than the question!)” indicates his impatience with anxious self-scrutiny at a time when selfless action was in order, etsi deus non daretur (even if God were not a given). In this “world come of age,” the Church’s ­mysteries would not be proclaimed publicly but preserved in secret, on the model of the arcanum of the early Christian Church.

Charles Marsh is convinced that part of German Protestantism’s failure under Hitler was theological in character. If Protestantism hadn’t suffered the internal erosion of its orthodox substance in the long devolution that began with Kant and the Enlightenment, he suggests, it might have been less vulnerable to the ideological blandishments of National Socialism and its promise of a German national rebirth. He shares this conviction with many others—Evangelicals, Barthians, “radical orthodox,” and so on.

But there are reasons to doubt it. Consider the parallel case of German Catholicism, which experienced nothing like a comparable doctrinal collapse, apart from certain individual exceptions such as Karl Adam and Josef Lortz. Nevertheless, its institutional acquiescence in Hitler’s wars and genocidal programs was as supine as that of German Protestantism. It is true that Catholicism escaped the devastating schism that divided the dissenting Confessing Church and the official German Evangelical Church, and it did not suffer the same measure of Nazi penetration. But as research has shown, its unity was preserved at the cost of silencing voices in the hierarchy who pleaded for a more confrontational resistance to the Nazi state.

So theology wasn’t determinative. What mattered was the profound need on the part of both Protestant and Catholic communions to retain their historical stake in German national life. Different though their status was—Protestantism as the historical religion of state in Prussia and elsewhere, Catholicism as anxious protector of its endangered milieu—both churches were prisoners of the desire, above all, to preserve a threatened status quo. Institutional resistance was out of the question. Protestantism in particular could not surrender the claim to be a Volkskirche, a true national church and the spiritual custodian of the German people. This was the preoccupation, even among Confessing Christians, that ultimately disenchanted Bonhoeffer and led to his visionary anticipation of an outcast church on the margins of ­society. We can appreciate the measure of that disenchantment if we remember that he had taken membership in the Confessing Church so seriously that he once said that whoever knowingly separated himself from the Church separated himself from salvation—for which he was roundly denounced for “Catholic” thinking.

If there really was a theological principle on which the Church stood or fell—to apply a famous Lutheran dictum—it looks in retrospect as though it was the biblical teaching on the election of Israel, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). But the corollary doctrine that the Jews were condemned to wander the earth as visible evidence of God’s judgment so thoroughly muddied the biblical teaching that Christians in both communions, Protestant and Catholic, were blind to the escalating existential threat to Jews in Germany and elsewhere.

Hitler knew what he was doing when he told Catholic bishops in 1933 that the Third Reich’s disenfranchisement of the Jews was merely completing the task begun by the Christian states of earlier times and that had been interrupted in the era of liberalism. Catholicism found a degree of moral clarity when the Nazis established a euthanasia program that affected Gentiles, but no such extension was made where the Jews were concerned—not until far past the time when it might have been effective. Sorely lacking was the robust doctrine of human rights of the kind that the popes have moved toward since 1945.

In a documentary made back in the 1980s, as I recall, Eberhard Bethge acknowledged that the Church’s most damaging failure had occurred already in 1933, when it failed to protest the Third Reich’s emasculation of the civil liberties of the dying Weimar Republic. That is correct, and it applies equally to Catholicism, which instead chose to make its legal peace with Hitler in the notorious concordat of July 1933. Enthusiasm for “the unloved Republic” was long dead, insofar as it had ever existed among many Protestants and Catholics. Erik Peterson once described the German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei), the largest anti-democratic party, as the political expression of Protestantism. And Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, admitted that he had never in his heart been able to give his allegiance to “the godless Republic.” (The Weimar Constitution famously did not mention God and derived sovereignty from the people.)

Bonhoeffer took a different stance, of course. His involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler led to his execution by hanging in the Flossenbürg concentration camp a mere two weeks before its liberation. A true aristocrat, he bitterly opposed state absolutism, without necessarily embracing liberal democracy as the alternative. Perhaps an abiding lesson of this wretched era may be a greater tolerance on the part of believers for the imperfections and compromises of liberal democracy and its messy ­interest-group politics—and a justified realism about the diminished public authority attributable to the churches themselves, which when tried in the fire were found wanting.  

Michael Hollerich is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas.