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Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Charles Marsh
Knopf, 2014
528 pp., $35.00

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Wesley Hill


"The Full This-Worldliness of Life"

On Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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This tension during Bonhoeffer's years at Finkenwalde—between the rigorous and politically engaged discipline of the resistance seminary's communal life and the tender affection of friendship with Bethge—is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger story Marsh tells in this splendid biography. Marsh's book is a full life of his subject (originally he had planned to write only on Bonhoeffer's stay in America earlier in the 1930s, but that limited aim was abandoned for a bigger canvas), and one way of tracing its development is to read it as a narrative of an emerging humanistic, world-affirming Christian spirituality. Having tried to observe a certain kind of Christian discipline in the shadow of one of the twentieth century's most horrific regimes, he later left it behind for "a faith more open, munificent, and sensuous."

The seeds of that later spirituality were sown in Bonhoeffer's childhood and adolescence. Marsh describes the young Bonhoeffer as well bred, at ease in the worlds of fashion, art, travel (he swooned over Italy), and especially music. His university years were shaped by his experience of studying with the most accomplished scholars of religion in the 20th century, Adolf von Harnack chief among them, and his dissertation and later Habilitationsschrift (or second dissertation, generally of higher quality and displaying more independent research) received the highest marks and met with wide acclaim. When he served as a pastoral assistant for a year at a church in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer's sermons engaged many young listeners in a way their permanent pastor never had, while his athletic prowess impressed them outside the confines of the sanctuary. On hot summer nights he would stay up late, drinking wine and attending the cinema. Marsh renders his subject as urbane and popular, writing home to request new clothes and expensive shoes. He was not, apparently, free from the vices of arrogance and flippancy that so often accompany the kind of privileged upbringing he had enjoyed.

But in time Bonhoeffer became increasingly conscious of the sense of obligation brought on by that privilege. As war came to seem increasingly unavoidable and the church, puppy-like, trailed Hitler obediently at each fork in the road (one of the great achievements of Marsh's biography is to depict, in sickening detail and with fresh attention to subtlety and nuance, the degree of the church's complicity in Hitler's consolidation of dictatorial power), Bonhoeffer came to see his own road narrowing to a point of decision. After his time as a visiting fellow at Union Seminary in New York, his most enduring memory of the U.S. was of the African American church, Abyssinian-Baptist, he frequented in Harlem. There he had glimpsed the grounding of the struggle for social justice in passionate preaching and enacted communal solidarity, and he knew he had to find some similar way of life for himself. When Bonhoeffer couldn't resist heeding the alarm bells sounding in his native Germany, he returned home, in Marsh's fine phrase, "a theologian of the concrete."

What Marsh shows, in a thread that unifies his biography from its opening chapter until its close, is how this aim—to be a socially engaged, grounded, expressive theologian—was concretized for Bonhoeffer not simply in his prophetic speeches (he regularly and publicly denounced the church's capitulation and, equally, the Nazi government that demanded it) and not only in the contemplative ascesis of the Finkenwalde cloister but, gradually and with more and more self-awareness, in the "rich and multilayered worldliness" he had tasted in his earliest years. Marsh demonstrates, in other words, how the separate, parallel lines of Bonhoeffer's role as monastic abbot and advocate of prophetic, progressive political action and his role as friend to Bethge and music-loving bon vivant did eventually merge. Marsh takes those two unconnected lines and uses them to form a circle, picking up the unfinished line from Bonhoeffer's childhood, tracing it through the disquieting, unsettled years of his early resistance to the Nazi takeover, and finally looping it back around and connecting it with the mature theology of Bonhoeffer's last years in prison.

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