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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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When the theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned from England in 1935 to his native Germany, to the town of Zingst on the southern side of the Baltic, he took up the role of spiritual disciplinarian with gusto. He had spent the last several months visiting various pacifist communities and monastic enclaves in Britain, endeavoring to glean as many insights as possible from Anglican and Free Church experiments in Christian discipleship. He observed Benedictine Anglo-Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. He grew more enthralled by the discipline of praying the Psalter as he saw it done among these groups. He became fascinated by how self-denial in the form of the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience thrived alongside games of ping-pong and cigarette breaks. One gains the impression, reading Charles Marsh's new biography Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—by turns elegant, harrowing, awe-inspiring, and sermonic—that Bonhoeffer was already aware in those days of the potential dissonance between a spirituality of rigor and a recognition of human buoyancy and joie de vivre, a dissonance that would make itself heard and felt in less than a year when he arrived back in Germany to found his own iteration of such an alternative community.

It would be facile to say that Bonhoeffer was "conflicted," but in retrospect it is possible to discern a fissure in his theology and life, in those years on the eve of European cultural collapse and war, that would only be consciously bridged later, in his final theological writings. On the one hand, in spearheading the newly formed Emergency Training Seminary of the Confessing Church, the famous school founded at Zingst and later moved to the Polish town of Finkenwalde that aimed to be a site of resistance to the Nazification of the German Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, Bonhoeffer embraced the Benedictine ethos wholeheartedly. He drew from the stockpile of Catholic devotions when he came to try to inculcate his own form of the imitatio Christi, adopting the posture of an abbot.

His famous book The Cost of Discipleship—rendered more accurately, though not entirely literally, in a recent translation as simply Discipleship—was a call to interpret the Lutheran sola fide (a shorthand term for "justification by divine grace, received and acknowledged by faith alone, apart from works") as necessitating ethical action. Or perhaps that's putting it too pacifically; Marsh describes the book as "a polemic against the Lutheran tendency to portray faith as a refuge from obedience." It was a collection of "exercises actualizing the Sermon on the Mount" for dark times. Bonhoeffer was calling his students not only to denounce Nazi ideology but to steel themselves for prophetic actions of opposition to Hitler's regime to which they would all, eventually, be driven.

This vision was fleshed out in lectures on the Gospel of Matthew's Sermon, but it also, as Bonhoeffer's students recalled, led to a particularly stringent form of communal life outside the classroom. Each member of the seminary felt "the weight of the world, the entire crisis of the Christian community." There were enforced hours of silence and an expectation that all would join in manual labor. A daily office of morning and evening prayer, including personal meditation, punctuated by monthly Communion, bookended the community's days. Bonhoeffer would have carried the regimen right through mealtimes, reading chapters of the Bible aloud while students ate, but the howls of protest caused him to relent from adding that extra burden, at least. Keeping time with the liturgical hours and abiding by the ascetic regimens was, Bonhoeffer felt, the way to fortify oneself for the sacrifices that the age would exact.

But it was during these same years that Bonhoeffer broke faith with some of monasticism's ideals. One of the seminary's first students, a member of the initial class of 23, was Eberhard Bethge, whom Marsh describes as "a slender, gentle young man." Bethge had been expelled from ministerial training in Wittenberg for his anti-Nazi sentiments and had found his way to Finkenwalde to begin his studies anew. Bonhoeffer was Bethge's senior by three years, not to mention his instructor, but the two men soon became emotionally attached and inseparable. From their initial meeting over white wine on the lawn to their sessions in the seminary music room, where Bonhoeffer passed on his love of Brahms and Chopin to Bethge, Marsh portrays Bonhoeffer as "smitten" by the younger student and, thereby, forced to qualify his acceptance of the communal rules he'd tried to import from England. A historic stricture in monasteries is the rule against "particular friendships." Pairs of friends, it is thought, can too easily break away from the community and lag in their commitment to the collective if they become too attached to one another. Then, too, there is the matter of sexual attraction, which can be fanned into flame in groups of two but better held in check through full immersion in the wider community. Whatever Bonhoeffer may have thought of this rule, he didn't observe it. He and Bethge continued to grow closer, though they were not, as far as we can tell, sexually intimate (Bonhoeffer apparently died a virgin).

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