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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.

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).

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.

Late in his life, Bonhoeffer recounted a conversation he'd had with his friend Jean Lasserre years earlier, during their drive across America, in which they shared with each other their highest aspirations. Lasserre wanted sainthood, and he eventually became a pastor and joined the French resistance. Bonhoeffer thought he wanted something equivalent—to learn to have faith—but it dawned on him later that Lasserre's and his answers weren't identical, or at least that he had misunderstood Lasserre in his own quest for spiritual perfection. For a long time, Bonhoeffer said, he tried to achieve sanctity through rigorous discipline. "I suppose I wrote Discipleship at the end of this path," he mused. But the kind of faith that mattered now, with the seepage of corruption into every crevasse of the German church's life, was a faith that took its stand against the encroachment of ambition, hubris, and shattering abuse and torture in Germany. "[T]he most important things in life are human relationships," Bonhoeffer concluded, and "the full this-worldliness of life." In Marsh's words, "Discipleship was but a stage in the journey, one that he had now moved beyond." What mattered now was what was disappearing, or rather being forcibly taken, from Europe—"all that is human," "personal life secure with … loved ones and … possessions," the togetherness and tenderness of the quiet joys of friendship, marriage, and extended family. Christian theology and practice must be aimed at preserving and hallowing those things, rather than inculcating any ethereal kind of self-denial.

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn't initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler's life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other "minor" offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.

Much of what he wrote was centered around Bethge, whom Marsh's portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. "[T]he human," he wrote, "is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular." (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a "quite normal" one (to use Bethge's designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams' conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as "different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection."

Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge ("[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing," he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. "God, the Eternal," he wrote to Bethge in 1944, "wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus"—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, "in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together," Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with "the man who was his soul mate," and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer's entire life.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His next book, Paul and the Trinity, is forthcoming from Eerdmans.

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