Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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BE WARNED. Charles Marsh's monumental work is so well written
that it is as hard to put down as it is to pick up, its
Americanisms only serving to remind us that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is
not an honorary Englishman (or Anglican), but belongs to the whole
wide world, the oikoumene.
Still, he is rooted in the particularities of early-20th-century
Germany, born in 1906 into a pampered childhood and the high noon
of the Wilhelminian intellectual elite. His privileged upbringing
gave him the aristocratic confidence to see through Nazi propaganda
and Christian equivocation alike; and he took it for granted that
there would always be people to help him - even his guard, the
admirable Corporal Knobloch, without whom we would not have his
letters and papers from prison.
His is at first a very German story, combining
Lehrjahre (years of study) with Wanderjahre
(years of travel). Marsh is particularly strong on Bonhoeffer's
ambivalent attitude to the Liberal Protestantism of Berlin
University, combining a lasting affection for his teachers,
especially Harnack, with periodic repudiation and eventual
reconciliation within a serene acceptance of all he had been given.
An Italian journey was as life-changing for him as it had been for
Goethe, releasing him from the provincial narrowness of German
Lutheranism, which he never repudiated, but did radically
If his grounding was in his homeland, his most important
insights were gained abroad, in Roman Catholic Rome and Barcelona,
in Anglican Kelham and Mirfield, in the Harlem Negro churches in
the United States, and in the nascent ecumenical movement.
Marsh interweaves an account of Bonhoeffer's intellectual and
spiritual development with the tragic history of his Church and
nation under the Nazis, pausing to expound his writings, and
examine his life in an appreciative but critical way.
This is no hagiography. The constancy and courage of his
devotion to Christ, and of his opposition to fascism (even to his
involvement in conspiracy and condoning of tyrannicide) is
paralleled by the vagaries of his thought - and of his personal
relationships, until he meets his lifelong friend and amanuensis,
Eberhard Bethge, and then falls in love with the much younger Maria
von Wedemeyer, to whom he becomes engaged only when it is too late
to hope for marriage.
By a strange irony, it is imprisonment that enables Bonhoeffer
to perfect the "new kind of monasticism" which his awkward attempts
at being an abbot had scarcely achieved in the illegal seminary in
Finkenwalde. And, by the same token, it was prison walls and
solitary confinement that gave him room to read and write, deprived
him of distraction, and set his imagination free to dream of
"religionless Christianity", much misunderstood, but pregnant with
possibilities beyond even his most brilliant academic writings.
This was no irresponsible fan- tasising, but the mature wisdom
of an exceptionally well-stocked and disciplined mind, and of an
entrancing person and personality. The life, which was so cruelly
taken from him in 1945 (and we are not spared the horrors of the
last months and minutes - or was it a whole hour?), had been a life
worth living and, therefore, leaving.
The book is beautifully printed, and has many helpful
black-and-white illustrations. It is marred only by a gratuitous
and malicious demolition of Tillich's theology and reputation in a
footnote; too many errata for a work of this quality; and
by curious mistakes in location (Zossen is not a suburb of Berlin,
and Sydenham is not in Whitechapel). Still, it must be a contender
for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Bethge remains Bonhoeffer's Boswell and beloved disciple, but
Marsh brings us up to date with advancing scholarship, newly opened
archives, fresh insights, and longer perspectives. This is a book
to read on retreat, or - perish the thought - in prison.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of