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A clear-sighted life worth living

28 November 2014

John Arnold is gripped by a new biography

Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Charles Marsh
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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 reinterpret.

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 Durham.

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