Bonhoeffer Biography a Masterpiece

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R0211-316,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer_mit_Schülern

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1932

Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has received much attention since its release several months back, partlyfor two reasons. First, Marsh discusses Bonhoeffer’s apparently homoerotic relationship with Eberhard Bethge at considerable length. For a figure beloved by many American Christians themselves uneasy with same-sex attraction, this is controversial terrain. Second, Marsh’s biography follows Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer in relatively short order, thus attracting inevitable comparisons.

For the most part, though, Strange Glory has received the praise it deserves. [See Randall Balmer's recent review in the New York Times, for example]. I had the good fortune to read Marsh’s biography while in Germany (never hurts to be closer to the subject matter) and shortly after reading a newly published, brief, German-language biographyStrange Glory distracted me from other tasks for an entire week. I have long been a Bonhoeffer “fan” of sorts. After an earlier stay in Germany, I fell in love with “Von Guten Mächten,” a Bonhoeffer poem now in the German Protestant hymnal. My daughter likes it as a lullaby, which provides me with endless satisfaction at bedtime.

Strange Glory, as I commented in a review for the Christian Century, a “moving, melancholy portrait.” In terms of the matters mentioned above, I haven’t read Metaxas’s biography and cannot compare the two. On the matter of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge, I found Marsh’s presentation reasonable, as I write in my review:

Bethge himself was the subject of Bonhoeffer’s love, a love that “strained toward the achievement of a romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.” (384) After meeting at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer and Bethge lived together for some time, shared a bank account, and sent joint Christmas gifts to family members and friends. Their relationship was unbalanced. Bonhoeffer consistently demanded more from Bethge than the latter gave: more attention, more letters, and more visits. Eventually, Bethge became engaged to a much younger woman (Bonhoeffer’s niece) and distanced himself from the more intense elements of the friendship. Bonhoeffer promptly imitated his friend.

I do think that Marsh might have offered more analysis of the relationship. How would contemporaries (beyond those quoted in the book) have understood this relationship? From reading Marsh’s book, it seemed clear to me that this is not a case of Abraham Lincoln’s having shared a bed with a man (a rather ordinary event for a mid-nineteenth-century heterosexual male). Bonhoeffer and Bethge were intimate in a way that raised eyebrows. Moreover, Marsh’s portrayal of the relationship enriches his thoroughly humanizing account of a man too quickly turned into a martyred saint. Bonhoeffer could not, in the end, obtain the intimacy (not necessarily sexual, but at least an enduring intensity of friendship) that he sought from Bethge, nor was he likely to find such satisfaction with the seventeen-year-old Maria von Wedemeyer who accepted his marriage proposal.

Ultimately, however, arguments over Bonhoeffer’s sexuality distract from the true meat of Strange Glory: Bonhoeffer’s fierce commitment to the church of Jesus Christ and his relentless attempt to answer and re-answer the fundamental questions that Christians of each generation face. My conclusion:

Despite many attempts to claim him, Bonhoeffer cannot easily serve as a role model for American Christians today. Few of us encounter an existential threat similar to his. Nor can we simply ape his spiritual disciplines or ideas. Most of us could probably not afford his fashion taste. Many of us, however, inhabit the same world of restless uncertainty, desperate to know how the church can provide a clear witness amid idolatry and injustice. Faced with such vexing problems, Bonhoeffer often tacked back to basic questions. “Who is this Jesus Christ, the one who encounters us in the Word of God?” Are we “willing to offer our lives to the church and the world”?

There are so many excellent books that compete — along with many other things — for our attention. Strange Glory is worthwhile. It does not solve all of the riddles of an enigmatic personality, nor does it fully explore all of Bonhoeffer’s theological writings (for someone who died at a young age, he left behind a very large corpus). Nor, perhaps, can anyone fully explain how Dietrich Bonhoeffer could feel wonderfully protected by the good and gracious power of God while witnessing the destruction of his country and facing his own imminent death. It does, however, encourage us to consider the same questions that Bonhoeffer faced, to determine who Jesus Christ is, to feel the claims of scripture on our thoughts and beliefs, and to dedicate ourselves to the church of Jesus Christ and to fiercely guard it from all forms of idolatry.

  • Frederick W Harrison

    The misconceived idea that the saints live untarnished lives from the moment of their conversion/acceptance of Christ is hard to eradicate, probably from the hagiographies that have been written about them. What gives sinners like me, saved by grace, hope is that their contributions to the understanding of theology were made while they yet struggled with sin. They found the way to place more emphasis on “what me might yet become” than on “what we were, and are” by focusing on the author and perfecter of our faith, rather than our vain efforts to attempt self-improvement. Though their feet be of clay, their hearts became as gold through the refiner’s fire of love.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Good review. Bonhoeffer, like the rest of us, was complex and contradictory; his theological views certainly evolved with time and would have evolved still had he survived WWII.

  • stefanstackhouse

    It used to be that homosexuality was covered up and denied. Now it seems we’ve swung to the opposite extreme and are reading homosexuality into any and all same-sex relationships, even where those same-sex relationships were unlikely to be much more than mere common and innocent friendship. The reality of the situation, like usual, is probably somewhere in the middle. There was probably more of it than previously thought, but rather less than some seem to be thinking these days.

  • Chuck

    “Marsh discusses Bonhoeffer’s apparently homoerotic relationship with Eberhard Bethge …”

    “All is pure to those who are pure. But to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”
    - Titus 1:15 NET

    • Andrew Dowling

      . . .so quoted by every pastor caught with their pants down/hands in the cookie jar . . .

      • thescottishpastor

        Brother, that comment was unworthy. It seems this friendship was very much like David & Jonathan’s. But I wouldn’t call that homo-erotic. I would call it a gift from God.


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