What follows is a blog post / book review I’ve written for Speakeasy, a cool book review group that I recently joined. I’ve been curious about Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a long time so I jumped at the chance to review a biography about him, called Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh. It was a great read! If you don’t have time for the book, try the blog post. 🙂
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As almost a total newcomer to Bonhoeffer, knowing little more than a few of his book titles and that he was part of an assassination attempt for Hitler, I was hoping that Strange Glory would help elucidate this famous yet mysterious theologian’s life for me. The book more than delivered. Marsh did an incredible amount of research – the notes and index take up 1/5 of the volume of the book! It seems that no piece of material was left uncovered, as Marsh begins with Bonhoeffer’s childhood, spent in idyllic German countrysides, and ends with his tragic early death in the Flossenburg concentration camp.
Bonhoeffer is not presented in a shallow idealized way; Marsh is straightforward and thorough in his presentation. He is known for his books like Cost of Discipleship and his Letters from Prison, but Marsh also introduces us to the lesser-known sides of Bonhoeffer. He enjoyed the finer things in life and seemed to have a measure of entitlement to such things. I found it humorous he would still mail his laundry home for his mother to wash when he was well into his adult years (296)! He believed in the importance of play, relaxation, and leisure, and was a great lover of music. However, he didn’t shelter himself from the world; he seemed to enjoy learning about other cultures, even traveling to America and experiencing black Southern churches and adventuring down to Mexico. Marsh wryly notes, “as usual, he attributed to his [American / Mexican] escape high-minded purpose” (127), that is, to engage in some ethnographic study and learn about the churches.
Bonhoeffer’s commitment to truth and learning (especially while enjoying oneself along the way) is a repeated theme in his life. He gained his doctorate early on and dialogued with famous theologians of his day, including the older Karl Barth, whom he considered his intellectual equal. This sort of confidence in himself and his thinking also seems to characterize Bonhoeffer. It is likely this trait that gave him the insight to see what was really going on with the state-enforced German church, where Hitler eventually replaced Christ, and to be a founding member of what came to be known as the Confessing Church. Interestingly, Bonhoeffer originally supported the connection between religion and Germanic pride, even promoting war and killing as appropriate for a nationalistic Christian. However, he became a committed pacifist in 1934, stating strongly that “any military service except in the ambulance corps, and any preparation for war, is forbidden” (214). He was also outspoken against the Nazi religion, able to see what disastrous consequences awaited far before many of his peers and fellow citizens.
The relationship between Bonhoeffer and his once-student, Eberhard Bethge, is well-documented but not overdramatized. Bonhoeffer and Bethge shared a special bond, even owning a joint bank account and sending Christmas letters signed together. We see from Bethge that Bonhoeffer was not always easy to be with, and in fact had an explosive temper that may have only been witnessed by Bethge. Bonhoeffer’s emotional devotion to Bethge was quite profound, and perhaps it was the passion of those emotions that carried him through many dark days that lay waiting in his future.
Learning all kinds of facets of Bonhoeffer’s life engenders an even deeper appreciation of his war- and Nazi-resistance efforts. He is not a saint or someone endowed with special abilities to suffer; Marsh creates a very human portrait of a man who had incredible courage to stand for what was right – and wrestle with the ethical dimensions of how to best do that – in a time of terror. The end of the book becomes increasingly somber as Bonhoeffer continues his resistance efforts as a double agent, is put into prison, and is eventually murdered in a concentration camp.
Something I particularly appreciated about this book was witnessing the descent of Germany into rule by Hitler. A peculiar collective consciousness takes over when nation’s fall into thinking that seems so absurd (and tragic) as an outsider, but this has incredibly important lessons for us today and with our American political climate. We can’t assume that this will never happen to us, because this thinking can be so insidious that logic, rationality, and human decency get thrown out the window in exchange for a frightening sort of group-think. Marsh does an excellent job outlining not just Bonhoeffer’s life, but the political and theological climate he was a part of.
If I have one complaint, it would be that Marsh includes seemingly every detail about Bonhoeffer’s life (okay, small exaggeration), so this book is not a quick read, though it is gripping. It helps to have something of a theological background as Marsh takes us through Bonhoeffer’s and others’ theological positions. And hey, if you don’t have the time or interest to make it through the whole book, I hope this review gives you a little taste of what you’re missing!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.