What Am I Reading? Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory”

I’ve been wanting to read Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Vintage, 2015) since it was first published in 2014. Now that the paperback is out, and selling for ~50pp/$ at a certain online retailer, I knew the time had come.

When I started reading the book I, quite naturally, sent out a Tweet about it (see it here if you want) in which I described it as “the only one worth reading by an author whose name starts with ‘m.’” One or two of my friends and colleagues who are Bonhoeffer specialists got in touch to point me to resources that identify flaws in Marsh’s presentation. It’s true, this book is not perfect. However, I stand by my statement—which, admittedly, probably isn’t saying much.

To be perfectly clear, however, Marsh’s book is worth reading. There are some shorter treatments of Bonhoeffer (see a review of one here), and there’s the tome from Eberhard Bethge, and Marsh’s treatment falls nicely between the two. He writes well and is a good storyteller, which makes the pages turn quickly. He doesn’t get bogged down in theological specifics but gives the reader enough to communicate why such questions were vital to the people involved. I think it will be a useful tool to get general audiences and beginning students interested in Bonhoeffer (if you’re interested, check out this guide to going further with Bonhoeffer), and it is certainly more reliable than some other options...

I plan to do a few posts on the book. In this one, aside from the general remarks above, I want to highlight various bits that I found engaging for various reasons. Here’s a slideshow of some stuff that I found randomly interesting, in other words.

(1) To begin, I’m kind of in a nitpicking mood. Marsh sometimes oversimplifies in the service of telling a good story. One instance of this is when he describes—simply and without any nuance—Charlotte von Kirschbaum as Karl Barth’s “lover,” and as remaining so until Barth’s death (259). There’s truth to this, but that language tends to indicate a sexual relationship and that’s a step too far in this particular case, at least in terms of what we can say with historical responsibility. In this connection he also speaks of the trio of Barth, von Kirschbaum, and Barth’s wife Nelly as “a final testament to his ardent embrace of Trinitarian thought.” This is just silly. Yes, Barth did much to revive interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. But this comment only really makes sense if you’re talking about a social doctrine of the Trinity, and Barth was far from being a social trinitarian. Marsh likely knows this; I suspect he makes this comment as a humorous aside rather than in earnest. At least, I hope he does. But even then it's a bit of a cheap laugh (or groan).

Another such fudging of historical responsibility is how he persistently describes the intimate relationship between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge as romantic. Again, there’s some truth here. But that language tends to imply if not sexual consummation then at least sexual desire. And Marsh is clear that Bonhoeffer “would never acknowledge a sexual desire for Bethge, nor would Bethge have welcomed its expression” (384). I feel compelled to add here, in typical Seinfeld fashion: not that there’s anything wrong with that! Nevertheless, this statement comes right near the end of the book, and it would be easy for one to think—before reaching the end—that such desire had been expressed and welcomed based on how Marsh tells parts of his story.

Sidebar: it seems to me that we in the West have developed a rather impoverished way of thinking about intimacy between male friends. In our collective imagination, we think that either intimacy is kept at arm’s length and restricted to bonding over sports, movies, videogames, etc., or that there’s a homosexual relationship. But this ignores quite a few intermediate degrees and types of intimacy. Anyway, moving on.

(2) I was also interested to learn that Bonhoeffer’s experience of Union Seminary on his first trip in the early 1930s was not restricted to the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. There was also Harry Ward, a “Methodist activist and reformer” who was “decidedly more ideological than any of his Union colleagues” (123). Ideological how?

Ward and Niebuhr would take dramatically different turns in the decade ahead: Niebuhr abandoning pacifism for Christian realism, and eventually becoming a Cold War anticommunist Democrat; Ward, meanwhile, hunkering down, as he saw things, in the trenches with Jesus and Marx, a defender of the “Soviet spirit” against all its enemies. . . . In the classroom, Bonhoeffer listened closely as Ward enunciated his singular version of Pascal’s wager: Christians had the world to gain from living “as if” there existed an ethical God weighing every human action in the balance. This meant, at least for Ward, a socialist revolution. (124)

Again, it seems a bit of a cheap shot to label the socialist as "ideological" and Niebuhr as otherwise. Arguably, socialists are the least ideological and most practical of political operatives (or, at least, should be).

(3) It’s always fun to get a glimpse at the daily life of figures like Bonhoeffer, and this is especially interesting with regard to Bonhoeffer because he was—let’s not deny it—the child of privilege. His daily life reflected this: his singular joie de vie and bon vivant spirit. The following describes his routine during his time in London when his friend Franz Hildebrandt was staying with him.

The mornings began late with a “sumptuous” breakfast and a copy of the London Times, both delivered by the housekeeper at eleven o’clock. Afterward, Bonhoeffer went about his daily tasks and worked on his sermons, until two o’clock, when he’d join Hildebrandt for a light lunch back at the parsonage. Then ensuing discussion and debate would end only when the two finally sat down at the piano. Evenings were for the theater and the cinema, followed by drinks and dinner and more conversation, often continuing well after midnight, the flow of meditation, music, theology, and storytelling, “all following one another, blending into one another—till 2 or 3 a.m.” (201)

(4) Of course, something must be said of Bonhoeffer’s final stage, of his rethinking of Christianity during his period of imprisonment. Marsh did a nice job with this overall, I thought, but he has an especially nice paragraph on why this was necessary. In sum, all available options had failed and something new was necessary. Here’s how Marsh elaborates:

All other options had failed: German Protestantism had first sought legitimacy by defining a spiritual dimension beyond state intrusion. Lutheran orthodoxy had sought to redeem the church by making doctrinal rectitude the absolute measure of faith. The Confessing Church had affirmed the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all others and fought for the purity of the church. The ecumenical movement had rallied around the naïve hope that Christ’s peace would prevail in history. But none of these efforts could do so much as dent the impregnable armor of the Nazi monolith—or save the Jews from mass slaughter. And so Bonhoeffer’s final thoughts in prison came as an invitation to rethink the Christian witness and the church’s complicity in war, mass death, and genocide. (378)

This work of rethinking the church’s complicity in these things is not done. In fact, that complicity has in many ways only gotten worse since Bonhoeffer’s time. Christians in America today would do well to head Bonhoeffer’s terminal diagnosis.

(5) Well, this has been a really long post and I don’t want to flog it any further. So, in conclusion, I leave you with Bonhoeffer’s final written words. Addressed to his parents, they are a testament to the this-worldliness that he embraced at the end: “Please drop off some stationary with the commissar [of the prison]” (388).

[Update: A theological friend pointed me to a Victoria Barnett's Clarification and Addendum to my Review of Charles Marsh's Strange Glory. Barnett, for whom I have a great deal of respect and from whose work I have benefited greatly, emphasizes problematic quotations and contextual framing in Marsh's treatment especially of the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Bethge.]


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Doug said…
Just read this myself. What was helpful was the perspective from another culture and time that brought into focus cultural and social background that Bethge took for granted, particularly the privileged character of Bonhoeffer's family and its connections.That I think is its chief contribution.It is worth reading but if you haven't read Bethge you should read one of the other biographies, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, or Christiane Tietz
Kim Fabricius said…
Thanks for the review and its palpable hits.

Doug is right about the Schlingensiepen: I'd say it's now the go-to Bonhoeffer biography.

As for some additional secondary literature:

Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel's Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (2013) -- with a foreword by Hauerwas -- does just what it says on the tin.

Jeffrey Pugh's Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Troubled Times (2008) is helpful both for its insights on the much-disputed idea of "religionless Christianity" and for bringing Bonhoeffer to bear on contemporary American culture and politics.

Finally, two book bringing Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King into conversation are worth a look: J. Deotis Roberts' Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (2005), and the collection of essays Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought (2010).
Thanks for the recommendations, Doug and Kim! And good to "see" you again, Kim - it's been a while!

Half a dozen or so folks have now told me to read Schlingensiepen, so I'll have to make that happen at some point. Doug, DET published a review of Tietz's tidy volume that you may perhaos enjoy. It's linked in the post and here.

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