Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Charles Marsh
knopf, 528 pages, $35

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s appeal is no mystery: charismatic pastor, brilliant theologian, dedicated ecumenist, and anti-Nazi conspirator whose death at the age of thirty-nine terminated a life still ripe with promise. Interest in him in the English-speaking world blossomed when his prison writings first appeared in translation, and it has only grown with time. In recent years, however, that legacy has been complicated by those who have exploited his moral prestige by inducting him into the culture wars currently dividing the churches.

Admittedly, Bonhoeffer, a man of many turns, lends himself to a number of widely different readings. Do we favor the student of Harnack or the devotee of Barth? The pacifist or the conspirator to kill Hitler? The child of privilege who never lost his taste for the finer things or the man who identified with the marginalized and the outcast? The celebrator of the earthy sensibility of the Old Testament or the proponent of “a new kind of monasticism” who never married?

Charles Marsh’s Strange ­Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer approaches these questions on Bonhoeffer’s terms rather than our own. Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, gives us a sympathetic and theologically informed portrait that emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s close and enduring ties to Christian orthodoxy, but also his restless curiosity and experimentalism. This balance extends to his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s personal life, which gives us the man in full, freed from sentimental projections.

Marsh has the right idea in bringing Bonhoeffer down to earth. Hagiography is not history, and Bonhoeffer’s story is so compelling that apotheosis is hard to resist. It’s refreshing to be reminded that not everyone who met the zealous young advocate for life in community and the Sermon on the Mount was ­equally impressed—Hardy Arnold, son of the founder of the pacifist Bruderhof near Frankfurt, thought Bonhoeffer a bit of a dandy and a romantic when Bonhoeffer visited there in 1934. We learn about Bonhoeffer’s fussiness about dress, his financial dependence on his parents (to the point of mailing his laundry home), and his pleasure in traveling first class. These habits weren’t dented by the Depression, from which he seems to have been wholly insulated. But none of this is a serious mark against the overall character of the man, whom Marsh regards with unabashed affection and profound respect.

That applies too to his candid presentation of Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Eberhard Bethge, his former student, collaborator, interlocutor, and eventual relative after Bethge married Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate. Readers of this review probably know by now that Marsh treats the friendship as a de facto love affair, at least from Bonhoeffer’s side. On the evidence he presents, in the form of quotations and accounts of various incidents, the characterization is convincing. This was a rich and deep friendship, and its intensity did not lack a certain erotic charge. I don’t know how that can come as a great surprise to anyone with much experience in human friendship, whether same-sex or different-sex. Simply put, Bonhoeffer was in love. While we should hesitate to pass an anachronistic judgment on his behavior, we can at least restrain the celebrations of his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, as his true love, the heroine for the perfect hero—celebrations that were inspired by the publication of their correspondence in Love Letters from Cell 92. Von ­Wedemeyer would never match the role that Bethge played in ­Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and ­emotional life.

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