’Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’: The spiritual growth and struggles of the celebrated German martyr

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (Deckle Edge/Knopf, $35), the definitive biography of the German martyr, grew from Charles Marsh’s dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s philosophy. His previous books “Reclaiming Bonhoeffer” and “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights,” his award-winning study of faith and the civil rights movement shaped social justice, display his disciplined reflection on theology and society.

The theme of the relationship of faith to society unifies the story of Bonhoeffer’s changing perspective as he evolves and society erupts. Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, “Sacred Community,” studied social theory and grounded theology in the social reality of the church.

Bonhoeffer’s attraction to Roman Catholicism rested in the social/religious mystery of the church. His second dissertation focused on the reality of God in the human social experience. The journey of his life through academic brilliance, youth ministry, and German congregations in England and Spain failed to ground him in the regular responsibilities of parish life in his German Lutheran community.

Bonhoeffer continued to dream of a disciplined Christian community as reflected in his early books “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.”

Mr. Marsh proves that Bonhoeffer abandoned the theology of these early works as he moved into the deep conspiracy to murder Hitler and establish a new government in thought similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

The author credits Bonhoeffer with deeper theology than Niebuhr but Niebuhr could not agree with Bonhoeffer’s more neo-orthodox affirmations. The author mistakenly identifies Niebuhr as a Lutheran rather than an Evangelical Synod theologian and he misidentifies Paul Lehman as later a professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary when he was a professor of theology.

The argument of the book emphasizes how much his year at Union Theological Seminary changed Bonhoeffer. In Niebuhr’s class he read Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen’s poem about lynching, and comprehended “the many trees on which God should swing world without end in suffering.”

Mr. Marsh credits American social theology, at first despised by Bonhoeffer, with setting Bonhoeffer on a track of concrete action from which he would never retreat. His African-American friend Franklin Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to Harlem, Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the rich musical-liturgical life of Black culture.

He read Gunnar Myrdal, W.E.B. DuBois and black literature in Niebuhr’s classes, but he gained deeper insight and experience from his friend Fisher who later founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwald, the Confessing Church, the German Evangelical Church, and the Ecumenical Church would all fail him. The story of the Church’s fight with the Nazis, as Mr. Marsh tells it, provides some of the more fascinating pages of the book.

In the end Bonhoeffer found community in alliance with his family, believers, and non-believers to subvert the Nazi government which enslaved the German people and threatened the world.

He was imprisoned for suspicion of aiding Jews fleeing Germany and for avoiding military service. His service in Military Intelligence under the supervision of clandestine anti-Nazis involved him in a complicated three-way deception.

Officially Bonhoeffer was assigned as a pastor to inform Germany’s Military Intelligence of developments within the Ecumenical Church movement.

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