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In the Summer 2014 Edition of the publication, International Bonhoeffer Society Newsletter, there is a review of Charles Marsh’s book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The reviewer is Javier Alejandro Garcia (Doctoral Student at the University of Cambridge, England). Garcia wrote that “a distinctive feature of this biography is its closer examination of Bonhoeffer’s close friendship with Eberhard Bethge…Marsh inquires further, however, into the exact nature of Bonhoeffer’s feelings for Bethge. Although tactfully never putting a name to such feelings, he nevertheless insists on the question.”

Since the publication of Strange Glory, there has much speculation of the sexuality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Garcia’s words are helpful in this regard…

Despite Marsh’s implicating interpretation of the facts and correspondence, the matter remains complex. For one, it must be recognized that our modern conception of homosexuality cannot be superimposed onto  Bonhoeffer’s time, where the norms of male relationships, would have been entirely different. Certain behaviors, such as sharing a bedroom or bank account (only two of the many examples provided), would not have raised the questions then that they may now. Our intensified cultural sensitivity to this topic should not provoke assumptions about a culture and time significantly distinct from our own.

Moreover, several factors in Bonhoeffer’s life complicate this claim. Whether actively, as in the case of his eventual fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer, or passively, as in his epistolary exchange with Elizabeth Zinn, Bonhoeffer pursued romantic relationships with women. His love letters to Maria contain such moving affection that renders the authenticity of his emotion undeniable. In the same vein, Bethge maintained a clear platonic stance towards his friend. Although ever a faithful and obliging companion, Bethge resisted Bonhoeffer’s possessiveness and prioritized his marriage over friendship. Ultimately, such retrospective speculation proves futile, as we will never know what exactly Bonhoeffer felt for Bethge, except for the obvious fact of close friendship. Indeed, it would behoove us to heed Bonhoeffer’s warning against such prying psychological curiosity.

What then are the readers to make of this possibility? Nothing much, in this author’s opinion. The conjecture changes nothing of the enduring impact of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.   

The Journey of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

BonhoefferTegelThere are a number of very important biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, none more complete or significant than the one by Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography). Bethge’s biography is complete though not exhaustive (even if at times a bit exhausting) and takes serious commitment to finish. The prose is not captivating. Alongside Bethge is F. Schlingensiepen’s solid and recent biography (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Those two describe a similar journey for Bonhoeffer (see below) while Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer) told a different story, a more evangelical one, which is why so many evangelicals have found Bonhoeffer in the last five years. Mark Thiessen Nation provides in his study (Bonhoeffer the Assassin?) a different journey for Bonhoeffer.

But the best written description of Bonhoeffer’s journey is now by Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Why use the word “journey”? Because people have made meaning out of Bonhoeffer’s life and theological development according to the scheme they find in his story. The fork in the road or the place of decision is right here: When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after that aborted visit to Union Theological Seminary in the summer of 1939, did his theology shift from a pacifist Discipleship and Life Together direction toward a more Niebuhrian realism/responsibility vision? That is, did he enter into the Abwehr (double agent) in Hitler’s National Socialist party as one who was seeking the downfall, assassination and replacement of Hitler or was his life as a double agent a ruse for his continued life in the ministry of the ecumenical movement?

The standard journey is the journey from a rather naive and optimistic hope for church renewal through intense commitment to discipleship toward a more realistic, even compromising, assumption of responsibility (this term is big in this discussion and must be connected to Reinhold Niebuhr at Union) all reshaped in his decision that the best way to act as a responsible Christian under Hitler was to assume the guilt of the nation and seek his country’s collapse. Maybe the best way of all to frame this is to say Bonhoeffer took leave of Discipleship by the time he was writing Ethics. That, at any rate, is the most common journey told of Bonhoeffer’s theological development. I have already covered Mark Thiessen Nation’s proposal and this post is about Marsh’s study, but it appears to me Bonhoeffer’s pacifism can remain in tact in spite of his realism since he saw entrance into the resistance as guilt (personal and national).

Bonhoeffer did come by his ecclesial faith naturally: his father was not a believer, his mother was and led family devotions in the evening, the family did not attend church frequently though he went through confirmation and was both spiritually and theologically curious when young, most of his siblings were not Christians, and even having completed his theology degree at Berlin (where as a liberal he encountered Barth) Bonhoeffer still was not much a church goer. His position as assistant pastor in Barcelona engaged him for the first time in serious church work. After his return to Germany he was committed to the church — but as much to the ecumenical church, to conferences, as he was to local parish ministry.

Bonhoeffer embraced Barth’s theology deeply and this is one reason for Marsh’s general approach to Bonhoeffer’s journey: Barth is present in his dissertation on the communion of the saints, in his habilitation on German philosophical history (Marsh thinks this book was “one of the great theological achievements of the twentieth century”), but it is profoundly present in Ethics. The first “chapter” of that book could be taken from Barth’s theory of revelation in dialectical thinking (and unfortunately dialectical method in writing!) in its unifocal concentration on God in Christ as the true revelation by which all things are measured — including the world. Furthermore, Bonhoeffer here has embraced some of Barth’s universalism for the thematic center of that first chapter is about the reconciliation (ontologically) of the world in Christ already. Marsh keeps Barth before the readers of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, married a Jewish man (who had been baptized).  That fact opens up a window that tosses light deep into Bonhoeffer’s theology: he was deeply committed to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the church and Judaism, of Christians and Jews, and therefore of Jews and Germans. When most were circling the wagons or wondering what was really going on, DB saw through to the heart of what Hitler and the National Socialists were setting up to accomplish in Germany and beyond. If he was anything, he was highly principled and so he refused to budge or surrender an inch to the National Socialists. Bonhoeffer’s balking at both The Bethel Confession and The Barmen Declaration, the former he had an early hand in, concerned their lack of commitment to solidarity with Jews — believers or not. Seemingly ahead of everyone else in theological circles, including Barth, Bonhoeffer saw the Jewish Question as the Christian Problem. He helped his sister and brother in law escape from Germany to England through Switzerland. They survived the war Dietrich didn’t. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is probing pluralism in affirmative terms, and Marsh is accurate.

Marsh has exceptional sections on Bonhoeffer in the USA fascinated by African Americans, their theology and spirituality (and songs), and this experience (at Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem) shaped Bonhoeffer’s thinking about what it takes to be a gospel Christian and what racism does to a people and nation. He not only introduced his students in Zingst and Finkenwalde to Negro spirituals, but he saw racism in Germany more intensively than others because of his time in NYC. No one is more attuned to racism’s impact on theology and the need to combat it than Charles Marsh, so his sections here are more sensitive and insightful than other sketches of Bonhoeffer.

Marsh, in my view, downplays Discipleship and Life Together because, again in my view, he sees a different journey for Bonhoeffer: it is one that sees the highlight years in DB’s life not in the outside-the-system seminary (they weren’t underground until the end) writings and spirituality but in the more “responsible” political theology of the Ethics and his Letters and Papers from Prison. His sketches of DB’s theology after his return to Germany and while in prison were a highlight for me.

In fact, Marsh has all but convinced me of the Christian realism move of Bonhoeffer. But before I will go on board officially I want to re-read Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, which I’m doing now. One thing has become clear to me: the conspirators were profoundly naive in planning to be those who would run Germany when Hitler was removed. Profoundly naive, if not delusional. I need to read more on this plot but that’s how it strikes me.

Marsh has complete control of the sources of Bonhoeffer’s life: he has obviously read them in German as well as in English (in fact I saw one or two mistakes in footnotes because he was referring to the German editions and not the English translations). Detail after details is pressed from the original sources, in a historically chronological manner, and for this reason alone Marsh’s Strange Glory stands among the best of Bonhoeffer biographies.

I must mention one feature of this book because if I don’t it will emerge in the comments and this short explanation allows me a bit of more accurate expression. Marsh’s biography is undoubtedly the best biography to read (though nothing can replace Bethge’s fullness) but it will be remembered as the biography that suggested Bonhoeffer was gay or was romantically attracted to Eberhard Bethge. There is no explicit evidence; the relationship remained chaste; Bethge was engaged and then married and Bonhoeffer himself was engaged; there is Hitler’s extermination system that included homosexuals. There are suggestions according to Marsh: they shared a bank account, they shared Christmas presents, they spent constant time together, Bonhoeffer’s (not Bethge’s) endearing language in letters, Bonhoeffer’s getting engaged not long after Bethge got engaged, and Bonhoeffer’s obsessiveness with Bethge. OK, but it’s all suggestion, and this is complicated by Bonhoeffer’s obsession with clothing and appearance. [For a Marsh interview, see this.] Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but  it seems their relationship could at least be explored in another context: male friendships among German intellectuals of this era, which maybe needs the reminder that friendships have been between same sexes for most of Western history. I quote here from Wesley Hill’s exceptional post on this topic about DB:

But, second, it also seems to me there’s an opposite danger that, in our effort to articulate and defend the existence of something like “close, non-sexual friendships between men” in past eras, we may overlook the importance of homosexual feelings in shaping those friendships. Yes, of course, “homosexuality” as we know it didn’t exist as a social construct until relatively recently, but that doesn’t mean the reality of persistent, predominant same-sex sexual desire didn’t exist and that it didn’t have a friendship-deepening effect for those who experienced it. Sure, Bonhoeffer wasn’t “gay” in our post-Stonewall sense. But what Marsh’s biography tries to explore is whether Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attractions and how those attractions may have led him to look for ways to love his friend Bethge. Bonhoeffer evidently didn’t—and maybe didn’t even wantto—have sex with Bethge (and presumably Bethge himself wouldn’t have consented anyway). But did Bonhoeffer’s romantic feelings for his friend, if indeed they existed (as Marsh believes they did), lead him into a pursuit of emotional and spiritual intimacy with Bethge that he wouldn’t otherwise have sought? I think there’s a danger in avoiding that question, too, even as there’s a danger in jumping to the conclusion “Bonhoeffer was gay.” [Wes has a very good review of Marsh’s biography in the most recent edition of Books & Culture.]

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/01/the-journey-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer/#ixzz3ESv8xgSJ

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/01/the-journey-of-dietrich-bonhoeffer/#ixzz3ESuMYfGR

Rediscovering a Lost Love

In January 1944, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in a Gestapo prison. He passed the time by writing, and in one of many letters to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer tenderly reflected on what Bethge meant to him.

Back then his missives didn’t raise eyebrows. They sounded like those of so many before him who, in moments of triumph and trial, had taken their greatest joy in the love of a friend of the same sex.

Of course, times have changed. Years after Bonhoeffer’s death, while speaking publicly about their friendship, Bethge found himself facing an awkward question:

Surely, said one audience member, your friendship with Dietrich “must [have been] a homosexual partnership.” How else could Bethge explain the startling affection Bonhoeffer had for him?

Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s friendship was not an isolated victim of this kind of revisionism. Modern readers seem to be on a virtual crusade to open every closet in history.daily_commentary_09_22_14

Thus, we’re told, the bachelor Abraham Lincoln was obviously gay because he shared a bed with his best friend (a practice that was common with both sexes at that time). Ditto William Shakespeare, who wrote love sonnets for an unnamed male friend. The biblical David, who lamented Jonathan’s death, calling his friend’s love “finer than the love of women” was plainly gay, too, the reasoning goes. And the Apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” has sparked speculation of his own.

You see, to the modern eye, all close love is sexual love. Deep friendship, especially between men, gives us an uneasy feeling. This leaves modern men with a tough choice: They can risk being pegged as gay for forming deep friendships with each other, or they can give up on making friends and just have “bros.”

That, argues Stephen Marche in “Esquire” of all places, is what the majority of men are now doing.

“The word bro,” he writes, shows an “underlying contempt for male friendship it implies.” “Bros,” he says, are “men who get together to be idiots with one another,” drink, watch sports and grunt, but never get involved in each other’s lives. So dominant is machismo over male friendship these days, that when two “bros” get a little too close, popular culture has a new, sexually-charged term for their relationship: “bromance.”

All of this leads Wesley Hill to ask in “Christianity Today,” “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?”

Citing sociologist Niobe Way’s recent book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” Hill writes that “[pre-adolescent boys talk] in shockingly intimate terms about their male friends.”

But as the boys grew older, Way reports that they “lost the intimacy they once enjoyed. Afraid of being perceived as gay or feminine, they withdrew,” despite longing for male friendship.

This isolation is not benign. Way correlates her findings with data showing that male suicide rates skyrocket at puberty—while among women, who tend to maintain strong friendships, the rate remains steady.

For the rest of the post…

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