You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Strange Glory’ tag.

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.   


Three contrarians with the courage of their convictions

  • Bishop Henry Benajamin Whipple (Newscom/Picture History/Mathew Brady)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the prison in Berlin-Tegel in 1944 (Newscom/akg-images)

As Margery Kempe, Henry Benjamin Whipple, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, silence in the face of evil was just plain wrong. None of them has been declared a saint. But as these three biographies attest, when you’re speaking out against the prevailing culture, you shouldn’t expect honorifics.

By Elizabeth MacDonald
Published by Franciscan Media, $16.99

Margery Kempe (circa 1373-1438) was willful, inner-directed and self-determined — many would say to a fault. Some called her a scold and a troublemaker. Some in the Roman Catholic hierarchy called her a heretic — a Lollard. (The Lollards, who were prevalent during Kempe’s era, questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation.) Still others considered Kempe a saint.

Elizabeth MacDonald portrays Kempe as a feminist before her time. Writing in a clear, no-nonsense style, MacDonald, a business reporter, weaves medieval history with material from Kempe’s memoir, dictated in approximately 1436. This memoir, The Book of Margery Kempe, is considered the first English autobiography. That it was fashioned by a woman is another first.

Kempe, a Roman Catholic, lived in the town of Bishop’s Lynn and led an unexceptional life until she became gravely ill for eight months after the birth of the first of her 14 children. During this time, she experienced, as MacDonald tells it, visions from the divine as well as the demonic, in which she was commanded to forsake her faith and to commit suicide.

Before she was driven to do either, she claimed she heard the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to her. Thus began the mystical phase of Kempe’s life that continued until her death. Kempe’s mysticism was characterized by frequent visits from and conversations with Jesus, as well as with some of the saints. Kempe also had moments of ecstasy in which she sobbed loudly, while believing herself to be present during the crucifixion.

Kempe lived in an age when religious hypocrisy à la The Canterbury Tales was rampant. Reformers like John Wycliffe questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic church and its teachings regarding indulgences, relics and the Eucharist. They also advocated for an English translation of the Bible.

At this time, women were not allowed to preach the Gospel and couldn’t travel without men. Yet Kempe managed to do both. She made several pilgrimages and traveled to the Holy Land. She chastised her neighbors’ wrongdoings as well as that of town and church leaders. If she saw fault with the actions of mayors, priests and bishops, she let them know about it. She was never one to keep her thoughts to herself, and as seen in this entertaining biography, that was a good thing.

By Gustav Niebuhr
Published by HarperOne, $26.99

During the Dakota War of 1862, Indian tribes killed 800 or more Minnesota settlers, some of them women and children. How could anyone — let alone the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota — excuse their actions?

The question informs Lincoln’s Bishop, Gustav Niebuhr’s revealing biography of Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901). Niebuhr looks at the massacre and what led up to it, as well as several key players, including Whipple and President Abraham Lincoln. Although Niebuhr’s writing tends to be circuitous and wordy, it paints a convincing portrait of both a man and an era.

The central action concerns the punishment by hanging of more than 300 Indians who were involved in the war and Whipple’s campaign against the mass hanging. When the war, which lasted only a few months, ended, most Americans wanted to punish the Dakotas, even tribal members who had tried to help the white settlers. It was determined that all 300 Indians would be put to death.

As Niebuhr explains it, Whipple didn’t excuse the Indian attacks on white settlers of Minnesota so much as he tried to explain the Indians’ rationale. Whipple, who sympathized with those who were less fortunate, had been trained to observe the golden rule. According to Niebuhr, he had also been influenced by an elderly neighbor raised by an Indian family.

Whipple had come to know individual Indians as human beings and as part of his Episcopal congregation. He argued that the Indians were not bloody savages. They were angry human beings who realized the extent of the injustices committed against them.

Whipple launched a public relations effort on behalf of the Indians, sending numerous petitions and letters to political leaders, including Lincoln. He published articles in newspapers and traveled around the country preaching about the injustice visited on the Indians.

Whipple’s campaign exposed the corruption in the federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs. He showed how the Indians had been swindled out of their land and then were not given the annuities they had been promised. Forced into reservations and with a dwindling supply of food, the Indians were desperate. They were hungry and afraid for their well-being.

Whipple had an independent streak and a strong sense of right and wrong. He argued his point convincingly. And despite the country’s negative feelings toward the Indians, he convinced Lincoln to spare the lives of 275 Dakota Indians. Later, Whipple’s life was threatened by angry whites. Today, Whipple is little known, his actions overshadowed by the Civil War and issues regarding slavery. But at a time when most clerics — Protestants and Roman Catholics — avoided taking sides in anything that seemed political, Whipple was one of the few who stood up for his convictions. And, according to Niebuhr, if that’s not memorable, it should be.

By Charles Marsh
Published by Knopf, $35

A Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) joined the Nazi resistance and spoke up for the Jews when almost no one else — including Roman Catholic bishops — had the courage to do so. Bonhoeffer stood against Nazism and Aryanism while German Protestant churches of the time accepted both as part of their belief system. He also insisted that Christ was the head of Christianity — not Adolf Hitler, as the Nazis claimed.

Beginning with the halcyon days of Bonhoeffer’s youth, Charles Marsh’s scrupulously written biography opens with his undergraduate and graduate studies and the influence of his mentors, including Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. He covers Bonhoeffer’s postgraduate studies in the United States, where he was deeply affected by Negro spirituals and the plight of minorities, as well as by his work as seminary professor in underground seminaries. Also included is a controversial section on his possibly romantic relationship with Eberhard Bethge.

The biography concludes with Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and final writings (which Marsh considers his finest), and his ultimate martyrdom that, according to Marsh, wasn’t as painless as is often portrayed.

For the rest of the post…

’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.

For the rest of the post…

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 began his review with: “This new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer promises to please readers on a number of different levels.” Garcia explained…

  • Marsh’s talent for storytelling…
  • New material, ranging from anecdotes, pictures, and postcards to additional contextual information that lend greater shape to the world he inhabited.
  • Marsh’s veteran handling of theological concepts.
  • Most welcome is Marsh’s effort to discover Bonhoeffer’s personality. In contrast to common hagiography, this biographer presents the less desirable characteristics of his subject along with the good. Unexpected moments of immaturity, loneliness, indecisiveness, as well as arrogance, fear, and a “volcanic temper, are coupled with the conviction, faithfulness, which came to define him.
  • Marsh’s doses of realism demonstrate Bonhoeffer’s incredible capacity to adapt to intractable situations that surrounded him.



Bonhoeffer Against the World

Image: Mike Benny
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Title:

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has always been one of my great heroes of the faith. Such appreciation, of course, hardly makes me distinct. Bonhoeffer, the German pastor-theologian who opposed the Nazis and was executed in a concentration camp, is passionately admired by millions of Christians.

One could even compare him to Athanasius, the defender of Christ’s divinity whose brave stance also drew state persecution. The fourth-century bishop’s unflinching willingness to defy even emperors and their armies was honored with the title “Athanasius contra mundum” (against the world).

Charles Marsh’s welcome biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf), paints a painstaking portrait of a faithful disciple every bit as resolute against Aryanism as Athanasius was against Arians. Marsh’s exquisite eye for detail reveals the sheer unlikelihood of Bonhoeffer’s emergence as the boldest opponent of efforts to Nazify the German church.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria, the most powerful ecclesiastical figure in the Eastern empire. He wielded so much influence that emperors were afraid of opposing him too forcefully, lest they provoke a popular uprising.

But what power did Bonhoeffer wield in 1933? He was 27 years old, financially dependent on his parents, and virtually bereft of experience in the working world. His sole professional appointment was an unpaid, non-tenure-track position as a voluntary lecturer. Adjunct professors don’t normally stand athwart emperors.

Yet Bonhoeffer did. Within weeks of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer declared in public that the Führer was offering a false path to salvation—and, in private, that Hitler was an antichrist. When the Nazis called for ethnically Jewish Christians to be expelled from the churches, he alone insisted that the gospel was at stake. (Initially even Karl Barth, like other anti-Nazi dissenters who founded the Confessing Church, claimed that this was merely a question of church order, not a theological issue.) Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, makes a convincing case that by 1933, Bonhoeffer was the most radical and outspoken opponent of Nazi church policy.

Quirky Humanity

I have read numerous books on Bonhoeffer. I have also seen documentaries and dramatizations and visited commemorative sites in Germany. For me, one of Marsh’s greatest contributions is putting on display the quirky humanity of his subject. If you are used to accounts that emphasize the mythic Bonhoeffer of faith, this one will help you grapple with the eccentric Bonhoeffer of history.

To take a trivial example, Bonhoeffer was endearingly preoccupied with dressing well. You could illustrate almost every momentous turning point in his life with sartorial commentary. When he takes a pastoral internship in Spain, he bombards the senior minister with written inquiries regarding the proper formal wear for dinner parties. The poor, overworked man eventually remarked sarcastically that the new intern should bring his preaching robe.

For the rest of the post…

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.

For the rest of the post…

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:

Read more:

Why Can't Men Be Friends?

In January 1944, several months after he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, he reflected on what their relationship meant to each of them. Bonhoeffer wrote that, in contrast to marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”

As he penned those lines, Bonhoeffer must have had his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in mind. With Maria, Bonhoeffer knew where he stood. They were pledged to be married, and all their family and acquaintances recognized their love and were prepared to witness their wedding ceremony, provided Bonhoeffer was released. With Eberhard, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer admitted there wasn’t a similarly public recognition. That led to a question: What were Eberhard and Dietrich to one another, and how might their love be preserved and sustained?

Years later, Eberhard addressed an audience member who had come to hear him speak about his friendship with Bonhoeffer (one explored in depth by Charles Marsh in the acclaimed biography Strange Glory). Surely, the questioner said, theirs “must [have been] a homosexual partnership.” What else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters to Eberhard have signaled?

We wonder how much we can expect from friendship, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is it a weaker tie than marriage or family?

Bonhoeffer was aware that his friendship with Eberhard was breakable—that no public ceremony or vow kept them tied. That awareness that friendship is fragile has grown more pronounced since Bonhoeffer wrote his letters from prison. Words like suspicion, unsettledness, and doubt best describe our instincts about friendship. We are uncertain about it—perhaps especially between people of the same sex. And, like Bonhoeffer, we wonder how much we can expect from it, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is friendship a weaker tie than marriage or family? Further, many of us doubt that we can attain intimacy without there being deep down some sexual element to the friendship.

An Eclipse of Friendship?

For the rest of the article…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1924. CreditArt Resource, N.Y.

Coming to terms with the genocidal century just past, especially the unvarnished evil of Nazi Germany, has prompted theologians and philosophers to adjust and recalibrate much of what they thought they knew. Writers as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Pawlikowski, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel — some more successfully than others — have all struggled to reconcile the existence of the divine with unspeakable atrocities, many of them carried out in the name of God.

Few theologians witnessed the juggernaut of Nazi depravity at closer range than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Strange Glory,” Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding, and in the course of more than 500 pages, we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.

Born the sixth of eight children in Breslau, Prussia, in 1906 to a psychiatrist and his wife, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged environment but one that was not especially religious. When Dietrich announced at age 13 his intention to become a theologian, his siblings questioned and even belittled his choice, arguing that the church was hopelessly irrelevant. “In that case,” the undeterred teenager replied, “I shall reform it!”

After his family moved to Berlin, Bonhoeffer attended the Grunewald Gymnasium, graduating at the precocious age of 17, and in 1923 settled in for a year of study at Tübingen University, while the Weimar Republic continued its downward economic spiral. Insulated by his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer barely noticed. The following year, he set off on an aesthetic summer in Italy. Whereas Martin Luther had been repulsed by the opulence and corruption he witnessed on his visit to Rome four centuries earlier, Bonhoeffer was rather enchanted with the Eternal City and even, in Marsh’s telling, lured by the “beauty, exuberance and grandeur” of Roman Catholicism.

Bonhoeffer’s theological training began in earnest under the tutelage of Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf von Harnack at Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1924. These were tempestuous times, not only politically but theologically. Although the eminent theologian Karl Barth had also studied with Harnack, he rejected what he saw as Harnack’s enervated liberalism, tethered as it was to nationalism and reduced to social utility. Barth sought a fresh understanding of divine transcendence.

Bonhoeffer was entranced, and in ensuing years he would seek to embellish Barth’s insights by emphasizing the ethical and communal ramifications of doctrine, insisting that the Christian Gospel unfolds most authentically within community, “not through individual social or ethical experience.” Bonhoeffer was searching, Marsh writes, “for a more embodied, vital and dynamic Protestantism.” The danger in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Marsh acknowledges, is that his notion of the kingdom of God, in the context of rising nationalism, could be commandeered in the service of Germany, especially when the German theological establishment “presumed the providential blessings of the warrior God.”

Bonhoeffer’s brief stint as an assistant pastor to the German Lutheran congregation in Barcelona provided a respite from the growing crisis in Germany and also exposed him to those less fortunate (although he continued to live comfortably). Even more formative was his year in the United States for postgraduate study in 1930. Although he was underwhelmed by his courses at Union Theological Seminary — and found that among his fellow students everyone “just blabs away so frightfully” — he responded to the Gospel he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he became a pastoral assistant. And a road and rail trip through the South and into Mexico allowed him to see firsthand the effects of poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer came to admire the social conscience of Union students, although he found no more sustenance in the preaching of liberal Protestants in the United States than he had in Germany. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he lamented.

Back in Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer continued his engagement with the poor in parish work, but the Lutheran church in Germany was quickly capitulating to Hitler’s regime. Nazi banners ornamented the churches; one minister declared, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s initial protest centered on the so-called Aryan paragraph, passed by the Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It mandated the removal of all Jews, even baptized Jews, from civil service, which included the churches.

The protests were unavailing. As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, “the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously.” It was also where Bonhoeffer developed a lifelong, homoerotic relationship with a student, Eberhard Bethge, although Marsh insists it was chaste.

Marsh is a bit less persuasive in making the case that Bonhoeffer in no way cooperated with the Nazi regime. An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.

For the rest of the review…


Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/bpk/Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource

On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian who opposed the Nazis, was hanged by the regime on the grounds of a concentration camp. Nearly seven decades later, his theological writings and work continue to engage and inspire readers. In a comprehensive new biography, scholar Charles Marsh reconstructs the pastor’s life, providing intimate details using documents that recently have been made available. Earlier this month, Marsh spoke with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley about the book, titled Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was published in April of this year by Alfred A. Knopf.

Marsh is a professor of religious studies and director of the Project of Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the University of Virginia. He is author of seven previous books, including God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and a memoir, The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South. He serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: We’re excited to talk about your book on Bonhoeffer, which is getting a lot of attention, so thank you. I know many years of work went into it.

CM: I initially signed a contract with Knopf to do a much shorter book that would have focused mainly on Bonhoeffer’s American experiences. It was actually a project calledBonhoeffer in America and, if I had known then that the project would have evolved into a cradle-to-grave treatment and taken eight years, I would have politely bowed out. I saw my editor a few weeks ago in Washington, and he confessed to having tricked me into writing about a full life. But yes, eight years is a long time.

R&P: After reading the book, I was struck because I had heard you say that originally it was going to be just his time in America and it’s so much broader than that.

CM: It’s a cradle-to-grave treatment. And what happened was that from my editor’s perspective and maybe my agent’s, it was inevitable. I didn’t know at the time because I had never written a full-length biography. There are these interesting biographies—of Einstein in Berlin, or Nietzsche in Turin, or Adorno in California. But in my estimation, to really set the stage meaningfully for Bonhoeffer’s year in America in 1930-1931, you have to do a lot of work on experiences that preceded that and fill in the gaps between the 1931 visit and the 1939 visit and by the time you’ve done that, you’ve started moving in the direction of a full life. Also, the other thing that really inspired the decision more was the availability of new documents and historical archives that made it possible, really for the first time, to write a biography of Bonhoeffer relying primarily on primary documents rather than on the great 1300-page biography that Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge wrote in the late 60s.

R&P: That was something I wanted to ask about because Bethge’s book has been the seminal biography. There have been a few other Bonhoeffer biographies, notably two in 2010: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and Eric Metaxas’ bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Was it the new documents that really spurred you on? Or what context or information did you feel like you could add to your volume that previous books had missed?

CM: Bethge’s biography is, you know, a, magisterial work and has been for nearly five decades the touchstone of all Bonhoeffer scholarship. But, if you’re writing a biography about your best friend, moreover your best friend who was murdered by the Nazis, you’re going to be protective about certain aspects of his character, of his life, of your relationship. Eberhard is a dear friend of mine and has been very generous to me over the years in sharing documents. I would not regard his biography as at all hagiographic. I think he writes quite courageously in some of his interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life. But, nonetheless, that basic narrative of Eberhard’s book is a grand narrative and it’s a narrative that shaped not only Bonhoeffer biographies but also Bonhoeffer scholarship as well. This includes Metaxas’s biography. Metaxas was using the basic script and applying his flair to that narrative in a way that really connected with a wide readership. But I had access to just a treasure of newly obtained documents through the library in Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek, and the documents appearing in published form in theDietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, which is now translated into English. The translation was just completed this past fall, the sixteen-volume, complete writings of Bonhoeffer. This is someone who died when he was 39 years old and whose complete writings come to well over ten thousand pages. As a discipline and in terms of my own creative process, I took all the biographies, including Bethge’s, and I hid them away and made myself, or told myself, I wouldn’t look at any biographical writing until I finished with my complete draft of my book, using only the primary materials and documents.

I remember that spring in 2007 when I was a visiting professor in Berlin, having access to what must have been 20 to 25 cases of documents that had just been sold to theStaatsbibliothek from the family of Eberhard Bethge. Bethge had died around 2000. And, just how every day brought discoveries. These were very personal documents, intimate documents, but also the kind of materials you need just to make a life vivid and give it a certain kind of cinematic clarity. Like I didn’t know how tall he was. And then, in a driver’s license or something, you see, oh, he’s 6’1”. And then the documents from his shared bank account with Eberhard or inventories of his library and his wardrobe, tickets to the theatre, or journals about his walk in the park, and shopping sprees and salon knowledge and just all of these aspects of character that begin to reveal—to me, at least—a fascinatingly different kind of portrait than the one of Bonhoeffer that I had carried with me for 25 years since writing a doctoral dissertation on his philosophical thought.

I had a friend who was one of the translators of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer works and I think one of the most brilliant of Bonhoeffer’s scholars in the world. Victoria Barnett is her name, and she’s the director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. She tells me around the same time, “You know, I have translated Bonhoeffer, I have read Bonhoeffer, I’ve given much of my life to Bonhoeffer scholarship and history, and I still don’t know who he was.” I didn’t really know who he was either, and so I wanted to look directly at this new body of more intimate documents and let that unfamiliar picture of this Protestant saint and martyr and theologian develop in narrative form. I would say that while Strange Glory’s not the first biography written, it’s the first one that’s relied solely on primary documents, other than Bethge’s book. It’s the first one that’s really shaped by the new treasure of documents and materials that are available in archives and this volume of complete works.

R&P: As you mentioned, this isn’t your first book on Bonhoeffer. More than 20 years ago, your doctoral dissertation and subsequent book also covered the theologian. Why return to him now? And what was that like, coming back to him and learning so much more personal information about him?

CM: That’s a really interesting question. Thanks for asking that. As a child of the church, I certainly heard about Bonhoeffer by the time I reached college. In college, I was an English and philosophy major, and I read some passages of his more popular works, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together. But I was late coming to Bonhoeffer’s, theology as a whole and it was the sort of the more philosophical writings that comprised his body of academic work from 1927 to 1933.

All my graduate studies were very much a part of the theory-separated branch of 1980s postmodern culture, and that was exciting in its own way. But in the summers throughout my graduate years, I went to Atlanta and I worked in an inner-city community center for minority youth in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I was living in these two worlds. In the summers I was teaching my “Body and Soul” workshop, which was poetry, basketball, Bible study, and then just doing the things of a community worker, and equally fulfilled by this practical work. Then in the fall, I would drive back to school, whether it was in Cambridge or Charlottesville, and be excited about the new year, but I would be reading my German philosophy and feeling a million miles away from the community I served. It was liberating for me to discover Bonhoeffer, as a grad student himself and as a young professor himself who struggled with the same kinds of tensions, which are the tensions of many young scholars. He tried to think through classical German philosophical tradition to locate a more socially conscious, engaged, and relational conception of self and the self as an entity. That was helpful and then I wrote the dissertation and the book.

In the early 90s, rather than to pursue my second, more technical academic and theological project, I began having all of these questions related to my upbringing in the Deep South and inquiries about my childhood and the white evangelical church throughout the last years of the segregated South. I ended up with almost no skills in historical research or certainly in ethnography. I remember, I guess it was 20 years ago this summer, getting in my car in Baltimore where I was teaching at the time, and heading South with my credit card and my microcassette recorder and a list of questions. What were we thinking about Jesus in those churches that made us think we were both the most holy and pure out of all of the Christian churches in the United States while also being completely indifferent, if not complicit, toward African Americans in the Jim Crow South?

I tried to sort a lot of these questions out theologically, and in the course of what became not only God’s Long Summer but also three books on the civil rights movement, I found myself learning how to write theology as narrative, or theology as story. Over the years I taught Bonhoeffer to undergraduates and graduate students. I have a graduate seminar on Bonhoeffer and King. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was sort of standing there, waiting patiently, saying, “You’ve written these theological narratives, these stories, and theological accounts of Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis and others. Now it’s my turn.”

I think it was helpful, obviously, to have read all of Bonhoeffer’s writings because I had a sense of his intellectual importance and place in the modern story. Then that kind of decades-long tutelage in writing narrative nonfiction was what I finally needed to come back to him with the hope and the goal of creating a kind of storied and hopefully vivid and engaging narrative of this original, brilliant theologian, this dissident, this leader/activist in the German resistance and conspiracy.

R&P: The beginning of Strange Glory portrays Bonhoeffer’s childhood and early life as one with a lot of privilege and opportunity and accomplishments. It seems like he’s sheltered and shielded from a lot of the political turmoil going on in Germany at the time. I wondered if you could place that in context. What factors later galvanized him into the activist that he became?

CM: That is true, but he wasn’t altogether indifferent to politics. His older brothers were quite astute, and students of contemporary political and legal affairs, and so there was probably some sense in which he heard Klaus and Karl Friedrich, and then Walter before he died in the war, and his father, and other members of the extended family, many of whom where legal scholars and historians, ponder all these issues. But Bonhoeffer was himself a child of much more aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, and showed kind of a very early predilection for metaphysical speculation. The way I tell the story is in a way that’s true to Bonhoeffer’s later observations of his journey. When in prison he writes to Eberhard, and he recalls that there were only two times in his life that he could observe, from the vantage point of 1943, profound personal growth and transformation. One, he said, was “a strong impression of my father.” His father was a prominent psychiatrist, director for the center of nervous diseases at the University of Berlin. The other, he said, was “the experiences of my first journey abroad, my first experiences abroad.” He meant trips to Italy, and to Barcelona and to Spain, but more than anything else a year spent in the United States in 1930-31. On the eve of that trip to America, in August of 1930, Bonhoeffer is only 24 years old, and he has by now two doctorates, and he is a straight-arrow academic primed for academic fame within the very demanding German scene. He came to America as a visiting student at Union Theological Seminary, thinking that it would be yet another chapter in his privileged life. It ended up being an experience, a kind of immersion if you will, that gave him a wholly new way of thinking about his vocation as a pastor and theologian.

People who know Bonhoeffer’s story and have read his life know that he found plenty of things to criticize in the manner of theological education, and the theological education that defined Union Theological Seminary, really the Protestant mainline in the 1930s. He found the level of education sophomoric; he thought all Protestant, liberal theology was just all sort of indistinguishable from pragmatism, that American Protestant thought was really traded on the laziest aspects of German nineteenth-century liberalism. He thought that Reinhold Niebuhr was more interested in creating a center for labor organizers than really engaging theological education seriously. Beyond his sort of grumblings and mumblings and kind of pompous criticism, he was seeing theology in a strange new light. He’d never in his life seen a professor in a theology faculty at Berlin take a group of students out of the classroom into some blighted neighborhood of the city where there were families who are going through unemployment. It just wasn’t part of the German academic scene or theological world. That ultimately excited him and broadened his imagination. I think that in fact the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Bonhoeffer has been understated over the years. One of Bonhoeffer’s first encounters with Niebuhr—he took both of the classes at Union—Bonhoeffer turned in a paper that was a fairly straightforward, tedious exhibition of Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was a fairly typical early twentieth-century Lutheran account and Niebuhr objected. He apparently wrote in margins of the paper, “There are no ethics here. Where is the ethical dimension in your account? A concept of faith without ethics is an empty concept.” Bonhoeffer was mortified by this, but in five years he was writing a book called Cost of Discipleship, and coining a phrase that’s become perhaps the most common phrase in the Bonhoeffer lexicon— “cheap grace.” And “cheap grace” is about obedience and exactly what Niebuhr was telling him in 1930 in response to that essay on Luther.

Bonhoeffer also met a largely vanished generation of mainline Protestant social organizers. It was also the golden age of the American organizing tradition. There were students going off to do labor organizing after they finished Union or during the summers. Bonhoeffer was introduced to members of the ACLU, NAACP, all sorts of labor organizations, and he spoke very favorably. He told his brother in a letter, “We’re going to need to organize an ACLU in Germany.”

Finally, it was Bonhoeffer’s immersion in the African American church that I think inspired what Bonhoeffer said in that same letter I mentioned earlier, in 1943, which he described as his turning from the phraseological to the real. I just love that expression. A black seminarian from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father was pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church church, where three decades later, four beautiful Sunday school girls would be murdered by a Klan bombing—from that same church, this young seminarian Frank Fisher invited Bonhoeffer in the fall to join him one Sunday morning at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the great Clayton Powell Sr. was senior minister. This really began Bonhoeffer’s intense immersion in the African American church. He became obsessed with race relations in America, with the story of African American Christianity, and also with all of the extraordinary kinds of writings and compositions and artistic expressions of the Harlem renaissance, which was in full flower at the time.

I remember one of my first days sitting in the library in Berlin, holding up a box of papers and seeing a file, larger than any of Bonhoeffer’s files from those years, of research documents on the Negro question—files of studies of lynchings, of writings, of early NAACP field reports of conditions in the South. In the spring of that year, after, for him, the extraordinary experience of becoming an active parishioner at Abyssinian, Clayton Powell Sr. invited Bonhoeffer to preach once in the pulpit, which is a huge honor of any Baptist minister to yield the pulpit to another person, and in this case a sort of erudite Berliner whose sermons were not marked, shall we say, by great exuberance. He also taught Sunday school every week to a group of young boys, and he taught frequently in the WMU, or the women’s missionary union.

At the end of the year, he and some other students took a road trip. It ended up being just Bonhoeffer and a Frenchman because they let the other students off in Chicago and New Orleans. This is one of those research areas in the book where I invested a lot of time early in hopes of finding more primary documents. Bonhoeffer was a very committed journaler—he kept diaries and journals throughout his life. I was hoping to find the journal of this road trip, when in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer and this Frenchman named Jean Lasserre, who was a pacifist and would become a member of the French resistance, ended up driving 4,000 miles in an old beat-up car, an Oldsmobile, and then logging another 1,200 miles on a Mexican train. We probably don’t have this in writing because Bonhoeffer was driving; they were up and driving for over 14 hours a day.

But there are observations that conclude that when they were returning, instead of going back the way they came, which would have been through New Orleans and up north to Chicago, they pointed the car east and headed right into the Jim Crow South. Bonhoeffer wanted to see, to traverse this strange landscape he had read about in his courses. I worked with a geographer and I was able to reconstruct the route. They traveled from New Orleans and they went through Hattiesburg and Laurel and Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. They drove within 20 miles of Scottsboro, Alabama, where that same month the Scottsboro boys’ trial was beginning, and then they drove back up the East Coast. It appears that somewhere south of Scottsboro and west of New Orleans the two men stopped on a Sunday morning and worshipped in a rural black church. When Bonhoeffer got back to New York he wrote a paragraph to his supervisor—and this from a theologian who, when he arrived in New York and America eight months earlier, had just been completely contentious toward American Protestant life and culture and didn’t think he had anything to learn—and now was saying that he heard the gospel preached for the first time. And he did not mean the first time in America, he meant the first time for him.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany with a dramatically different perspective on his vocation as pastor and theologian. He also returned to Germany with a love of the Bible. He had studied the Bible, he’d taught classes on the Bible, he’d written essays on the Bible, but he had never read the Bible devotionally. Now he began to just pour over the gospel narratives and become similarly obsessed with the Sermon on the Mount and what for him became the peacemaking mandates of these writings. He started going to church. He’d never really gone to church. He also asked if he could serve a parish in a city section of Berlin. Maybe Bonhoeffer had seen some unemployment or poverty in Germany, but I doubt it had ever really registered with him. Now he’s moving into the inner city in Berlin to work in a parish that is really the most devastated parish of the industrial layoff in Berlin. And he carried with him a collection of recordings of Negro spirituals and gospel standards. One of my favorite images of the German resistance movement as it clusters around the Bonhoeffer story is that of a group of seminarians at a semi-abandoned estate in northeast Germany, in an area called Pomerania. They’re gathered around a piano and Bonhoeffer is playing, rather theatrically, as he was wont to do. These are seminarians who are taking part now in 1935-36 as part of an experiment in creating a seminary of non-Nazi, anti-Nazi pastors. Bonhoeffer referred to this experiment as “an experiment in new monasticism.” That’s where the phrase the “new monastics” comes from and the new monastic movement that’s been happening here in the past 15 or 20 years. That’s the phrase that Bonhoeffer used in a letter to his brother. His brother was an atheist who was trying to figure out why his baby brother was such a fanatic. And he’s saying that what we need in such a time of deception and great propaganda and lies within the now-Nazified German Protestant church is a new kind of monasticism.

And anyway, they’re drinking their beers and smoking their cigars, and they’re singing, “Go Down, Moses.” The discovery that many of the same songs and spirituals that inundated and energized the black freedom struggle in the South 20-something years later were in the 1930s at the heart of the German church resistance movement that Bonhoeffer led was just wonderful.

R&P: Given with your own work how extensively you’ve written about the civil rights movement, was it a very moving experience to see Bonhoeffer travel similar roads through the South?

CM: Yes. It blew my mind to see Bonhoeffer traversing and visiting the American South really at the bleakest years of Jim Crow. These are the years depicted in Richard Wright’s memoirs, the long, iron years of Jim Crow. He’s asking questions and making notes. There’s a passage where he says, “I had spoken with some of the Negro intellectuals,” and he is referring to intellectuals not only in New York and in Washington, which he also visited in his travels, but also throughout the South, and he says, “It appears that there is a great revolution coming, if not immediately, soon enough.” And his observations of the white southern ministers, who he found—he used the word despicable. He described some of the white pastors he apparently conversed with, who—and this has to be conjecture—were explaining to him why they did not see a contradiction between their profession of the Christian faith and their adherence to the dictates of white supremacy.

There are probably 20 pages of direct observation of the American South. I’m drawn to narrative written by outsiders, or observations by outsiders, of very familiar places. Some southerners of my generation and of my parents’ generation would refer to that as just outside agitation or the critical scrutiny of someone who really doesn’t understand our manners and habits. But I’ve always been really intrigued and fascinated, and I’ve learned a whole lot, probably more from outsider accounts than from insider accounts, of familiar landscapes. To see Bonhoeffer—I had no idea that he had made this trip.

It was a transformative trip. Within two years of returning, the Nuremburg laws had passed in 1933. And Bonhoeffer is within weeks of the passage of the Nuremburg laws and the codification of anti-Jewish church policies in the so-called Aryan paragraph, or the Aryan clause, Bonhoeffer was telling a group of Lutheran pastors—whose jaws dropped—that the victims of state violence, whether these victims are Christian or not, that it was the obligation of the church not simply to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to crush the wheel itself.

There are a number of ways of understanding Bonhoeffer’s prescience, his clarity. I mean, he wasn’t always clear, and he very often made some serious mistakes of judgment. Often throughout the years of resistance and conspiracy, he did not know what the next steps should be, and he lacked clarity, and he fled to the margins to try to mull over options and many times he left Germany thinking he would never return again. But nonetheless he saw the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933 as the emergence of this great masquerade of evil. He saw that with great prescience and clarity that very few, if any, of his fellow churchmen had. Bonhoeffer was raised to have an independent and critical mind, and he had a native distrust of anyone who presumed to speak authoritatively about matters of the state or matters of the heart. I think really the heart of Bonhoeffer’s prescience was that by 1933, he understood that the God of Jesus Christ could not in any way be identified with the voice of the Fuhrer.

R&P: Once he returned to Germany from the United States, he began speaking out against Hitler quickly. You note that on a radio broadcast two days after Hitler took power, he’s already denouncing the Fuhrer. By contrast, how were the majority of German ministers and theologians reacting to Hitler at that time and shortly thereafter?

CM: With great enthusiasm. He was offering the nation redemption from the shame of the Versailles Treaty and from its humiliation after the First World War and the attribution of guilt placed solely on Germany’s shoulders. He was offering the nation redemption and salvation from the kinds of moral torpor that many of the conservatives attributed to the Weimar licentiousness and sexual and political experimentation. Bonhoeffer understood that the so-called Fuhrer could see that there was a huge spiritual void in the lives of the country, and that the Protestant churches, which had been moribund and had no kind of theologically potent resources for distinguishing between the voice of the Fuhrer and the voice of God, had been complicit in this. I think he understood very clearly why this moment was received with such widespread enthusiasm. This is a moment that offers the nation a new identity, a new way of thinking about itself.

R&P: I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?

CM: It wasn’t a surprise, this observation of Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Eberhard. Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged. They wrote when they were apart during those seven years of their partnership. To be sure, I was intrigued when I found in those archives in Berlin a statement from a joint bank account. I did not realize that their partnership had that kind of formality about it as well. So Bonhoeffer and Eberhard began giving gifts together as a pair, Christmas presents and the like. They traveled and shared a room. They were soul mates of a sort. Bethge never reciprocated the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections. I don’t think Eberhard was gay; I simply don’t have any reason at all to think that. I think that Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was one that he, Bonhoeffer, wanted to define as a kind of spiritual marriage, but Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was also deeply romantic.

The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it. And yes, Bonhoeffer also was in love with Eberhard, and wanted in some fashion to secure a spiritual marriage of sorts, and Eberhard could not and did not want to finally accept that.

Of course, Bonhoeffer became engaged after Eberhard became engaged. The engagement was formalized only when Bonhoeffer was in prison. Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, “Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.”

I’m not surprised by the response. I’m really grateful for having the resources, the documents, and an opportunity to offer such detail because there’s great beauty and poignancy to this relationship. It does annoy me when someone critical of my treatment says, “Well, this is just like Jonathan and David in the Bible.” Or, “This is just revisionist, and you’re just superimposing contemporary categories on a friendship that in the 1930s and 40s had a very different cast.” But the thing is it did have a different cast; it was different in 1935 and 1936 in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s family was liberal and open yet was initially surprised by the sudden entrance of Eberhard into the family—but accepted him and accepted their relationship. Whatever it was, it wasn’t discussed or put in any particular terms, but they were surprised nonetheless. Once they understood that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard were together, they accepted them fully into the family. Even the recollections of some of Bonhoeffer’s students made it clear that some of them thought that he was gay. So this is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard. Bethge’s letters back, I should make clear, were always more perfunctory, and the romantic quality, the quality of enthrallment and enchantment, this sort of romantic love, were not part of Bethge’s responses to Bonhoeffer. But for Bonhoeffer, they weren’t just letters, but beautiful love letters.

For the rest of the post

June 2018
« May    


Twitter Updates

Error: Please make sure the Twitter account is public.