Like many, my first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his The Cost of Discipleship. I had worked through the book as part of a church group, proving to be an enjoyable and profitable study. It was only many years later that I read his Letters and Papers from Prison, Ethics, and Life Together, gaining a greater appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s theology and life.
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer recounts the eventful life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like any good biography on Bonhoeffer, Marsh discusses the historical setting and the writing process of Bonhoeffer’s major works. With great attention to the events of Bonhoeffer’s life, Marsh provides a careful study of the experiences which factored into Bonhoeffer’s works. I found it interesting the way Marsh traces Bonhoeffer’s interactions with Adolf von Harnack to Bonhoeffer’s transition to Barthian theology and their correspondence, and eventually to a middle position.
Marsh’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s time spent in the States, as a post-doctoral fellow, is particularly well-researched. Marsh argues that it was through Bonhoeffer’s interactions with African-American Christianity, especially with the Abyssinian Baptist Church, that Bonhoeffer began to take seriously a deeper faith and a sense of true Christianity.
We are also presented with a different side of Bonhoeffer. Throughout the work Marsh relates Bonhoeffer’s unapologetic life of privilege. Bonhoeffer was accustomed to evenings at the theater or formal parties with the social elite. Summer holidays were a norm, along with house staff, a chauffer, and financial support from his parents well into adulthood. We even learn of Bonhoeffer’s bribe after three failed attempts at a driver’s license.
One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life that remains unanswered is the apparent turnaround from a position of pacifism to an active pursuit of tyrannicide. Bonhoeffer had established a church-oriented response to the rise of the Nazi party. However, once he was drafted in the armed forces, Bonhoeffer became a Verbindungsmann, a V-Mann, a double agent in the intelligence department. After reading several biographies, I still wait to see a satisfactory explanation for Bonhoeffer’s transformation. Perhaps we will never know.
On a final note, it is a shame that Marsh forces Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Eberhard Bethge into a relationship which neither would have. Marsh depicts Bonhoeffer as a non-practicing homosexual who falls in love with his close friend Bethge. Intimacy between two friends quickly becomes romantic yearnings on the part of Bonhoeffer, who remained in love with Bethge even through Bonhoeffer’s courtship to Maria von Wedmeyer, and sustained his feelings for Bethge until his death. It is misleading the way Marsh interprets their friendship, finding things that simply are not there.
Strange Glory provides readers with a vivid account of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Marsh does well in his historical presentation of Bonhoeffer’s writings. However, Marsh’s insistence that Bonhoeffer was gay cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately, Marsh did not conduct the same level of scholarship found in the treatment of Bonhoeffer’s time in the States to all matters of Bonhoeffer’s life.