Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Project on Lived Theology. He is the author of several other books including Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. Marsh was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 and the 2010 Ellen Maria Gorrissen Berlin Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.
It doesn’t take much effort to notice the recent rise in popularity of the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While he has been the subject of much study and discussion for decades, his work is being discovered by a new generation. In some ways, this popularity could be due to Eric Metaxas’ 2011 biography of him, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Wheaton College focused their annual Theology Conference on Bonhoeffer in 2012, at which Charles Marsh spoke and read a portion of the now complete Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’ biography of the German pastor and theologian reads like a novel and seems geared to a 21st century evangelical audience. Marsh’s biography is very much a scholarly biography in comparison to Metaxas’ as is evident from the nearly eighty-six pages of notes and bibliography. Marsh also writes for a particular audience, as did Metaxas, which is a scholarly audience and I would argue a slightly more liberal one as well.
Marsh’s research for his biography of Bonhoeffer was rooted in access to private letters and detailed study of the man. This is peppered throughout the biography as personal correspondence is used to flavor the investigation of the often studied works of Bonhoeffer’s like Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, and others. Marsh’s study adds a personal layer to the biography that helps the reader get to know the complex nature of Bonhoeffer. In fact, in some ways the book is formatted to follow Bonhoeffer’s life through the progression of his published works beginning with Sanctorum Communio and working through Act and Being, Creation and Fall, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics. This format brings about some interesting insights to these works from various correspondence. For example, in relation to Life Together, some of his Finkenwalde students did not enjoy the life under Bonhoeffer in the illegal seminary. Though Bonhoeffer sought after an ideal communal life as he reflects in Life Together, it did not always flesh out with every pupil the way he had hoped. This is an interesting insight because it offers an objective or perhaps even slightly critical view of Life Together that may not always come out in studies of the great work.
Marsh also spends a great deal of time focusing on Bonhoeffer’s roots in and views of early protestant liberalism. From his great appreciation for Adolf von Harnack and his sitting under the teaching of Karl Holl, Bonhoeffer was impacted by these well-known scholars. He also stretches into his exposure to American liberal scholars such as Reinhold Niebuhr and others at Union Seminary. From another theological angle, a great deal of time is given to Karl Barth and his influence on Bonhoeffer both directly and indirectly. In some ways, there is a micro-biographical sketch of Barth in this book. This is traced through both the correspondence between Barth and Bonhoeffer, but also through Barth’s writing and publishing of his great multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics.
Looking at historical figures is often more complex than a typical history class’ research of that person. In the same vein, history is often left up to interpretation, though there is an objective root of truth to history. In other words, something either happened or it didn’t, someone was either one way or another, an event was either caused by something or it was not, someone either believed such and such or did not. History is not a grey soup of uncertainty. Yet one cannot help but read history backwards through the lens of contemporary circumstances, beliefs, and presuppositions.
This subjectivity in regards to history seems to come to light in Marsh’s treatment of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge. Bethge was initially a student of Bonhoeffer and they formed a close friendship thereafter. Many other reviews of this book point out the fact that Marsh seems to try to paint Bonhoeffer and Bethge having been in love. After their relationship is introduced and their friendship begins to build, it doesn’t take Marsh long to begin to dig into personal letters and other information, such as Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s shared bank account. From these tidbits of information, Marsh attempts to build a case for the nature of their relationship. While their relationship was a unique one and there were elements of it that may seem atypical to a 21st century audience that can have a skewed, at best, understanding of manhood derivative from the current culture, Marsh does not make a convincing case for a supposed romantic relationship. The topic becomes an almost forced sub-narrative in the latter parts of the book. Marsh does make the point at various times that Bonhoeffer greatly desired deep friendship and community (c.f. Life Together), but it seems a stretch to try to paint it in a romantic tone. It feels more of an attempt to repaint Bonhoeffer for a certain audience, just as Metaxas did for a certain audience. Though I disagree with Marsh’s conclusion about Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s relationship, it does not and did not spoil the book.
Bonhoeffer’s works have been formative for my own understandings of church and biblical spirituality. I consider him to be one of the many voices of the historical church that speak into my life and continue to disciple me in my walk with Christ. This biography was a treasure to read in many ways, because it presents a personal look at Bonhoeffer. It delves into all of his occasional quirky behavior, his privileged upbringing and sensibilities, and his heart behind his writings. I’m not convinced this biography would be a good introduction to Bonhoeffer. If I did not have a foundation in the man, I’m not sure that this would have helped build one. This is due to its depth and detail, which lends itself more to a deeper secondary study of the man and his ministry. I would recommend this to a discerning reader that desires to dig deeper into Bonhoeffer the man.