There are people who seem to transcend the confines of history. They are bigger than life, casting long shadows, and inviting multiples of interpretations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be counted as one of those figures. For a man who died at the age of thirty-nine, while spending the final two years of his life in prison, Bonhoeffer has left an immense legacy for later generations to mine and ponder. He has been the subject of numerous biographies and academic monographs. His collected works, which includes his books, letters, papers, sermons, and lectures, comes to sixteen volumes. He was a theological genius, but he was also a participant in one of the most challenging struggles the church has ever faced. While his early works were standard theological fare, his later works emerged during the German Church Struggle against the demonic (if I can use that word) presence of National Socialism. It is these later texts, both the ones that emerged from his underground seminary and then during the years of conspiracy and then imprisonment that have proven fruitful to later generations.
I am among those who have been influenced by Bonhoeffer’s story and his written works. I first read Cost of Discipleship in college, and then in seminary I read further and deeper (part of this came as result of a class focusing on his Ethics). Like many, I found his Letters and Papers from Prison to be intriguing and challenging, pushing me in new directions. I read also read Eberhard Bethge’s standard biography, which helped me better understand this person who had written so powerfully about church, theology, society. In the years since seminary, I’ve continued to read Bonhoeffer’s own works along with the more recent biographies, including Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s outstanding biography. Now along comes another biography, this time written by Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. I believe that it will take its place among the standard interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life, and hopefully cure those infected by the Metaxas book.
Each biography offers a different vantage point on Bonhoeffer’s life, which has taken on an almost mythical aura. His death at the hands of the Nazi's just days before the camp he was being held in was liberated, stirs the imagination. Many stories have been told about his road to death, and his final moments (the later in the realm of speculation). While Charles Marsh explores all of the important elements in Bonhoeffer’s story, from birth to death, he goes a long way to broadening the picture, thereby re-humanizing Bonhoeffer. You might say that Marsh does for Bonhoeffer, what Bonhoeffer’s contemporary Rudolph Bultmann did for Jesus. He demythologizes Bonhoeffer.
As Marsh tells Bonhoeffer’s life story, he shows us a different side of the man than we’ve often been treated to. That is, we are introduced to a Bonhoeffer who grew up in an upper middle class professional home. His father was a famed psychiatrist. Neighbors in Berlin included Adolph Von Harnack. He could be arrogant and self-centered. He was very concerned about how he presented himself in public, making sure he was always immaculately dressed. There was in him a nationalist streak that would get exposed during his year in America. His interest in theology came as a surprise to all in the family, except his mother who was the daughter of a well known theologian and pastor. His older brothers had little to do with religion. While his mother provided him with an introduction to the Christian faith, the family rarely attended church. It was almost an act of rebellion to choose the study of theology, and even after he began his studies which culminated in his dissertation published as Sanctorum Communio and his Habilitation thesis published as Act and Being. These all came into existence before Bonhoeffer turned twenty-five. While he was a prodigious writer, a highly regarded tutor and lecturer at the University of Berlin, and did well during his internship in Barcelona and at a Berlin church, he never held a fully funded position at the university and his only pastorate came in the early 1930s in London. For most of his life, his parents supported him – providing him with clothes, housing, and funded his many travels. It wasn’t until he returned from America, took up a post in London, that he began to focus seriously on his calling.
Marsh identifies the year spent in America as a key to Bonhoeffer’s evolution as a theologian and as a pastor. There were a number of contributors to the transformative nature of this period. It is important to remember that at the time he was only in his mid-20s. He had recently finished his habilitation, essentially a second doctorate enabling him to teach (published as Act and Being). During his year at Union Theological Seminary, he was introduced to the Social Gospel and the Pragmatism of William James. It was during this sojourn in America that Bonhoeffer was introduced to the African American Church. One of his fellow students at Union was Frank Fisher, an African American student who introduced him to New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he would worship and even teach Sunday school. It was Fisher who helped Bonhoeffer understand the unique situation of the African American community, an experience that helped form his later commitments to stand with the Jewish community in Germany. He would also get an inside view of the condition of this community during a trip to the South.
His experiences at Union introduced him to political/social activism. It is important to note that his early letter complaining about that focus at Union would be tempered with time. This is seen in the influence that Reinhold Niebuhr had on him. While he considered Niebuhr to be deficient as a theologian, especially compared to Karl Barth, whose influence was being deeply felt by Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr was able to imprint on Bonhoeffer the need for theology to be vital and lived. Marsh recounts a lively exchange between Bonhoeffer and Barth after his return from America. Marsh notes that while Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth on most of the theological elements, he had come to believe – via Niebuhr – that theologians need to “have a personal stake in their claims.” In this regard, he “found Barth impervious to the ethical and social dimensions of doctrine – in fact, irritatingly so” (p. 139). Whereas Barth – at least at this point seems not to have embraced the idea that theology had a responsibility to change society, Bonhoeffer due to Niebuhr’s influence believed it must – especially in light of the challenges of National Socialism on the church and state. While Barth shared his views of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Christian scriptures, he wasn’t as ready as his young colleague to push the envelope.
Two of his most influential books emerged from his work training pastors for the Confessing Church. Cost of Discipleship and Life Together were essentially the textbooks that he created to help form strong pastors who could resist the temptations of the Nazi’s. As Marsh helpfully details, these books also express Bonhoeffer’s increasing embrace of monastic principles – seeing the community at Finkenwalde as an expression of that historic practice of living in close community. It was during this time that Bonhoeffer met Eberhard Bethge. Although Bethge was his student, the two became intimate friends. Bonhoeffer chose Bethge as his confessor. They were, in almost every way, soul mates. They lived together, traveled together, gave gifts together, and even shared a bank account. Marsh introduces us to a person who seems deeply insecure about his sexuality and how to be in a close relationship with another person. It is clear that Bonhoeffer never had a close relationship with a woman, with the exception of his twin sister Sabine, but that relationship had been circumscribed by her marriage. Marsh takes us tantalizingly close to the conclusion that Bonhoeffer was gay. That said, he makes it clear that Bonhoeffer was never sexually involved with Bethge – and remained a virgin to his death. This part of the story has never been truly revealed before, but it does go a long way to humanizing Bonhoeffer. He wasn’t a saint. He could be petulant and demanding. He would write Bethge almost daily when they were apart and would upbraid his friend for not being as productive in writing. But Bonhoeffer also could be extravagant in the gifts he gave to his friend.
As Germany launched its wars of expansion, something that at least some in the German military opposed, he was drawn into the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. In many ways his involvement in the assassination plot was minimal. At the same time, Bonhoeffer came to believe that despite a deeply held pacifism that caused him significant concerns about being drafted. It is important to remember, as Marsh points out, that Germany didn’t recognize conscientious objectors. To refuse to take up arms was tantamount to treason and could get you a death sentence (as happened to a number of Bonhoeffer’s clergy colleagues). His brother-in-law Hans Von Dohnanyi, was affiliated with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence unity, which was deeply involved in the plots to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer was brought into the unit and the plot because of his significant ecumenical contacts. While he knew of the plots and hoped they would succeed, it is true that he was only minimally involved. Nonetheless, as Marsh reveals clearly enough, Bonhoeffer believed that if given the opportunity he would kill Hitler. Although he understood that such an act stood contrary to the commandments and the teachings of Jesus, he concluded that if he were to act responsibly, then given the chance he would kill the madman who had taken control of his homeland. I think that Marsh has effectively answered those who are arguing that he wasn’t involved in the plot, and therefore remained true to his pacifism. He didn’t try to justify his decisions – but the moment demanded this action.
Getting back to the myth of martyrdom, I think it is appropriate that we place him among the saints of the church. His willingness to stand up against Hitler is to be commended, but he was not the only one to die, with many of his friends being executed long before him. He was able to evade that fate as long as he did in part due to family connections. But most importantly, Bonhoeffer didn't seek martyrdom and didn't see himself as a martyr. He sought to escape his fate. He looked forward to beginning a new life with his fiancé Maria and continuing his long friendship with Bethge. He wanted to further develop the insights he had come to in prison, especially the concept of religionless Christianity. But such was not to be.
Charles Marsh has written a masterpiece of a biography. He explores Bonhoeffer’s writings and shares the key stories of Bonhoeffer’s compelling life. What makes this book especially poignant is the way he takes us deep into the humanity of the great theologian. He isn’t out to destroy Bonhoeffer’s reputation, but he does seem interested in offering us a well-rounded portrait of the man. Unlike some interpreters, he doesn’t try to imprint an ideological stamp on Bonhoeffer. He is neither the property of radical liberals nor conservative evangelicals, though his writings provide fodder that can be picked up by both extremes.
So, what we find in Marsh’s portrait is a man of great complexity. He’s a traditionalist at points and a provocateur at other points. He combines a commitment to a deeply thought out, if somewhat eclectic theology, with a commitment to action. He is an ecumenist who becomes disillusioned with the ecumenical movement and the English church for refusing to recognize the Confessing Church as a true church instead of the Nazi-infiltrated German Protestant Church. I highly recommend this telling of Bonhoeffer’s story to any interested in the man’s life, but especially to those who know little of his life. It is well written, thoughtful, provocative at times, but most important for the novice – it is readable. But, this book will prove enlightening even to those of us who have spent considerable time exploring Bonhoeffer's life and work.