Reading a biography of the German theologian and anti-Hitler-conspirator, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has become something of a yearly tradition for me. In 2012 I read Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, with very little prior knowledge of the man. My appetite was merely whetted; I wanted more. So last year I tackled the massive biography by Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. That one didn’t satisfy me either so I ended up working through The Cost of Discipleship, Christ the Center, and The Way to Freedom. When I found out that Charles Marsh, a religious studies professor and author whom even Bethge praised, was writing a biography on Bonhoeffer, I was elated. After finishing Strange Glory, I feel as though I’ve met a fundamentally different Bonhoeffer.
Before I level any criticisms at all, I’d like to say that Marsh writes very well. Much of Marsh’s prose, especially toward the early chapters, displays a narrative quality that renders it a pleasure to read. Many biographies are written like history books, recounting event after event with little narrative elaboration. Bethge’s biography plodded at times because of this (and its 1000+ page count didn’t help matters). On the other hand, Marsh’s biography almost reads like a novel in places. Listen as Marsh recounts the interaction between Bonhoeffer and a friend from school, Walter Dress: “Mostly Bonhoeffer would talk and Dress would listen. More precisely, Bonhoeffer would pepper Dress, two years his senior in the program, with requests for advice on writing assignments, exams, and the stringency of due dates. The solicitations were fierce and frequent, extending also to purely academic matters” (Marsh p. 48). Marsh goes on to list a dozen questions in quick succession that Bonhoeffer asked. The writing makes the reader feel the anxiety of listening to Bonhoeffer’s barrage of questions like listening to a child asking his mother “Why?” every few seconds.
Not only does Marsh write well, the book is well-researched and meticulously foot-noted. The shorter length of the book naturally means that it couldn’t have the details in either Metaxas’s or Bethge’s book but it does do a fine job of painting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life in broad strokes. Some of my favorite vignettes from Bonhoeffer’s life are missing but most of the absences don’t do too much damage to the general story. Nevertheless, the Bonhoeffer presented in Marsh’s book is different than that revealed in either of the other mentioned biographies. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is more human. At times pettiness and and obsessive behaviors come out that seemed much less prominent in Bethge’s and Metaxas’s accounts.
Unfortunately, the book seems to falter a little after the halfway point. Once Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, Charles Marsh seems hell-bent on proving that Bonhoeffer was a repressed homosexual who longed for an intimate, physical relationship with Bethge. They signed Christmas cards together and had a joint bank account. They spent inordinate amounts of time together. And yet, the fact is that every shred of evidence for Marsh’s argument is circumstantial. Apparently Marsh had never had “a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Whereas Bethge spoke about Bonhoeffer’s fiancee fairly regularly, she was hardly mentioned in Marsh’s book. Instead, the focus was almost exclusively on Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge. But the really disappointing thing was how more important events and facts seemed to have been left out while leaving in plenty of speculation on the author’s part (“He would never acknowledge a sexual desire for Bethge, nor would Bethge have welcomed its expression…Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations” (Marsh p.384).) Bonhoeffer’s work with the Confessing Church and his ecumenical pursuits seemed to be given shorter shrift than they deserved. As the book reaches the final few chapters, Marsh seems tired, or perhaps rushed. In Bethge’s work, the build-up to Bonhoeffer’s death is filled with such tension that I turned each page hoping to find out that the history I’d heard had been wrong and Bonhoeffer made it through the war. Marsh, on the other hand, writes abruptly of his demise. Bonhoeffer’s relationships with the prisoners he met in Tegel and Buchenwald are hardly mentioned (one especially disappointing event missing from Marsh’s biography is the mix-up that nearly saved his life as he was being transported to his final concentration camp). It was a time of immense interest to me and yet, it wasn’t elaborated fully in Marsh’s book.
Even forty years of life provides far too much material for a mere 400 pages to comprehensively cover. And yet, I felt as though Marsh could have better utilized his word count, especially toward the latter half of the book. All-in-all, this is a good biography that offers a starkly different Bonhoeffer than Metaxas did in 2011. If you read that book and would like something to balance it out, this might be a good choice. However, if you have the time to invest in Bethge’s more complete biography, that is the route I would recommend. It might not sound as nice as Marsh’s book but you’ll come across with a fuller picture of who this Lutheran pastor and dissident really was.