[A Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh, 2014]
Marsh introduces us to Bonhoeffer’s ancestry and walks us clear through to the last imprisoned years of uncertainty that ended in his execution just days before the end of WWII. It is not written to coddle nor to discomfort whatever our self-image is as American Christians today, but tries to show reality. This is what biography should be – excellent credentials, extensive research, sensitive awareness, sympathetic objectivity, thorough treatment, and clear organization and writing.
Two eras of his life seem particularly important to our current experience in the United States.
CHAPTER EIGHT, “THEOLOGICAL STORM TROOPERS ON THE MARCH” deals with the direct pressures on the church after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. It traces the ease with which the Nazified church, the innocent-sounding “German Christians,” took control of the Christian establishments. A major moral concern at this time was church involvement in the deliberate singling out of Jews for exclusion and ever more violent persecution.
The terrifying crucial factor was the willingness of pew-level Christians to see Christ and the Bible replaced by enthusiasm for a strong Germany and a strong, “Christian” leader. Hitler actually used the phrase “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” even while replacing Christ in the people’s affections. He deliberately made enthusiasm for the nation seem the same as enthusiasm for the Gospel.
The fraud, power plays, and frequent violence (including concentration camps for questioners) were of course key factors. But the large majority of Christians and Christian leaders became promoters of the new anti-Christ power, while seeing it as the proper development of Biblical history. Bonhoeffer saw it differently, called it all “heresy,” and began referring to Hitler as “anti-christ.” Marsh says Bonhoeffer’s “orthodox understanding of Christ, which ‘begins in silence,’ directed Bonhoeffer onto a different path – one of recognizing dissent as a spiritual discipline.”
These idolatrous tendencies are at work in America today, with real differences of detail, but clearly at work. This chapter is worth some study.
CHAPTER SIX, “I HEARD THE GOSPEL PREACHED IN THE NEGRO CHURCHES”, describes his experiences as a student at Union Theological Seminary in NYC in 1931-32. It brings up two issues still important in American church life.
First, he felt a profound difference between Christian (churchly) white America, and black Christian America. The prior showed to him “frivolousness,” and “lack of clarity,” and left him “feeling depressed.” His involvements with black Americans and black churches “were never for a moment … boring.” He felt he found there a very real and direct expression of Christian faith and worship. Hence, “I heard the Gospel preached in Negro churches.”
Two things about that were distressing to him.
One – the to-him self-pleased and even self-indulgent flavor of white liberal Christianity was unattractive, largely useless, and in the context of world events, dangerous. Unfortunately, we could take the word “liberal” out of that sentence and find it true today.
Two – the white church establishment seemed quite unaware of and uninterested in the experiences of people of color. White Christian blindness in this country has been a problem of long standing, and represents the kind of ignorance that will always prove dangerous one way or another.
Second, Union Seminary was the pinnacle of American theological and activist effort shaped by the “social gospel.” But to Bonhoeffer the theological work seemed shallow. He was used to extensive, rigorous reading and study, well beyond what his fellow students seemed ready for. Still, he came to believe of Reinhold Niebuhr, under whom he chose to study that whole year, that his “sobriety and seriousness” were “irrefutable,” and Bonhoeffer took much encouragement from Niebuhr’s serious focus on “the real” in surrounding society.
In fact, that social gospel concern, expressed in the requirements of his course work, pushed him into neighborhood and church-based justice ministries in the city almost weekly. These experiences softened his criticism of American theology, as he saw it deliberately and truly engaged with the real suffering and injustice around; and it was trying to do so from a perspective of Biblical values even if not richly steeped in the history of theology. As his cousin would explain, “Something was missing from German theology … the grounding of theology in reality.” The author says, “The technical terminology faded steadily from his writing, giving way to a language more direct and expressive of lived faith.” We always need that.
And we always need this: “He … began to search the Christian and Jewish traditions for inspiration to peacemaking, dissent, and civil courage.”
This is a good biography, and timely, and a very good introduction to Bonhoeffer.
A Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh. 2015. Vintage Books.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.