SEPTEMBER 10, 2014
THE BIOGRAPHY of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been a hot commodity since the publication of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy in 2010. Metaxas presented us with a strong, dutiful, family man Bonhoeffer; an unflappable wunderkind who, even as he wrote some of the most provocative theological texts of the 20th century, gave up academia, his aristocratic comforts, his freedom, and even his life in order to answer the call of Christ. For Bonhoeffer following that call meant taking “responsible action.” As it turned out, responsible action meant participating in Claus von Stauffenberg’s July 20, 1944, attempt to kill Adolf Hitler. Eventually, the call led him to imprisonment and execution.
Metaxas weaves a compelling narrative; many people have come to Bonhoeffer’s work through his biography. Moreover, he avoided some pitfalls by drawing heavily from the magisterial biography written by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend. Regrettably, if you are an avid Bonhoeffer reader, the further you get into Metaxas’s book, the stranger the terrain looks. Bonhoeffer scholars from Clifford Green to Barry Harvey to Mark Nation have worried that Metaxas has bought into an old myth about Bonhoeffer, one that recasts him in the image of an American evangelical and righteous anti-government conspirator. The myth is especially unfortunate because it undermines some of the central themes of Bonhoeffer’s work, including his commitment to nonviolent resistance.
Metaxas goes as far as to say that “Bonhoeffer’s sentence of death was almost certainly by decree of Hitler himself” and that he “was in the heart of the conspiracy, lending emotional support and encouragement to those more directly involved, such as his brother Klaus and his brother-in-law [Hans von] Dohnanyi.” Both statements are misleading. Hitler ordered the execution of all Abwehr (military intelligence) conspirators involved in the July 20 plot. However, since nearly 5,000 people were executed in the wake of the attempt, he could not possibly have known all those involved. Even if he had heard the name Bonhoeffer (which was also his father and brother’s name), it seems nearly impossible that Hitler would have remembered the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’s assertion that Bonhoeffer was “in the heart of the conspiracy” is equally dubious. Though it’s hard to believe Bonhoeffer didn’t know that the goal of the conspiracy was to kill the Führer, calling Bonhoeffer’s pastoral guidance “the heart of the conspiracy” borders on the preposterous.
One particularly ingenious strategy enables Metaxas to make such statements believable: the outright denial that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. The Nazi government would have wholeheartedly disagreed with him: they made their opinion known by removing Bonhoeffer from his teaching post at the Frederick William University of Berlin. For the regime, he was “a pacifist and an enemy of the state.” When Bonhoeffer could write sentences such as “A disciple should not resist when challenged by evil that cannot be justified at all” and “There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strange that it would require a different response from a Christian,” the Nazis can be forgiven for their confusion.
Thankfully, Charles Marsh has given us a brilliant corrective. His beautifully written biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, uses previously unavailable archives to show us a Bonhoeffer very different from the hero lauded from Evangelical pulpits. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is still the strong-willed intellectual prodigy from Metaxas’s biography, but he is also an aristocratic snob, a flamboyant dresser, and a man heavily dependent on his parents’ financial support. This Bonhoeffer struggled deeply with interpersonal relationships even as he wrote some of the 20th century’s most compelling theological treatises on socialization and community. This Bonhoeffer, Marsh tells us, had terrible difficulty in his few, brief romantic relationships with women, and hid for years his erotic attraction for his best male friend and first biographer, Eberhard Bethge. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer will be unfamiliar to many of Metaxas’s readers, but — and this is one of the great merits of Marsh’s book — this Bonhoeffer is profoundly human.
Marsh strikes several notes in Strange Glory which other biographers have not adequately emphasized. One of them is the place of Catholicism in Bonhoeffer’s life. During a four-month trip to Italy, Bonhoeffer was astonished by the spectacle of Holy Week in the Eternal City. He marveled in his journal at the magnificence of Easter Mass at St. Peter’s: “One can hardly conceive of anything so magnificent.” Though he would never turn from the Lutheran faith of his childhood, he would jot down that the Lutheranism he knew was “provincial, nationalistic, and small-minded.” After reading Marsh’s delightful chapter on Bonhoeffer’s trip, one is better equipped to read Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and Ethics, with a view to the Catholic influences on his thought.
Another improvement over Metaxas is Marsh’s more levelheaded positioning of Bonhoeffer within the Abwehr conspiracy. Save for the two-week pseudo-military training he received as a university student, Bonhoeffer had no knowledge of guns or explosives. As a pastor, pacifist, and man with no understanding of weaponry, it would be rather shocking if von Dohnanyi had asked for his assistance with the Operation Valkyrie logistics. And, indeed, we have no evidence that he did. Bonhoeffer’s role was to be a “pastoral” one.
It’s in regard to Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy and his pacifism, however, that Strange Glory requires some nuancing. Certainly, one cannot collapse a life — especially a life like Bonhoeffer’s — into the span of several hundred pages without painting over certain distinctions. But it’s here that Marsh quietly edges toward a position which has divided Bonhoeffer scholars.
In his chapter“Killing the Madman,” Marsh writes that “Bonhoeffer’s distinctive contribution to this fellowship [of conspirators] was to articulate with authority the moral justification for their goal.” As Marsh himself clarifies later in the chapter, there could be no such justification for Bonhoeffer. From his theological perspective, all the conspirators were guilty of grievous sin both because Lutheran doctrine precluded tyrannicide and because his own commitment to non-violence was rooted in the Gospel itself. It was, in Bethge’s words, “a grotesque situation.” Even if the conspirators incurred this guilt through “responsible action” (one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite phrases), and in the service of a righteous cause, all they could do (to channel Bonhoeffer’s Ethics) was to throw themselves on the mercy of God. Sin, for Bonhoeffer, was no light matter — including the sin of trying to kill Hitler.
Similar considerations color Marsh’s treatment of the relationship between Bonhoeffer’s theology and that of Reinhold Niebuhr. Marsh writes that
Niebuhr’s influence can in fact be discerned every time, after 1933, that Bonhoeffer equates a faith deprived of ethics with dead religion, and hold that ‘costly’ grace requires not that one become a saint, a genius, or a clever tactician but rather an honest, sober, and unflinching realist. It is the Niebuhrian voice that resonates in Bonhoeffer’s eventual resolve as a member of the German resistance.
Maybe. Niebuhr was certainly part of what awoke Bonhoeffer from his “dogmatic slumber” to the horrors of contemporary Germany. The famous phrase from Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship,“costly grace,” was not a call to a new ideology of political realism. It was a call to follow the person of Christ wherever he led, and this meant non-violent resistance, not Niebuhrian realpolitik. Niebuhr gave up his early commitment to pacifism; Bonhoeffer never did, not even at the height of the conspiracy.
Strange Glory will be remembered as the first biography by a major scholar to broach the question: Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer gay?
Truth be told, Marsh never puts the question in quite these terms, and the topic has been broached before. But Strange Glory will bring a marginal conversation in Bonhoeffer studies into the limelight, and hopefully give encouragement to many gay and bisexual Christians in the process. Though Bonhoeffer’s category of “the natural” would likely preclude him from defending gay marriage, he is a great resource for those arguing for the full inclusion of gay people into the life of Christian congregations.
What, then, makes Marsh raise this question? First, he tells us that Bonhoeffer broke off an eight-year long “epistolary relationship” with his third cousin Elizabeth Zinn because he felt drawn to more “‘uncompromising’ friendships.” It’s obvious that he intends us to read “Bethge” here. Perhaps more surprising, Bonhoeffer’s fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer is only given six pages in Strange Glory, a startlingly low count for someone who has been the target of so much speculation. Could it be that Bethge, rather than Maria, was Bonhoeffer’s first love? Marsh believes the answer is yes. In letter after letter to Bethge during the early 1940s, Bonhoeffer lets his guard down with him in ways that he could with no one else. He gave Bethge lavish gifts, discussed half-formed, radical theological questions, and confided in him his innermost fears. At the same time, Marsh writes, Bonhoeffer “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 very well might be right. Bethge has written that Bonhoeffer became a theologian because he was lonely; he longed for God, for community, for love. Certainly, he seemed to long more for his male friend than his fiancé during the months and years he spent in prison. Or it may be that, as well as being one of the most productive theological relationships of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer and Bethge were simply great friends, friends of a sort that our frantic, lonely culture no longer understands.
Or, just perhaps, the answer is both.