Written by Charles Marsh | Reviewed by Doug Poland
One of the most valuable functions that a biography can serve is to speak to us through a life lived well long ago in a context that has become clearer with the passage of time, and to provide insights and guidance that allow us to comprehend our own still-developing context more clearly and from a broader historical and cultural perspective. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh, is just such a work. Although released eight years ago, Marsh’s thorough examination of Bonhoeffer’s life, much of which comes through Bonhoeffer’s own journal entries and correspondence with those closest to him, has taken on new meaning and even greater urgency from events occurring in our own nation since it was published in 2014.
Marsh spends a significant amount of the early portion of the book documenting Bonhoeffer’s coddled childhood. Bonhoeffer’s father, a prominent neurologist, psychiatrist, and university professor, and his mother, a teacher, denied him nothing. Bonhoeffer had an expansive education from his early days, including in music, theater, and, of course, theology. Bonhoeffer’s theological training started relatively early; he earned his first graduate degree in theology at the age of 21, and soon earned a second. But for Bonhoeffer, these early theological experiences were purely academic. Bonhoeffer was raised in a household steeped in academe, and groomed for a career in academic theology rather than parish ministry. At the time, the German Lutheran Church was dominated by academic theologians who largely ignored parish ministry and knew little or nothing about it. Bonhoeffer’s significant and early accomplishments in his studies made him a rising star in German Lutheran academic theology, until he had a series of experiences that changed the course of his life.
First, Bonhoeffer spent a year from early 1928 until mid-1929 as assistant vicar at the German Lutheran Church in Barcelona, Spain, ministering to the expatriate German Lutheran community in the city. While in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer attended Catholic masses and was struck by the physical nature, pageantry, and liveliness of Catholic ceremonies, especially as compared to what he had experienced in the German Lutheran Church. The warmth of religious worship he observed in Barcelona led him to comment in his journal that he felt that “a theology of . . . spring and summer” was replacing “the Berlin winter theology.” Bonhoeffer also was moved by the variety of people he met — the “real people” he called them, by contrast to “the average church member” — including “vagabonds and vagrants, escaped convicts and foreign legionnaires … German dancers from the musical revues, lion tamers,” and others who sought his counsel. Marsh notes that Bonhoeffer’s experience ministering to these “real people” sparked the broadening of Bonhoeffer’s social awareness.
Bonhoeffer’s nascent rift from academic theology widened irreversibly during the year that he spent as a postdoctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1930-31, studying under, among others, the great American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Ironically, it was not Bonhoeffer’s studies at Union that led to his broader spiritual awakening and break from the academy, but his experiences worshiping in Black churches in Harlem during his fellowship. Invited to worship at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem by Franklin Fisher, a seminarian who served as a pastoral intern at the church and who would become a key figure in the civil rights movement, launching the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Bonhoeffer experienced a revelation. Bonhoeffer was excited by the “eruptive joy” of the services. And as Bonhoeffer attended the services week after week and got to know the members of the church, he began to see “the real face of America, something that is hidden behind the veil of words in the American constitution that ‘all men are created free and equal.’” Bonhoeffer for the first time also began to pay attention to politics, becoming aware of the spreading fascist movements in Europe, and especially in Germany. At the end of his fellowship, Bonhoeffer rented a car with another seminarian, and toured the American South and Mexico. As he departed the United States in the summer of 1931, Bonhoeffer was a changed man. As Marsh comments, Bonhoeffer’s “understanding of the Lutheran doctrine of justification shifted in dramatic ways. No longer would he speak of grace as a transcendent idea but as a divine verdict requiring obedience and action. The American social theology, which had seemed so devoid of miracle, had remade him into a theologian of the concrete.”
Upon returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer for the first time met Karl Barth, the venerated Swiss Reformed theologian who had broken with the academic German Lutheran theologians over their support for the German war effort in World War I, and had assumed a post at the University of Bonn funded by American Presbyterians. Bonhoeffer attended Barth’s lectures in the summer of 1931, and began a professional friendship with Barth that would last the rest of his life. Bonhoeffer also became deeply involved in the global ecumenical movement, serving as a youth delegate at an international conference in London, the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship Through the Churches as a youth delegate, a forerunner of the World Council of Churches. As Germany slid ever deeper into fascism and, after 1933, total control by the National Socialist party, Bonhoeffer became more committed to ecumenicalism and to opposing the forces within the German Lutheran Church that openly embraced the Nazi party and its ideals. Bonhoeffer helped to found the Confessing Church, which resisted (although not entirely) the Nazi Party’s influence and control. Bonhoeffer’s deep commitment to Christian discipleship as he increasingly understood it caused him to take ever more and bolder steps to resist the Nazis, culminating in his involvement with the men in the resistance (including Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus) who plotted to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1944, for which he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, only weeks before Germany’s surrender. Marsh’s telling of Bonhoeffer’s growing social and political awareness is deep and rich, revealing the growth in his maturity and world view over the course of the 1930s. And Marsh’s careful mining of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and journal provide important details that bring to life his struggles against the corrupted German Lutheran Church of the 1930s, showing Bonhoeffer’s steadfast commitment to his faith and his rejection of the institutional church, which had embraced and then allowed itself to be wholly usurped by the Nazis and their political and social ideologies.
So what can we, as American Presbyterians living almost 100 years after Bonhoeffer, learn from his life? Rather than looking at Bonhoeffer as merely a historical figure (albeit an important and courageous one), or even as a martyr, as he has been recognized by some Christian denominations, I think that we would be well-served as self-proclaimed disciples of Jesus Christ to examine Bonhoeffer’s life as one of a prophet, and to regard Marsh’s book as a work of prophesy as well as of history. That begs a question: What is prophesy? An answer to that question is informed by a description by Will Ed Green, a United Methodist Church pastor in Silver Spring, Maryland, that I recently heard on the superb weekly podcast, Pulpit Fiction. Tackling that very question, Pastor Green observes: “What is prophecy? If it’s not taking a look at the current circumstances in which we find ourselves and applying our understanding of God’s faithfulness and ability to make love happen out of situations where love seems to fall on barren ground, and use that to tell a different story. Part of what the work of prophecy is, is imagining a different future that is possible only because of God’s loving action on our behalf and on behalf of the creation of the world. To tap into that Holy Spirit kind of thinking that allows us to see beyond what we can presently perceive and to do what Isaiah says, to behold I am making all things new, to trust that God is going to show up, and even if we can’t see the end of the journey, we can take the next faithful step, and we do that by inviting people to behave differently, to think differently about what they are doing.” Offering commentary on Amos 7:7-17, Pastor Green elaborates: “Look at what Amos does. Amos recognizes that this religious institution into which he is speaking is not rooted in the reality of God’s loving action, it’s rooted in King Jeroboam. It’s the King’s temple. It’s the King’s place of worship. And of course, in this culture, in the language that we’re reading, the king is kind of seen as not only benefiting from their special relationship with the deity but having that deity’s power, energy, and righteousness rub off on them. And what Amos is saying is no, no, no, no, no, your relationship to God isn’t derived from relationship to the institution. And if you’re looking to the institution to be the lens through which you are doing the work of God, then you are probably going to trip yourself up. And in fact, that’s what happened in the land of Israel.”
Viewed through this lens, Bonhoeffer may be seen as a prophet in two ways. First, his profoundly transformative experiences in Black churches in Harlem, which opened his eyes to the racial inequities of American society, reveal how Bonhoeffer derived his understanding of how God moves in the world through his experiences in Black churches in Harlem and in the American South. In the wake of the new racial reckoning that we are having as Americans in the wake of the killing of so many Black men over the past decade in the United States, many at the hands of law enforcement, and culminating in the murder of George Floyd in the early summer of 2020, Bonhoeffer’s awakening to the connection between authentic discipleship in Jesus Christ and racial justice can reveal to us a similar path of understanding as practicing Christians, and how our commitment to racial equity in our own place and time can help to bring into being the kingdom of which Jesus preached.
Second, Bonhoeffer’s belated awakening to the extreme dangers posed by the entanglement of religion and government, culminating in the Nazi takeover of the institutional Lutheran church in Germany in the 1930s, serves as a warning to us about the direction in which our own nation is headed. The increasing influence of fundamentalist evangelical Christians over US partisan politics , and the current United States Supreme Court’s increasing and alarming willingness to erode the constitutional barriers between church and state , have our nation headed in a direction that Bonhoeffer experienced first-hand. Granted, the barriers between church and state in the United States in 2022 are far greater than they were in the early years of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the German Lutheran Church, yet for much of his career as a theologian Bonhoeffer remained ignorant of the increasing erosion of the cultural barriers that existed between church and state in Germany, and by the time the political barriers gave way with the triumph of the Nazi Party in the German elections of 1933, it was too late to save the German church from wholesale usurpation by the Nazi government. As American Presbyterians, we must see with clarity that what happened to the Christian church in Germany in the 1930s is not only possible in our America, but that we are well on our way toward a similar usurpation of our religious institutions by political actors, and potentially even a government, that will use them for their own purposes. Bonhoeffer speaks to us through Marsh’s words, imploring us — as prophets do — to be vigilant, and to change our ways before it is too late for us and for the nation we love, as it was for Bonhoeffer and Germany almost 100 years ago.
 https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/roe-supreme-court-justices-1378046/  As an example, the United States Supreme Court held in its most recent term that a public school does not necessarily violate the Establishment Clause by permitting religious expression in public, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21-418_i425.pdf, and that states cannot exclude religious schools from taxpayer-funded tuition assistance programs, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-1088_dbfi.pdf.