Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: New biography reveals Bonhoeffer in "warts and all" style ...

When you hear the word "theologian," what comes to mind? What kind of man do you picture?

That stereotype you hold about the image of a theologian probably won't fit the actual life of the famous theologian and Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Helping us understand who this man was, and what he was really like, is probably the key contribution made by the latest Bonhoeffer biography called "Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," written by Charles Marsh (published by Alfred A. Knopf).

Marsh spent more than eight years conducting research for this biography, and it's loaded with details about the man so that we learn how he really lived, rather than be exposed to just the myth about him.

This story of Bonhoeffer's life is written with flowing prose, sometimes as if you're in the room with Bonhoeffer himself, observing his work or listening in on conversations. While 400 pages is a lot of reading, there's a lot of life story to be told, and Marsh does it with detail; some might even think getting too far into the minutia of Bonhoeffer's activities. But the result is seeing the man as who he really was.

The initial impression isn't an appealing one when thinking in terms of a stereotypical theologian. Bonhoeffer was born into a family of privilege, who lived comfortably when most in his country didn't. An easy, but accurate description, is that he was spoiled. He lived with his parents for the larger part of his life, and also relied on them for not only his needs, but his wants as well, which were plentiful. He cared about fashion, was devoted to vacations and recreation, and initially didn't work hard. He rose late, worked a few hours, then gathered with friends to talk of music, literature, theology, and other personal interests, and spent the evenings out late taking in musicals and critiquing them with friends late into the night.

His parents paid for his education, and he simply accepted what he considered to be the fact that he was a bright young man. Bright enough to complete two doctoral dissertations while still in his twenties, and he expected to enjoy a promising career in academia as a theologian in a leading university.

Marsh weaves into this personal look at the man the men who influenced his theology, and you see how Bonhoeffer's thinking was developed, influenced, shaped, and changed over the years.

With such a picture taking shape, you think Bonhoeffer would live his life rather as a "dandy" kind of fellow who just happened to have a great mind for theology. Even though Marsh shows us the influence of other theologians on Bonhoeffer's thinking, he didn't simply follow other thinkers. He did the hard work of his own study, and his theology would be the result of his own time devoted to scholarly effort.

What is incredible about the life of Bonhoeffer is how the horrible times of experiencing Nazi Germany provided Bonhoeffer with the a unique impetus for spiritual development and growth that changed him from the man who enjoyed a life of ease, to a man who was willing to die for what he believed in. It may well be said that Bonhoeffer was born "for such a time as this," for without the evil brought into that culture through Hitler, it may well have been that Bonhoeffer would have never been adequately challenged to grow into who he became as a man, a minister, and a theologian.

There is an issue of note about Bonhoeffer that Marsh unnecessarily forces into this biography, which is to clearly implicate that Bonhoeffer had a homosexual relationship (without sexual activity) with the younger Eberhard Bethge. The author points to the two living together at times, having a joint bank account, signing Christmas cards as coming from "Dietrich and Eberhard," and the level of intimacy he used in his communications with his friend. However, Bethge has always stated that his friendship with Bonhoeffer was never of a homosexual nature, regardless of the fact that they were intimate friends. Without any clear evidence to the contrary, there is no justification for Marsh's persistent push to move the reader toward thinking the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Bethge was a homosexual one.

I would anticipate some readers of this biography would prefer more detail regarding certain aspects of Bonhoeffer's life than Marsh offers, while preferring less detail in other areas. But if you're going to stop at 400 pages, there's only so much you can fit in.

"Strange Glory" works as a good addition to the existing biographies on the life of this remarkable man, expanding a detailed look into the person behind the myth, making this book worth adding to your list of books worth making some time for.

Scotty

I received this book free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group as part of their book review bloggers program. 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: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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