Tag Archives: Bonhoeffer

Strange Glory – Reflections

Strange GloryWhen I am on my bike or on the train or doing some housework, I often listen to audio books. Mostly I have listened to fiction, but I recently began listening to other genres, including this wonderful biography by Charles Marsh: Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Knopf, 2014), 528pp.

I cannot write a review of the book because listening, especially when doing something else, means I do not give the book my undivided attention. Nor can I provide page numbers or citations. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and intend some time to read the book itself.

So what did I enjoy? Strange Glory was well written and beautifully read by Paul Hecht. It covered the whole life of Bonhoeffer with a great deal of detail, insight and connection. It presented Bonhoeffer as a complicated human being, brilliant and needy, a member of the privileged elite with a great concern for the common man. It was theologically rich and informed, not compromising the depth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in the telling of his story. It relied extensively on primary texts, especially the letters and journals of Bonhoeffer himself. It provided an entrée into Bonhoeffer’s personal thought and relationships, his prejudices and commitments, his loves and affections, his misgivings, self-doubts (at times) and determinations. It charted his development as a person, churchman and theologian across the course of his life. It explored his dedication to the ethical character of the Christian life without reducing Christianity to ethics.


Much discussion surrounding Marsh’s book concerns the author’s portrayal of Bonhoeffer as gay, as in love with his friend, confidante and confessor Eberhard Bethge. He does not assert that the two friends had a sexual relationship, but that Bonhoeffer, at least, was in love. Marsh does provide many details to support his case, though whether his argument is convincing is disputed amongst reviewers. I am not sufficiently acquainted with Bonhoeffer to make a firm determination on the matter—is anyone?—but I am not wholly convinced by Marsh. In the end, the issue is peripheral and should not detract from the major aspects of his story.

Far more important in my estimation, is the portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a man of great passion and compassion in addition to his penetrating intellect. Despite his elitism and eccentricities, he loved those he ministered to, struggled to find his place in the world of German Christendom, and was amongst the first to understand that the Nazi oppression of the Jews was a betrayal of the gospel. His life exemplified both the “cost of discipleship” as well as a fulsome embrace of the delights of the world and culture. One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me, and something I want and need to return to, was the way that Marsh was able to correlate Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde “experiment” with the theological development that occurred in the prison years. Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” constituted new growth in the field of his thought, but not disjunction with that which preceded it.

Anyone interested in Bonhoeffer’s life and theology will gain much benefit from this extensively researched biography. Formal reviews of the book can be found at First Things, the Gospel Coalition, the New York Times, and the usual theological journals.

New Books on Bonhoeffer

Strange GloryBooks on Bonhoeffer continue to flow off the presses, testimony to his enduring appeal and significance. Although I can make no claim to expertise in Bonhoeffer’s work, I do retain an interest in his life and theology, and would like one day to deepen my exposure to his thought, and understanding of his theological vision and contribution. So I was interested, last year, to hear some controversy around a new Bonhoeffer biography by Charles Marsh. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (SPCK, 2014) raised uncomfortable questions about Bonhoeffer, especially for some evangelicals. Earlier this year the book won Christianity Today’s award for best book in History/Biography for 2014.

Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

The same issue of Christianity Today (Jan-Feb 2015) features a cover article about Bonhoeffer as youth minister, and considers the implications of his ministry and thought in the Germany of the 1930s for youth ministry and churches today. Andrew Root, author of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker Academic, 2014) argues that most of Bonhoeffer’s ministry from 1925-1939 was among children and youth: “Bonhoeffer is primarily not a theologian doing youth ministry, but a youth minister doing theology” (32). He cites a thesis written by Bonhoeffer about youth ministry sometime in the mid-1930s when the Nazis were harnessing the youthful spirit, hearts and minds of the nation:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God (35, emphasis added).

Bonhoeffer's Seminary VisionThe book promises to be a rich and rewarding read not only for youth ministers, but for all who love and serve in the church. The Christianity Today article is also worth reading.

Finally, Paul House has published a book that has immediate interest and relevance for my own work: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Crossway, 2015). The final chapter, entitled “Life Together Today: Some Possibilities for Incarnational Seminaries,” just demands to be read by those in theological education. I hope to read it; perhaps over summer I will have the opportunity. If so, I will post a review. Or better, what if several of us read it and begin a conversation…?


Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer Memorial PlaqueSixty nine years ago, on April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazi regime for his part in a failed assassination plot on Hitler. The memorial plaque pictured here reads:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren. Born February 4, 1906 in Breslau. Died April 9, 1945 in Flossenbürg.

An English officer imprisoned with Bonhoeffer later recorded Bonhoeffer’s last day: “On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of all of us. He found just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, the thoughts and the resolutions it had brought us. He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” That had only one meaning for all prisoners—the gallows. We said good-bye to him. He took me aside: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” The next day he was hanged in Flossenburg.” Bonhoeffer’s final text on that day was “With his stripes are we healed” (Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2).

The idea of being a witness of Jesus Christ, and of participating in an assassination plot seem to many Christians to be incompatible. Bonhoeffer, too, wrestled with the implications of his decision and act. Seven years earlier he had written:

Every day brings to the Christian many hours in which they will be alone in an unchristian environment. These are the times of testing. This is the test of true meditation and true Christian community. Has the fellowship served to make the individual free, strong, and mature, or has it made them weak and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for a while in order that they may learn again to walk by themself, or has it made them uneasy and unsure? This is one of the most searching and critical questions that can be put to any Christian fellowship. … Has it transported for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works. Only the day can decide.

The citation comes from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (88). Over the next week or two I will remember Bonhoeffer by posting some reflections on this little treatise, which has become a modern theological and pastoral classic. Why not grab a copy and read along?