The Intellectual Life of Bonhoeffer: A review of Strange Glory

A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh brings to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography some previously unknown tidbits, and a well-documented and academic account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theologian.  The work is thoroughly documented and has extensive footnotes and bibliography.  If one is looking for a place to begin some research into the life and or ideas of Bonhoeffer, this biography is a great resource.  If , however, one is looking for a biography of Bonhoeffer that is engaging and a good read, as with many academic oriented writings, Strange Glory isn’t such a biography.

Strange Glory in keeping with its academic tone and thoroughness focuses upon Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and theological development.  Frequently, Marsh writes extensive summaries of theologians and other intellectuals with whom Bonhoeffer had contact of whom Marsh believes had influence upon Bonhoeffer.  This almost leaves portions of the biography feeling like an intellectual history of early twentieth century Western theologians, intellectuals, and activists. Thanks to this Life I have Marsh’s sense of Bonhoeffer’s place in 20th century Western theology.  Yet I feel this intellectual and academic focus misses a great deal of who Bonhoeffer was.

As Marsh admits Bonhoeffer was not only a person of ideas and intellectual pursuits but a social and extroverted person with many talents, music, sports etc.  Marsh takes little time to show us Bonhoeffer in his social environment, or to give us a sense of what it might have been like, for instance,  for Bonhoeffer to participate in ecumenical conferences just before and during the Kirchenkampf.  There are of course other Life’s of Bonhoeffer that give us these things, it’s just that without them Marsh’s life of Bonhoeffer is dull reading at frequent points.  Informative but dull.

After Reading Strange Glory: a Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I feel ready to delve into the scholarship of Bonhoeffer.  This Life provides a way to ground research into Bonhoeffer’s theology in his development as a theologian and the climate at the time of those writings.  However, I don’t feel I know Bonhoeffer better as a person, nor did I find this life of Bonhoeffer inspiring or moving.  Strange Glory doesn’t even offer new insight nor further reflection on the person of Bonhoeffer.  This is a great resource for those outside of the academy (and Bonhoeffer scholarship) who may want some means to begin their own research into Bonhoeffer and have that research grounded in the sitzen im leben of any particular work of Bonhoeffer’s.  However, if one is looking for inspiration or deeper insight into the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer there are far better biographies, and if you are willing to slog through a tome Bethge’s biography remains best read in this regard.

Interview with Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh is professor or religious studies at the University of Virginia and the director of The Project on Lived Theology

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.