Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory is the third full biography of Bonhoeffer I have read in the last five years, not include three additional books on particular aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life or theology and also not including the books I have read by Bonhoeffer.
Without question, this is the best of the three full biographies I have read. Charles Marsh is an academic historian and writer. As much as I appreciated Eric Metaxas’ biography that opened up Bonhoeffer to many people unaware of his legacy, Metaxas did not have the academic skills to pull off a serious biography. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s biography had the academic heft, but was written originally in German, and while worth reading, the translation made it a bit clunky at times and it still a pretty obscure (and expensive) biography.
So there is space for a third new biography of Bonhoeffer. If you have read one or both of the previous biographies, Marsh brings a new look at Bonhoeffer. First, he spends more time on his childhood and particularly the strengths and weaknesses that came about because of Bonhoeffer’s privileged (and spoiled) upbringing. Second, Marsh spends a lot more time on the impact of Bonhoeffer’s time in the US and particularly the impact of the African American church to Bonhoeffer’s later theology. Third, Marsh does a better job than Schlingensiepen or Metaxas at explaining Bonhoeffer’s actual theology and the progression of that theology over time (and how it stayed the same.)
I think Marsh also struck the right balance of honoring Bonhoeffer while acknowledging his weaknesses. He was spoiled. He was immature, especially prior to 1938. But that privilege also allowed him space to think and write and travel and serve the church in ways that very few others could.
The big controversy surrounding the book is that Marsh suggests that Bonhoeffer may have had unexpressed same sex attraction toward his friend (who became his brother in law and later biographer) Bethge. This not an odd suggestion and it was a question that was asked before Bonhoeffer’s death and of Bethge after Bonhoeffer’s death. They lived together for years, shared a joint bank account, gave presents together at Christmas and Bonhoeffer left everything to Bethge (and not his parents or his fiance). Marsh does say that he doesn’t think that Bonhoeffer was ever aware of actual romantic desire for Bethge, let alone any sexual relationship. That being said, this is a short section and it should not detract from a very well written biography.
Marsh also spends a little time talking about Bonhoeffer as figure that modern readers should read when thinking about persecution and opposition for our Christian faith. I think that Bonhoeffer will probably become even more important over time.
PBS has a documentary on Bonhoeffer that has a clip that interviews Marsh. You can get a sense of Marsh’s take on Bonhoeffer in this 8 minute section.