A fresh look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), both intimate and theological.
Marsh (Religious Studies/Univ. of Virginia; The Beloved Community, 2005, etc.) looks anew at the famed theologian and anti-Nazi activist, using rarely glimpsed correspondence to paint a warts-and-all portrait of this German martyr. His dispassionate biography excels in two ways. First, Marsh thoroughly details how Bonhoeffer related to theology and to the theological backdrop of his times. Even as a young man, he rubbed shoulders and corresponded with some of the premier spiritual figures of his day: Niebuhr, Barth and even, to a slight degree, Gandhi. A major point of exploration for the author is how such people shaped the rising theological star. Secondly, Marsh attempts to provide a more closely examined view of Bonhoeffer’s personality than past biographers. For instance, he presents Bonhoeffer as spoiled and immature in his early adulthood and as comparably materialistic and peevish in the years leading up to the depths of war. Marsh delves into Bonhoeffer’s extraordinarily intimate relationship with his student, Eberhard Bethge, providing more detail, and more fodder for psychoanalysis, than previous biographers. Throughout the work, Marsh looks for ways of revisiting old truths about Bonhoeffer and offering fresh perspectives. Even his death is re-examined. Instead of simply repeating the story told by the concentration camp doctor that he died a quick death with grace and composure, Marsh points out that camp survivors have told different stories about how executions took place, leading one to believe Bonhoeffer suffered a terrible and tortuous end. Such re-examinations of previously unquestioned assumptions are common throughout the book. Though Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer (2010) is a more sensitive and well-written account of the subject’s life, Marsh also serves readers well.
There is no doubt Marsh’s portrayal will infuse new controversy into discussions about Bonhoeffer for years to come.