Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, sparked quite a bit of discussion when it was released. What many readers might not have realized, however, is that it also led to quite heated debate in scholarly circles related to Bonhoeffer studies. With Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand: A Life Reconsidered, Marsh responds to scholarly critique of his biography, highlights some of the difficulties and joys of writing biographies, and calls readers to push to better understanding of the life and theology of Bonhoeffer.
The book’s short length should not deter readers looking for deep exploration of Bonhoeffer’s life. It’s essentially an extended essay on writing Strange Glory, writing biographies generally, how to evaluate the accuracy and impact of history, and, most extensively, a response to another Bonhoeffer scholar’s persistent critiques of Marsh’s biography. That other scholar is Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, whose own biography of Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance remains a book I recommend to readers as well. But Schlingensiepen took great issue with Marsh’s exploratory directions in the latter’s life of Bonhoeffer, ultimately going a bit off the rails at points, not just criticizing Marsh for the kind of small mistakes all biographers make (eg. geographical, a few temporal, etc.) but also arguing that Marsh’s biography is entirely useless because it doesn’t focus on Schlingensiepen’s own preferred trajectory of reading Bonhoeffer.
Specifically, Schlingensiepen takes a nearly obsessive interest in critiquing Marsh for not focusing on minutiae of the church struggle in Germany and upbraids him for not following Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer more closely. Marsh, in turn, notes the errors with such a critique, both for pigeonholing Bonhoeffer’s own life into less impactful and radical than it was and in failing to allow for new avenues of research into Bonhoeffer. It appears that, for Schlingensiepen, the Confessing Church must be entirely without error, while narratives of Bonhoeffer’s life must never depart from prior research.
Marsh effectively answers Schlingensiepen’s critiques time and again, all while pushing for a resistance to a kind of “Bonhoeffer Brand” that would limit exploration of his life and theology to only that which is approved or has been done before.
Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand is a book I would consider essential reading for those interested in studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It also is a great look at the challenges and delights of writing biographies more generally. Highly recommended.
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Good summer reading. If only we had more Pastors like Bonhoeffer at churches. Amazing man