At the beginning of this summer, while on a trip out west, I started and finished Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’d been a while since I’d truly been hooked by a book, but the combination of Marsch’s readable prose and lots of free time proved for a riveting weekend of reading. I’d heard a lot of good things about the book — from Wesley Hill’s review in Books & Culture, Alan Jacobs’s recommendation, and the Christianity Today’s Biography of 2015 Award — and the praise is merited. I’ll offer just a few reflections on what I think makes the book distinctive.
Marsch’s biography is meticulously researched — the degree of detail is truly extraordinary; a result of years spent in Germany, and access to sources other biographers of Bonhoeffer never had. But what is most remarkable is how seamlessly Marsh interweaves anecdotes and historical background, diary entries and selections from Bonhoeffer’s published work to create a biography that breathes. A unified narrative voice speaks throughout, linking the disparate pieces of Bonhoeffer’s life and times. The voice he offers is also judicious: Marsh does not refrain from making judgments, yet he does so without being intrusive; he is candid about sensitive topics without being sensationalist.
Bonhoeffer was, of course, a man of unusual charisma, conviction and courage. Ultimately he was killed by the Nazis because he believed being a disciple of Christ meant acting contrary to the authorities of the age. Marsch’s fascination and admiration for Bonhoeffer are clear, and inspire the same qualities in the reader. But his prose never succumbs to facile adulation: his portrait is appropriately sympathetic. In a recent piece in First Things, Carl Trueman argues that American evangelicals have anachronistically grafted Dietrich Bonhoeffer into evangelical history. But Marsch steers clear of this temptation: the Bonhoeffer rendered is distinctly German and Lutheran. His theological convictions change over the course of his life, and are rarely as self-assured as those ready to co-opt Bonhoeffer for their own kulturkampf.
On a more personal note, this book was revitalizing. As I read Marsch’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life, I was struck by just how richly variegated it was. I had never heard about Bonhoeffer’s time as a junior pastor in Spain, or much detail about his travels in the United States. At the level of a day or a week, life is rarely exciting, but speeding through the story of a extraordinary man, my life seemed full of possibilities. And this, I think, is precisely what a biography should do: turn us from the contemplation of another’s life to a richer understanding of our own.