Volatile and Visionary Desire

The poet, Christian Wiman, has a complex and complelling review in today's Wall Street Journal of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh: Strange Glory. I am not sure if one can get beyond the firewall, so below is a long excerpt.The fascinating rest of the review may be accesed here.

[Bonhoeffer] embodies—and refuses to neutralize—the contradictions that have haunted and halved Christianity for well over a century. The same man who once declared that the church was the only possible answer to human loneliness also suspected that we were entering a stage in which "Christianity will only live in a few people who have nothing to say." The same man who once called marriage "God's holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time" was almost certainly in love with another man—right up to his dying day.

This is where Charles Marsh's book becomes truly beautiful and heartbreaking. Though by all accounts Bonhoeffer projected great strength and cheer even in the direst conditions, "fears of oblivion were a different matter," Mr. Marsh writes; "the worst times were those when the past felt lost forever. 'I want my life,' he had whispered [in a poem] in the dark in the summer of 1944. 'I demand my own life back. My past. You!' "


It takes a moment to realize just how poignant and surprising this longing is. Fear, when you are close to death, can be as much about memory as mortality. The fear is that all the life that has meant so much to you, the life that seemed threaded with gleams of God, in fact meant nothing, is unrecoverable and already part of the oblivion you feel yourself slipping into. Faith, when you are close to death, is a matter of receiving the grace of God's presence, of yielding to an abiding instinct for that atomic and interstellar unity that even the least perception, in even the worst circumstances, can imply. "Lord, that I am a moment of your turnings," as the contemporary poet Julia Randall wrote.


"Strange Glory" is a splendid book. It counters the neutered humanism extracted from Bonhoeffer by secularists who do not want to admit that his bravery and his belief might have been inextricable. It is honest to Bonhoeffer's orthodoxies, which were strict, and distinguishes him from the watery—and thus waning—liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s. And, best of all, Mr. Marsh very properly emphasizes the importance of the volatile, visionary thoughts in the last letters and fragments, which Bonhoeffer himself believed might be his best work.


The multiple Bonhoeffers offered up by competing camps are a chimera. There is only the one man, who was aimed, finally, in one direction. As Charles Marsh (channeling Bonhoeffer) says so eloquently at the very end of his book: "The word of God does not ally itself with the rebellion of mistrust, but reigns in the strangest of glories."

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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