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Darren H

Christian Wiman

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I wrote a short piece about his craft—specifically, how he uses quotations and excerpts from other writers—because SPU's MFA students write studies of some aspect of craft for every writer they read. But I can't imagine finding the time or energy to write in-depth about the book just yet. I have a Mount Everest of writing assignments that will keep me busy for the next two years. Whatever I have left will go to keeping my film blogging alive.

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In case you missed it, Wiman recently wrote a thoughtful & questioning book review of Charles Marsh's rather startling biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

 

When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist badlands of far West Texas in the 1980s, the only serious theologian I ever heard a word about was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was odd in one sense. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran, and his theology was stringent, complex and fraught with a kind of vital void, a meaning in meaninglessness that Christians were just beginning to piece together from the shards of modernism and its tidal violence. By contrast, the sermons I heard in Texas tended toward fire-eyed warnings of the Rapture or clear-cut moral imperatives about fornication (bad) or football (good).

 

In another sense, though, the reference was apt, for Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was Christocentric to a secularly alarming degree, and so were we. He believed that God's remoteness was woven into the flesh and blood of living existence and that, moreover, "we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth." For Bonhoeffer, the church must penetrate every aspect of the lives of its parishioners; either it acknowledges and answers intractable human suffering and from that suffering wrings a strain of real joy and hope, or it is simply an easy extension of secularism and thus an abomination. That image of the upright, uptight, Yankee Episcopalian sitting rigid in his pew—God's frozen people and all that—well, let's just say that occasionally Bonhoeffer provided our more apocalyptic preachers with some potent rhetorical ammunition ...

 

It's inspiring to almost feel Bonhoeffer slipping verses or notes of comfort into the sweaty hands of fellow prisoners either coming or going from torture. Mr. Marsh is so good at these scenes, so deeply embedded within them, that you almost miss when the bombshell drops.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay.

 

Well, no, that's not what Mr. Marsh says, not outright. What he says is that for a number of years Bonhoeffer and Bethge, who had been teacher and student, lived very much like a couple: sharing a bank account, giving gifts under both of their names, traveling together, sleeping by warm fires, and rapturously reading books and playing the piano madly at all hours. Their intimacy was that of lovers, not friends.

 

There is no question of consummation, nor even the suggestion that Bonhoeffer ever actively sought it. "Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love," writes Mr. Marsh, "one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations." ...

 

There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh's claim. For some, it will be more damning to Bonhoeffer's memory than any anti-Semitic aside that Martin Luther made half a millennium ago. I suspect that's precisely why Mr. Marsh has written his book with such subtlety and circumspection: He didn't want this story to be the story. He may be in for quite a shock.

 

As for myself, I feel both grateful for and pained by the revelation. Mr. Marsh's evidence does seem compelling—though I think he may underestimate the feelings Bonhoeffer developed for his fiancée. I am grateful because the research casts a different, more introspective light on some of Bonhoeffer's ideas and inclinations (his extreme need for a community that was bound together both physically and spiritually, for example). I am pained for the same reason: The discovery reveals the rift of emptiness, of unanswered longing, that ran right through Bonhoeffer and every word he wrote ...

_____________________________

 

It's something of a tiresome fad for biographers to claim that famous historical characters (even famous Christians) were gay.  But then I can also acknowledge that, during ages when those who were gay suppressed and repressed their inclinations (whether we think rightly or wrongly), there probably are gay historical characters who we didn't know were gay.  But I suppose I should probably have no opinion on this until I've read the biography.

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It's something of a tiresome fad for biographers to claim that famous historical characters (even famous Christians) were gay.  But then I can also acknowledge that, during ages when those who were gay suppressed and repressed their inclinations (whether we think rightly or wrongly), there probably are gay historical characters who we didn't know were gay.

 

The same applies for, say, Aspergers (though it's technically off the DSM). Purves, in your experience, can you think of any critics or biographers who do these types of claims too often? They're an irritation that I find worth analyzing.

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Purves, in your experience, can you think of any critics or biographers who do these types of claims too often?

I've never bothered to make anything like a list, but C.A. Tripp and David Halperin are two who immediately come to mind. They both seem to rather careless about making purely speculative and unsubstantiated claims.

On an unrelated note, it looks like there is another good reason to look forward to September.

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Ron Charles:

 

How to give your memoir real bite

 

The new issue of the American Scholar scratches open my sore feelings about Christian Wiman not winning the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry earlier this month. Hearing him read from “Once in the West” the night before the ceremony confirmed my admiration for his captivating verse.

 

The former editor of Poetry magazine, he’s just as insightful, startling and demanding in prose. His new essay, “Kill the Creature,” in the spring issue of the American Scholar, is a virtuoso performance of memoir, literary criticism and spiritual reflection all wrapped around snakes — the narrow fellows in the grass he has occasionally spotted, dodged, killed and even eaten.

 

A few paragraphs follow, although the linked article is locked after the first couple of paragraphs.

Edited by Christian

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