Charles Marsh responds to Eric Metaxas

Jon Ward
Jon Ward
Feb 27, 2018 · 8 min read

In my e-mail correspondence with Eric Metaxas, for a profile I wrote of the evangelical author and public figure, Metaxas dismissed criticism of his 2010 book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer by, among others, University of Virginia professor Charles Marsh. Marsh, who directs the Project on Lived Theology at UVA, and who wrote a 2014 biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, responded to Metaxas’ comments in an e-mail. His response is below:

A brief response to Eric Metaxas and his quest for the manly evangelical

Charles Marsh

In his 5500-word email response to Jon Ward’s queries, Eric Metaxas addressed the question of how he might respond to the criticisms in my article, “Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer Delusions”, which appeared in the fall of 2016 in Religion and Politics. Metaxas said he was unaware of the piece, but that my biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, 2014), he considered “lamentable”, “intellectually hideous”, ‘shockingly — and unintentionally hilarious”.

Metaxas is aghast that I broached the subject of Bonhoeffer’s sexual orientation, but Bonhoeffer’s sexuality has long been discussed by scholars and translators, students and former associates. Metaxas would know this if he had even once attended a meeting of the International Bonhoeffer Society or joined any of the numerous symposia and seminars convened each year.

Three decades after Bonhoeffer’s death, the question of his sexual orientation was posed to Bethge at an academic gathering; and he answered it without any sign of defensiveness. Bethge said he could not say for sure, that while their relationship had not been sexual, he understood why people might ask such questions. Their complete correspondence had not yet been published, although Bethge had made the letters available to the editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke and anticipated closer scrutiny of their seven-year friendship. You can read my account in chapter 12, “Christmas amid the Ruins,” in the biography.

Metaxas says my portrayal turns Bonhoeffer into “a lavender swell mincing and vogue-ing his way through the corridors of the Third Reich”; “swanning down the Champs Ellysses in shimmering golden underwear”; “gayer-by-a-yard-of-tulle than Charles Nelson Reilly and Charles Busch”.

Some striking images are conjured here, worthy of further analysis; but you will not find Bonhoeffer swanning, vogue-ing, or mincing, down the Champ Ellysses, or anywhere, in Strange Glory.

The story of the “golden briefs” marks instead a turning point in Bonhoeffer’s late thought. On a trip to Switzerland, he had shopped for silk underwear in a Geneva haberdashery. Later he allowed to his friend Eberhard how nice it would be to stroll along the Promenade de Luc in nothing but the golden briefs. A playful exchange between spiritual intimates; but Bonhoeffer had also begun moving to a place beyond spiritual ardor, where life in Christ felt suddenly charged with longing for the things of this world, in a contrapuntal dance with the things of the next.

On a hot summer afternoon in 1944, Bonhoeffer sat in his prison cell in Berlin wearing a pair of gym shorts and a dress shirt that he had bought for Eberhard in Sweden. Bonhoeffer was spending another day mulling over his “non-religious interpretation” of the Bible, but the “concrete bodily experience of heat” proved overpowering, and he paused to write to his friend. The heat had awakened his “animal existence,” “his corporeal being,” with a singular urgency — “not just to see the sun and sip at it a little, but to experience it bodily.” He longed “to feel again the potencies of the sun,” he said; and as his memory moved over summers past, including his first trip to Italy with Ebehard in 1936, he made a pitch for “strong sins” and “sins of strength” — sins dared for the sake of the other, for the purpose of “nurturing intimacy with others.” Bonhoeffer happily bade farewell to a caution mistaken for sanctity and conversely the “perverse satisfaction in knowing that every person has failings and weak spots.”

My challenge was to understand Bonhoeffer’s character in its singular complexity and strange glory, and with regard to his soulmate Eberhard, to portray that seven-year partnership friendship as a natural unfolding of affection and longing, even if that approach risked seeming at times maddeningly coy. Cleaving to published writings and archives, my personal creative designs, if you will, were at times foiled by the historical record — as when for example, I came upon a line written in Ettal Monastery, where Bonhoeffer says he did not receive the Eucharist in the Roman Mass in the Benedictine chapel. I wanted very much to show him receiving the host; the monks had treated him like a brother, and such dramatic ecumenism would have fit nicely in the events of 1940–1941 as I narrated them; but the evidence proved otherwise.

Metaxas calls my effort a “lode of queering”. I presume he means by this an act of interpretive violence; an outing. But in his biography of Bonhoeffer, Metaxas altogether ignored the lengthy correspondence between Dietrich and Eberhard from the years 1937 until 1942. In fact, the letters constitute a moving testament to Bonhoeffer’s hope that he and Eberhard might be bound in spiritual partnership until that day when they would “worship together for eternity”.

Bonhoeffer faced death as he had lived, with strength nourished from “a higher satisfaction” –and he died a virgin. “I’ve already seen and experienced more of life than you have,” he wrote to a recently betrothed Eberhard, “except for one crucial experience that you have, which I still lack — but perhaps that’s precisely why I have already had more of ‘my fill of life’ than you as yet.”

Metaxas strains for a muscular, manly Bonhoeffer, calling him “one of the … genuinely manliest Christians of the last century” — without the slightest concern for how the Nazi Church used precisely this term to promote a masculine ideal worthy of the Führer. It is this kind of obliviousness that enables Metaxas to glide over complexity and attribute to Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church more broadly any a number of American evangelical platitudes — and that calls to mind Fritz Stern’s remark that Metaxas’s biography demonstrates an “amazing ignorance of the German language, German history, and German theology.”[1]

The “German Christians,” the majority membership of the Lutheran Church after 1933, claimed that that God had chosen the German people to be his new holy race and thus abrogated Israel’s covenant. The Nazi Christians wanted above all a manly church — eine männliche Kirche — unified by the Teutonic ideals of racial purity, military prowess and national destiny. A suffering, compassionate effeminate Christian offended the Nazi mind. For “in a manly time of struggle,” exclaimed one Nazi pastor at a Frankfurt rally, “one cannot get by with effeminate and sweet talk of peace.”

The pursuit of a muscular Christ meant eradicating every aspect of Jewishness from the Christian religion, because Judaism itself was assumed, by Nazi theologians, to be the quintessence of feminine and weak. And masculinity likewise enabled the soldierly aspirations of the Holy Reich: if it was “manly to fight ruthlessly, to exhibit hardness and heroism, to follow orders with discipline and enthusiasm,” German Christians should seek nothing less than to rule as storm troopers of the church. “Men too old or too young to be soldiers, homosexuals, and men unwilling or unable to fight did not fit the bill.”[2] The Reich Office of Home Missions produced an adult education series called “Grace and Manliness”.[3]

Against the Reich Church vulgarians and their boast that Christ represents “the embodiment of all manliness,” Bonhoeffer was drawn to the Christ who sojourns in the world as a beggar among beggars, in places of exclusion and distress, in such a way as to conceal himself in weakness, not to be known. . . . incognito, as a beggar among beggars, an outcast among the outcast…a sinner among sinners.”[4]

Certainly Metaxas’s vehement refusal to consider Bonhoeffer’s ambiguous sexuality — and his need to place Bonhoeffer in the pantheon of manly evangelicals — reflects Metaxas’s own preferred gender norms. But more unfortunate is that in refusing to acknowledge Bonhoeffer’s polyvalent identity, Metaxas cannot see that the shape of Bonhoeffer’s sensibilities and desires subverted the Nazi ideals of masculine religiosity. Not only the shape of his sensibilities and desires, but more importantly the qualities and practices of vulnerability, suffering, listening, compassion, marginality, private and intercessory prayer, central to his Bonhoeffer’s Christology and his own exuberant witness — all formed an lived critique of Nazi ideology and Nazi theology.

What would you call the opposite of “queering”? I have an idea. The Nazis saw homosexuality as a perversion of the natural order, “alien to the species,” and a threat to German society and National Socialist population policy goals (Flossenbürg, Permanent Catalogue , 299). Some Nazi doctors likened homosexuals to the Jews: they both build a “state within a state” that is “weak and deceitful”, “servile yet power hungry”. Neither are homosexuals and Jews “poor, sick people to be treated”. They are “enemies of the state to be eliminated.”[5]

According to the most sources, between 5,000–15,000 homosexual men were sent to concentration camps, and many fell victim there to sterilization and castration.[6] “Another estimated 35,000 men spent time in regular prisons” (Holocaust Museum, 4). “The Gestapo compiled the names of over 100,000 German and Austrian men in so-called pink lists.” (PC, 299)

But you will not find in Metaxas any mention of the fact that the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, where Bonhoeffer was held the night before his execution, housed a division of the Pink Triangle; and that over 300 homosexuals were interned there under Paragraph 175 of the Reich Criminal Code. Seventy-nine gay men are known to have died in Flossenbürg, according to the Catalogue of the Permament Exhibition. Among the survivors was the Vienna-born Josef Kohout, whose 1972 book, The Men with the Pink Triangle (written under the pseudonym Heinz Heger) “became a symbol in the struggle to gain recognition for the persecution of homosexuals under the National Socialist regime.”

Metaxas, who intones frequently against the “LGBT Movement”, no doubt understood the confusion such a mention might cause among values voters and his Salem Radio demographic. What do you call the opposite of “queering?” You call it a marketing strategy for conservative evangelicals.

[1] Stern, Fritz. No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York Review Books Collections) (p. 147). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Bergen, 63.

[3] Bergen, 65, 1. She notes how the Confessing Church, however, was not immune to this masculine temptation. It also concerned itself with a manly image (81), decrying the absence of men from churches and focusing on efforts on cultivating men’s groups in churches, promoting family devotionals, and encouraging church attendance (72).

[4] Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), 18; quoting Dietrich Eckhard, a ‘theological’ mentor of Hitler’s.

[5] Cited in Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, p. 213.

[6] Permanent catalog, p. 299.

Jon Ward

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Jon Ward