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Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2021.
Overview: Tietz’s new biography of Karl Barth is a detailed and compelling portrait of a life in conflict. The book offers vital insight into the biographical setting for Barth’s theology, but its novel contribution is an extended look into Barth’s home life, particularly his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. As such, it is difficult but necessary reading. Thanks to Tietz, we now have a clearer and more complex portrait of this flawed, passionate, unique, and brilliant man from Basel.
There is much to be thankful for in Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Karl Barth. She does a wonderful job situating his theology in the context of his life, and her chapter-length summary of the “white whale” (Church Dogmatics) was lucid and valuable. Her chapters on Barth’s early years leading up to the epoch-making Der Römerbrief were delightful to read. I was especially thankful for her detailed account of Barth’s political concerns, and I think it will go a long way in demolishing the myth of an apolitical Barth.
The level of scholarly excellence that went into the text is also apparent, but the copious notes (around 300 footnotes per chapter) do not feel overbearing on the text. It reads smoothly but with the kind of clarity that is symptomatic of the best kind of academic work. In other words, the book is highly readable yet very much built on a reliable foundation.
Tietz admits she relied heavily on the work of Eberhard Busch, whose Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts has been the standard biography of Barth. But while much was repeated from that volume, I found Tietz’s to be clearer and more balanced.
But the major contribution of this new biography is the extended focus on Karl Barth’s family life, particularly his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. An entire chapter focuses on their relationship, but it is, in many ways, the primary sub-narrative of the book. Tietz’s approach is notable. She is careful not to present a one-sided interpretation. The feelings of Nelly (Barth’s wife) and Charlotte are frequently considered with as much seriousness as those of Barth himself.
Overall, I found it disturbing to read about. The “affair” has been well-known in Barthian-circles for a long time, so the thing itself was not so much shocking to me as the discovery that it is far more complex than it first seemed from afar. But Tietz takes us in for a close-up. And what we find is something far more complicated and difficult. That is generally the impression I had of the ordeal. While many have tried to paint this in black-and-white, Tietz wonderfully and masterfully lets all the grey complexities stand as is. She does not try to level off the sharp edges of this difficult subject, nor does she try to tidy up the knots.
But Tietz also does not apologize for Barth’s behavior. While she works hard to present the situation clearly, and thus charitably, she also does not try to sweep it under the rug. I frequently felt sorry for Nelly and all that she suffered. But no one involved was without their share of wounds. Tietz does a superb job at presenting all the facts in a balanced and careful manner. She treads lightly and suggest we do the same.
It is likely that this portrait will lead some to disown Barth and reject his theology (as some have already done), but Tietz seems emphatically convinced (as am I) that this ordeal should not mean we no longer read Barth. We are not excused from having to deal with his still-vital theology. She neither moralizes the situation—as some critics have done—nor does she excuse it. It is a tightrope balancing act, and I think Tietz succeeds splendidly.
It is also noteworthy that no real conclusion is made about the matter. The facts are presented, and the reader is left to themselves to contemplate what it means. And I think this is intentional. The Kirschbaum situation is complex and difficult, but ultimately, it is not for us to judge. This affair is really not something any of us are in the position to make conclusions about. Ultimately, it is up to God. We can, of course, be critical of Barth’s choices, and by no means does Tietz let him off the hook, but we are also encouraged to follow her lead and tread carefully. Barth frequently felt that his intentions were being misunderstood, and this same error is repeated today whenever we allow a knee-jerk reaction to be our default. Rushing to judgment about a difficult ordeal is unhelpful. Criticism and sorrow, yes, but not judgment. The last word belongs to God.
Not in spite of all this but because of it, I cannot recommend this book enough. Even though the book is at once disturbing and inspiring, it is also fair and lucid. Human lives are never neat and tidy, and I think the best kind of biography is one that allows life to be life, warts and all. Karl Barth’s life is no different, and throughout this book we are reminded that even the man who wrote such mammoth, beauty volumes is still very much human.
My study of Karl Barth, Karl Barth in Plain English, severely lacked biographical insight. It is something I have regretted about that work, and if I were to re-write it today, I would spend much more time with Barth’s life. But hindsight is always 20-20.
Tietz’s work is diligent and insightful. I suspect her book will become the standard biography of Karl Barth for some time. For students of Barth’s theology, it is indispensable.
I want to thank Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.