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A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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On Sale: April 29, 2014
Pages: 528 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35169-0
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the decades since his execution by the Nazis in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Hitler conspirator, has become one of the most widely read and inspiring Christian thinkers of our time. Now, drawing on extensive new research, Strange Glory offers a definitive account, by turns majestic and intimate, of this modern icon.

The scion of a grand family that rarely went to church, Dietrich decided as a thirteen-year-old to become a theologian. By twenty-one, the rather snobbish and awkward young man had already written a dissertation hailed by Karl Barth as a “theological miracle.” But it was only the first step in a lifelong effort to recover an authentic and orthodox Christianity from the dilutions of liberal Protestantism and the modern idolatries of blood and nation—which forces had left the German church completely helpless against the onslaught of Nazism.

From the start, Bonhoeffer insisted that the essence of Christianity was not its abstract precepts but the concrete reality of the shared life in Christ. In 1930, his search for that true fellowship led Bonhoeffer to America for ten fateful months in the company of social reformers, Harlem churchmen, and public intellectuals. Energized by the lived faith he had seen, he would now begin to make what he later saw as his definitive “turn from the phraseological to the real.” He went home with renewed vocation and took up ministry among Berlin’s downtrodden while trying to find his place in the hoary academic establishment increasingly captive to nationalist fervor.

With the rise of Hitler, however, Bonhoeffer’s journey took yet another turn. The German church was Nazified, along with every other state-sponsored institution. But it was the Nuremberg laws that set Bonhoeffer’s earthly life on an ineluctable path toward destruction. His denunciation of the race statutes as heresy and his insistence on the church’s moral obligation to defend all victims of state violence, regardless of race or religion, alienated him from what would become the Reich church and even some fellow resistors. Soon the twenty-seven-year-old pastor was one of the most conspicuous dissidents in Germany. He would carry on subverting the regime and bearing Christian witness, whether in the pastorate he assumed in London, the Pomeranian monastery he established to train dissenting ministers, or in the worldwide ecumenical movement. Increasingly, though, Bonhoeffer would find himself a voice crying in the wilderness, until, finally, he understood that true moral responsibility obliged him to commit treason, for which he would pay with his life. 

Charles Marsh brings Bonhoeffer to life in his full complexity for the first time. With a keen understanding of the multifaceted writings, often misunderstood, as well as the imperfect man behind the saintly image, here is a nuanced, exhilarating, and often heartrending portrait that lays bare Bonhoeffer’s flaws and inner torment, as well as the friendships and the faith that sustained and finally redeemed him. Strange Glory is a momentous achievement.

Excerpt

chapter one

1906–­1923

Eternity’s Child

When he was a young child, and his family rented a sprawling villa near the university clinics in Breslau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister, Sabine, lay awake at night trying to imagine eternity. The ritual eventually became a game, with each child concentrating on the word to clear the mind of distractions. And on funeral days, as horse-­drawn hearses approached the cemetery that lay just to the north, the twins would watch from their bedroom window.

Eternity. Ewigkeit.

Sabine found the word “very long and gruesome.” Dietrich found it majestic: an “awesome word,” he called it.

Sometimes he would picture himself on his deathbed, surrounded by family and friends, reclining on the threshold of heaven. He knew what his last words would be and sometimes rehearsed them aloud, though he dared not reveal them to anyone.He hoped to welcome death as an expected guest—­he did not want to be taken by surprise. But, sometimes, when he went to bed convinced that death would come that very night, he would grow light-­headed, and the walls of his bedroom would reel about, as if he were at the axis of a carousel. He imagined himself rushing from sister to brother, from father to mother, pleading for help. The prospect of its happening now—­of his vanishing tonight into the vast mysterium—felt so real he had to bite his tongue to reassure himself that he was still among the living. That he could feel mortal pain. At such moments, he worried that he suffered from an “incurable fear.”

When the twins got separate bedrooms they devised a code for keeping up their metaphysical games. Dietrich would drum lightly on the wall with his fingers, an “admonitory knock” announcing that it was time once again to ponder eternity. A further tap signaled a new reflection on the solemn theme, and so it went, back and forth, until one of them discerned the final silence—usually it was Dietrich. And with the game concluded, he lay awake, the only light in his room coming from a pair of candle-­lit crosses his mother had placed atop a corner table. “When at night I go to bed, fourteen angels round my stead,” he would hear her sing. He liked the idea very much: one angel “dressed in a little white cloak,” standing by his bed, and others watching over children everywhere.

Dietrich believed the nightly ritual spared him from “being devoured by Satan,” Sabine later wrote, though there are few references to Satan in her brother’s adult writings, early or late. Ultimately, death would enthrall more than it frightened, and the devil would frighten him hardly at all. “God does not want human beings to be afraid,” he would one day preach to the congregation in a posh London suburb. God’s only desire is that people “reach out ‘passionately’ and ‘hungrily’ for mercy and love and . . . grace.”

Unlike most Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not the child of a minister. The sixth of eight children (his twin being the seventh), he was born on February 4, 1906, in Breslau, into a family of prodigiously talented humanists, who preferred spending religious holidays in the festive company of relatives and friends rather than in church. “Popguns, soldiers!” he wrote in his first letter to Father Christmas. Over the years he would ask for musical instruments, suits of clothes, fur hats, shirts and ties, trips abroad, shoes for every occasion, and the works of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. His wishes were most often granted.

The family lived at 9 Birkenwäldchen Strasse in the affluent Breslau suburb of Scheitnig. Across the street a narrow park traced the bend in the Alte Oder River south beyond the Dombrücke to the city zoo and Bishop’s Forests; to the north, a path cut through dense pine woods to the cemetery and to the psychiatry and nerve clinic, where Dietrich’s father worked. Sabine recalled a summer afternoon when her twin brother disappeared after the call to dinner. It was during a heat wave in lower Silesia. Dietrich, tanned and sporting “a shock of flaxen hair,” had been larking about in the backyard hoping to ward off the midges. Finally, he took shelter in a garden niche deep in the overgrown field between the rose arbor and the edge of the property. As his nursemaid stood on the veranda, repeating the dinner call, Dietrich paid no mind. Heedless of the heat and the fading light, he was content in the solitude of his secret place in the summer garden.

With its thick walls, narrow windows, and piercing spires, the house stood on the eastern bank of the Alte Oder, off a cobblestone street abutting another narrow wood. Arches and corbels enlivened the brickwork, and touches of Gothic-­Baroque appeared in the finials, overhangs, and trussing. A hipped roof and screened-­in porch entry, with deep eaves and dormer and eyebrow windows, gave the impression of a Low German farmhouse extending whimsically in every direction.

But for the rose arbor and a small vegetable garden, both carefully tended, the backyard was left to grow wild, according to fashion. Hens and roosters skittered about the yard and across the aging tennis court. Goats and sheep roamed freely in and out of the stables and even into the house when the doors were left open. Dietrich’s mother kept a children’s zoo with “rabbits, guinea pigs, turtledoves, and squirrels,” a terrarium with lizards, and snakes, and “collections of birds’ eggs and mounted beetles and butterflies.” In the shade of a linden tree, Dietrich’s father and older brothers built a tree house on dark piers, a latticework affair with a small stage for skits. One summer, Dietrich helped those same older siblings dig an underground passageway from the arbor to a boulder. Beyond the family’s three acres lay what the neighborhood children called “the wilderness.” There the land rolled softy toward the river and into a bog where they collected algae, worms, lizards, and bullfrogs for their terrariums and things to inspect under their microscopes.

Word that the family was moving to Berlin, more than three hundred kilometers from Breslau, came as a surprise to the children and elicited grumbling in the ranks. In 1912, the year Dietrich turned six, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer was offered the chair of neurology and psychology at Friedrich-­Wilhelms-­University in Berlin, a prestigious post overseeing the clinic for nervous and psychiatric disorders. At Breslau, which had numbered Max Born, Erwin Schrödinger, Fritz Haber, and Otto Stern among its many Nobel laureates, his position had been more than respectable. But Berlin offered greater prominence for Karl’s clinical studies—­along with a better salary and “more possibilities” for the children’s development. And the metropolis of two million held great potential for cases of hysterics and addiction to study.

At first, the family rented a place on the Brückenallee, a street that no longer exists, near the Tiergarten, the former royal hunting estate that had become a public park, where Dietrich and Sabine might see the kaiser’s children also at play. Four years later, Dr. Bonhoeffer purchased a three-­story Gründerzeit-­Villa in Grunewald. The suburb had been the brainchild of Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German empire, who set aside a large parcel of pristine forest to be developed as a residential district. A colony of grand country houses in a variety of architectural styles, Grunewald, or “green forest,” was the ideal rus in urbe, offering rural atmosphere within reach of urban amenities, while keeping the city’s grittier aspects at bay. Scientists, statesmen, and scholars, filmmakers and movie stars, financiers and industrialists, all promenaded along the same leafy boulevards and mingled together at neighborhood soirées. In the summer, canopies of linden and birch shaded the paved streets, and the woodlands to the south seemed to entwine the neighborhood’s generously proportioned blocks. The writer Christopher Isherwood, who in the 1920s rented a flat in a noisy working-­class urban district, called Grunewald a “millionaire’s slum.”

The Bonhoeffers warmed to their new home at 14 Wangenheimstrasse. Though smaller than their rented Breslau villa, the house was elegant and lean, built in the style of a classic German country home, with a hip, shingled roof, a bow front dormer, and a clinker brick face on the basement socle. There was also a deep yard, a large veranda facing the garden, and an office suite for Dr. Bonhoeffer’s home clinic. On mild days, music drifting through the open windows could be heard in the garden of primroses and young bracken. “An unobtrusive wealth and an uninhibited taste for pleasure and comfort,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his unfinished autobiographical novel. “It wasn’t so much the importance of the individual object that pleased the eye and warmed the heart as the solicitous care given to the whole.”

Inside, the plain cedar floors, crafted to the highest German standards, were well worn. A “thick, plaited mat covered the parquet floor” in the front hall, there being no need, as the lady of the house, Paula Bonhoeffer, saw it, for children “to run across Persian rugs before they knew how to keep their shoes clean.” The appointments were simple and sturdy throughout, made to last of top-­quality wood and fittings. Beyond the foyer was an enormous living room (twenty meters wide, twenty-­five meters deep) that the Bonhoeffer family called simply das Zimmer, “the room,” or, if necessary, das grosse Zimmer, “the big room,” but never der Salon, the “parlor,” which to Paula’s ear sounded pretentious. A massive dining table, the wood engraved on all sides, could comfortably seat a dozen in chairs of dark Bavarian timber. On the sideboard, Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer, the children’s grandmother, who lived in Tübingen until moving to Berlin with her housekeeper in 1925, kept an antique silver box from which she occasionally drew pieces of chocolate to treat the little ones.

Family portraits and austere landscapes, many now hanging in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek or in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, graced the spacious rooms downstairs. Some of the paintings were by Franz von Lenbach, the brothers Achenbach, and Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, but most were the work of Dietrich’s great-­uncle, Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth, and his father, Stanislaus Graf von Kalckreuth. Of them all, Dietrich best liked the portrait of his great-­grandfather August von Hase, over a corner sofa. In the painting, the aging provost, for decades a distinguished professor of church at Jena, kneels before a crucifix, holding an empty hourglass.

With the help of a small army of servants—­chambermaids, housekeepers, a cook and a gardener, a governess for each of the older children, a nurse for the small ones—­Paula was praised for keeping a well-­tuned, comfortable, and stimulating home. After the move to Berlin a receptionist for Dr. Bonhoeffer’s private clinic, housed in two side rooms off the main floor, was also hired, as well as a chauffeur.

The earliest German descendants of the Dutch clan van den Boenhoff left Nijmegen in 1513, settling in Schwäbisch Hall as goldsmiths, aldermen, and landowners. On the family seal a lion clutches some beans, against a blue field. Roughly translated, “Boenhoff” means “beanfield.” But by the nineteenth century, the family had achieved prominence in law, medicine, and the Lutheran Church.

Karl Bonhoeffer was the son of Judge Friedrich Ernst Philipp Tobias Bonhoeffer, a lawyer who served most of his life as president of the provincial court in Ulm. A contrary and emotionally distant man, he was a “firm enemy of everything faddish and unnatural.” He abhorred buses and trains, remaining convinced that any journey of less than sixty kilometers was better undertaken on foot, when all the transfers and inevitable delays were factored in. This meant that, for holiday visits, Karl and his siblings would have to walk the forty kilometers from Tübingen to their grandparents’ home in Stuttgart. Each spring the judge trekked alone through the Swabian Alps with a burlap bag of radish seeds, which he scattered Johnny Appleseed style, returning in the autumn to collect the harvest.

Karl Bonhoeffer inherited his father’s exactitude and his aloofness, though not, it appears, his short temper. Outwardly gentler than the judge, Karl nevertheless demanded as much of his children as of himself. This was especially so of the way the children formulated their thoughts and expressed themselves. He expected precise and measured judgments, brooking no “spontaneous utterances” or banter in his home. Any child with something to say in the presence of adults had better choose his words carefully. Not that Karl was uninterested in his children’s opinions; rather, he took pleasure in clarity of argument. A word spoken in haste or a half-­baked thought made him visibly unhappy. He could bring a child to attention by asking, “Was sagst du?”—­“What are you saying?” He may never have raised his voice, but he rarely embraced or kissed his children.

Karl subscribed to an enlightened skepticism toward the miraculous and the supernatural, toward any belief that contradicted the laws of reason. He accepted his wife’s instructing the children in religion only in measured doses, and so long as it served a useful purpose. Nearly two decades of clinical work in empirical psychiatry and neurology had inclined him to think of religion as a tool that might sometimes help people order their lives and ward off chaos—­although he felt there were better alternatives. He chose not to accompany his wife and younger children to the Lutheran Church of Grunewald they attended now and then, and he steered clear of the Sunday-­afternoon social hours that Paula convened over coffee and cake, with hymns sung around the piano. The twins’ religious formation was of more importance to their mother than that of the older children, perhaps because of her awareness of the boy’s spiritual predilections. Karl Bonhoeffer did not oppose baptisms and confirmations—­if they included a celebration in a spring garden, he rather enjoyed them—­but he preferred to keep the Sabbath in his own way. It was his custom, after the evening meal, to gather the family in the library and read aloud stories, poems, and letters. Theodor Fontane and Friedrich Schiller were his favorites, though he also read from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse, and Fritz Reuter, the popular nineteenth-­century chronicler of rural life. This was much more intellectually satisfying than religion, or psychoanalysis, which he criticized forthrightly for encouraging the same sort of meandering speech and speculative indulgences he found so insufferable. “I understand nothing of that,” he once said with a sigh after his wife had read the Advent story from the Gospel of Luke. He was only too happy to delegate stories of angels and virgin births to her capable care.

Paula Bonhoeffer was the daughter of Karl Alfred von Hase and Clara Gräfin von Hase, née Countess Kalckreuth. Karl Alfred had been chaplain to the emperor at the Potsdam Garrison Church, and his father, the aforementioned nineteenth-­century church historian of some distinction. Paula’s blue eyes, blond hair, and open, confident face set a striking contrast to her husband’s pursed lips and melancholy eyes.
Charles Marsh|Author Q&A

About Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh - Strange Glory

Photo © Gudrun Senger

Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Project on Lived Theology. He is the author of seven previous books, including God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Of Marsh’s earlier volumes Reclaiming Bonhoeffer, the late Eberhand Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and first biographer, wrote: “This book is a theological sensation—an exciting event. Nobody who attempts to define Bonhoeffer’s legacy today will able to ignore Marsh’s book.”Marsh was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 and the 2010 Ellen Maria Gorrissen Berlin Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Author Q&A

Q:  There have been several biographies of Bonhoeffer, including the first by his friend and student Eberhard Bethge and one more recently by the journalist Eric Metaxas. What made you feel the need to spend so many years to produce a new one? What sets this biography apart from the others?

A:  I’m pleased that Eric Metaxas has inspired such a spirited and intense conversation on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell the story afresh, as that of a deeply human figure and not merely just a saintly one, and to do so relying primarily on new archival discoveries, as well as interviews and primary documents.  In fact, while I was working on my “Strange Glory”, I took all the Bonhoeffer biographies in my library and hid them in the basement. I did this so I could re-imagine the narrative arc, which was my main concern.  The arc, the plot and the cast of characters in Metaxas’s biography all rely on Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial 1969 landmark biography.  And this has been the case with all other Bonhoeffer biographies.  I felt it was time to wrestle Bonhoeffer free of his best friend’s protective grasp, to re-examine all his relationships and his actions.

My colleague Victoria Barnett, who is the director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the U. S. Holocaust Museum in Washington and General Editor of the 16-volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, said to me many years ago: “I’ve read every word Bonhoeffer has written.  I’ve translated thousands pages of his works.  But I still don’t really know who he is.”  I’ve tried to get at this elusive mystery of character.


Q:  In recent years political partisans have tried to claim Bonhoeffer for their own causes.  What do you make of that?

A:  The attempt to squeeze Bonhoeffer into our ideological box of choice does a grave disservice to his legacy.  Bonhoeffer’s life and thought exhibit above all an uncommon generosity and openness to the world.  His more popular works make biblical faith intelligible to believers and nonbelievers alike—The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, books written amidst the chaos and fury of the Kirchenkampf—and do so without reducing complex ideas to clichés or pious talking points.  No other Christian thinker crosses quite so many boundaries while yet remaining exuberantly—and one must always add—generously Christian.  This is why his has story has attracted both liberals and evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, church-goers and secularists alike. What all admire is Bonhoeffer’s indisputably authentic witness. But it’s human nature to imagine that someone we admire but see everything just as we do, and that has certainly happened with Bonhoeffer.


Q:  You were given unprecedented access to Bonhoeffer’s papers to research this book. What were the most interesting revelations to come from these new documents? Did they help you understand Bonhoeffer in any unexpected ways?

A:  I began working on “Strange Glory” in the spring semester of 2007, when I served as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Visiting Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.  It was an exalted sounding post that came without a salary, housing, travel allowance or access to a printer. But I did have a cozy office on Burgstrasse just across the River Spree from the Berliner Dom. Soon enough I made my first trip to the Staatsbibliothek, the capacious city library designed by Hans Scharoun near the Postdamer Platz, and there, with the kindly assistance of the director of special collections, gained access to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer archives.

This collection, which had been recently obtained from the estate of Bonhoeffer’s biographer and dearest friend Eberhard Bethge, filled more than twenty-five cases and included lectures, letters, books, photographs, notebooks, and journals; and while many of the documents appeared in the sixteen volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the singularities of Bonhoeffer’s life, the evidence of which I held in my hands—his registration papers for a new Audi convertible, a bank slip from the joint account he shared with Eberhard, numerous files of magazine articles and pamphlets on the American Negro and race relations in the U.S, inventories of his wardrobe and library, landscape photographs he took in North Africa, a postcard from Waco, Texas, a brief correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi—all of this illuminated an intriguingly different image than the one I had carried with me since writing a doctoral dissertation on his philosophical thought 25 years earlier.  I felt the gentle nudge into biography.


Q:  In 1934, Bonhoeffer called himself a pacifist.  But by 1940, he had joined the conspiracy against Hitler and conferring God’s blessings on tyrannicide.   What changed his mind?

A:  His brother in law, the conspirator Hans von Dohnanyi, used his position at the Ministry of Justice to obtain the Nazi confidential records and compile a “Chronicle of Shame,” a day-by-day listing of war crimes, military plans, and genocidal actions and policies, the full realization of which made clear to Bonhoeffer that his theological commitment to pacifism was outweighed by the greater responsibility to “kill the madman” Hitler.  Still, he understood the gravity of taking a life, even that of a brutal tyrant.  It was a “sin and sin boldly” proposition, risked in fear and trembling, and in hope of forgiveness.


Q:  How did your interest in the history of the civil rights movement dovetail with your interest in a German theologian? Bonhoeffer in fact visited America in the 1930’s — can you describe what effect that had on him?

A:  This was particularly transformative period for Bonhoeffer, this year as a visiting student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  When he arrived in Manhattan he was a straight-arrow academically ambitious twenty-four year old assistant professor with two doctoral dissertations under his belt. The trip was really a lark for him, something to pass his time. But when he left New York ten months later, he possessed a bold new understanding of his vocation as pastor and theologian.  “It was the problem of concreteness that concerns me now,” he wrote.  What happened?

In America he journeyed into new regions of experience: into the tenement buildings of New York, into the Harlem Renaissance, into the Deep South weeks after the Scottsboro Boys went to trial, and into a six month immersion in the black church.  He engaged the National Women’s Trade Union League and the Workers Education Bureau of America; wrote notes on the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime, and the social mission of the churches.  He met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s premier defender of civil liberties which after its founding in 1920 had focused heavily on the rights of conscientious objectors and on the protection of resident aliens from deportation.  And in the spring of 1931, he and a graduate student from Calais, France–who would later take part in the French Resistance –took a road trip together that carried them through the heart of Jim Crow South.  In these unfamiliar regions, among a nearly forgotten generation of American radicals and reformers, he found the courage reexamine every aspect of his vocation as theologian and pastor and to embark upon what he would call “the turning from the phraseological to the real”.


Q:  Yet he remained critical of Christianity in America?  Could you say a word about this?

A:  Suffice it to say, he was underwhelmed by what he experienced as the lack of intellectual seriousness among American Protestants.  “Is this a theological school or a training center for politicians?” Bonhoeffer asked Reinhold Niebuhr after a class at Union Theological Seminary.   But despite his numerous grumblings over American Christianity, it is undeniable that Bonhoeffer was moved and inspired by the social theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and company, by theologians who engaged the social order with civil courage and ultimate honesty—who insisted that the enterprise of theology required maximum attention to race, politics, literature, social justice, citizenship and the complex realities of the day. He would never again consider theology to be an activity confined to the academy, but part of the lived life in Christ.


Q:  How did writing this book change you as a person of faith and scholar?

A:  Eight years is a long time in anyone’s life, and frankly I still feel like I’m in the fog of final edits.  But there’s no doubt that I have learned more fully what it means to borrow hope and to treasure the great gift that is (to cite a late poem by Bonhoeffer) the “quiet power of good”, the people who love you and care for you and help carry you along each day at a time.

Q:  Do you have a favorite quote?

A:  The famous last words attributed to Bonhoeffer in the hour of his death—“This is not the end for me; it is the beginning of life”—are those of a British intelligence officer writing five years after the war.  And they are an eloquent farewell, and true to Bonhoeffer’s hopes. But the officer was not present when Bonhoeffer was summoned to the gallows in the concentration camp in Flossenburg.  His last written words are more fitting for the pastor who had come to feel uneasy with pious language.  “Please drop off some stationery with the commissar,” he said in a letter to his parents.  That seems to me the perfect farewell.


Q:  What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Bonhoeffer during your research?

A:  That Bonhoeffer’s most provocative insights lie not in the answers he gave on matters of faith and doubt in the modern age, but in his courage to ask to ask the difficult questions; “Who is Christ for us today?”, “Are we still of any use?”  “What is religionless Christianity?”, “Who am I?”
 

Q: “Religionless Christianity” has caused always stirred controversy. What did he mean by it?
 
A:  Karl Barth, the theologian who influenced Bonhoeffer more than any other, had flummoxed his liberal Protestant contemporaries by claiming—as he put it bluntly—that “Jesus has nothing to do with religion.”  Bonhoeffer’s late, fragmentary mediations on “religionless Christianity” trades, in some measure, on this rather forthright evangelical conviction; that religion is based on humanity’s search for God, but Christianity begins with God’s reaching out to humankind.  So “religionless Christianity” means relationship with God without the entrapments of religion.
 
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that aspects of Bonhoeffer late meditations move in new and quite daring directions. “I am living, and can live, for days without the Bible,” he said. But when he opened his Bible again after an absence, he could hear and experience the “new and delightful . . . as never before.” “Authenticity, life, freedom, and mercy” had acquired a new significance for him. A worldliness heretofore unknown was unexpectedly refreshing his spiritual being, and with it he felt a growing aversion to all things “religious.” What a glorious discovery, the vast new spiritual energies he was feeling!  It was an impulse to let things take their own course and try his best not to resist. It was his first intimation of spirituality outside the church.
 

Q: What else struck you?
 
A: On a more mundane level, I was surprised to discover the extent of his sartorial refinement—he kept a detailed account of his wardrobe and went to quite extraordinary lengths to ensure that his friend Eberhard, the son of a country parson, was similarly furnished with the best dress shirts, ties, suits, furs, and outfits for special occasions.  This—and other earthy details—added color to the story; not even the great Protestant martyr could have too many pairs of shoes.

Praise

Praise

“[A] masterly and comprehensive new biography . . . The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated . . . From such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence? Marsh suggests possible answers, but does so in a restrained and non-dogmatic fashion that seems appropriate to the evidence . . . and thus provides ample resources for readers to arrive at conclusions at odds with his own.”
—James Nuechterlein, The New Criterion

“This splendid biography . . . [provides] a rich and detailed account of how Bonhoeffer’s immensely eventful life unfolded – the personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey . . . [and does] much to sustain Bonhoeffer’s stature as theologian, pastor, and martyr . . . The witness that Bonhoeffer bore through his life has lost none of its power to illuminate, instruct, and challenge.”
—Andrew J. Bacevich, Commonweal

“Brilliant . . . [Marsh] uses previously unavailable archives to show us a very different Bonhoeffer . . . [and] strikes several notes . . . which other biographers have not adequately emphasized . . . This Bonhoeffer is profoundly human . . . [A] beautifully written biography.”
—Joel Looper, Los Angeles Review of Books
 
“Elegant, harrowing, awe-inspiring, and sermonic . . . Marsh [demonstrates] how the separate, parallel lines of Bonhoeffer’s role as monastic abbot and advocate of prophetic, progressive political action and his role as friend to Bethge and music-loving bon vivant did eventually merge . . . [A] splendid biography.”
—Wesley Hill, Books & Culture

“[Marsh] renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding . . . [and] guides his narrative with a steady hand . . . here the paradox of a believer in the face of evil fully comes into focus . . . we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.”
—Randall Balmer, The New York Times Book Review

“Truly beautiful and heartbreaking . . . [Marsh] has a rare talent for novelistic detail – which requires a genuine creative imagination as well as scrupulously documented research . . . (the notes alone are a treasure of information) . . . [and] very properly emphasizes the importance of [Bonhoeffer's] volatile, visionary thoughts . . . 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 . . . [An] excellent biography . . . a splendid book . . . [and] one hell of a story.”
—Christian Wiman, The Wall Street Journal

“Paints a painstaking portrait of a faithful disciple . . . will help you grapple with the eccentric Bonhoeffer of history . . . [with an] exquisite eye for detail . . . [Marsh] makes a convincing case that by 1933, Bonhoeffer was the most radical and outspoken opponent of Nazi church policy . . . [a] welcome biography.”
—Timothy Larsen, Christianity Today 

“A definitive study of Bonhoeffer’s life . . . erudite and humanizing. . . Marsh sagely counters all of today’s polemical heat with more historical context . . . It is this Bonhoeffer, and not the culture-war stick-figure . . . who embodies an example of spiritual witness that we desperately need today . . . Thank God for Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory.” 
—Ann Neumann, Bookforum

“Beautiful . . . Marsh displays both how strangely human and how gloriously blessed Bonhoeffer’s life was . . . The theological seeds that gave rise to America’s Civil Rights Movement were scattered in Germany a generation before they began to bear fruit here.”
— Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Patheos

“A biographical triumph . . . A moving, melancholy portrait . . . With both empathy and a critical eye, Marsh traces Bonhoeffer’s mercurial existence . . . [and] depicts a talented and tortured theologian and pastor who might inspire us to look beyond traditional or simplistic answers to those important questions.”
—John G. Turner, The Christian Century

“[A] worthwhile new biography . . . Bonhoeffer was a genuinely beloved pastor . . . [who] practiced what he preached, at great personal cost . . . he was a true Christian.”
—Mark Movsesian, First Things

“Attempts to provide a more closely examined view of Bonhoeffer’s personality than past biographers . . . using rarely glimpsed correspondence to paint a warts-and-all portrait of this German martyr . . . No doubt Marsh’s portrayal will infuse new controversy into discussions about Bonhoeffer for years to come.”
Kirkus Review

“A masterpiece of a biography . . . Well written, thoughtful, provocative at times . . . Especially poignant is the way [Marsh] takes us deep into the humanity of the great theologian . . . It will take its place among the standard interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life.”
—Robert Cornwall, Ponderings on a Faith Journey
 
“[A] splendid biography . . . seamlessly combines a novelist’s narrative with a biographer’s insights . . . stands as one of those rare books that both inspires and informs as Marsh offers a discerning appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s brief but rich and faith-filled life.”
—Judith Chettle, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“[A] masterpiece . . . deserves the widest possible readership . . . [Marsh] is perfectly placed . . . to tell Bonhoeffer’s life story . . . Right up to the end, [he] is by his readers’ side, clarifying and clearing away the too-pretty details that always accrue to a saintly life.”
—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
 
“A hero never more vividly human; a founder of critical belief, never more faithful; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Charles Marsh’s elegant biography, comes powerfully to life for a new era. Just in time.”
—James Carroll, Author of Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.
 
“A marvelous biography, a page-turner, beautifully written. Strange Glory not only makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer come alive, but also offers us an intimate and very perceptive look into his mind and spirit. Charles Marsh confronts the complexities of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Third Reich with an unsentimental eye, allowing us to see why this martyred pastor and theologian has so much to offer to our increasingly godless world.”
—Carlos Eire, T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University; author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, winner of the National Book Award
 

“An extraordinary account of an extraordinary life, Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory is profoundly researched and vividly imagined. Marsh has unearthed enough archival material to keep generations of Bonhoeffer scholars occupied, but, more important, has used his knowledge to weave a mesmerizing tale about one of the giants of the twentieth century. I can't remember when I have read a more compelling biography.”
—Alan Jacobs, professor of the humanities at Baylor University and author of The Book of Common Prayer
 

“As Bonhoeffer’s doomed quest unfolds, the experience of reading Strange Glory is by turns terrifying and exhilarating. A story of profound thought and heroic action told in crystalline prose, this is a marvelous biography.”
—James Tobin, author of Ernie Pyle's War and The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency (winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award)
 
 
“The life, thoughts and deeds of Dietrich Bonhoeffer inspire people all over the world. All those people will be drawn to this biography by the prominent theologian and acclaimed writer Charles Marsh, whose meticulous knowledge of the Bonhoeffer story and its sources infuses such a vivid narrative.” 
—Wolfgang Huber, former Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany

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