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Strange Glory by Charles Marsh
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Strange Glory

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Strange Glory by Charles Marsh
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Apr 28, 2015 | ISBN 9780307390387

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    Apr 28, 2015 | ISBN 9780307390387

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“[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

“Exemplary history . . . Marsh, making the personal political and the political personal, captures Bonhoeffer’s efforts to achieve a ‘nonreligious interpretation of faith’ that embraces Jesus as ‘the man for others’ and then adroitly places him within the larger context of the era.”
—James R. Kelly, America

“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)

“Marsh succeeds in fulfilling one of the methodologically very challenging demands of modern studies on resistance. Regime opponents are always asked about their entanglement in the regime. But rarely do historians inquire how opponents—by experiencing the reality of Nazi Germany and its looming atrocities—managed to overcome certain political positions they initially shared with the national socialists.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“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

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.

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