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Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer [Hardcover]

Charles Marsh

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Book Description

29 April 2014
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. 

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''A good biography takes a reader beyond the life of its subject into the times and places in which they lived. A great biography can leave us with the impression we know a stranger better than we know our friends. Charles Marsh's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer does all these things. No recent biographer of Bonhoeffer knows his theology or his historical and intellectual context better than Charles Marsh who has, for the past two decades, been the finest Bonhoeffer scholar of his generation. Yet none of this would matter if one did not want to turn the pages. Strange Glory tells Bonhoeffer's story with accuracy and insight but more than that, it is a joy to read.'' --Stephen J. Plant, Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and co-editor of Letters to London: Bonhoeffer's previously unpublished correspondence with Ernst Cromwell, 1935-6 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Charles Marsh is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and has served as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Visiting Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  36 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome biography! 28 May 2014
By Jimmy R. Reagan - Published on Amazon.com
A good biography will grip you, move you, and challenge you. In really getting to know someone in all the dynamics that make him or her the person he or she was, you find out things about yourself and, perhaps, what you would like to be. When Mr. Marsh takes pen in hand on Bonhoeffer that is exactly the experience you have.

Mr. Marsh can write–that is obvious. He delved into his subject until he had something to say. He took a multifaceted view and hid nothing. Even what could have been mundane information, like certain academic pursuits, was woven together to show us the man progressing to become what he finally became in magisterial prose.

As you go along you find Bonhoeffer to be a spoiled kid far into adulthood, indulgent, lazy in physical work, and a lover of extended travel, and at times, a man with a temper. Still, you could not help but admire him. There is duplicity in us all, yet Christ can raise us above it. Though his theology was a good bit to the left of mine, I firmly believe he was a believer who not only loved the Lord, but grew to love Him more.

As with any of us he wrestled with some of the hard choices of life. In the end, he far more came down on the right side, a side fraught with danger and pain. I do not know what he died thinking, but he died a victor.

The only negative of the book was the suggestion that, perhaps, there was a homosexual attraction for his dear friend Bethge. That seemed a cheap gimmick for our ages’ fascination of homosexuality. The friendship was as close as possible, but Bethge always clearly refuted this suggestion. With no compelling evidence given, and knowing what a painful charge it would have been to Bonhoeffer who lacks the privilege to be alive to refute it, I suggest you toss it out so this otherwise great book will not be marred.

Still, this page-turner you will enjoy reading!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.
57 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bonhoeffer deserves better than this 23 May 2014
By D. Licona - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Having read much on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, including Bethge's seminal work, I didn't find much new in Marsh's treatment. The one area which was new was also disturbing. To come out and say that Bonhoeffer had some sort of erotic feelings toward Bethge is a stretch, to say the least. When I read about the relationship between Bethge and Bonhoeffer, I see kindred spirits living in a very difficult and dangerous time. They were living a monastic life while in Finkenwalde. It would not be uncommon for two men with common interests (theology) and the camaraderie developed while facing extremely perilous times to develop an extremely close friendship. The friendship of David and Jonathan comes to mind. Have we come to the place in which two people of the same sex can no longer have a kindred spirit relationship without it being painted with the brush of homosexuality? Bethge was married to Bonhoeffer's niece and Bonhoeffer was engaged at the time of his death. He was looking forward to experiencing sex after marriage, according to his letters to Bethge. In addition, Bethge outright denied that there was anything erotic about their relationship. I read absolutely nothing in Marsh's book that indicates anything other than a very close friendship. In my opinion, it is disrespectful of a man who deserves so much respect to make this kind of an insinuation which would be a complete break with his character as revealed in his own writings.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A vivid and urgently needed account of an everyday saint 22 May 2014
By Philip A. Lorish - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Charles Marsh's account of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer achieves everything it sets out to accomplish. In lucid and engaging prose, Marsh provides the reader a sense of the man and his times that simultaneously refuses the temptation to overdraw points of similarity between Bonhoeffer's day and our own (as some are wont to do) while also rendering Bonhoeffer's thought and life generative for a new generation of scholars and readers. He accomplishes this through attention to detail that, like a cup of tea, could, in the hands of the unskilled, suffer from either over or under extraction. Here we get Bonhoeffer the human being, the man whose love of the outdoors and a fine dinner jacket were not at odds with his convictions on Kant, Hegel, Barth, and others. We also get a Bonhoeffer whose life was sustained by friendship. Happily, Marsh makes this explicit, and while readers may be surprised by the intimacy that marked Bonhoeffer's attachment to the friends that constituted his life, this reader (at least) learned a great deal about the capacity of friendship to sustain a life and, coordinately, the paucity of theological work done on the matter in our day. This is an excellent work, one that deserves all the plaudits it will undeniably receive.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bonhoeffer redivivus 25 May 2014
By Kerry Walters - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Charles Marsh's biography is full of insightful surprises, largely because he insists on going beyond standard interpretations of Bonhoeffer's life and thought to offer a portrait that sometimes startling in both detail and interpretation. As other commentators have pointed out, the Bonhoeffer he presents us isn't a plaster saint. He was the pampered son of a well-to-do family who remained throughout his life something of a sartorial dandy and a lover of the comfortable pleasures of life. He could be peevish and self-occupied, and he sometimes made hasty judgments about both ideas and people. But in offering us this fuller profile of his subject, Marsh helps us appreciate the genuine grandeur of a man who, notwithstanding his all-too-human foibles, nonetheless re-thought what it meant to be a Christian in the troubled 20th century, and who was willing to die for his convictions.

For my money, the most interesting section of the book is Marsh's analysis of Bonhoeffer's radicalization during his year-long stay at Union Theological Seminary. Initially contemptuous of Union's "practical" approach to theologizing that eschewed, in his estimation, rigorous dogmatics, Bonhoeffer gradually became convinced that his own earlier theology was too abstractly indifferent to issues of social justice. Through the influence of Niebuhr's emphasis on ethics, the pacifism of friends like Lassure, and the deep incarnationalism of the black spiritual tradition, Bonhoeffer emerged a new man after his year in the States. Marsh, some of whose earlier work focus on the religious antecedents and dimension of the Civil Rights movement, wonderfully provides background information on Christian social justice thinkiing of 1930s America that so influenced Bonhoeffer.

Well worth reading and thinking about. Going through Marsh's bio has inspired some friends and me to re-dive into Bonhoeffer's works this summer.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Commitment to an Embodied Bonhoeffer 24 May 2014
By John B Duffy - Published on Amazon.com
Perhaps the hallmark of authoritative biography is the commitment of the biographer to his or her subject. A good biography seeks to present the full person, warts and all. An excellent biography captures the unique essence that makes the subject of the story compelling to a wide audience. A great biography does all this while itself possessing literary power and grace. Charles Marsh has, in my opinion, written a great biography of one of the greatest personalities of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Marsh demonstrates his commitment to his subject by presenting a fully rounded, flawed and fascinating Bonhoeffer. Part of the fascination is in how such a spiritual giant was so like us, subject to change and possessed of human appetites and limitations. Marsh really got into the weeds in his lengthy and extensive research, much of which took place in Germany. He is therefore able to share Bonhoeffer's musical enthusiasms, his excessive preoccupation with his wardrobe, the flavor of his friendships.

In the midst of this skillfully presented detail emerges a picture of the man who has so entranced and inspired liberals and conservatives, Christians and unbelievers. While the focus is more on Bonhoeffer's life than his writings, both are presented with and through an intimacy borne of the author's long and passionate engagement with Bonhoeffer's life and ideas. And both this life and these ideas are powerfully compelling.

What emerges is a man who embodied the paradoxes of his age and our age. He loved the church and its rituals yet predicted and welcomed a religionless Christianity. He was a thoroughgoing, sometimes abstruse theologian who realized the love of God most powerfully through the African American church. He early championed an imperialistic German faith and then was the most vocal opponent of the German Christians. He was a Lutheran minister who not only advocated for Jews but claimed them as spiritual brothers and sisters. He became a pacifist who ministered to soldiers and participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He identified with the poor, was himself an outcast from his country and from the academy, all the while relying on his considerable privilege. He witnessed his stormy times on the ramparts while devoting himself to a renewal of corporate and individual spiritual discipline. And he did all these things while leaving an incomparable (and amazingly voluminous) legacy of books, letters and other writings, writings that reveal a continuous struggle to achieve a goal moving in its simplicity and universality: to be fully human and authentically himself.

It is obvious on every page of this wonderful book that Charles Marsh has immersed himself in this massive body of writing. I think the reason that I so enjoyed reading "Strange Glory" is that it brims with this immersion and that this immersion inspired a love not just for Bonhoeffer but for all the aspirations he represents. This immersion, far from overwhelming the narrative, frees Marsh's voice to be true to the formidable figure of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, presenting an embodied Bonhoeffer for our time.
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