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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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  53 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome biography! 28 May 2014
By Jimmy R. Reagan - Published on
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.
75 of 90 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
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 Bonhoeffer redivivus 25 May 2014
By Kerry Walters - Published on
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.
10 of 11 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
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Different Bonhoeffer 2 July 2014
By C. C. Fenn - Published on
Before I level any criticisms at all, I'd like to say that Marsh writes very well. Much of Marsh's prose, especially at toward the early chapters, displays a narrative quality that renders it a pleasure to read. Many biographies are written like history books, recounting event after event with little narrative elaboration. Bethge's biography plodded at times because of this (and its 1000+ page count didn't help matters). On the other hand, Marsh's biography almost reads like a novel in places. Listen as Marsh recounts the interaction between Bonhoeffer and a friend from school, Walter Dress: "Mostly Bonhoeffer would talk and Dress would listen. More precisely, Bonhoeffer would pepper Dress, two years his senior in the program, with requests for advice on writing assignments, exams, and the stringency of due dates. The solicitations were fierce and frequent, extending also to purely academic matters" (Marsh p. 48). Marsh goes on to list a dozen questions in quick succession that Bonhoeffer asked. The writing makes the reader feel the anxiety of listening to Bonhoeffer's barrage of questions like listening to a child asking his mother "Why?" every few seconds.

Not only does Marsh write well, the book is well-researched and meticulously foot-noted. The shorter length of the book naturally means that it couldn't have the details in either Metaxas's or Bethge's book but it does do a fine job of painting Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life in broad strokes. Some of my favorite vignettes from Bonhoeffer's life are missing but most of the absences don't do too much damage to the general story. Nevertheless, the Bonhoeffer presented in Marsh's book is different than that revealed in either of the other mentioned biographies. Marsh's Bonhoeffer is more human. At times pettiness and and obsessive behaviors come out that seemed much less prominent in Bethge's and Metaxas's accounts.

Unfortunately, the book seems to falter a little after the halfway point. Once Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, Charles Marsh seems hell-bent on proving that Bonhoeffer was a repressed homosexual who longed for an intimate, physical relationship with Bethge. They signed Christmas cards together and had a joint bank account. They spent inordinate amounts of time together. And yet, the fact is that every shred of evidence for Marsh's argument is circumstantial. Apparently Marsh had never had "a friend that sticketh closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24). Whereas Bethge spoke about Bonhoeffer's fiancee fairly regularly, she was hardly mentioned in Marsh's book. Instead, the focus was almost exclusively on Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge. But the really disappointing thing was how more important events and facts seemed to have been left out while leaving in plenty of speculation on the author's part ("He would never acknowledge a sexual desire for Bethge, nor would Bethge have welcomed its expression...Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations" (Marsh p.384).) Bonhoeffer's work with the Confessing Church and his ecumenical pursuits seemed to be given shorter shrift than they deserved. As the book reaches the final few chapters, Marsh seems tired, or perhaps rushed. In Bethge's work, the build-up to Bonhoeffer's death is filled with such tension that I turned each page hoping to find out that the history I'd heard had been wrong and Bonhoeffer made it through the war. Marsh, on the other hand, writes abruptly of his demise. Bonhoeffer's relationships with the prisoners he met in Tegel and Buchenwald are hardly mentioned (one especially disappointing event missing from Marsh's biography is the mix-up that nearly saved his life as he was being transported to his final concentration camp). It was a time of immense interest to me and yet, it wasn't elaborated fully in Marsh's book.

Even forty years of life provides far too much material for a mere 400 pages to comprehensively cover. And yet, I felt as though Marsh could have better utilized his word count, especially toward the latter half of the book. All-in-all, this is a good biography of Bonhoeffer that offers a starkly different Bonhoeffer than Metaxas did in 2011. If you read that book and would like something to balance it out, this might be a good choice. However, if you have the time to invest in Bethge's more complete biography, that is the route I would recommend. It might not sound as nice as Marsh's book but you'll come across with a fuller picture of who this Lutheran pastor and dissident really was.
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