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Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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.
About the Author
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.
Praise for Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer…
Winner of the Christianity Today Book Award for History/Biography
“[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.”
“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