Dr. Charles Marsh is Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. This interview is based on his new book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, April 2014).
JF: What led you to write Strange Glory?
CM: 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. With 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.
His is a remarkable story for its drama and intrigue (and at least in my account, its moments of high comedy) and for the wisdom his theological genius imparts to the challenges facing Christians in the 21st century.
In the decades since he was executed on Hitler’s orders for the crime of high treason in the concentration camp in Flossenburg on the morning of April 9 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become one of the most widely read and influential religious thinkers of our time. His life and legacy have inspired campaigns for social justice, for human and civil rights, and recently young environmental ethicists like my friend Larrry Rasmussen, and my colleague Willis Jenkins, have found resources in his writings for developing theological models of environmental ethics and sustainability. His more popular works make biblical faith intelligible to believers and nonbelievers alike—Discipleship and Life Together, books written amidst the chaos and fury of the Kirchenkampf—without reducing complex ideas to clichés. No other Christian thinker crosses quite so many boundaries while yet remaining exuberantly—and one should add—generously Christian. His story brings together liberals and evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants, Christian and Jews, in shared admiration of an indisputably authentic witness.
Born into privilege into a family of and prodigiously talented humanists, at the age of 14, the young Dietrich announced that “he would become a theologian.” When one of his skeptical older brothers protested: “Look at the church. A more paltry institution one can hardly imagine—and you hardly ever go yourself.”–Dietrich replied, “In that case, I shall reform it!” By the age of twenty-one, this golden child of the Berlin Grunewald had already written a doctoral dissertation that would be hailed by Karl Barth as a “theological miracle.” He would complete his second dissertation by the age of 2. But this restless soul with an uncommon hunger to see new places and to experience life beyond his native land would travel widely and whenever possible. Between 1924 and 1932, he journeyed to Italy and Libya, to Spain, France, and Morocco, to Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. Encounters and experiences during these travels form the first third of my narrative—challenged Bonhoeffer to rethink his vocation as theologian and pastor and his notions of citizenship and patriotism, and finally to embark upon what he would call “the turning from the phraseological to the real.”
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Strange Glory?
CM: I want the reader to be swept up into a vivid narrative that follows the journey of this golden child of the Berlin Grunewald, striving under the pressure of enormous historical events to see clearly, to act courageously and the live life to the fullest, from youthful proponent of German martial theology to Christian dissident and conspirator, and finally to the gallows of a Gestapo prison. I want the story to inspire and move, delight and surprise, but to appear finally as an artful telling of a beautiful life.
JF: Why do we need to read Strange Glory?
CM: 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 anew by relying primarily on a treasure of recent archival and scholarly discoveries, on letters, journals, and other documents, as well as my own interviews. I spent a lovely afternoon in the home of Eberhard Bethge, shortly before his death, talking candidly about aspects of Bonhoeffer’s character that had been largely ignored. Metaxas’s book also offered me a cautionary tale on the political misuses of biographical writing; had I not been able to see what havoc his own heavy-handed political agenda wreaked on the telling of Bonhoeffer’s life I might have been inclined to tweak it in the direction of my partisan biases.
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—and all other biographies quite frankly, rely on Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial 1969 landmark biography. I felt it was time to wrestle Bonhoeffer free of his best friend’s protective grasp. The title Strange Glory
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 that after a lifetime of intense scholarly work on Bonhoeffer’s writings, she still don’t really know who he is. I’ve tried to get at this elusive mystery of character.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CM: I’m flattered that you would call me a historian; but my graduate training was in philosophical theology. I wrote a dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s relation to modern German philosophy that was published in 1994 by Oxford University Press as Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. Around the same time, a few years into my academic year, while teaching theology at a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, I was surprised to discover that my thoughts and dreams, and increasingly my journals and notebooks, were filled with memories of my childhood in the Deep South. I had planned to write a book on the doctrine of the Trinity, but I had trouble concentrating on this marvelous sacred mystery. And truth be known I seem to suffer from some kind of doctrinal attention deficit disorder. In any case, I put the book on the Trinity on hold, and twenty years ago this summer, got in my Honda wagon morning and headed south with little more than a full tank of gas, a microcassette recorder and a credit card, and plowed ahead into the unfamiliar territory of narrative nonfiction and historical research.
In time, three books emerged from this intellectual journey without maps. Historians and scholars before me had acknowledged the religious motivations of the civil rights movement; but in paying attention to the personal testimonies and all the documentary materials—sermons, church bulletins and minutes, hymnbooks and Sunday school curriculum, denominational newspapers and occasional publications, Biblical expositions on segregation and white supremacy, unpublished (and published) memoirs, and my own interviews with participants and those gathered by other scholars—a theologically vital field of unexplored questions emerged. In short, I came to see the civil rights movement as theological drama and to write theology, or at least probe matters theologically, in the form of historical narrative. Suffice it to say, historians have been more welcoming of my efforts than theologians.
JF: What’s your next project?
CM: I’m talking to my editor at Knopf George Andreou about a book on the world of theology, on the strange and fascinating things that theologians do. I’ve been reading Tom Wolfe’s early non-fiction, so that may give you a sense of where I’m heading here.
Tom Van Dyke says
Metaxas’s book also offered me a cautionary tale on the political misuses of biographical writing; had I not been able to see what havoc his own heavy-handed political agenda wreaked on the telling of Bonhoeffer’s life
But Bonhoeffer was gay.
OK, whatever. Give us Metaxas!