UVa professor’s latest book illuminates the human being behind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s commitment to conscience

With death near and certain, the veil separating life and eternity apparently began to lift for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

As the Lutheran pastor serenely awaited the rough bite of the gallow’s noose in a Gestapo prison, he wrote that his eyes could see the “great invisible realm” so clearly that there was no question of its existence. And when the moment came for his soul to depart this world on April 9, 1945, a final prayer was on his lips and an eyewitness to the execution said he was “brave composed.”

Although Bonhoeffer was just 39 years old when he was executed for participating in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he left behind enough of his inspiring thoughts and beliefs to fill 16 volumes. Now, after eight years of meticulous research and writing, University of Virginia professor of religious studies Charles Marsh offers a definitive biography of the man many consider a saint and martyr.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” provides a warm and clear portrait of the subject based on documented facts. It opens with young Dietrich trying to grasp the concept of eternity, and ends with his “grateful awareness” of eternal life.

Marsh will present his new book at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Haven at 112 Market St. in Charlottesville. The event is being held by New Dominion Bookshop.

“There’s a large canon of scholarly literature on Bonhoeffer in all his theological complexity,” Marsh said during a recent interview. “I have a good friend, Victoria Barnett, who is a staff director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“She is, in my estimation, the most brilliant Bonhoeffer scholar in the world. In 2006, she came to UVa to speak at my Bonhoeffer seminar. During her final remarks, she said the thing about Bonhoeffer that she found so intriguing was although she had translated thousands of pages of his writings and read probably every word he has written, she still didn’t know who he is.

“I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I want to understand Bonhoeffer as a character and make his story come alive. And I want to make it beautiful, moving and of interest to anyone who just likes a great story.”

Bonhoeffer, one of eight children, came from a cultured and affluent German family. His father was a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist, and his mother was a teacher.

As a young child, Bonhoeffer and his twin sister, Sabine, would sometimes peer through a bedroom window to watch funeral services being held in the nearby Catholic cemetery. Imagining what might be beyond the grave became a game for them, and a question the brother never stopped pondering.

“This is a story of a man of great privilege who had a profound sense of responsibility to justice, fairness and decency,” said Marsh, who in the late 1980s wrote a doctoral dissertation on Bonhoeffer while attending UVa. “He could have played it safe and found a life of comfort, luxury and academic renown.

“But he understood that the rising specter of Hitler and the emergence of these brutal and, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, demonic forces in 1933 required him to put aside his personal ambitions. So he used his talents and gifts to resist the Nazi takeover.

“It’s a story, I think, of a man of faith for our time. He is not only one of the most moving and challenging Christian figures of the modern era, he is one of humanity’s most courageous souls who has the remarkable capacity to bring all sorts of diverse people together.”

Philip G. Ziegler, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, in the United Kingdom, cited Marsh’s new book as a landmark achievement. He provided some thoughts about the book via email.

“Comprehensive, carefully and freshly researched, the biography takes up the important task of setting and holding Bonhoeffer in his historical context and circles of personal and professional relations,” Ziegler writes. “Whereas, the earlier, very fine biography by Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge (written in the 1960s), could presume a good deal of knowledge on the part of its readers of the wider historical and cultural situation of Bonheffer’s life and work, a new generation of readers now increasingly needs to have this picture filled in for them as well.

“Part of Charles’ achievement here is to have done this with expert knowledge and a light touch. It is also, crucially, a theologically responsible account of Bonhoeffer’s life, doing careful justice to his thinking in its relevant contexts.

“Bonhoeffer’s vocation was that of a theologian, and Charles keeps this fact in mind throughout as he tells the story. This authoritative and winsome study will engage, entrance and edify those encountering Bonhoeffer for the very first time, as well as those well familiar with the man and his legacy.”

One of the most formative chapters in Bonhoeffer’s life came in 1930, when he was invited to New York City as a visiting student in an exchange program. Soon after he arrived at Union Theological Seminary, a black fellow seminarian named Frank Fisher invited him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to hear Adam Clayton Powell Sr. preach.

“Bonhoeffer had never in his somewhat reserved Lutheran parish in Berlin encountered anything like African-American spirituality,” said Marsh. “Quite frankly — and by then he had two degrees in theology — he didn’t even like attending church, finding it boring.

“But in this church, there’s singing and a sense of joy in the worship and the congregation. For six months, he’s there every week teaching a Sunday school class and a women’s Bible study class.

“Then, that spring, Bonhoeffer takes a road trip in an old car with a friend that takes them through the heart of the Jim Crow South. When he got back to New York, he wrote that he finally heard the voice of Jesus, but it was in the church of the outcast of America.

“So I think his experience of finding both personal redemption and a deep spiritual energy in the church of the outsiders of America gave him a profound sense of God being most visibly experienced in the margins. I think that also awakened him to the plight of the Jews as well.”

As Hitler and his henchmen consolidated their power, Bonhoeffer denounced them as evil from the outset. He pleaded with his fellow Germans to come to their senses and not be deceived, but few listened.

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