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STRANGE GLORY: A LIFE OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, Charles Marsh, Alfred A. Knoff, 2014

Strange Glory book coverDietrich Bonhoeffer is known to most of us for his book Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship, in English) or perhaps Letters and Papers from Prison. We know of him as a resister against Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany and ultimately hanged as a traitor on April 9, 1945 — just days before the Allied troops liberated the Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 23, 1945.

Dr. Charles Marsh, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, brings Bonhoeffer to life in his full complexities with his recent book Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published in 2014. The title of the book is taken from a sermon Dr. Bonhoeffer delivered in London in 1933: “It is a strange glory, the glory of this God.”

“… With a keen understanding of the multi-faceted 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 friendships and the faith that sustained and finally redeemed him…” (Book cover, back flap).

He was born February 4, 1906, the sixth of eight children (his twin sister Sabine was the seventh) in Breslau, Germany. His family was a prodigiously talented humanist and wealthy family who preferred religious holidays with relatives rather than in church.

I share a few key quotations and incidents from the book to whet your appetite and encourage you to go to our Parish Library to get the book and read it.

You will not be disappointed and will probably be challenged by Bonhoeffer’s struggle to maintain his faith at a time when the church had sold its soul to the Third Reich and became known as the “Reich Church.” He asked questions: “Where is God? How does God meet us and what does God expect from us?” These same questions are strikingly relevant in our current, secular, 21st-century culture. “… Bonhoeffer allowed as how it had become not so unusual lately to hear people ask whether the church still had any relevance, whether they still needed God. But this question, he said, was wrongly put. The paramount concern is in fact ‘whether we are willing to offer our lives to the church and the world for this is what God desires’” (p 150).

“… Grace frees and forms, grace invites and involves. Grace calls the idle and the complacent, even the nouveaux riches, out of their spiritual lethargy into heightened knowledge of God. But grace has no use for the indifferent heart …” (p 71).

In September 1930 Bonhoeffer traveled to New York City as a Sloan Fellow enrolled at Union Theological Seminary. It was here that he came to know Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Sloane Coffin, and Harry Ward. “… He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory — according to taste and preference.” (p 103) He once ask Dr. Niebuhr, “… Is this a theological school or a school for politicians?…” (p 106).

It was his experiences at the Abyssinian Baptist Church shepherded by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., that made the deepest and most lasting impression on him. The power of the music and preaching influenced him in some of his darkest hours in Germany. It is recorded that the singing of spirituals could be heard in his prison cell and well as the strains of Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott.

One final statement about Bonhoeffer’s view of Discipleship: “… The terms of grace are quite explicit. Jesus’ call is not answered in the form of a doctrinal formulation, not even in a ‘spoken confession of faith. Rather, it is the immediate deed … nothing precedes, and nothing follows except the obedience of the called.’” (p 243).

Find this book and read it. You will discover a man who struggled with his faith and its expression in a totally racist and politically aggressive environment. You find a flawed man, but a faithful man.

—Richard R. Kuns

Richard Kuns writes reviews of books you can find in the Renouf/Nelson Library.

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