A conversation with Charles Marsh, author of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (INTERVIEW)
(Photos by Gudrun Senger)
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Charles Marsh, Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, about his 25-year interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his terrific recent book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here is our conversation:
You’ve been interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer for some time. What initially drew you to write a dissertation on his philosophical thought over 25 years ago?
He threw me a life-line when I was drowning in the theory-drenched academic culture of the 1980’s. I mean, his writing and legacy illuminated, when I really needed it, a pathway back to terra firma—to Jesus.
In my graduate student years at Harvard and UVa, I tried with ever maddening ferocity to bridge what felt like an inseparable divide between intellectual life and compassionate service, theological inquiry and Christian mission. From September to May, I read Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Feuerbach, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault; in the summers, I worked in inner-city Atlanta, in a neighborhood called Reynoldstown, in a community-building program for minority youth. For five summers there I ran a day camp called Body and Soul, combining basketball, Bible study and poetry, but my return to Cambridge or Charlottesville every Fall undid whatever fragile unity was achieved in the summer months.
In fact, I came to Bonhoeffer late in my studies. I’d heard his story in sermons, and read sections of Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison. I did not realize, until I included a section on his thought in my doctoral comps, that he’d struggled to break free of the same suffocating intellectual inheritance. His writings were a liberation; here was a young philosophical theologian shaped by familiar influences who experienced, as I had, the liberal Protestant tradition as an enervating weight, but in the lived realities of faith and in his own immersion in the “church of the outcasts of America” found the grace that turned him from the “phraseological to the real”.
The philosophical discourse of interiority grows grim and gray, and I knew I wanted to be outside, in the sunlight, where you can walk and move and grow and feel and love.
What kept you interested in him over the years?
So after I finished the dissertation—a lumbering 505 page thesis on Bonhoeffer’s critique of modern German philosophy—got it published, wrote some articles, did the things I needed to do for tenure and promotion, a few years into my teaching career, I was surprised to discover suddenly that my thoughts and dreams, and increasingly my journals and notebooks, were filled with memories of my southern evangelical childhood. I had plans to write a book on the doctrine of the Trinity, but now found it nearly impossible to concentrate on this great doctrine. Instead one morning—it was twenty ago this summer—I packed my Honda wagon and headed south with little more than a full tank of gas, a microcassette recorder and a credit card. I asked questions to anyone who would talk with me about why white Christians in the south during the civil rights years remained