“Marsh brings readers closer to Bonhoeffer than any prior biographer writing in English”: John G. Turner reviews Strange Glory in Christian Century

John Turner’s Christian Century review of Charles Marsh’s newest book Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was released today. From the review:

Charles Marsh has written a moving, melancholy portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor executed in a concentration camp two months before World War II ended in Europe.

With both empathy and a critical eye, Marsh traces Bonhoeffer’s mercurial existence… Strange Glory is a biographical triumph. Bonhoeffer was prolific but not given to introspection, so he is psychologically elusive. Through generous quotations from sermons, books, and especially letters, Marsh brings readers closer to Bonhoeffer than any prior biographer writing in English.

To read the full text of the review, click here.
For more on Strange Glory, click here.
For updates on book related events, click here.

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was published on April 29, 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf. Charles Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology, powerfully brings to life the struggles, triumphs, and transformations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—German pastor, dissident, and conspirator in the resistance against Hitler and the Nazi party. No other theologian has crossed as many boundaries as Bonhoeffer while remaining exuberantly, generously Christian.

Project on Lived Theology receives $2.1 million grant from Lilly Endowment

The Project on Lived Theology has been awarded a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. Read the full U.Va. press release here.

“The Project on Lived Theology is breaking new ground in encouraging theologians and religion scholars to attend more intentionally to the everyday experiences of ordinary Christians,” said Chris Coble, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation that supports education, religion and community development. “This theological work is pivotal in helping individuals and communities understand and claim the practices that carry forward the deep wisdom of the Christian tradition.”

Goethe and a Flight Lesson

There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.  – Dostoyevsky

Viktor Frankl (26 March 1905 – 2 September 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. On the night he thought was his last, Frankl turned to his friend Otto and said,

Listen, Otto, if I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her that I told of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.

Viktor Frankl with his wife, Tilly, before they were transported to Auschwitz

Viktor Frankl with his wife, Tilly, before they were transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Tilly did not survive the year.

Frankl believed that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire” (Frankl 38). But what allowed him to hold onto this believe so fervently amidst the moral deformity of the Holocaust? In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s autobiographical testament of his time in Auschwitz, he offers this explanation: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man­, ­his courage and hope, or lack of them­ ­and the state of immunity of his body will understand that sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect” (75). To illustrate his point Frankl details for us his theory on the record high death rate in Auschwitz during Christmas 1944 to New Years 1945: that prisoners died because they had expected to be home before Christmas. When they realized this was not to be they completely lost hope in life beyond the concentration camp.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

Last week, when reflecting on community engagement, I discussed how the sacrament of the present moment allows us to be stronger community members by enhancing our awareness of our connectedness to others. However, in his psychoanalysis of Holocaust prisoners, Frankl offers a different perspective: “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” (73).

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. As far as threats to human dignity go, the Church includes abortion, euthanasia, cloning, the death penalty and war. I feel that it might be necessary to also add time poverty.

time poverty

Time poverty, according to Maria Konnikova, is “what happens when we find ourselves working against the clock to finish something.” For someone who is financially comfortable, poverty of time is merely an unpleasant inconvenience. For someone whom lack of time is just one of their many burdens, time poverty becomes much more serious. Especially when you take into account that time poverty tends to bring about what Konnikova calls bandwidth poverty or, “the type of attention shortage that is fed by [financial poverty and time poverty].” She offers us the following example:

If I’m focused on the immediate deadline, I don’t have the cognitive resources to spend on mundane tasks or later deadlines. If I’m short on money, I can’t stop thinking about today’s expenses — never mind those in the future. In both cases, I end up making decisions that leave me worse off because I lack the ability to focus properly on anything other than what’s staring me in the face right now, at this exact moment.

And so we begin to see how our need to look to the future for hope and our need to be present in the moment for peace come into conflict. It is clear that we need space in our lives to develop healthy relationships with both “now” and “later” and that a lack of space to do so is detrimental to our overall well being. That poverty, in whatever sense we are discussing it, is not a static issue.


In the past week, my research team has visited Tiyani twice to conduct focus groups with nurses and community health workers (CHWs) from the surrounding area. Though I am not directly a part of the CHW study, my project partners and I got to help our other teammates out with implementing their focus groups. At the beginning of each session, we would go around the circle and ask each woman their name and how long they had been working. Most them had been CHWs for at least five years, some as many as fifteen. It was not until later in the day that I found out that none of these women are paid for rounds they do in their communities each week. They just do it because they believe it’s important.

The Catholic church teaches that our human dignity comes from the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Or, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, dignity is the idea that:

desmond tutu

We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.

Maria Konnikova’s research on time poverty seems to make it pretty clear that having a deficit of time in one’s life makes it very hard to cultivate a sense of dignity or to honor that of others. However, throughout Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl insists that “he who has a why can bear almost any how” (Nietzsche).

The experience of camp life shows that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions as psychic and physical stress…everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl 65-66)

Frankl writing

How can one begin to argue with such unfettered faith? Frankl offers us a no-holds-barred answer to the question of how to find dignity in suffering. Or (much) more simply, how to rationalize giving time to that which we might not logically have time for.

However, though I am deeply moved by Frankl’s words, I must return to the “almost” in the Nietzsche quote of which he is so fond. He who has a why can bear almost any how. Though I am humbled beyond belief by the grittiness of Frankl’s faith, I fear the depth of responsibility that he takes for his own well-being can almost makes us forget the severity of his aggressors’ actions. Ultimately, I still believe that the choices that we make are determined by the choices that we have. That spiritual freedom is only a possibility for those who have a concept of the spirit. That even though people like the community health workers that we met in Tiyani this week will always give me hope that people will do good and be good whether or not they have the time to do it, it is our responsibility to not make that choice a burdensome one when we can.

All that being said, sometimes the most we can do is assume the best of people. In this heartening TED Talk. Victor Frankl makes his case for why we should believe in others by offering us Goethe and a Flight Lesson:

If you are starting, here, wish to get here, say east, and you have a crosswind you will land here, so we have to do what we pilots call, eh ‘crabbing’ he told me, C-R-A-B. You have to head north of that airfield, and you have to fly that way, see? As if you’re headed in this direction. If you are heading here, above this airfield, you will actually land here. But if you head here [airfield] you will actually land here [below airfield]. This holds also for man I would say! If you take man as he really is you make him worse, but if we over estimate him–if we seem to be idealists–are overestimating and overrating man, and looking at him that high, here, above, you promote him to what he really can be.

Viktor Frankl with his second wife, Elanore, who he met 1947.

Viktor Frankl with his second wife, Elanore, who he met in 1947.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

I can see your halo

Seated Four-Armed GaneshaMiss Vesta is the education director at ACRJ. She’s a godsend.

Early in May, Nathan and I went to the jail to get our final okays on instituting our project at ACRJ. Neither of us had ever met Miss Vesta before. Half an hour early, we sat quietly in the purgatorial lobby.

“What’s she like?” I whispered.

“Like what?”

“Like, nice. Is she nice? Cause if she’s defensive or closed or…I don’t know. If she’s a jerk, essentially, if she’s a jerk this is going to be hard.”

“Yeh,” Nathan chirped. “I hope she talks.”

A wall of white cinderblocks and tinted, two-way, bulletproof windows separates the lobby from the rest of the facility. The guard’s desk takes up most of the floor space—thick, wooden, with bulletproof glass about seven feet high. There is only one door in and out. From the lobby-side, you can barely discern the silhouette of whoever is emerging from the bulwark of ACRJ. “Miss Vesta will be out in a minute.” The guard gave a drowsy smile from behind his barracks.

In case you haven’t been able to tell from my other blog posts *hint-hint* my prose tends ever so slightly towards the dramatic and, for better or for worse, so does my personality. “Ms. Vesta will be out in a minute” cues the pit-conductor in my head to start an overture.

The curtain rising: a tinted window firmly cast into the thick grooves of an iron door. Who will come through? Our last hope! Our last hurdle! She will make or break us! She could squash our little project and dash our hopes against the rocks! I see a silhouette move towards the door. Kettledrums thunder with every step. I envision Miss Trunchbull from Matilda or the female version of Principle Skinner from the Simpsons. The orchestra grows louder. The door buzzes open. The violins ring out like sirens. I cross my fingers and mutter mantra-like Dear Jesus! make her nice, please be nice, please be nice, please be nice, please be nice.

And then she stepped into the lobby and the music came to a jarring halt, because Ms. Vesta looked nothing like I expected. Nothing like Miss Trunchbull.

“Hello! Welcome, welcome. I’m Miss Vesta.” She reached out her hand to be shaken. Hers is the first hand I shook at ACRJ.

Unlike every single one of her colleagues, she does not wear a uniform. She doesn’t look like she works in a jail. She doesn’t look like she spends everyday in a windowless fortress. She was dressed like a schoolteacher, fully coordinated: light blue cardigan, khakis, eye shadow and smile. She warmly welcomed us. Her voice and face and demeanor were comforting and bright.

Everything about Miss Vesta is inviting—everything about the prison is not. After all, jail is the place we send people. It is meant to be the bottom-regions, the inferno of American society: the cinderblock walls, the painted emblems of Virginia law enforcement, the forest-green bars, the thin cross-wires in every pane of glass. Doors open at the buzzing behest of some unseen master-brain. Every human body is uniformed by function—officer, kitchen staff, convict. None of it invites you. It holds you hostage. Host without hospitality. It is in this place that Miss Vesta plays host: to every uniformed passerby she introduces both us and our project. “This is Mr. Walton and Mr. Hartwig. They’re going to be teaching in our summer academy this June.”

But, this week, for the first time, we welcomed Miss Vesta to our classroom. As I went through the bi-weekly routine of checking with the education office—getting our class roster, the approved box of pencils—she said, “I thought I would stop into class today. To your class, I mean. Would that be…”

“That would be great!” Dear Jesus, I hope I prepared enough… “We’re reading Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller. Does that mean anything to you?”

She shook her head.

“Great! Come. It’ll be fun.”

And, whatdyaknow, half an hour into class, Miss. Vesta knocked on the giant green door and keyed herself into the classroom.

“Am I interrupting?”

“No, no. Come in.”

All the students—well, most of the students—were sketching, with their approved pencils, on the back page of the course packet. A few were, admittedly, talking about the World Cup.

One looked up from his packet and winked. “Hello Miss Vesta.”

“Hello Mr. Mars.” She took it with a practiced teacherly elegance.

“Here, Miss Vesta,” I tore a piece of paper from my legal pad. “Draw God.”

There was a moment there—after I told her to draw God—when I think she might have regretted approving our class or, at least, worried her accreditation process was lax. What else are they doing in here? Building model villages out of Popsicle sticks? But, a guest, she sat down and began to lightly draw. We watched the clock for sixty more seconds.

“Alright everyone. Let’s share.” Nathan brought the exercise to a close.

“Anyone willing to start?” No one. “Alright. Clockwise. Mr. Levi, start us off.”

Each student shared what he had drawn: the sacred heart, Jesus as a luchador, a light bulb, a glass of water. They explained why each of these meant God for them. Miss Vesta went last.

“Alright Miss Vesta. When you imagine God you see…”

On her page was only a face. No body. A sort of androgynous, juvenile face—smiling. I wondered for a second whether she had subtly admitted to us that God, for her, was Justin Bieber or visa versa. Lifting the portrait up before the rest of the class—12 convicts who were, for the moment, her colleagues—her eyebrows arced bashfully upward.

“It’s a face. There’s…there’s its smile. I don’t know, I just, just, think of God as not really anyone specific. Y’alls were so good. I…I just, think of God sort of like this. Happy, maybe. Nice?”

I don’t know what I was expecting from her. I guess I thought somehow her drawing would stand out; that in its form and subject, her concept of God would be easily recognizable as un-imprisoned. I expected, in so many words, that Miss Vesta would conceive of God differently. Because when she unveiled to the class a bodiless, androgynous smiley-face, I thought It looks just like the inmates’. Actually, their drawings look better. But there she sat, directly to my right, no different from the 12 convicted criminals in the room. Bashful, self conscious, directed—I could no longer see the halo that before had distinguished her as part of a higher caste.

Miss Vesta did not stay in class much longer than that. She discussed her picture, sat to hear a few minutes of discussion and then, smiling quietly, politely excused herself. She stood up from the table and, unescorted, used her own key to let herself from the room.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Seated Four-Armed Ganesha

Date: ca. 1775
Culture: India (Rajasthan, Bundi)
Medium: Ink and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: 5 15/16 x 4 1/2 in. (15.1 x 11.4 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Gift of Daniel J. Slott, 1977
Accession Number: 1977.440.15

Virginia Seminar members meet in Charlottesville

Virginia Seminar Group Photo

The third meeting of the second class of the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology was held in Charlottesville, June 18-20. Members of the seminar shared updates on their book projects in progress, and Sylvie Greenberg, an agent with Fletcher & Company in New York, led a conversation on religious publishing.

Wednesday night, Carlos Eire, National Book Award-winning author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, gave a public talk entitled, “Writing on Religion without Footnotes.” He spoke about faith and writing, and shared his own remarkable journey as scholar and memoirist. You can watch or listen to his talk.

Learn more about the Virginia Seminar and its current and past members here.

Pictured above, from left: John Kiess, Peter Slade, Sylvie Greenberg, Christine Landau, Jennifer McBride, Charles Marsh, Susan Holman, Vanessa Ochs, Shea Tuttle, Valerie Cooper, Shannon Gayk, Amy Laura Hall, David Dark

UBUNTU: Dorothy Day, Zulu philosophy and laying bricks

 The final word is love.
Dorothy Day

Life in Thohoyandou is like doing a never-ending crossword puzzle. Each day brings a new set of obscure clues that aren’t obviously connected at first, but as soon as you figure out one clue, you get a little bit of insight into another. For instance, figuring out that our shower had a temperature other than viciously cold or scaldingly hot allowed me to stay in the shower long enough to both wash my hair and do my laundry. Additionally, realizing that in Tshivenda you pronounce the letter combination “sh” as “ch” made addressing the University of Venda Professors less intimidating and made learning the language easier.

shower laundry

After landing in Johannesburg the morning of June 27th, Andrea and I made our way to a hotel near the airport to rest for a couple of days while the remainder of our nine-person team flew in from their various layover points. We left for Limpopo Saturday morning in our overly fancy rental cars (they were out of Dodges so they gave us Audis??) and got to Thohoyandou just late enough at night to play the extremely terrifying local traffic game of dodge-a-person as pedestrians appeared seemingly out of nowhere to cross the road in the dark.

This past week has been simultaneously like adjusting to becoming famous overnight and being the awkward new kid at school. Everywhere we go, people we meet ask to take pictures with us, but those same people fall over laughing at our pronunciation of basic Tshivenda phrases. At every event we attend, we are treated we the utmost levels of hospitality and kindness, but the ever-present fear of committing some sort of cultural faux pas never quite lets one be at ease in a group.

All that being said, it has been an incredible first couple of weeks and in between meetings with faculty and students from the University of Venda (our primary research partner), writing our child development curriculum and learning to navigate a foreign grocery store, I have been reading The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.

dorothy not a saint

Dorothy was arguably one of the most radical Catholics in history. She was a co-founder of the newspaper The Catholic Worker, a publication that espoused Catholic social teaching and was the catalyst for the Catholic Worker Movement, a group of catholic communities that believes “the Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” The Catholic workers were famous for their houses of hospitality and Dorothy spent much of her adult life serving the poor and homeless in these houses demanding that “we must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

the catholic worker

As someone with a keen interest in community health, I am struck by what a clear message Dorothy teaches about the necessity of community engagement. “It’s the people who are important, not the masses,” she insists. That, despite what modern individualism may lead us to believe, “[w]e are our brother’s keeper. Whatever we have beyond our own needs belongs to the poor… we must give far more than bread, than shelter.” Instead, she invites, we must give ourselves.

But how to give ourselves? asked the well-meaning but seriously impatient college student, flipping tiredly through Dorothy’s diaries on her bedroom floor.

As it turns out, Dorothy Day was a big fan of the sacrament of the present moment. Discussed extensively in “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the sacrament of the present moment is championed as the entry point to God’s will and the necessary nourishment for a fulfilling life. In the words of de Caussade,

The present moment, then, is like a desert in which the soul sees only God whom it enjoys; and is only occupied about those things which He requires of it, leaving and forgetting all else, and abandoning it to Providence.


a black out poem about the sacrament of the present moment by yours truly

Last weekend when my teammates and I were receiving our cultural orientation from the faculty in the Community Engagement Office at the University of Venda, we were told that we must conduct all our work using ubuntu as our research framework. Ubuntu, Zulu for I am because you are, is the premise that guides all community engagement efforts here in Vhembe district of Limpopo. Ubuntu, like the sacrament of the present moment, requires respect for humanity and celebrates the inherent goodness of people. They both offer us a more expansive definition of hospitality by saying, “what I have is not mine alone but to be shared with whoever is present.”

Furthermore, both of these ways of living emphasize the idea that our individual choices affect greater forces of change. Dorothy Day believed that, “each act of love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. And she extended this principle to the social sphere. Each act of protest or witness for peace— though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond— might send forth ripples that could transform the world.”

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden also was famous for teaching his players about the importance of attention to detail. On the first day of practice, when his freshman recruits were raring to get on out the court and show their new coach what they could do, Coach Wooden spent time teaching them how to put their socks and shoes on correctly. After a half hour of showing them how to align the heel of their foot firmly into the heel of their socks, how to keep their socks from crinkling inside their shoes and how to tie their shoes so the sock wouldn’t bunch up, he would face his team and say:

You see, if there are wrinkles in your socks or your shoes aren’t tied properly, you will develop blisters. With blisters, you’ll miss practice. If you miss practice, you don’t play. And if you don’t play, we cannot win. If you want to win championships, you must take care of the smallest details.

John Robert Wooden (October 14, 1910 – June 4, 2010) was an American basketball player and coach. Nicknamed the "Wizard of Westwood," as head coach at UCLA he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row— an unprecedented feat

John Robert Wooden (October 14, 1910 – June 4, 2010) was an American basketball player and coach. Nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood,” as head coach at UCLA he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row— an unprecedented feat

What Coach Wooden understood was the importance of working on the little things to prepare for something bigger. And that doing so requires a focused mind and an open spirit.

Public health derives its strength from doing little things for the long term. In fact, our entire project this summer is ultimately just a pilot study and thus is only the very beginning of a potential avenue for change in these people’s lives. To be able to engage communities meaningfully, public health students must remember what Dorothy day called “the sense of the small effort.”

“People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”

I am deeply grateful for this single-brick of a project. If nothing else, it will have taught me to take more care when putting my socks and shoes on in the morning.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Training Day


I should start with a disclaimer: very few of the names from here on out will be real. Yes, Heather Warren and Nathan Walton are real people. I haven’t been lying retroactively or anything. But those names are easily found on the internet without my help anyway. This post, then, begins my pseudonyms.

I understand that lots of writers try to facilitate some kind of etymological connection between their characters and the real people from which they stem. Catullus, for instance, when he wrote about Clodia, calls her Lesbia. Not only are they metrically identical, but Lesbia refers to the Island of Lesbos where the Greek poetess Sapho lived and wrote. And in an early poem Catullus refers to Clodia as “Sapho’s Muse” (35). And so the thought is, if you are smart enough, you can make the connection from Clodia-> Sapho’s muse-> Sapho was from Lesbos-> Lesbia is Clodia. This will not be true of my pseudonyms.

Mine are meant to be merely symbolic, to match some facet of the name’s history to the real figure. So when I call a staff person Virgil, it’s not because his name has two syllables. It’s because, just like Virgil is the character that guides Dante through the Inferno, Lt. Virgil oriented us to the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Last week in the basement of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail (hereafter referred to as ACRJ) I underwent the mandatory orientation for every volunteer. Our session was particularly small because there was a tornado warning over Charlottesville—more accurately, there was a tornado over Charlottesville. “We usually have 20-40 people in these training nights,” Lieutenant Virgil began. “But a few people canceled because of the weather. So we’re gonna have more intimate evening.” There were five of us, including Nathan and me.

Virgil is a key swinging, story spinning, Mountain Dew wielding veteran of ACRJ. He started working at the jail 19 years ago—two months before I was born—and he, by his own admission, has seen it all.  Every lesson comes with a tale. “Remember, a paper clip is deadly here. Few years ago, one of them left a paper clip in his own feces—I’m not tryin’ to be gross—left it in a cup and then stabbed a brother. No one caught it, died of infection.” He’s full of stories about gang fights, illicit convict-security romances and Big Bubba.

Big Bubba is Virgil’s anti-hero, a fictional character who represents the real power in the jail. “They’re not all bad guys. These inmates, they’ve probably got no problem with you. But, you never know what Big Bubba’s gonna make them do. This is Big Bubba’s house. Cause if Big Bubba says ‘give me your lunch’ what else are you gonna do? You just never know.” Right down to its central character, the jail is storied.

But these are cautionary tales, like my Italian mother used to tell. “One of my cousins tripped in her kitchen and the knives were facing up in the dishwasher…” “In school, girls could get reputations…” Somehow, with his stories and his veterancy, Virgil strikes me as maternal. I guess in a strange place, with dangerous people, you naturally look for someone to latch on to, to teach you how to live here.

“I like to start off with a short introduction and then two videos I like to show and then we’ll talk a little bit and, uh, that’ll do it. With this small a number though it shouldn’t take all that long.” Virgil put in a VHS and stepped back from the TV.

Here are a few of the notes I took.

“Security isn’t just a concern for security staff. It’s a concern for everyone.” I guess this is the point of this whole night.

“Don’t trust an inmate with any information about yourself.” Then how am I supposed to teach an autobiography class?!

“We should stop using the word trustee in the prisons. Not one of them is trustworthy, not even a trustee.”

“Do not share anything with an inmate.”

“At any time, if they wanted to, they could take this place over.”

Halfway through the first VHS, the tornado knocked out the power. All the lights died and a siren like a thousand cacophonous chalkboards filled the flashing room.

After twenty minute’s preaching how there was not single trustworthy inmate in the entire facility, I was trapped in their powerless house, like that scene from Dark Night Rises. I was half-prepared to see Bane come barreling through the barred door and rally a prison army. What is keeping this untrustworthy army from staging a coup d’état? I will not die in a jail uprising during a tornado. Where’s Batman? “Let’s just take it outside,” Virgil calmly yelled over the sirens. He led us out a side door, into the inferno, into the tornado. We huddled under a small awning to keep out of the pouring rain. Out of the jail and into the storm.

You see, I have been trained.

Not in self-defense or in classroom control, but in a storied kind of fear. When I tell people that I’m volunteering at the jail, the look on their faces say, Eh, it’s not a prison. The stories come in handy there. “But one time this guy got stabbed with a feces-covered paper clip…” I say it like it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

But my mind runs an endless parade of Office-Depot homicide scenarios.  This is really what our training taught me to do: fear creatively. There was no hand-to-hand combat or issuing of badges and guns. There was no active self-defense. Just figure out how your clothing, your utensils, parts of your own body, can be weaponized before someone else does. You are a walking armament, self-destructive. Entering the jail, you have to strip down: glasses, pen, wallet, loose quarters all go in cubby 38. I usually feel naked just without my iPhone. This is like losing my skin.

Inside, it’s a scramble for fig leaves. My demeanor waffles between cold and polite—whichever, at the moment, seems the most effective form of protection. With every passerby—guard, prisoner, volunteer—there is a second of paralysis in which I re-arm myself. In the house, you are your only protection: expression, stance, stature. I have to hide behind myself. And I am not much to hide behind.

So many Christians think that at the heart of our religion is a binary: faith/doubt. So much has been written to explain and thus reinforce that binary. The prosperity Gospel, theological commiserations over the inability to believe, Dostoevsky. But it seems to me, from the New Testament at least, that the binary is actually one of faith and fear. Trust and fear. That seems a little bit more reasonable to me, a little bit more relatable. The question of trust and fear is not really one of knowing facts. It’s a way of standing before something we do not entirely understand–like God, or the World, for that matter. Bonhoeffer wrote of fear, “Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives.” Fear is a disposition, an orientation.

But then Bonhoeffer creates this call and response. “Fear is in the boat–Christ is in the boat.” Fear enters the boat, and Christ comes walking across the water. Fear enters the church, and the Spirit of God rests among them. Fear enters the prison; so do I. I have to bring Christ there. What does that mean? At first thought, I think it means to challenge the mechanisms of fear, to dwell on them and find their defeat. Christ is bigger than the system, bigger than the warden, bigger even than Big Bubba. He is bigger and he is near. Christ is in the jail. We are there to visit him. “Fear not. I am.”

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:


Leah Balsham
(American, born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1915)

Publisher: Published by WPA
Date: 1939
Medium: Woodcut
Dimensions: block: 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.6 cm) sheet: 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. (29.2 x 36.8 cm)
Classification: Prints
Credit Line: WPA New York Project, 1943
Accession Number: 43.47.67

Charles Marsh to discuss Strange Glory on NPR show, The Spark

The Spark LogoFriday evening at 6:20 p.m., NPR station WMRA’s The Spark will feature Charles Marsh discussing Strange Glory with host Martha Woodroof. For more information on broadcast locations, a link to listen online, and a web extra interview available now, click here.

From the WMRA website:
“The Spark is WMRA’s own creative look at –well– creativity. We dig into whatever people are passionate about in the WMRA region: sculpture, model railroading, costume-making, poetry, whatever….Consider this a community-wide celebration of the many people among us who invest time, energy and discipline into pushing against life’s boundaries.”

Strange Glory in Los Angeles, June 10 and 13

0424 Cville - wide balcony Web VersionCharles Marsh, project director and author of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be in Los Angeles, California, for two book events next week. Thursday, July 10, he will read from Strange Glory at 7:30 p.m. at the Last Bookstore. Sunday, July 13, at 6:30 p.m., Pacific Crossroads Church will host a book discussion at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Visit livedtheology.org often, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for updates on book events around the country. Join the conversation about the book with #StrangeGlory. For more information about Strange Glory, click here.

Do Be Do Be Do

To be is to do – Socrates
To do is to be – Sartre
Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra

― Kurt Vonnegut

Christianity, to me, has always been just as much about family as it has been about faith. My religious upbringing consisted of two parts dinner table conversation for each part doctrine, and I don’t have any memories of going to church on Christmas with my family because our Uncle Bud (a.k.a Father McCloskey), a Jesuit priest, would just do mass in the living room for us on holidays. Saints were people that my mom and grandma called up for favors and the Pope was a man kind of like the president: I knew I liked the greater organization that he governed but that didn’t mean that I felt obliged to agree with his every proclamation.

Though certain currents of Catholicism were lost on me growing up, others held me rapt. From a young age, I was captivated by the distinction that Catholics make between social service and social justice: that the former responds to the effects of a problem while the latter responds to the cause of a problem. The idea that you could heal broken people by healing broken systems seemed to me like one of the most true ways to love a person; that when Catholics asked how they could do the most good in someone’s life, they were really asking how they could do the longest (or most sustainable) good.

Studying public health has been in many ways a commitment to asking how I can do the longest good for people in need. Tonight I will be traveling to Limpopo, South Africa with a team of graduates and undergraduates from U.Va. to spend five weeks piloting a child development training program for nurses from the Ministry of Health in Limpopo.

When it comes to offering people a means of ensuring the longest good in their lives, child development programs are public health’s Lionel Messi: slight in their appearance but colossal in their impact. What happens during the early years is of crucial importance for every child’s development. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of vulnerability to negative influences. Efforts to improve early child development are an investment, not a cost. Available cost-benefit ratios of early intervention indicate that for every dollar spent on improving early child development, returns can be on average 4 to 5 times the amount invested, and in some cases, much higher.

The nurses at the Limpopo Health Department in Limpopo, South Africa, currently have no standardized methodology by which they can assess the developmental stage of the children that they care for in their communities and no systematized approach for intervention. This would be a significant problem anywhere, but in Limpopo, this disparity is exacerbated by the fact that 39% of the population is under 15 years of age and it is also the province in South Africa with the highest proportion of children living in poverty (83%). Both of these factors contribute to Limpopo’s concerningly high under-five mortality rate of 55 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is 1.2 times higher than the rest of South Africa.

I am very hopeful that we will have good turnout for our training program this summer and that my team will learn a lot from the nurses about what aspects of our curriculum will be most relevant to their work. But it’s easy to get ahead of myself. Though the public health student in me wants this summer to be about collecting good data so we can conduct a good needs assessment when this is all over, I will have to make a continual effort to be open-minded to the cornucopia of people and perspectives that are coming together to work on this project. And that is where this blog comes in.

The Catholic Church highlights seven main themes of their teaching on social justice: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation. Throughout the course of my time in Limpopo, I want to study these themes and reflect upon how their meaning comes to life in the context of the people we meet and the places we go.

This week I have been been reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The book is about a young English boy named Peekay who is growing up in South Africa just as the seeds of Apartheid begin to take root. Peekay has dreams of growing up to be “welterweight champion of the world.” A dream which, because of his small size and proclivity for trouble, actually has a good enough chance of occurring, according to the Improbability Principle.

On the road to becoming welterweight champion of the world, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenewald, train conductor and boxing champion who passes on to him what proves to be transformative advice:

Say always to yourself, “first with the head, and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start” (103)

Peekay calls this ‘the power of one’–the power of ”one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination” (103). As I head off to South Africa in less than ten hours, it’s hard not to be taken with the simple elegance Hoppie’s limericked advice. Why bother spending part of my time abroad studying themes that I’ve learned “with my head” since a young age?

Peekay loves boxing vocabulary because “the words and the terms had a direction, they meant business.” Similarly, I have loved social justice doctrine because to me these are the words in Christianity that can most clearly be turned into action. However, though conceptually I know that “loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world” or that “we are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences,” I have had scant opportunity to live these ideas out in any other context than the socioeconomic environment of Northern Virginia.

I am unspeakably blessed to have grown up with the family, friends, resources and opportunities that I have been given; they are such that they have allowed me to go on trips like this one and write this blog for the Internship in Lived Theology. And though one must not rely on travelling 8,115 miles from home to gain a deeper understanding of values that they hold most dear, to borrow from St. Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”

And so I am off to South Africa: to read about social justice more deeply and to do so “with the heart.”

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.