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Harry Vaughan Smith lectures on Dietrich Bonhoeffer pack Newton and inspire conversations

Provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lectures.
Provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Dietrich Bonhoeffer lectures.

A mixed crowd of community members and Mercer students and faculty packed Newton Chapel at the Harry Vaughan Smith Lecture series on Feb. 16 and 17.

Each year, since 1992, the Christianity department at Mercer hosts the Harry Vaughan Smith Lectures to invite distinguished individuals ranging from university professors to ministers to speak on a variety of topics relating to Christian scholarship and theology.

This year, Mercer invited Charles Marsh, a native of Mobile, Alabama, down from Virginia to give a lecture series on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, titled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: New Perspectives of His Life, Thoughts, and Promise.”[sidebar title="Who is Charles Marsh?" align="right" background="on" border="all" shadow="off"]

Marsh is the Commonwealth professor of religious studies and director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He has written two books on Bonhoeffer’s life: Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology (Oxford, 1994) and Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, New York, 2014).

Graduating from Harvard Divinity School, Marsh earned his Ph.D. in 1989 at the University of Virginia. Marsh served as the Ellen Maria Gorrissen Fellow at the American Academy of Berlin in 2010 after receiving the 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Fellows in the Creative Arts.


All three lectures given by Marsh, in a similar way, narrated the life of Bonhoeffer and his Christian journey.

The lectures were divided into three different talks with the first, titled “I Heard the Gospel Preached in the Negro Churches of America”: Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Awakening, taking place at 10:50 a.m. on Feb. 16; the second, titled Theological Storm Troopers on the March: Bonhoeffer’s Protest against the Nazi’s Twisted Cross, at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 16; and the third, titled “Are We Still of Any Use?” Bonhoeffer’s Final Questions and the Christian Witness in the 21st Century, at 10:00 a.m. on Feb. 17.

Although Marsh presented a phenomenal lecture on Bonhoeffer’s life, and with great detail, Marsh could be hard to follow for the unseasoned theologian and non-Christian studies enthusiast.

Even Marina Mixon, Mercer sophomore and Cure Mercer club president, who read about Bonhoeffer prior to the lecture series, said that she participated in a “one hour theological debate” to clarify with her professor after attending the lecture. Mixon is featuring Bonhoeffer in an essay due for her INT 201 class, Building Community.

Bonhoeffer was born on Feb. 4, 1906 in what was then Breslau, Prussia of the German Empire (now Wroclaw, Poland). Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran Pastor and theologian. He was a key founding member of the Confessing Church and his writing on Christianity in a secular world has become widely influential. His most notable book is The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Bonhoeffer died on April 9, 1945, at age 39, at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by the 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions from the United States.

Overall the lecture series was a success, showing a great turnout at all three events. In particular, Marsh’s second lecture showed a full audience and his third was in front of a packed Newton Chapel. Marsh said that the second lecture was quite special for him because his parents, Bob and Ira Marsh, were both in attendance.

The Mercer students, faculty and community guests were very much involved in Marsh’s lecture. They laughed when appropriate and were quiet when the subject called for it.. At the conclusion of his lectures, Marsh thanked the audience and took a few questions.

At the final lecture, many community members stayed back to discuss what they had heard and met with Marsh personally as the Mercer students hurried to their classes.

Mercer professor of theology, Allen Lewis, said that Marsh made Bonhoeffer more compelling of a character in an intimate interview. Lewis is familiar with Bonhoeffer through his scholarship in theology and ethics.

Lewis went on to say that he felt that Marsh’s topic was quite timely in that it dealt with Christianity and politics. Lewis described how Bonhoeffer’s situation consisted of economic politics and nationalism distorting Christianity and linked it mildly to the current U.S. political climate and presidential campaigns.

“We should be aware and sensitive to that,” Lewis said.

In all, Lewis said that this year’s lecture series was not better nor worse than previous years, as he explained that they have all been enriching and different.

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