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“Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation” by Joel Looper

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in America has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. It is clear it had enormous impact on his theology, but what hasn’t been as clear is exactly what kind of impact it may have had. Joel Looper’s phenomenal, challenging work, Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation not only seeks to answer definitively what kind of impact Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States had on the man and his theology, but also shows how extremely timely Bonhoeffer’s words and warnings about American theology can be for us today.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “What Bonhoeffer Saw in America,” is Looper’s deep narration of Bonhoeffer’s life in America. Here, Looper delves deeply into Bonhoeffer’s coursework at Union Theological Seminary, who he interacted with, and what he himself reports about the situation with American theology. This part lays the foundation for the rest of the book. Here, Looper’s depth of knowledge and exploration of Bonhoeffer’s theology is on full display. It’s not just a report of Bonhoeffer’s time and words, but also an analysis that helps elucidate themes in Bonhoeffer’s writing from this time period that make much more clear what his issues were with American theology. Much of Bonhoeffer’s writing from his time in America is difficult to understand or comprehend without significant knowledge of contemporary issues, and Looper does an admirable job filling in those gaps, showing readers the background for understanding many of Bonhoeffer’s critiques. For example, some have utilized Bonhoeffer’s hard critiques of the social gospel to attempt to decry modern movements for social justice. However, Looper demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s critique of the social gospel is not because it seeks to bring justice, but rather because it displaces the very gospel itself–that is, it doesn’t center revelation in Christ in the Christian message (see, for example pages 41, 46, and especially 48-49). The problem is not the ultimate efforts to feed the poor, stand with the oppressed, &c. The problem is, rather, the starting point of theology and its abandonment of revelation as the ultimate grounds.

The second part of the book focuses on Bonhoeffer’s analysis of American Protestantism specifically. American theology, as read by Bonhoeffer, had a primary problem in that it was “Protestantism without Reformation.” The meaning of this phrase is complex, but Looper notes that for Bonhoeffer, it can be traced back to Wycliffe and the Lollards. This sounds like an obscure point, but Looper, making Bonhoeffer’s own arguments clearer, shows how and why one might take this to be the case, particularly in the circles in which Bonhoeffer ran. It is clear, of course, that Bonhoeffer was not exposed to all of American theology, but what he saw ran in this vein, and the more conservative branches of theology he encountered were, in his opinion, little more than the most blunt and un-nuanced attempts to enforce orthodoxy. The Protestantism of the United States is so influenced by the strands Bonhoeffer mentioned that even Jonathan Edwards, cited by many as one of the greatest theologians America as produced, doesn’t even mention the church in his discussion of what one needs to be saved (75-76). American churches gave up any kind of confessional standard, only enforcing them after splitting again and again, and, in doing so, abandoned the Christian confession (86). American Protestants, for Bonhoeffer, no longer had something against which to protest, because they had severed themselves so distantly from the one true, holy, catholic church (86-87).

Even more damning is Bonhoeffer’s analysis of secularization in America. The pluralism enforced in America led to a kind of secularization of the church and idolization of the individual to the point that the allegiance was given to the nation state rather than to the church and God (102-103). This can be traced, again, to English dissenters who formed the backbone of colonial America. The secularization of the church is not due to some outside force acting upon it, but rather due to the church itself abandoning the word and being, again, a Protestantism without any kind of Reformation. In America, rather than having state churches, secularization came into play precisely because of the focus on freedom and independence–the church then becomes a mouthpiece for the alleged freedom the state provides (106-107).

Bonhoeffer’s own oft-misunderstood theology of the two kingdoms is, according to Looper, central to his understanding of the Gospel as well. Here is where Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism is so central to his understanding of the problems with American theology and beyond. The call for “thy kingdom come” must include both church and state precisely because of the two kingdoms theology–the church and state are both necessary and linked to one another (113-114). Thus, the famous phrase from Bonhoeffer about “seizing the wheel” is not actually revolutionary but rather counter-revolutionary. Bonhoeffer saw the Nazis as the revolutionaries, and such an understanding fits well within the Two Kingdoms theology Bonhoeffer so ardently supported.

The third part of the book centers around objections to both Bonhoeffer’s view of the American church and objections that seek to counter this narrative. For example, much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s largely positive analysis of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Looper doesn’t downplay this positive theme in Bonhoeffer’s analysis of America, but he does contextualize it. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was, to our knowledge, the only African American church he encountered in the United States apart from perhaps one or two Sundays in the American south (131). Bonhoeffer has threads that sound like W.E.B. Du Bois in some of his analysis of the American situation, such as when he talks about what is “hidden behind the veil of words in the American constitution saying ‘all men are created free and equal'” (136). It’s clear this had a positive and even eye-opening impact on Bonhoeffer, and traces of this can be found in his theology. Bonhoeffer’s own discussion of Jews in Germany, such as in his “The Church and the Jewish Question” may have been somewhat influenced here. Looper analyzes Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the Jewish people and shows how, while at times it is couched in problematic language, it demonstrates a deeper understanding and concern than one could credit him merely given his background or upbringing. (The whole section on this is a fascinating read, showing clear analysis that’s well-worth reading. See p. 141-146 in particular.) Bonhoeffer’s theology, however, remained firmly German Lutheran, and his own life-risking efforts in behalf of the Jews were not traceable to some kind of vague Western morality of “equality of all” but rather, Looper asserts, clearly based upon his Christology (150). Thus, Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian church demonstrates a caveat in his analysis of American theology. Rather than a total rejection of all American theology, Bonhoeffer’s words ought to be seen directed exactly as they were, against the overwhelmingly popular academic streams of thought in contemporary American theology.

Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and his now famous Letters and Papers from Prison have led some to argue that he changed his views profoundly while in prison. Looper instead notes that his late-stage theology has continuity with that of his earlier life.

Looper’s work serves as a powerful challenge to many theologies of today. For those adhering to modern forms of the social gospel, Bonhoeffer’s warnings and critiques of that movement from his own time continue to apply: are these movements removing Christ from the center? For progressive Christians, Bonhoeffer’s critique of the social gospel can loom large–“Do such [progressive] theologies tend to respond to the critique of the word [revelation, Scripture] and think critically about their subjects in its wake? Or, rather, do they often begin with the (oppressed) self and work from the experience of that self and the non-ecclesial community with which it identifies? If the latter, are these theologies then only variants of ‘religious’ logic…?” (197-198). For conservatives, especially American evangelicals, Looper notes that the constant efforts to try to maintain a “seat at the table” in the larger world and their defense of their institutions, even to the point of, as many have said, voting while “holding their nose” for someone who, ethically, cannot be defended, would have been seen by Bonhoeffer as “Niebuhrian realism, pragmatism par excellence, and, in working from this script, evangelicals both brought the name of Christ into disrepute and forgot how the economy of God and of the church are supposed to work… Bonhoeffer would have called this evangelical struggle a cause of American secularization, not a buffer against it” (196). Bonhoeffer would see American theology today as a total abandonment of Protestant norms, exactly because of his theology of two kingdoms (joined with Luther’s) and because of the stark pragmatism of the right and the rush to de-center the Gospel on the left (198). Looper’s book thus serves as a blunt reminder of the dangers of our modern theological era and the need to offer correctives.

I have now read more than 70 books by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his theology, and the world he inhabited in order to try to understand more about the man and his theology. Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation easily ranks in the top 10 of those books. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Bonhoeffer’s theology should consider it a must read. More importantly, though, those wishing to have an understanding of American theology and its problems to this day should seek out this fantastic book. I highly recommend it without reservation.

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