A Land without Reformation
Imprint: Baylor University Press
272 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: August 2021
In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary looking for a "cloud of witnesses." What he found instead disturbed, angered, and perplexed him. "There is no theology here," he wrote to a German colleague. The New York churches, if possible, were even worse: "They preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed... namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life." Bonhoeffer acts for American Protestantism as an Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America, a cultural and political analysis of the new republic, appeared a century prior. But what the Berlin theologian found was, if possible, more significant than the observations of the French aristocrat: Protestantism in America was a "Protestantism without Reformation."
Bonhoeffer’s America explicates these criticisms, then turns to consider what they tell us about Bonhoeffer’s own theological commitments and whether, in fact, his judgments about America were accurate. Joel Looper first brings Bonhoeffer’s reformational and Barthian commitments into relief against the work of several Union theologians and the broader American theological milieu. He then turns to Bonhoeffer’s own genealogy of American Protestantism to explore why it developed as it did: steeped in dissenting influences, the American church became one that resisted critique by the word of God. American Protestantism is not Protestant, Bonhoeffer shows us, not like the churches that emerged from the Continental Reformation. This difference gave rise to the secularization of the American church.
Bonhoeffer’s claims against the church in the United States, Looper contends, hold strong, even after considering objections to this narrative—Bonhoeffer’s experience with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and the possibility that Bonhoeffer, during his time in Tegel Prison, abandoned the theological commitments that undergirded his critique. Bonhoeffer’s America concludes that what Bonhoeffer saw in America, the twenty-first-century American church should strive to see for itself.
I What Bonhoeffer Saw in America
1 "There Is No Theology Here": Bonhoeffer and American Christianity
2 Coursework: Bonhoeffer at Union Theological Seminary
II Renarrating the Story of American Protestantism
3 "Protestantism without Reformation": An American Genealogy of Dissent
4 The Eclipse of the Word: An American Narrative of Secularization
5 A Gospel Community: Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem
6 The Word Still Reigns: Tegel Prison, Berlin
Historians and theologians have known about the two trips that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made to the United States in the 1930s, but no one has examined what he said about American Christianity and American church life as insightfully as Joel Looper in this book. Bonhoeffer’s America is particularly compelling on why Bonhoeffer differed so fundamentally with Reinhold Niebuhr and how his worship with African American Baptists in New York City may have affected his impression of America. The book is excellent theological history that includes a sobering word for our own times.~Mark A. Noll, author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada
Joel Looper’s account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1930s liberal Protestant America has some of the deep, engrossing appeal of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, written almost exactly a century earlier. Bonhoeffer—martyred by Hitler and so all-too-readily taken by Americans to be ‘on our side’—may have missed what an outsider would miss during his American sojourn, but he saw with incisive and sometimes harsh clarity what only an outsider could see. Looper captures the overall encounter with a perfect blend of candor, sympathy, and richly informed context.~Jack Miles, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography and Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story
Joel Looper’s book—a careful study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of American Protestantism—fills an important gap in Bonhoeffer studies. Unlike other inquiries into Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States, Looper pays particular attention to Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Union Theological Seminary professors Eugene Lyman, Harry F. Ward, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The results are fruitful; he entertains fundamental questions about the task of theology and considers the implications of Bonhoeffer’s political theology for the contemporary American church.~Lori Brandt Hale, Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy, Augsburg University
This is a book that has long needed to be written. Joel Looper has done a masterful job showing that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology is not easily assimilated to American categories of whatever stripe, that in fact he often stands over against the theological assumptions in the United States. Bonhoeffer’s America should be at the heart of any conversation or study having to do with the continuing significance of Bonhoeffer for our times.~Barry Harvey, Professor of Theology, Baylor University