In Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation, Joel Looper assesses the merits of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s evaluation of American theology. The content of Bonhoeffer’s evaluation was developed during his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Looper makes clear that he is invested primarily in Bonhoeffer’s method and, subsequently, the validity of his conclusions (7). To that end, he engagingly excavates the foundations—and architecture—of Bonhoeffer’s specific concerns. Looper is a compelling writer with a gift for framing the complex issues that intersect in Bonhoeffer’s argument.
In chapter 1, Looper outlines Bonhoeffer’s fourfold critique of American theology. First, he is dismissive of the American impulse to claim the Spirit’s direct voice to the individual (18). Second, he notes a deprioritization of the central message of the Bible (22). Third, he claims that Americans confound the Kingdom of God with progressive social action (22). Finally, he sees in American Christianity a failure to centralize “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” which is the gospel itself (27). In this brief but effective chapter, Looper establishes the foundations of Bonhoeffer’s thought and then proceeds to dissect those claims in the remainder of the book.
Looper begins that dissection in chapter 2 by intricately examining Bonhoeffer’s studies in America. This chapter contains some of Looper’s most convincing work. Not only does he engage the texts assigned to Bonhoeffer while at Union, but he also gives context for the professors assigning those readings: Eugene Lyman, Harry F. Ward, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Looper’s investigation of these influences richly illuminates the disposition of the American theological community Bonhoeffer encountered. This makes for a grounded and humanizing consideration of the “exasperated dismissals” Bonhoeffer communicated while at Union (57).
Chapter 3 ambitiously attempts to sketch the full scope of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of American Christian history. Looper provides good evidence that Bonhoeffer saw the Lollard movement (a Protestant faction led by John Wycliffe committed to the idea that “the priesthood of all believers” licensed theologies built on subjective experience and individual interpretation of Scripture) and the theological fatigue of European refugees as the main influences on the American theological trajectory. Looper also helpfully explains ways in which these groups shaped and informed American Christianity (71-77). When he returns to Bonhoeffer’s explicit challenge to American Protestantism, and the Lollards specifically, Looper’s historical excavation provides welcome context to Bonhoeffer’s concerns. Perhaps the greatest strength of this chapter is Looper’s clear analysis of Bonhoeffer’s view that American Christianity was infected by enthusiasm (schwärmerei). Enthusiasm is a particularly complex concept in Bonhoeffer’s thought, and it is no small achievement that Looper so clearly explains how Bonhoeffer applies that term to American Protestantism (76-80).
Chapter 4 examines Bonhoeffer’s account of American secularization. Specifically, Looper unpacks Bonhoeffer’s argument that American churches adopt the methods of engagement that should be reserved for the state to address issues of religious liberty. In doing so, Bonhoeffer argues that the church secularizes by seeking self-protection through improper means (106-107). This self-protection, according to Looper, is a malformation of Bonhoeffer’s unique version of Lutheran Two-Kingdoms thinking and amounts to a rejection of truly reformational Christianity (109-113). It is not a small or easy task to lay out exactly what Bonhoeffer’s version of Lutheranism was, and Looper acquits himself well here. This was a particularly helpful chapter for understanding why Bonhoeffer saw America as non-reformational (115-119).
Chapter 5 is simultaneously the most compelling and most frustrating of the book. It is frustrating only because one finishes the chapter wishing that Looper had given more time to the content. Looper attempts to fit in an examination of Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem, an evaluation of Bonhoeffer’s views of racial justice, and the influence of Harlem on Bonhoeffer’s Nazi resistance. The treatment of these complex topics might have benefited from, minimally, another chapter of engagement. Further, Looper claims Abyssinian Baptist, the church Bonhoeffer attended in Harlem, was more of a reformational community than its white counterparts, thereby avoiding enthusiasm, and connects this to Bonhoeffer’s approval of Abyssinian’s theology (153). This seems, at least in what is presented, a strong claim considering how explicitly Bonhoeffer connects the social gospel to enthusiasm and the fact that the social gospel was preached from the Abyssinian pulpit. I would have appreciated more analysis in this area especially.Chapter 6 provides a clear, concise, and helpful argument for reading Bonhoeffer’s prison letters not as signs of a changing theology, but rather as attempts to communicate unchanging claims to a changing world (167). This final chapter drives home all that is best about Bonhoeffer’s America. Looper identifies the threads that connect Bonhoeffer’s central concerns with American Christianity to his late reflections at Tegel Prison. In doing so, he demonstrates that Bonhoeffer held firm throughout his life to the view that the Spirit works in the Word to orient the church towards the revelation of God in Christ. Whereas early American Christians abandoned this central confession for religious freedom, Bonhoeffer held firm even under the threat of death (187).
Looper’s work clearly assesses the complex architecture of Bonhoeffer’s critique of America. He accessibly and helpfully excavates a particularly nuanced Bonhoefferian argument. However, one would welcome more from Looper. It is not clear that Bonhoeffer understood all of American Christianity. To that point, there is only a brief mention in this book of the streams of American Christianity Bonhoeffer never experienced. Looper argues that Bonhoeffer’s critique is far-reaching enough for application to the future of American Christianity (194-195). However, this may not be apparent to readers who hold that the future of American Christianity will be defined by the types of Christianity Bonhoeffer never fully encountered (e.g., Pentecostalism ). What Looper does provide is a clear, rigorous, and richly readable account of what Bonhoeffer saw when he called America a “land without reformation.” I would gladly welcome another volume from Looper about the land that Bonhoeffer never witnessed and the implications of that land for the future of American Christianity and the validity of Bonhoeffer’s critique.
Christopher Whyte is a PhD candidate in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews.
Date Of Review:
January 30, 2023
Joel Looper is Adjunct Faculty for the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Coordinator for Shalom Mission Communities.
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