Review of Joel Looper’s Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021. $39.00. 260 pp.

Baylor Univ. Press, 2021

In a 1934 letter to M. Gandhi, in which Bonhoeffer was enquiring about the possibility of visiting Gandhi in India, Bonhoeffer revealed one of the reasons for this request.  He stated, “I went to the U.S.A. to find what I was looking for—but I did not find it.”  This statement reveals the tension in Bonhoeffer’s relationship to America.  On the one hand, he was fascinated by and attracted to America.  His fascination, fueled by the conclusions of some respected church leaders, such as Visser’t Hooft, who believed America represented the future of the church, led Bonhoeffer to seek a fellowship to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York during the 1930-31 academic year.  America was also the place he briefly sought refuge from the war in the summer of 1939.  Even though these experiences had a profound and lasting influence on his theology, his impressions of America’s theological tradition were far from positive, however.  As a result, he was disappointed.  When viewed through his European Lutheran eyes, he reported that the churches in New York he attended preached virtually everything but the gospel of Jesus Christ” (17); in other words, the churches “lacked the gospel” (27).  So while he went to America in search of something, what he found here—or perhaps more accurately what was missing here— led to his disappointment.

This tension provides the dynamic at the center of Joel Looper’s insightful book, Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation, which delves into both Bonhoeffer’s experiences in and impressions of America.  The study focuses on both visits Bonhoeffer made to America in the 1930s and provides a detailed analysis of both his report on his year at Union and his 1939 essay, “Protestantism without Reformation.”  The latter essay, to which the subtitle refers, serves to identify the basic characteristic of American Christianity, as perceived by Bonhoeffer.  He was convinced that American Protestantism was “not exactly Protestant” (2) at all.  This is because the origins of American Christianity are not rooted in the 16th century Reformation but are found in Pre-Reformation ideas.  Instead of locating the origins of Christianity in America in Puritan ideals, which is traditional way of understanding the nature of American Christianity, Bonhoeffer’s analysis is based on the conclusions of the 1923 work of Thomas Cuming Hall, which he had most likely read during his stay in Union in 1930-31.  In this work, The Religious Background of American Culture, Hall identifies the character of American Christianity as having its origins in the Pre-Reformation ideas of John Wycliffe and the late 14th-early 15th century Lollard movement in England. This work offered Bonhoeffer a different framework for understanding American Christianity; as Bonhoeffer himself wrote, Hall’s thesis that “American Protestantism developed essentially untouched by Reformation Protestantism as a continuation of Wycliffite ideas and of radical dissent, was very informative for my understanding of the American church situation” (77-78).  With this interpretation of America’s religious origins as background, Looper admits that “Bonhoeffer had very good reasons for leveling [his] criticisms against American Protestantism” (2).   In this context he examines both the theological currents (particularly as discussed at Union) and church practices as Bonhoeffer experienced them in worship and preaching in American churches.  Except for Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Bonhoeffer’s judgment on the state of the church in America, informed by Hall’s work, was negative.

Looper identifies the main purpose of his study, which is to make a contribution to Bonhoeffer studies by “clarifying the nature of his descriptions and critiques of the American church” (3).  He accomplishes this in a series of six chapters in which he provides an extensive examination of Bonhoeffer’s American experience by analyzing the context and background of his judgments.  In chapter 1, he introduces the study with an outline of Bonhoeffer’s experiences in America, with a particular focus on his 1930-31 year of study at Union. Chapter 2 provides a more in-depth look at Bonhoeffer’s year at Union by describing his teachers, in particular Eugene Lyman, Harry F. Ward, and Reinhold Niebuhr.  In addition to providing a summary of their theology, Looper places them in the theological context of the 1920s and 30s America, together with the struggles of that period that shaped their thinking.  In so doing, Looper also provides an overview of the main currents of American liberal theology in the early 20th century.  After describing this setting, he develops Bonhoeffer’s opposition to his theological teachers, concluding that Bonhoeffer and his teachers were “on different wavelengths” (42).

Chapter 3, which focuses on Bonhoeffer’s 1939 essay “Protestantism without Reformation,” analyzes Bonhoeffer’s own impressions, using the insights he had gained through the reading of Hall’s earlier work.  In addition, this chapter outlines the development and main characteristics of John Wycliffe’s Pre-Reformation theology, which Looper characterizes by the twin impulses of “inwardness and individualism.”  When translated into the American context, this has led, according to Bonhoeffer, to the “jettisoning of truth,” which was the hallmark of the Protestant Reformation. Chapter 4 continues the focus on Bonhoeffer’s 1939 essay, but in this instance examining it in terms of the theme of secularization.  After summarizing some of the main proponents of secularization theses as advocated by Milbank, Stout, Taylor, et. al., Looper turns to Bonhoeffer and his contribution to the discussion.  Drawing on his insights gained from his reading of Hall’s work, Bonhoeffer concluded that American society was undergoing secularization, but rather than happening outside of the church, “it was happening inside it” (106).  Prioritizing the separation of church and state, the churches gave priority to “the politics of the nation” with the result that the “church is in chains” and the Gospel had been eclipsed because politics had infringed on the church.  The result, according to Bonhoeffer, was that the churches preached about everything and anything, except for “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness” (107). 

Chapters 5 and 6 explore later developments in Bonhoeffer’s thinking to determine that lasting influence of his American experience on his theology.  While Bonhoeffer’s experiences in America left him with a bad taste in his mouth, there was one exception:  what he encountered at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he worshiped regularly and taught Sunday School for the better part of the year he spent in New York.  While the main impulse shaping the church in America was pre-reformational, he discovered “Reformational theology” at Abyssinian, where he “heard the gospel preached” (130).  This experience tempered his opinion of American Christianity but, in addition, “the “African American issue” also “awoke Bonhoeffer to the plight of the Jews” (129) when he returned to Germany.   Even though Bonhoeffer’s focus may have shifted in his latter writings, he remained consistent in his judgment of the American church.  For example, when Bonhoeffer envisioned the church of the future in some of his final writings, it is a church shaped by the gospel and Luther’s two kingdoms teaching, the very things he found absent in the American church.

Beyond these main themes, Looper also provides an overview of racism in American, viewed through the history of Abyssinian and the preaching of its pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr.  In turn, he shows what influence this had on Bonhoeffer’s own involvement in “Operation 7,” a mission that helped 14 Jews escape safely to Switzerland, demonstrating in another way the lasting influence America had on Bonhoeffer’s life and thought.

Reading Bonhoeffer’s theology in terms of continuity (rather than change) Looper argues that Bonhoeffer’s American experience shaped him and that his critique of America remained as well.  Given the reality that Bonhoeffer could not have experienced the breadth of American Christianity does not change his assessment of Bonhoeffer’s theological orientation, which remained centered on God’s Word.

While the main focus of Looper’s work is on Bonhoeffer’s impressions of America, his is more than a pure historical study.  Looper is interested in Bonhoeffer’s take on American church life and theology because, if he is correct, there are implications in the way Christianity is lived today. What, for example, are the ramifications for the church and society when the Gospel is absent (2)?

If Bonhoeffer’s analysis of America is correct, then there are insights for understanding the religious impulses driving much of the anti-government, anti-science, anti-intellectual movement in early 21st century America.  Consider the “radical individualism” that has come to embody American identity; if it indeed has roots in the Lollard movement in Pre-Reformation England and its abandonment of the church as institution in favor of following one’s own inner light, it is quite possible that what we are witnessing is not a passing phenomenon that can be ignored, but rather might very well be the spiritual heartbeat of American Christianity; however, with its emphasis on “individualistic religiosity” American Christianity might well miss ”the point of the gospel” (195).  But even if his (and by extension, Hall’s) conclusions are not 100% accurate, which Looper acknowledges, this analysis provides a fascinating read for anyone interested in the fundamental elements of America’s religious origins and the unique role religion holds in America today.  Without question, this study provides insights into the dynamics fueling the “culture wars.”  This makes Looper’s study an important contribution to the current discussion of American public life.  

Because of its focus on this unique chapter in Bonhoeffer’s life, this book belongs on the shelf of all who are interested in the influences on Bonhoeffer’s thought.  Its approachable style makes it an accessible text to academics, students, clergy, and laity alike.  But because of the scope of Looper’s analysis, this work should be of interest to anyone who is concerned about the impulses that have shaped America’s version of Christianity that continue to have an impact on public life in America in the 21st century. 

H. Gaylon Barker, Molloy University

Treasurer, International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section




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