ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes

   

Home  ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)   

Google
 

 "For Bonhoeffer, it was the beginning of an ethics instructed by aesthetics. Bonhoeffer did theology in conversation

with James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks, and

the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, poets of the Harlem Renaissance."

 

 

Books by Bonheoffer

No Rusty Swords / The Cost of Discipleship / Letters and Papers from Prison  /  Sanctorum Communio

A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings  /  Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible Ethics  

No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonoeffer and the Problem of Racism

*   *   *   *   *

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York (1930-1931)

The Black Connection

*   *   *   *   *

First We Take Manhattan Then We Take Berlin: Bonhoeffer's New York

Excerpts and Notes by Scott Holland

 

Bonhoeffer's Post-Doctoral Work at Union Theological Seminary, New York (1930-1931)"He did not understand at the time that it would be a poetics of place and an entanglement with people that would produce this serious theology."

*  *   *   *   *

At Union, Bonhoeffer took the course "Ethical Viewpoints in Modern Literature" from the Detroit socialist preacher, Reinhold Niebuhr,  who came  to Union  in 1928 and taught "Applied Theology." Niebuhr's course, according to Scott Holland, "was perhaps the first class in an American seminary to turn to literature as a source for doing applied theology."

"For Bonhoeffer, it was the beginning of an ethics instructed by aesthetics. Bonheoffer did theology in conversation with James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks, and the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, poets of the Harlem Renaissance."

*  *   *   *   *

"Countee Cullen's collection Copper Sun was on the Union class syllabus and in the poem, 'Colors,' Bonheoffer read: 'The play is done, the crowds depart; and see/ That twisted tortured thing hung from a tree,/ Swart victim of a newer Calvary./ Yea, he who helped Christ up Golgotha's track,/ That Simon who did not deny, was black.'" Countee Cullen, "Copper Sun," in Gerald Early, ed., My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 145.

*  *   *   *   *

"Reflecting years later on the poetry of Cullen, Bonhoeffer commented on "the black Christ" being led into the field against "a white Christ" by a young Negro poet revealing to us the deep cleft in the church of Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 112.    

*  *   *   *   *

"Indeed, Cullen's narrative poem, 'The Black Christ," has a rather astonishing conclusion. As the story of a racist lynching develops, the subject position of a black man who is lynched by whites for his love of sensuality, the spring, and a white woman is assumed, in the end, by Christ." Countee Cullen, The Black Christ and Other Poems (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1929).

*  *   *   *   *

Bonhoeffer formed several close friendships at Union with Franklin Fisher, an African-American divinity student"

"Franklin Fisher grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He was the son of a Black Baptist minister who was also dean of the theology department of Alabama's Selma University. Franklin, or Frank, as his friends called him, did his B.A. at Howard College, now Howard University. There he became interested in the Harlem Renaissance. He came to New York to study theology, but also to explore Harlem, and he took his new German friend Dietrich along with him. Bonhoeffer became a regular attender of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and for six months taught the boys Sunday school class and helped with various youth clubs there. Once, Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. yielded his pulpit to this young, German Lutheran pastor.

"At Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer sat under the ministry of Powell almost weekly for over six months. Powell's culturally engaged sermons blended the artful rhetoric and congregational, noncreedal style of the black Baptist church with the best of American social pragmatism. Powell had learned to appreciate John Dewey through their work together at the NAACP. We have recently learned through the research of Ralph Garlin Clingan that some of Bonhoeffer's theological vocabulary was borrowed from the pulpit work Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. For example, Powell complained that the problem of the Euro-American church was 'cheap grace'." Ralph Garlin Clingan, "Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: A Study in the Hermeneutics of Adam Clayton Powell, 1865-1953, in His Intellectual Context." A Drew University Ph.D. dissertation (UMI Microfilm 9732791, Ann Arbor, Mich. 1997).

*  *   *   *   *

"The phrase, 'world come of age,' a familiar and frequently debated concept in Bonhoeffer's prison letters was used by Powell in his preaching: 'The world come of age asks only one question: What can you do to make the world happy? What can you do to uplift humanity?'" Adam Clayton Powell, Palestine and Saints in Caesar's Household (New York: Richard and Smith, 1939), 187.

*  *   *   *   *

"Frank Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to both sacred and secular Harlem, not that the two could always be easily pried apart. As a pastor, Bonhoeffer spoke of the Black church with uncharacteristic feeling. As a classical pianist, Bonhoeffer was very interested in the music. He found it strange and other yet he was fascinated by it. At Harlem, it seems, Bonhoeffer began to learn about the improvisation of jazz, the contingency of the blues, and the liberation of black spirituals. Much later in his intellectual and spiritual development he applied a musical rather than a biblical or ethical metaphor to the task of theology: polyphany. Theology, Bonhoeffer suggested, is neither a neat harmony nor a mere symphony, but it is a polyphony. A polyphony in this context is a musical piece in which two or more different melodies come together in a satisfying way. According to Bonhoeffer, the church's cantus firmus, its fixed traditional melody, must remain in place yet invite the addition and innovation of other voices into the flow of the music. The introduction of this metaphor into his theology marked a movement in his thought from the imitation motif of The Cost of Discipleship or Nachfolge to the more improvisational style of his later works, such as  Ethics  and  Letters and Papers from Prison." Bonhoeffer discusses his application of polyphony to theology, ethics, and indeed life with great enthusiasm in his correspondence with Bethge. See Bonhoeffer,  Letters and Papers from Prison, Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 302-12. The theme of improvisation (and polyphony) in music and how this musical method and metaphor can inform other disciplines is explored in an important special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58:2 (Spring, 2000).

*  *   *   *   *

"Bonhoeffer was intrigued by the music and culture of New York but he hated its racism. He became a smart and sensitive critic of American racism and this attention to racism seemed to deepen his critiques of German anti-Semitism. He discussed this problem freely with his brother Karl-Friedrich, who had studied at Harvard on a physics fellowship. Karl-Friedrich concluded that the problem of racism in the United States was so terrible that he could never imagine raising a family in America. Hitler had of course not yet ascended to power in Germany. Racism was the American problem for any person of conscience, Dietrich's older brother concluded. Dietrich seemed to agree. It was in New York that this German Lutheran theologian first began to truly understand the issues of racism and nationalism as serious theological problems.

"Josiah Ulysses Young III has recently published the first book-length study of Bonhoeffer and the problem of racism. No Difference in the Fare brings Bonhoeffer's theology into very creative conversation with African-American theology and culture. Young shows how the attention to alterity, otherness or difference in Bonhoeffer's theological work, contributed to a profound social understanding of the relationship of the self to the other that fostered respect in spite of radical difference. Josiah Ulysses Young III, No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Bonhoeffer began the development of his theology and sociology of the social category of the I-Thou relationship in his dissertation.

*  *   *   *   *

"The other, Bonhoeffer suggests, in the I-Thou relationship presents us with the same problem of cognition as does God. The Thou of the other -- the neighbor, the friend, the stranger -- is analogous to the divine Thou. Thus, one must resist projecting an easy sameness or harmony upon the other and encounter or receive him or her as a 'Thou,' outside of any centered or self-present conception of the 'I.' This I-Thou or I-You encounter becomes crucial not only for understanding the other but also for understanding the self. Authentic relationality must be grounded in the recognition of uniqueness and separateness, Bonhoeffer argues. He then asserts, "The individual becomes a person ever and again through the other, in the moment." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: The Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 55-56. This is the first volume in the newly translated works of Bonhoeffer, Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr., General Editor. This philosophy of self and other of course makes one think of Martin Buber's I and Thou. Those familiar with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas will note possible correlations. See especially Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

*  *   *   *   *

 "Bonhoeffer's experience in Harlem helped him translate the heavenly categories of transcendence into relational expressions of worldly holiness."

*  *   *   *   *

By 1935 in Germany it was necessary for the Confessing Church opposing Hitler to establish a seminary in exile. Bonhoeffer was called from London by the Confessing Church to return to Germany and head the resisting seminary at Finkenwalde. His book Life Together recalls this experiment of viewing the church as an alternative, counter-cultural community at a time when the German church and society were marching to the music of the Nazism. Bonhoeffer's students at Finkenwalde found his spirituality and theology challenging yet wondered about his strange musical tastes as they listened to the unfamiliar voice of Paul Robeson on the Victrola lament, plead, and prophesy: "Go down. Go down Moses! Way down in Egypt's land. Tell old, Pharaoh, Let my people go!" Bonhoeffer wrote of his love of the Negro spirituals in No Rusty Swords 109. Then he observes in dismay, "Negro singers can sing those songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination."

*  *   *   *   *

In the Spring of 1939 Bonhoeffer caught a steamer back to New York, to the safety of Manhattan. As he revisited New York, his Babylon, his Jerusalem, the world came of age and in his—

 words, he "gathered up the past." He spent time with old friends and met new ones, including the poet W. H. Auden. He spoke with them about the fate of the German Jews. He spoke with them about the fate of all German people under Fascism, his people. We have no record of his conversations with Auden but several years later Auden wrote a poem dedicated to Bonhoeffer entitled, "Friday's Child." (See Edward Mendelson, Later Auden (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 425-27.)

*  *   *   *   *

We do know this was the year that Auden was questioning his own politics and pacifism in face of the evolving European totalitarianism. He was keeping a notebook of aphorisms and reflections after his meditations on William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. (This "notebook" was later published as W. H. Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer (Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1976).)

*  *   *   *   *  

Their conversation likely turned to models of resistance and to pacifism. One must wonder if Auden didn't raise the Blakean question of "fearful symmetry" with Bonhoeffer: "Did he who made the Lamb make thee [the Tyger]?"(William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose, Newly rev. ed., ed. David V. Erdman with commentary by Harold Bloom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 24-25.)

*  *   *   *   *  

Indeed, there was little tiger in the Jesus of Bonhoeffer's Christology (and therefore neither in his theological anthropology) and there was much of the obedient, sacrificial lamb. As the poet and the pastor talked, one must wonder if Auden didn't confess to Bonhoeffer privately what he said in public over a year later, "I have absolutely no patience with Pacifism as a political movement, as if one could do all the things in one's personal life that create wars and then pretend that to refuse to fight is a sacrifice and not a luxury." (Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer, x.)

*  *   *   *   *

He would later write these words to Eberhard Bethge describing his decision to enter fully and responsibly into the dramas of history on behalf of the other:

There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled -- in short from the perspective of those who suffer. . . This perspective from below must not become the particular possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of, "from below" or "from above." This is the way in which we may affirm it. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 17.)

*  *   *   *   *

One can discern a movement in Bonhoeffer's religious and intellectual formation from the mimesis of discipleship to a more innovative poetics of obligation. In this worldly holiness Jesus truly becomes "the man for others." There has been much debate on precisely what Bonhoeffer really meant by his famous celebration of the advent of "religionless Christianity,"(The most recent study of this theme is Ralf K. Wustenberg, A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).) but there is little disagreement that there was an aesthetic turn in his life and work. (The most interesting piece I have seen on this aesthetic turn is Carolyn M. Jones, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison: Rethinking the Relation of Theology and the Arts, Literature and Religion," Literature and Theology 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 243-59.)

*  *   *   *   *

This can be seen in the texts of Bonhoeffer written between 1939 and 1945: the fragments of his incomplete Ethics which explore human desire alongside of Christian duty, his drama and fiction from prison, his love letters, and his many moving letters, papers, and poems from prison. Defining aesthetics as the artful, sensuous perception of reality, this turn is indeed striking and satisfying in Bonhoeffer's final works.(Within the past year new translations of both Bonhoeffer's poetry and fiction from prison have been published. See Edwin Robertson, ed. and trans., Voices in the Night: The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) and Clifford J. Green, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Fiction from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), in the new series, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Collected Works, vol. 7. Also see Ruth-Alice Von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz, eds., Love Letters from Cell 92: The Correspondence Between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria Von Wedemyer (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992).)

*  *   *   *   *

This aesthetic turn opened him to a faith that was polyphonic and multi-dimensional. Bonhoeffer celebrated its multiplicity in a letter to Bethge:

Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the whole world. . . [Life] is kept multi-dimensional and polyphonous. What a deliverance it is to be able to think, and thereby remain multi-dimensional.(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 310-11. A good discussion of the evolution of the term aesthetics and its use in philosophy and theology can found in Richard Viladesau's new work, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).)

*  *   *   *   *

This kind of artful thinking led Bonhoeffer's theological reflections beyond the sacred text into the world of material culture. As the Greek term aisthesis implies, aesthetics takes one into the whole embodied realm of sensation and perception. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 339-40.)

*  *   *   *   *

 Aesthetics signals the body's long rebellion against the tyranny of static systems and totalitarian ideologies, even any attempted totality of theology and ethics. I love this expression of Bonhoeffer's incarnational desire from the Letters:

I should like to be tired by the sun, instead of by books and thoughts. I should like to have it awaken my animal existence-not the kind that degrades a man, but the kind that delivers him from the stuffiness and artificiality of a purely intellectual existence and makes him purer and happier. I should like, not just to see the sun and sip at it a little, but to experience it bodily. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 347-48.)

*  *   *   *   *

"Art, like its closest analogue religion, must be both world confirming and world disconfirming. It must seek meaning and understanding by means of the exception and not merely by means of the rule. It must confront one as "other" yet also touch deeply some analogy of seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking because human consciousness requires the art of connecting. It must probe both the dialectial imagination and the analogical imagination. In Bonhoeffer's life art possessed the sacramental power to turn theology into theopoetics:"  Who Am I?

On the 9th of April, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before its liberation. He was hanged by the Nazis. He was thirty-nine years old. I would like to think that in the end there was no great chasm to cross. I would like to think that in the end, in the dark beauty of worldly holiness, for Bonhoeffer the Infinite and the intimate became one.

Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3.

*   *   *   *   *

Forged: Writing in the Name of God

Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

By Bart D. Ehrman

The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else's name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptable—hence, a forgery. While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman's introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities during the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book's main point, is especially valuable.—Publishers Weekly  / Forged Bart Ehrman’s New Salvo (Witherington)

*   *   *   *   *

Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals 

of a Growing Religion in America

By Miguel A. De La Torre

This book by Miguel De la Torre offers a fascinating guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and culture of Santeria -- a religious tradition that, despite persecution, suppression, and its own secretive nature, has close to a million adherents in the United States alone. Santeria is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots, rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the wake of Castro's revolution in 1959, Santeria came to the United States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a legitimate faith tradition.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues


1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        

Enjoy!

*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *

*   *   *   *   *

 

 

 

 

 

update 3 October 2011

 

 

 

Home  Bonhoeffer Table