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by JAMES DUANE BOLIN • Ledger & Times Columnist

In preparation for my trip to Regensburg, Germany, I have prepared for several weeks now a two-hour presentation required of each faculty member in Murray State’s Discover Europe Program. My presentation will explore the enduring significance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian whose resistance to Hitler resulted in his execution less than a month before Hitler’s suicide and the end of World War II.
We will explore important ethical questions, important then to Bonhoeffer and just as important to each one of us today: For whom would you die? For what would you die? What good am I? I have paired the music of Bob Dylan with Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. Dylan performed in Regensburg in 2000, had 18 concerts in Berlin, 13 performances in Munich, and a memorable gig in Dresden.
Bonhoeffer himself was an accomplished musician and indeed his family had hoped that he would pursue music as a career. I am guessing, of course, but I think that Bonhoeffer would have felt a real affinity with Dylan and his social commentary on war and faith.
Bonhoeffer visited the United States twice in 1930-1931 and again in 1939, both times to study and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There Bonhoeffer studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and met A. Franklin Fisher, a fellow seminarian, an African-American, who introduced him to the rich culture of the Harlem Renaissance and took him across the way to worship each Sunday at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
At this historic church, Bonhoeffer sat under the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and was moved by the inspirational singing of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, hearing such historic black hymns as “Go Down, Moses” and “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Bonhoeffer found no Gospel teaching at Union. He was even less impressed with the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick at the nearby Riverside Church. Only at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the preaching of Powell, Sr. and the singing of that magnificent choir did he find what his soul should yearned for.
During one semester break, Fisher took Bonhoeffer to Washington, D. C., where he had studied at Howard College, one of the great historically-black institutions in America. This was Bonhoeffer’s first foray into the American South. Later he would tour the South, traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, into Mexico, and back through Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Bonhoeffer witnessed firsthand the Jim Crow South of the 1930s — the segregation, lynchings, abuse and racism — an “American Problem” he called it, that appalled him. It was this “American Problem” that he came to compare to what came to be referred to as “the Jewish Question” back in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, had married a Jewish man, and when Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to find Adolph Hitler and the Nazis rising to control the country, it was his American experience that convinced him to put his theoretical theological concepts into practice.
And this he did.
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