November 04, 2015

The noise was indescribable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the old man he was replacing made their way upstairs, the students showered them with trash. Once on the landing, the old minister vainly tried to shout them down. The students — 50 teenage boys from one of Berlin’s toughest neighborhoods — continued to scream and make wild gestures. The old man retreated down the stairs. Bonhoeffer was alone.

He looked at them until, seeing they were making no impression, they quieted down. Bonhoeffer, 31, was built like an athlete. He had handsome, strong features, looked a bit like the young Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps the boys understood that Bonhoeffer understood them.

He was there to teach catechism in a state school. He told them a Bible story. When he was done, he let them go, and said that if they behaved, he would tell another story next time. What Bonhoeffer said that day is not known. His favorite themes were death, judgment and destiny.

Bonhoeffer took a page from the informal social life at Union Theological Seminary during his year (1930-31) in New York. He rented a room in the neighborhood and held open house most days. He talked to the students, listened to their stories. He visited their parents, who mostly lived in squalid, chaotic poverty.

He took the students on weekend trips. Some came to his parent’s musical evenings. Bonhoeffer looked forward to his classes. He began to think he could not do without them.

At their graduation, he said this: “I know that many of you know a great many of the hard facts of life. Today you are not to be given fear of life but courage, and so today in the church we shall speak more than ever of hope, the hope that we have and which no one can take from you.”

Social life aside, Bonhoeffer found Union Theological Seminary (where, nine years later, Auburn Seminary would find a new home) unimpressive. “There is no theology here,” concluded the Berlin doctor of theology after a quick look. As for the students, they were friendly but shallow. “There is little intellectual competition… It is more a friendly exchange of opinion than a study in comprehension,” he wrote later.

Bonhoeffer also scorned Harry Emerson Fosdick’s preaching at nearby Riverside Church. Here, he thought, a “liberal” Christianity discounted the Gospel — dismissed as “traditional Christianity” — in favor of economic and political issues.

Where Bonhoeffer found genuine Christianity was in the black churches of nearby Harlem, especially Abyssinian Baptist, where Adam Clayton Powell Sr., a son of slaves, preached. Many of the older members had been born when slavery was legal. A born-again Christian, Powell spoke against racism, and stressed the saving power of Christ. Social issues could not be separated from the Gospel. Perhaps only among people who had suffered could one find genuine Christianity? Bonhoeffer wondered.

Both Bonhoeffer and his biographer, Eric Metaxas, are too severe on Fosdick. There are legitimate differences between fundamentalists (which Bonhoeffer was) and liberals in regard to the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, atonement, miracles and the Bible as the word of God. Bonhoeffer, who could discuss the Bible in Latin, was uncomfortable when preaching departed from the cross. Fosdick addressed a different congregation, which expected to hear different things, especially during a Depression.

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