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A Graphic Nonfiction Account of Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

By M.T. Anderson; Oct. 5, 2018

 

 

For a man accursed by history, Adolf Hitler led a grimly charmed life. He survived several well-planned assassination attempts through sheer luck. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a double agent claiming to spy for Hitler’s Reich, was actually involved in the resistance movement that planned a few of these plots. John Hendrix’s graphic biography, THE FAITHFUL SPY: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (Amulet, 176 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), intertwines two stories: the insidious rise of Hitler with his creed of hatred and Bonhoeffer’s development as an ethical thinker who believed that radical action was necessary, but that killing was a sin. Hendrix writes, “the conspirators needed to find a place where God would forgive them for plotting an assassination.”

For young readers, one could easily play the near-miss attempts to kill Hitler as a straightforward thriller. The plots involve deception, gut-wrenching timing and concealed explosives: a bomb in a gift package, a rigged docent conducting a tour of captured Russian weaponry and an explosive briefcase spirited into the heart of Hitler’s fortress, the Wolfsschanze. But Hendrix makes the bold and surprising decision to tell it as a tale of faith. He records Bonhoeffer’s powerful experiences, for example, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where the preacher Adam Clayton Powell fulminates: “Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!” Some readers will be irked by the focus on God in historical nonfiction; others will be soothed by it. Certainly, Hendrix’s implication that at Bonhoeffer’s execution, he met his God is more emotionally powerful than strictly verifiable. In an author’s note, Hendrix offers a passionate defense of presenting the story through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity: “If we look for a motivation for his decisions outside his furious belief in God’s certainty, we will miss the very lesson he offers. ”

What will catch the reader’s eye immediately is Hendrix’s striking three-color art. The book is not a panel-by-panel graphic novel, but rather an inventive combination of text blocks and illustration. Each spread has its own ingenious design, shuttling between the literal and the allegorical: As the text talks about Hitler undermining the power of President Hindenburg and the Reichstag (“teetering like a German spruce”), the illustration shows the Führer literally hacking down the tree of state, a startled German imperial eagle taking flight.

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by Richard Beck

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren’t particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen.

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer’s time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here’s how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:

He now went regularly to church…Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it…He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer…More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror.

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Two New Books: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

I’d like to mention two new books on Bonhoeffer.

I haven’t read Reggie Williams’s book, Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, but I did hear him speak at a Bonhoeffer Conference in November 2011 at Union Theological Seminary and have little doubt this will be a fascinating read. As I remember, both he and John de Gruchy talked about how blacks in both the US and South Africa, de Gruchy’s home, already understood Bonhoeffer’s theology of a view from below: it was whites who needed to understand this perspective. de Gruchy and Williams theorized that whites could absorb this theology from a well-heeled German male schooled in a European theological traditional in a way they couldn’t from blacks or other marginalized groups. In addition, the influence of Harlem on Bonhoeffer is an area that deserves more focus. Bonhoeffer immersed himself in black literature and culture while in the US, and clearly made a connection between American oppression of blacks in the 1930s and the National Socialist treatment of Jews.  I have included the Amazon blurb below:

“Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.”

I have read Andrew Root’s Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together and can recommend it as a solid, well written book with a strong focus on a ministry that helped lay the groundwork for Bonhoeffer’s seminaries.

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.
May 2019
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