Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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