Stained-glass window at the 1923 Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York

The Polyphony of Pentecost

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Introduction: Bonhoeffer in America

In 1930, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer traveled to America in search of adventure. He spent one year in New York among Harlem’s predominantly Black community. He especially enjoyed going to church and hearing the choirs sing Negro spirituals (to use historical language). He was also thrilled to discover fiery Black preachers who proclaimed the gospel with “passion, conviction, and creativity.” The congregation would roar with heartfelt faith as they sang and prayed, and the gospel was proclaimed. This for Bonhoeffer was an entirely new church experience, unlike anything back in Germany. In fact, before New York he reportedly had never even had a conversation with a person of color.[1] Now he suspected, as he would later tell a friend, that Black Americans were the only Americans capable of true religion.[2]

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany with his hands—and heart—full of newfound treasures. Among his souvenirs were recordings of Negro spirituals given to him by his Black friend Albert Fisher as a gift.[3] These weren’t just for his personal listening pleasure, however. He would use these records to start theological discussions with his students. He would later go on to say that “I still believe that the spiritual songs of the southern negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America.”[4]

It is fitting that we would pay homage to African American spirituals today on Pentecost Sunday. This music had a profound effect on Bonhoeffer, as they continue to have on so many today. When he visited America, Bonhoeffer couldn’t believe the level of racism that Black people were experiencing. He thought that something like that would be impossible in Germany. Just two years later, however, Germany’s Nazi Party would issue the infamous “Aryan Clause” stigmatizing non-white races. Today we only know of Dietrich Bonhoeffer because of his staunch opposition to Nazism and race-based human oppression.[5] His love for music would sustain him throughout his time in prison awaiting execution for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

We may then ask, what is it about these African American spirituals that have inspired so many? I think it’s because these songs make you feel something. It’s right there in the name: they are spirit-ed. They transport you to a different time and place. You feel as if you are there and so is God. They make you feel close to God.

Take, for example, the classic “Mary Don’t You Weep” which reenacts an impassioned plea for Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. Or consider the well-known, “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” which paints a vivid picture of Jesus’ crucifixion, causing us to “tremble” as if we were witnessing these events with our own eyes. Or again, there is perhaps no greater testimony to the rousing, communal nature of these spirituals than the modern-day use of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a stadium chant now heard across the world.

For Bonhoeffer, his cross-cultural experience with these heavenly melodies opened his eyes to a new way of living.[6] The Spirit of the Black church provided him with new fuel to fight the good fight back home in Germany. New faith. New fuel. New fire. God’s Spirit was at work in Bonhoeffer to make him look more like Jesus through his exposure to Spirit-led music. Much like the disciples in today’s reading in Acts 2, Bonhoeffer would never be the same after encountering the Spirit in this way. Music and his connection with the global Church would enable him to be more like Jesus even if still far from perfect.

Overcoming Barriers

The role of African-American spirituals in inspiring Bonhoeffer is a wonderful illustration of the power of Pentecost.

The Spirit of God brings unity out of diversity for God’s purposes. Creation bears witness to the fact that God loves diversity, diversity of personalities and people, for it is this diversity that creates music composed of multiple voices and multiple instruments. Not all make the same sound; rather we prize polyphony like a multithreaded fabric.

The truth is that we need each other if we are to be the Church, like multiple threads to make a garment, or multiple chords to intone a song. We need each other to look and sound like Jesus. We are most like Jesus when we are together because it is then that we are one as he and the Father are one.

Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Life Together that Church is not some unattainable ideal, but it is a divine reality[7], one promised by God, fulfilled by his Spirit, and centered on Jesus. The Spirit crosses human boundaries to create something bigger and more significant, the Church. This crossing of boundaries is like overlaying multiple notes to strike a harmonious chord, something not possible with a single note. In this complex interplay, diversity is not erased but threaded together to create a harmonious cord.

Music is a fitting and helpful way to understand the Church: One song, many parts, each complimenting the another to create something greater than ourselves. The Church is a choir singing the same song in harmony. Everyone has their part to play so that together we represent Christ, not working in competition but in complementarity. The constant melody of the gospel should feature prominently as each of us sings our part.

To be sure, we’re a big bunch of sinful misfits. The Church is far from perfect. You don’t need me to tell you that. But as someone once said, don’t try to join a perfect church, because you’ll ruin it. This awareness is part of what makes us the Church. We recognize our faults and repent; we seek to live by the Spirit, to keep in step with a new song tuned to the hymns of grace, forgiveness, restoration, renewal, and most importantly, the kingship of the risen and ascended Messiah.

A Happier Village

Where are there barriers in our community that need to be crossed to make for a happier village for all?

Let’s start with our own hearts and admit that we’re part of the problem. Our taste buds have been trained on trash and we easily lose taste for the things of God. When I act out of step with the Holy Spirit, I’m part of the problem, a barrier rather than a blessing.

Where else do we need to overcome barriers in our own community? Recently, I was agreeing with a worker in our local pharmacy on how great our village is. Close to nature, but close to the city. Not too big, not too small.

I then asked, “But what could make it even better? What are we missing?” You know what he said? Without hesitation, he told me about his concern for our elderly neighbors, the real treasure of our community. He went on to say how he wished there were more social gatherings and greater opportunities for villagers to feel more connected. But not just big, formal gatherings, but spaces for informal meetups in the morning for coffee and a chat.

Surprisingly, his answer wasn’t much different from the one I received when I asked the same question in the barber shop: “We should have more street parties, community BBQs, big lunches where everyone gets together. Let’s block off the main street and have a family picnic.”

One of the biggest barriers we need to overcome today is that of isolation. Isn’t it ironic that while the world is more connected than ever before, many of us also feel more isolated than ever before?

What does the good news of Jesus have to say about this? How might the Church respond? The Church is necessarily and inherently a gathering community. Church is one of the few remaining places where people interact across generations, young and old alike.

If we live by the Spirit, we will be the Church. Not simply go to a church, but be the Church, those who announce that Jesus is King in both word and deed as we strive to embody his kingdom principles: loving God, loving neighbor, overcoming barriers by the power of God’s Spirit. Our community will take notice and benefit.

Closing

As shown by the events of Pentecost, the primary role of God’s Spirit is to bear witness to Jesus and to be his presence within us, to empower us to be conformed to a new way of living that was inaugurated by Jesus. When Jesus went away, he promised to pour out his Spirit to be his enabling presence among us.

One of the Holy Spirit’s greatest artistic achievements is making Jesus present. Being human, Jesus is only in one place at one time. He is now at the right hand of God the Father (Heb 10:12). The Spirit, however, is not human and can be everywhere all the time,[8] whether in Jerusalem in the year 30 AD, or in Harlem in 1930, or in our churches in 2024.

God the Holy Spirit makes God the Son—Jesus—present, doing so primarily through the Church. We therefore are most fully the Church when Christ is present through us.

There’s no place for gasoline in an all-electric car. A new type of engine requires new fuel. In Christ, you are a Spirit-powered vehicle. Are you charged up or are you running on empty? Or worse, are you attempting to run on the wrong type of fuel? We run on the fuel of the Spirit, the same fuel that gave birth to the Church almost two thousand years ago. It was there that the Spirit of God fanned into flame a small group of believers into the Church. This group would go on to change the world. How would our village change for the better if the same Spirit were fanned into flame in us today?

Are we living by his Spirit? Or are we attempting to live by our own power, guided by our own way of doing things?

Let’s pray that God would make Jesus present through us, that we may be living “spirituals” through whom the living Christ is felt, now and forever. Amen.[9]

References

  1. Gary Dorrien, “Bonhoeffer in North America,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Philip G. Ziegler and Michael Mawson (Oxford University Press, 2019), 35.

  2. Dorrien, “Bonhoeffer in North America,” 35.

  3. Reggie L. Williams, “Bonhoeffer and Race,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Philip G. Ziegler and Michael Mawson (Oxford University Press, 2019), 391.

  4. Quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 114.

  5. Williams, “Bonhoeffer and Race,” 395.

  6. Joanna Catherine Tarassenko, The Spirit of Polyphony: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Musical Pneumatology, T&T Clark New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics (New York: T&T Clark, 2024).

  7. Cited in Williams, “Bonhoeffer and Race,” 394.

  8. Attributed to John Calvin in Samuel Wells, How to Preach: Times, Seasons, Texts and Contexts (London: Canterbury Press, 2023), 255.

  9. Wells, How to Preach: Times, Seasons, Texts and Contexts, 256, 262.


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