I understand that a Brazilian has something to do with a close shave. (And that's as far as I am going with that one.) The World Cup semi-final last night between Brazil and Germany was anything but. Brazil was slaughtered. And it was the abject manner of the destruction that shocked: the boys from Brazil put up almost no resistance and, although wanting Germany to win, I found myself hoping they wouldn't push it into double figures. Defeat is one thing; humiliation is another.

I am a lousy prophet when it comes to the footie, but I tipped Germany to win the competition in Brazil all along. The sheer discipline and efficiency is set off by a ruthless opportunism that sees this as the team likely to dominate world football for a decade. It is not so much a joy to watch as terrifying to behold.

But, it is still only a game – albeit a very expensive and industrial one. I watched the match after hosting a dinner for a visiting bishop from Sudan. Bishop Ismail is the Bishop of El-Obeid, but frequently heads into the dangerous areas of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in order to visit the Christians there, pray with them and assure them they are not forgotten. This unassuming man sat and told us stories of his long ministry, perhaps unwittingly exposing a raw courage and sense of focused adventure that I found arresting.

Faced with death, imprisonment, war and oppression for thirty years, this puts the misery of highly-paid Brazilian footballers into perspective. Defeat might hurt, but it won't kill them. And I guess the pay cheque will still come into the bank despite abject performances.

When the World Cup is over Brazilian football will need to start re-building for the next twenty years. And when the naysayers about the South Americans' ability to run a global tournament such as this have reluctantly admitted that it was a great event – and almost no match was missable – attention will turn back to the massive problems of the poor of this growing country. Poverty is not displaced by spectacle.

But, before we turn our attention back to the corruptions and problems of other places, we might ask – along with the Bishop of Durham – why England is to have an inquiry into institutional child abuse that is not judge-led and has no teeth.

(And I hope Germany beats the Netherlands in the final…)

 

So, the 2014 World Cup has kicked off. The Church of England published my five prayers yesterday and the response has been mixed. Anyone with half a sense of humour is OK with them.

I actually wrote them four years ago for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Only two were written before the tournament began, and the shortest one was written part-way through the competition when England were sliding out. Context is everything.

But, why write new ones when the last lot still have life (despite miserable pedants). After all, prayer is about expressing our real feelings and desires to God, not about having to justify them ethically first.

Here they are:

Prayer 1 : A Prayer for the World Cup

Lord of all the nations, who played the cosmos into being, guide, guard and protect all who work or play in the World Cup. May all find in this competition a source of celebration, an experience of common humanity and a growing attitude of generous sportsmanship to others. Amen.

Prayer 2 : A Prayer for Brazil

God of the nations, who has always called his people to be a blessing for the world, bless all who take part in the World Cup. Smile on Brazil in her hosting, on the nations represented in competition and on those who travel to join in the party. Amen.

Prayer 3 : A prayer for those simply not interested

Lord, as all around are gripped with World Cup fever, bless us with understanding, strengthen us with patience and grant us the gift of sympathy if needed. Amen.

Prayer 4 : Prayers for the England Football team

Oh God…

Prayer 5

God, who played the cosmos into being, please help England rediscover their legs, their eyes and their hunger: that they might run more clearly, pass more nearly and enjoy the game more dearly. Amen.

Well, not about Russia getting the World Cup in 2018, I’m not. Why does it feel like the Eurovision Song Contest voting – nothing to do with quality, but everything to do with ‘politics’?

Anyway, miserable though I might be about that (and amazed that the huge snowfall in Croydon has brought all life to a halt), I am intrigued by the Government’s decision to gauge the country’s ‘happiness’ with criteria other than economic or financial statistics. The excellent Office for National Statistics has launched a survey and anyone can contribute through this link: ‘measuring national well-being’.

What is weird about it is the total omission of the very element of human experience and motivation that actually shapes ‘happiness’ or how real people measure their own personal ‘well-being': world view or faith commitment. This applies equally to people of religious commitment and atheists. My argument is not about privileged mention of religion for the sake of religion, but that the omission of any such category renders the survey a bit pointless.

Now, some readers are going to be fed up that I appear to want to drag religion into yet another sphere from which they would gladly evict it. But, this is not about religion per se – it is about the integrity or value of the survey and any conclusions that might be drawn from it.

The human sense of well-being (however you define such a thing) is shaped by all sorts of things: wealth, material comfort, education, family, relationships, environment, etc. But, the assumptions we make about why we are here, why we matter, what drives our ethics, how we see the future, how we face dying and death, etc. also matter greatly. Our world view powerfully shapes how we face the world, interpret our experiences and handle our joy and suffering.

To omit any reference to these is silly. I guess it is yet another example of the ignorant public assumption that ‘faith’, rather than being the shaper of our commitments, is (a) a mere optional add-on for loonies or feeble people who can’t cope with the ‘real’ world or (b) dangerous territory (on the grounds that ‘religion’ is a problem or a threat).

I am tempted to encourage people to respond to the survey accordingly. Again, not as a whingeing ‘we are being marginalised’ complaint, but as a ‘why are public authorities so ignorant of what religion (or atheism) actually is’ challenge.

Just seen proof that Lampard’s goal didn’t go in after all. That makes me feel better. (The link came from a German newspaper…)

England, oh my England, where did you go today?

You were meant to be in Africa, you had a game to play.

The defence stayed home, the team looked lost, the Germans ran amok,

The vuvuzelas gave the sound that best described our shock:

Blaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh……

I don’t know why I should be so pleased, but the exit of both France and Italy from the World Cup is strangely cheering. No idea why – I like the French and the Italians. Maybe it is just the confounding of expectations or hubris that warms the English heart. Unless we are next, of course.

But, with a quarter-final battle with Germany ahead on Sunday, we can look ahead with depression to the singing by the English of such poetic epics as “Two World Wars and one World Cup, na na na na na…” There is something weird about the British obsession with the Second World War – as if it was the last ‘competition’ we won. A selective Hollywood-backed romantic remembering doesn’t help, but the problem goes deeper than that.

My younger son has just graduated (I hope…) in History and Politics at the University of Liverpool. Before he got there he seemed to exploit the preoccupation of every History syllabus at every school level with options to study Hitler and Stalin. Ask any reasonably educated kid in England about German history or culture and most will know little or nothing before 1933 (plus, maybe, the origins of fascism from 1918) – and certainly little or nothing after 1945.

OK, it isn’t hard to see the attraction of focusing on the dramatic, the catastrophic and the uniquely enormous human cost of Hitler’s adventures, but it has its dangers. Germany’s post-war history has been equally interesting and evokes admiration at the overcoming of cataclysmic defeat and humiliation. Yes, there are people who will never forgive the Germans and who will resent their reconstruction and reunification; but, Germany’s post-war division and subsequent reunification present important and instructive material for understanding the modern world (which is, I suppose, partly the point of studying history in the first place). Not least, the reconciliation in Europe led by French moves towards Germany is a story rarely told and little appreciated.

Helmut Schmidt addresses from a German perspective the problem of focusing too much on 1933-1945. In his wonderful book Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz, he gives specific attention to the problem of modern German history in a chapter headed Die schwerste Hypothek (in a section on the lessons of history titled Es gab nicht nur die Nazi-Zeit). Having briefly and lucidly described what it was like to be German in the post-war years (individually and collectively trying to understand and cope with both individual and collective guilt), he writes about the paralysis and fear of change that characterised the German psyche:

The more we limit our historical consciousness to the Nazi period, the failure of the Weimar experiment in democracy, Hitler’s instigation of the Second World War (with its catastrophic consequences), and the more we concentrate on the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi era, the more strongly we Germans react with nervousness and even fear to changes.

He goes on to illustrate his point, observing that post-war Germans always feared ‘the return of fascism’. He then goes on to say:

I doubt that it is right or sensible to focus school and university teaching on the Nazi era; on the contrary, I think this sort of education is actually harmful. Concentration on the twelve year Nazi dictatorship leads to neglect of other periods of German history. Above all, however, it conveys the impression – however unintended –  to our young people that prior to and subsequent to the Nazis everything was relatively unproblematic here. In fact, the ideological ground was laid a long time before 1933. For generations education had messed up: particularly education about the value and freedom of the individual person, about humanity and about democracy.

Schmidt is not saying that the horrors of the Nazi era shouldn’t be taught, but that they shouldn’t be taught in isolation from other parts of German history. If we are to understand the Germany of today and tomorrow, we must do so with reference to more than just Hitler.

What this really says, therefore, is that any History syllabus must be rigorously tested in order to demonstrate that it is truly about helping students understand and not simply reinforcing some convenient stereotype or prejudice about other people. For this reason the Meissen English Committee of the Church of England (which I chair in conjunction with the German Committee chaired by the Bishop of Braunschweig, Dr Friedrich Weber) is looking at doing some research into the teaching of German history in English schools.

Our concern is not, however, simply about history – it is about the desperate drop in language learning in England, especially German. How is it possible that in today’s world the learning of foreign languages is so dismissed and undervalued in Britain? The only conclusion I can come to is twofold: (a) that we are so arrogant as to assume that everyone else will speak English, and (b) that we do not understand Schmidt’s point that we cannot know our own culture unless we see it through the eyes of a different culture… which means knowing something of the other language.

It’s a bit like our football: we keep hoping that England is the best team in the world… and are always disappointed to find that our pride actually lies in a romanticised past which we are unable to surrender to contemporary reality.

I filmed an interview today for the German TV channel ARD. As usual, the Germans spoke perfect English. Most German fans watching tomorrow’s game will understand everything the English sing. The same will not be true of English supporters. And that is not a cause of pride – whoever wins.

Song, a regular and always interesting contibutor to this blog’s threads, has sent a follow up to the Vuvuzela Concerto in B Flat. It is the funniest of many pictures doing the rounds and shows the annoying history of the ‘wasp trumpet':

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