The limits of one’s own horizons and experience always become exposed when seen through the eyes of an outsider. Since being in Jena for the last two weeks, I have not only read a shed load of books, but also seen a couple of films and listened to some interesting (challenging?) perspectives on life, the world and British political culture.

Before this week I had never heard of Curt Goetz or his wife Valerie von Martens. Goetz was a playwright, novelist and actor who, along with his wife, made some comedy films in the 1940s and ‘50s. Exploring German humour in film and literature is a never-ending task – based in a profound mystery – but, commenting on this to the friend with whom I am staying (a university professor of practical theology), led to two evenings watching Goetz and von Martens. And they are funny.

Das Haus in Montevideo, in black and white and cleverly scripted, actually presents the moral dilemmas involved in finding your strict morals challenged by pecuniary potential. Napoleon ist an allem Schuld sounds like farce, but mocks historical pretentiousness at the same time as depicting human generosity of spirit. You have to see them to get the stories, but they offer a German slant on morality from someone who left Germany in 1939 to avoid working for Hitler, but returned after the war to recover at least some elements of German theatrical culture from the ashes of destruction.

The other gift of these two weeks has been an introduction to theologians with whom I was unfamiliar. My friend has many books of German sermons. I dipped into Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel, Martin Niemöller and the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Ingeborg Bachmann and, in a bookshop, Bertolt Brecht. All of these I knew. But, I had not heard of Manfred Josuttis until I dipped into his Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht, followed by several books of sermons. Now dead, he was a theologian who clearly knew how to preach in a way that gripped the attention and tackled both the biblical text and contemporary issues with rhetorical clarity.

There are connective threads between a number of the books I have been reading. In Germany history presses in from every side. Jena was the site of a Napoleonic victory in 1806 – we visited the battlefields at Cospeda. Only a few miles from Weimar, where the first German democratic constitution was framed and signed – it lasted only fifteen years before the Nazis tore it up – Jena was bombed during the war and then found itself in the German Democratic Republic until 1989/90. People here have Russian as their second language and English as only the third. The Stadtkirche (in which I preached several years ago) was where the great Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad also preached when he was a professor in the Theologische Fakultät in the 1930s and ‘40s. Three of the sermons he preached – in a collection of sermons from the whole of his ministry – have to be read in the light of the context in which he spoke: two to congregations of the Confessing Church in 1943 when the future was still unclear – and one on Easter Day 1943 to a general congregation including, presumably, Nazis and members of the Movement of German Christians.

Manfred Josuttis, in a sermon on Psalm 25:1-10 in Wirklichkeiten der Kirche, says: “Kein kollektivesGedächtnis kann uns davor bewahren, daß sich die Barbarei wiederholt. Schreckliche Bilder lösen nicht nur Entsetzen aus, sondern regen auch zur Nachahmung an.“ (p.80) [“No collective memory can preserve us from the repetition of barbarity. Shocking pictures don’t just horrify us, they also excite imitation.”]

Compare this with Marilynne Robinson in her book of essays What Are We Doing Here?: “It is not always easy to tell a slumbering conscience from one that is weighing consequences,” (p.4) or: “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?” (p.20)

We don’t always learn from history.

These questions were not merely academic to preachers and theologians such as Josuttis and von Rad and they shouldn’t be to us now as we cast an eye over developments across the world. We never foresee the future, even when we see the clouds gathering. But, the experience of those who found themselves exposed to existential challenge in relation to truth, integrity and politico-theological consistency is worth revisiting at a time when global norms are under pressure and change is in the air.