August 2021


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

So, the Olympics are over and the Paralympics are soon to begin. And I still find it odd to keep hearing the title “Tokyo 2020” in 2021. I know the reasons why, but it stops me every time.

It’s not the only thing that has been strange about these Olympics, either. I learned the other day that the Spanish national anthem doesn’t have any lyrics; they couldn’t agree what they should say, so they do without. Given the weirdness of some anthems, maybe that’s a good idea.

But, what’s amused me most about these Games was how the prophets of doom – “They should be cancelled because of the pandemic, etc.” – are now celebrating a brilliant couple of weeks of sport and competition … without a hint of memory or, even, irony.

It smacks of Arthur C Clarke’s observation about every revolutionary idea being filtered by critics through three phrases: first, “It’ll never work;” second, “It might work, but isn’t worth doing;” and, third, “I said all along it was a good idea.”

Well, I put my hand up to that one. I well remember questioning out loud why anyone would want a camera in their phone; a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera. That ended well.

 But, this is just how life is and how people are. If the Olympics are a test of many things – including stamina and determination – they certainly shine a light on character. You can’t just turn up in Tokyo, get off the settee and run a marathon. Some personalities are naturally optimistic and visionary; others need time and persuasion – like me and technology. A good society needs both early adopters and late developers: the former make things happen, the latter ask the hard questions.

One of the reasons I keep reading the Christian Gospels – apart from the fact that it’s my job – is that this diversity of character is taken seriously. The first followers of Jesus have their own distinctive personalities – which is why they often clash. Peter is impetuous and harbours illusions about how strong he is … until he discovers that he actually isn’t. Judas is impatient and wants to force Jesus’s hand into bringing the revolution now. At the cross, when the men do a runner, it’s the women who stay and attend to the painful detail of miserable death and surprising resurrection.

They all have their place and their role: early-adopting visionaries and hindsight-persuaded pessimists. The rash get slowed down and the slow get drawn along. Somehow it works.

Which is just as well, really. As the apostle Paul wrote and every athlete knows, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

Professor Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther was a brilliant read. Published in 2017, it looked at this remarkable,strange, brave and conflicted character from 500 years ago through a different, psychological, lens.

Now Roper has published a follow-up series of lectures and it is illuminating, disturbing, challenging and a great read. Like me (but for different reasons) she was present in Wittenberg in 2017 when Germany and the Church was celebrating the quincentenary of the birth of the Reformation in 1517 when Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche.

So, she introduces the book with a glimpse into how this was celebrated – exhibitions, new studies and kitsch. The substance of the book is vivid. Roper digs deeply into the way Luther’s ‘brand’ was created and shaped in a way that looks terribly modern.

However, the chapter on Luther’s anti-Semitism is a hard read. I first went to Wittenberg with Rowan Williams in 2006 – it was freezing – and was shocked to be taken outside the Stadtkirche to see the depiction of the Judensau under the eaves. Luther’s anti-Semitism cannot be avoided, and Roper spares no mitigation.

If you thought Twitter invented the sheer nastiness of undisciplined and inhumane language in media, think again. What Luther published – and the language he used to attack his opponents – should surprise and shock, even today. The book gives lots of examples, but they are alarming, shaming and often very funny. Luther was not for the faint hearted.

Luther, like all of us, was complex and contradictory. Understanding him matters because his legacy – the theme of the book’s exploration – has made such an impact on the world. You can’t understand Europe, Germany, the development of world politics, Christianity or history without understanding Luther and his legacy.

This is a great, stimulating, illuminating and very accessible book.

And, if you put “Wittenberg” into the search on this blog, you’ll get a number of entries over the last decade or more and some photos. (You will also admire the fact that if you stand to one side of Luther’s statue outside the Marktkirche in Hannover and look back, it looks like he is doing Scottish country dancing.)

When I was preparing for ordination and studying theology at Trinity College, Bristol, a couple of friends set up a new society that met a number of times until enthusiasm ran out.

Although the teaching was mostly great, and the theology, etc. was engaging, no course can cover everything. Some of us were interested in stuff that couldn’t be covered by the curriculum. And it was to provide a forum for discussion of such themes that we set up the Eutychus Society.

Eutychus was the young man in Acts 20 who fell asleep while listening to the apostle Paul who, the text says, “talked still longer”. He fell out of the window and died. The joke was that he was bored with Pauline theology, and so were we. Well, the last bit wasn’t true (of course), but we did want to fill some gaps.

The society met once a month (I think) in the evening. It was formal. One of us would present a paper, there would then be a break, and then there would be a discussion. I would then type up the text of the paper on my new Amstrad word processor (Locoscript, if anyone remembers that), and I would then edit the ‘journal’ – including the discussion – and it would be distributed. And that’s where it got weird.

We decided to call the journal ‘The Window’. Our logo, front and centre on the front cover, was an open window. We felt we needed a Latin motto to complete our credibility. The problem was that none of us had learned any Latin. So, as the resident linguist, I made one up: “Nils fallem ex fenestra” – Let us not fall out of the window”.

It was a joke, OK? It was several months in before a tutor who did know Latin spotted it and was not happy. So he put it into correct Latin (which I have now forgotten) and the society didn’t last too much longer.

I still have a copy of one of the journals somewhere. I did a paper on ‘Babel re-visited: the use and abuse of language by Christians’. It was partly lighthearted; but, it’s serious questions still haunt me today.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Who’d have thought that the Summer Silly Season would begin with a social media debate about Latin?

The Education Secretary’s announcement that Latin will once again be taught in 40 more state schools ignited an explosion of opinions about its value. The cynics see it as a nod to conservative nostalgia, others see it as utterly pointless – teaching children a dead language. I have to confess, my first reaction was: if Latin can make you as happy as Mary Beard and Tom Holland, why not make everyone do it?

But, there is a serious argument to be had about learning ancient languages – and I speak as a former professional linguist who didn’t learn Latin or Greek at school and regrets it.

Yes, it’s understandable that some people think it a waste of time to learn something that has no economic development potential (unless, of course, you happen to have invented the Asterix franchise – to which I say hic, haec, hoc). But, despite current assumptions, economic value is not the ultimate goal of civilisation or the acme of human meaning. Character cannot be cashed out.

Educating a person is not the same thing as training her for a job. And isn’t it strange that the term ‘vocational courses’ – from the Latin vocare, of course – now usually refers to technical qualifications? Are our children really destined only to be cogs in an economic wheel – commodities in a competitive market? Or are they people whose mind and imagination need essentially to be teased and stretched and ignited and kindled – because, in Christian terms, they are made in the image of God … to be creative?

I well remember my first day at university – studying French and German, but not very good at either.  The professor told us bluntly that there is no point speaking a foreign language if you have nothing to say in it.

This goes to the heart of what is known as the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. The book of Proverbs nails it in its opening words when the writer extols “learning about wisdom and instruction, … understanding words of insight, … gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…” So, when his contemporaries marvel at the wisdom of the young Jesus, this is the tradition that explains what they meant.

So, the learning of Latin is, in and of itself, not a useful end. But, it is a means to an end – opening up the mind and imagination; giving access to the wisdom and follies of past civilisations; reminding us what education is really for.

Producat illum, I say: bring it on.