What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

It’s a bit odd not ‘doing’ Christmas for the first time in years. Being on sabbatical (study leave), I will not be in prison on Christmas Day and am not preaching or presiding at any Christmas services. So, I will be having the unusual experience (for a bishop) of enjoying Christmas in a ‘non-professional’ sort of way – if you know what I mean.

This freedom is also making my mind run a bit more freely. Among the many books I am reading is Simon Schama‘s The American Future: A History. I missed the televised series and then started the book about a year ago, not getting very far into it because of other distractions and pressures on time. But, this week I returned to it and I am glad I did.

Schama is superb at describing the role of religious (Christian) faith in the shaping of America. Not only in relation to the protections of the Constitution and the reaction against the association of European Christianity with political power enshrined in the First Amendment, it was profound Christian determination and courage that fired up those who struggled and fought for the emancipation of the slaves and the integration of the black people as citizens of America. Schama is no Christian, but he brings a dispassionate (and, to me, surprising) eye to the power of Christian faith in bringing about change rather than just thinking and talking about it. He doubts that the Enlightenment ‘rationalist’ tradition would have done any more than discuss slavery – whereas the courage, vision and deep-rooted theology of humanity’s ‘createdness in the image of God’ owned by slaves and some whites gave birth to a song that could not be silenced. He describes at length (in Part Two) the singing, the music, the irrepressible creative passion that refused to be silenced by torture, oppression, ridicule or rejection.

This has made me reflect back on the Christmas story that is being told and re-told in so many ways this week. But, as any good carol service will demonstrate, wherever we pitch into the story, it is never the ‘beginning’. Even John 1 and the Genesis narrative takes us back beyond the ‘Beginning’ into the nature of the eternal God himself. But I go back to a summary point that is pivotal in our understanding of what Christmas is about: the song Mary sings when told she is to give birth, the Magnificat.

I don’t know what sort of song a young single woman should sing when told she is to bear a child (not from her fiance) who will turn the world upside down. Mirroring the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament, – she knew her ‘story’ and her tradition – she sings not of the joy of starting a family or the privilege of bearing a child full of potential and promise. No, she sings of the cost of vocation, the nature of the world (dominated by power, strength, hierarchies and privileges) and the challenge that God brings (in the child who will bring down the mighty and establish the meek).

Mary captures (or is captured by) the fact that God’s people are to be characterised – and even recognised – by their reflection of the character of God himself: one who gives power away, who lays aside rights and glory, who opens himself to vulnerability, who opts into the world’s suffering and joy and does not exempt himself from the struggle. This is a God who by his very nature offends the caprices and ambitions of a greedy world. The warning in this deeply politically subversive song is that Mary’s child will grow into a man who will say once and for all: “it doesn’t have to be this way; dare to see the world differently; dare to have your values turned upside down and see how the world can be changed by those who, ‘in Christ’, live a different way.”

Mary’s baby will embody all this. He will fulfil the calling that was always Israel’s vocation: to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God is. And his people will now dare to live out what was to be fulfilled in this Jesus – but what has always been the calling of God to the people who claim to bear his name.

If the songs of the black slaves and former slaves in America could not be surpressed and if the voices of those inflamed with the inescapable passion of a liberating God could not be silenced by violence or ridicule or apathy or condescension, then Mary’s song cannot be muted either.

I’m off to a Carol Service now. My heart and mind are gripped by Mary’s song and its subversive challenge to a world that is happy to keep Jesus as a cuddly baby in a manger but worried about letting him grow up into the man whose very being became so offensive to ‘contemporary values’ that we had to get rid of him. After all, he was spoiling the party, wasn’t he?

‘Syncretism’ was a word I learned at theological college. It was pretty obvious from the way it was expressed that ‘syncretism’ is a VERY BAD THING. It basically means the attempted reconciliation or fusion of different or opposing principles (systems of belief), practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion. It is most often used by one religious group to demonstrate how another has become contaminated by elements of the dominant culture, thus rendering the group impure, suspect and, perhaps, heretical.

What is interesting about syncretism is the fact that whenever the charge is made, it almost always is selective. So, the ‘pure’ church can distinguish itself from the ‘impure’ (syncretistic) church by identifying the particular accommodations made by the other group to the ‘false’ culture. Of course, one of the biblical texts that can be ignored here is the one that refers to ‘motes and beams’ (or splinters and planks).

geiko muller-fahrenholzIt might seem odd that I have moved from misery about popular television yesterday to something more esoteric today, but the reason is simple: I have been reading a very interesting book. While at a conference in Paderborn last Monday, Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz gave me a copy of his book, America’s Battle for God: A European Christian Looks at Civil Religion (2007, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids/Cambridge). It is a fascinating analysis of the American psyche as seen from a European perspective and in chapter 3 he remarks on the selective nature of syncretism when used as a charge against others of the same faith. Having noted that superheroes such as Neo in The Matrix ‘are variations of the Christ figure, but with a “gospel message” markedly different from the biblical one’, he goes on to remark:

The point that concerns me most is that what we encounter here is an interesting – yet irritating  – example of syncretism: that is, a melange of Christian and non-Christian images and ideas… I am not overly concerned about religious syncretism, as long as it is understood as a phenomenon that is both unavoidable and constantly in need of self-critical appraisal. Wherever the Christian faith… has taken root, it has to some extent absorbed the cultural habits and religious traditions of its cultural context.

Now, that is undeniable. I hear people scream about all sorts of ‘compromises’ that suit the particular prejudices of particular groups, but no group of Christians (or human beings…) can be exempt from the cultural and social reality of being in the world at a particular time and place. Mueller-Fahrenholz goes on:

But the process of syncretism becomes dangerous when its reality is being denied: in other words, when and where religious communities claim that their message is the “pure” ancestral faith, the “orthodox” representation of the foundational message, then syncretism borders on heresy.

He then singles out conservative evangelical groups – but the critique clearly applies to other ‘parties’ as well – as being ‘deeply influenced by … modern … ideologies, though the movements’ members insist that they are nothing but purely biblical in their orientation’. He concludes as follows:

…it is this claim of orthodoxy that prevents them from seeing how deeply their faith has been invaded by contemporary, neoreligious winner-loser dichotomies.

51E%2B%2BywvS9L__SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_SS75_Basically, his charge is that those who claim most confidently to be ‘biblical’ are simply being (a) blind to their own syncretism and (b) selective in identifying (according to other assumed criteria) the ‘sins’ of others as being syncretistic while assuming that their own lifestyle is ‘orthodox’. For example, Jesus says a lot about money and little about sex. I have been asked to withold Communion from someone having an affair, but nobody has ever asked me to withold Communion from someone whose financial practices might be dodgy. Mueller-Fahrenholz goes on to look at American civil religion and the massive blind spots in American Christian culture – possibly only visible from the outside; the same exercise needs to be done for Europe. But the point is simple: we are all inevitably syncretists and, like alcoholism, the first step to addressing it is to admit it.

We see this running through the arguments in the Anglican Communion as well as other churches and religions. Half a century ago the Anglican Communion handled the matter of polygamy in Africa with wisdom, trust and generosity. The church always needs to have its robust debates about the Bible and ethics, but it also needs the debates to be characterised by what I have called in another context a ‘confident humility’. I can always spot the syncretistic compromises of  my neighbour whilst remaining blind to my own and convinced of my own purity of approach.

ThielickeI think it was the great German evangelical theologian Helmut Thielicke who was asked in a 1950s American seminary what he thought of women wearing make-up – the current divisive taboo. He thought in silence before saying something like: ‘It offends me so much that the tears run down my cheeks, along my cigar and drop into my beer’ – thus identifying a few other American evangelical ‘sins’ that simply weren’t ‘sins’ in Germany. Point made.