Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

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I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

I have just been to Jena, Germany, to do a lecture at the Friedrich Schiller University and preach at a service to open the winter semester. A bit of a trek – there yesterday, back today. But, it was worth it for all the wonderful people I met. (The texts are in German only.)

Not only did Schiller and Goethe meet in Jena, but Napoleon paid a visit in 1813 – and he wasn't doing a spot of tourism. The hall where I did my (faltering) lecture is fronted by a huge painting of the slaughter he brought.

Being somewhere for the first time always impresses upon me the need to 'read' and 'think' theology in the context of the particular place. Thinking and speaking in Jena (German, Reformation, Enlightenment, Nazism, Communism, etc.) shines a different light on which questions matter from some of those elsewhere (England, for example).

But, as I repeated in Jena, being compelled to look through someone else's lens/eyes enables us to look afresh at (and think about) our own situation and preoccupations.

What amused me over the last couple of days, however, was reading Stella Gibbons' wonderfully funny Cold Comfort Farm on the planes. It isn't comfortable laughing aloud at 37,000ft, but there are some wonderful lines:

Never confront an enemy at the end of a journey, unless it happens to be his journey. (p.47)

Adam shook his head. A curious veil, like the withdrawing of intelligence from the eyes of a tortoise, flickered across his face. (p.56)

… there'll be no butter in hell! (p.98)

[They] were so flabbergasted, so knocked clean out of the perpendicular by the bosom-shattering stupendosity of the event,… (p.221)

And did the goat die? (p.223)

You've just got to read it to get it. And I note it here just so I won't lose it.

 

I have been out all day today and got home just in time to be annoyed by a programme on the telly. It was called The Legacy of Jade and shamelessly preempted her death with a pointless examination of the juicy bits of her life. It seemed to say that her search for fame justified any intrusion into her life now. It was tacky, mawkish and oozed mock serious sympathy as a weak rationale for broadcasting it. It said nothing.

aljolson_walkoffameBut it did raise the question (again) about the value of ‘celebrity’ and the cost of fame. Tomorrow I am preaching at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street at the annual Bridewell service. The reading is from Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15 (‘Let us now praise famous men…’) and I will be quoting from Goethe (‘The deed is all, the glory naught.’) and Tacitus (‘The desire for fame is the last thing to be put aside, even by the wise.’). Fame of itself is a vacuous pursuit and those who crave it for its own sake are more to be pitied than reviled.

The interesting thing about the passage from Ecclesiasticus is that it reminds me immediately of Hebrews 11 which (for the uninitiated) lists the ‘heroes of the faith’. Famous names such as Abraham, Moses, Samson, Rahab and David make their grand appearance and are lauded for their faith. But, look just a bit deeper at these characters and we find that one tried several times to pass his wife off as his sister so the local king could have his wicked way with her and spare the husband (Abraham); one was a murderer who ran away from the scene of his crime (Moses); another was easily seduced into sex and a bad haircut (Samson); another was a prostitute who is not recorded as having given up the day job (Rahab); and the other was a king who fancied his neighbour’s wife, got her pregnant and made sure the husband got killed in battle (David). Er… right. Very noble and very straightforward.

rigaud-samsonWhat characterises these people (and loads of others in the Bible) is their ambiguities and God’s ‘use’ of them despite it all. When we sanitise them, we deny the power of what the biblical narrative is trying to tell us. For these people their fame is fundamentally to do with their lack of illusions about themselves and the realism that enables them to live useful lives with (and for ) God despite all the dodgy stuff they get up to.

This, again, is why my heroes include people like Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer: never afraid to change their mind, wrestling with the tough life-and-death moral/ethical/theological dilemmas that demand a committed response without absolute certainty of their rightness.

Fame is a silly and superficial thing to be pursued as a life-goal. To be famous for being human and humane is neither silly nor superficial.