This probably marks me down as a little bit miserable, but so far this year I have read three books and the one I am about to finish is not exactly a comedy. The excellent Germania (Simon Winder) was followed by a collection of poems by WH Auden. Then I got into a book my mum and dad gave me in November: On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 (Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg).

These are letters written from Hamburg to Wolff-Mönckeberg's adult children living abroad with their own families. Unable to tell the truth about what was going on in Germany – they wouldn't have got through the censors – she wrote letters which she left for her children to read after the war. They weren't discovered until 1974 during a house clearance. Which means they were never read by the children to whom they were addressed.

The letters are harrowing. They relate the experience of a wife and mother who tries to live and love and survive through the destruction of her city by Allied bombing, helpless in the face of the violence, powerless to change the madness into which Germany had been plunged by megalomaniacs in Berlin. Her son dies in South America, her home is burned by repeated incendiary attacks, friends and neighbours endure and die. This is no history book, but the very human recollection of a very human woman who puts flesh and blood and tears onto the experiences of loss, grief, fear and courage that are the real stuff of civilians caught up in a war being fought by others.

I was conscious throughout the book of the sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German Protestant theologian and pastor who had to pastor and preach his way through the same horrors in this same Hamburg during these same years. They merit re-reading, but only if the reader can imaginatively place himself or herself in the context of the time. Preaching about Christmas on the edge of a crater that used to be your church – containing the remains of some of those who used to be your congregation – removes any hint of mere religious piety. This is where such piety or religious illusion dies in the rubble and dust of destruction and violence.

My reason for citing this now is simply that (a) this is the sort of stuff that relativises some of the stuff that characterises current 'crises', and (b) gives an insight into those who appear as faces or figures on our front pages in reports about conflict in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Syria.

When all is stripped away, what is left? When all 'normality' explodes and disappears, tearing our life apart, what of value is left to motivate us? What ultimately matters?

I constantly need a point of reference such as this in order to keep me focusing on reality. I guess I am not the only one.

(The next book on my list is a funny one…)


Rome 5 002This morning the conference group in Rome went to visit the SAT2000 media centre. Set up by the Bishops Conference (and paid and controlled by them), this company makes, broadcasts and distributes television and radio programmes across Italy. Now, this sort of outfit would normally get my hackles rising: paid for and controlled (in terms of agenda and direction) by the Roman Catholic Church does not sound to me like a recipe for independence and rational analysis of the world. But, that prejudice needs to be examined.

We questioned the controllers and presenters in some detail and they were open, frank and helpful in their engagement with us. The big question for British communications people is around how a religious establishment with a particular profile can have the credibility to speak to a sceptical world that doesn’t share its beliefs or assumptions. There is a common view that it is surely impossible – that only secularist assumptions or convictions about the world can be credible or independent (or even rational). This, of course, is twaddle of the first order.

SAT2000 is confident about the worldview it assumes and represents: that God is there; that God has created us to love and be loved; that deviation from the Creator’s way leads only to problems; and that those who hold to a Christian world view have something not only unique (in a descriptive sense) but also vital for all human beings. They then look at the world through this lens. This leads them to produce analyses of news, of news output across the media, of moral/ethical issues as they impact on public policy, and of cultural phenomena such as theatre, film, etc. In other words, no sphere of life is excluded from such a perspective and a religious media is not (stupidly) condemned only to address directly ‘religious’ affairs.

Rome 5 005This is because the business of any church is not primarily the church, but the world the church is called to serve. I think it was the great german preacher and theologian, Helmut Thielicke, who asked God to preserve the church and the world from ‘stupid Christian philistines’. The church’s agenda is the world in which we live and which we shape together.

So, SAT2000 produces radio and TV programmes that open up discussion and debate, bringing a unique critique to the world’s business and inviting audiences to question the assumptions they themselves bring to the analyses of the world that shape their thinking and critique.

This is good. I  might not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s line on particular issues and I might not like the line propagated in some programming. But I like even less the aggressively arrogant secularist assumptions that a Christian (or, rather, theistic) world view is invalid whereas one that starts from a different (but not argued for) place is – rather conveniently – the only legitimate one. Surely we should be big enough to let people bring their perspectives to the table and then let them stand or fall in the market place of public scrutiny? To fear this is to doubt that our view will stand if scrutinised closely (described by someone today as ‘given a rigorous scrute’).

But I also discovered today that the word for a ‘remote control’ in Italian is ‘telecomando’. And I thought this sounded like someone who attacks people with a telly. Which reminded me of Richard Dawkins and the wonderful condensed parody of his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. A weird link, I know; but not half as weird as some of the links Dawkins makes.

Anyway, I had time to think about this while running round central Rome looking for Jane Bower’s (Director of Communications for Wakefield Diocese) lost passport. She’d left it in the church we were in earlier. It was still there. We were pleased. Sweaty, but pleased. Here she is:

Rome 5 006

‘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.