Last night we went out with friends to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of Günter Grass’s epic The Tin Drum. It was surprising. It was certainly a powerful experience and an imaginative adaptation of the story. It was a bit like Marlene Dietrich meets Kraftwerk meets Gary Numan – in a good sense.

This was timely as I had just got back from holiday a couple of hours before and had just finished Stephen Green’s excellent book Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. In it he traces not only the formative history of Europe’s most complex and powerful nation, but also explores the themes key to understanding Germany today, its tensions and corporate psyche. I have read a lot on this stuff, but this is by far the best and most accessible account of this remarkable country.

The three voices worth paying some attention to as Europe addresses challenge and change in the years ahead are: Stephen Green in this book and a couple of other small books he has written on Europe; Timothy Garton-Ash – anything he has written; Jeremy Cliffe who is now based in Berlin for the Economist and is the must-read on Twitter on all things German and Brexit. Not surprisingly, all three speak German.

I listened to the morning worship on BBC Radio 4 this morning through the filter of the theatre, the book and my thinking about Martin Luther. I presented the programme, produced by Rosie Dawson and recorded in Wittenberg a couple of weeks ago. Both Grass and Green wrestle with Luther’s legacy for German culture and political development.

Luther made a massive impact on the culture and political development of Europe. The story has not ended yet.


I did a day trip to Bradford today for meetings. And the sun shone. Clearly no coincidence…

Sitting on a train for hours does at least allow some space for reading and today’s was very stimulating (apart from the addictive novel I’ve almost finished – Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo):

In his excellent ethicalcomment blog Dr Charles Reed offers an important lens through which to view the current revolutions going on in North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya). If we are not to react simply to the immediate – which stimulates short-term reactive action that inevitably leads to further trouble in the future – but think through the longer-term consequences of potential courses of action, then we need to delve into history. Charles points us to an interesting essay by Professor David Bell.

Remembering the accuracy of Jesus’s realistic warning (that if we clear the one demon out of the house before having something better to put in its place, then loads of demons will fill the vacuum that nature so abhors), this also raises the question about what support is to be given to building a new framework for civil society in countries where it has broken down. I remember very well the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the flood of nutters, pornographers, druggies, robbers and exploiters that filled the gap left where the social, political and economic frameworks had been.

The second interesting bit of reading was Timothy Garton Ash‘s reflection in the Guardian on the lessons of history as seen through the lens of Polish-Russian relations. He begins with this introduction to a discussion about truth-telling:

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister, has on his visiting card one of the world’s more extraordinary titles. It reads: Plenipotentiary for Difficult Matters. What a wonderful idea. Every country, every company, every family should have one.

The third article, also from the Guardian, is related to the previous two: ‘Churnalism or news? How PRs have taken over the media’. There is something funny about people being taken in by hoaxes. There is something very funny about journalists being taken in by hoaxes. But there is also something very worrying about the pressures under which journalists now work (understaffed and under too much pessure to produce headlines quickly and dramatically without proper checking of sources) that potentially reduces (a) the value of the journalism produced and (b) our trust in what we read, watch or hear.

The common theme of these three items is the need for intelligent appraisal of what we see and hear and the need for people (journalists and/or historians) who help us ‘see’ and think about more wisely what is presented to us in the media as ‘truth’. What I see on the news this evening means nothing without some contextual interpretation; however, that context is not just the contemporary events, but also the ‘deep’ (broader historical or cultural) lens through which we understand the current events.

We don’t need quick news. We need deep news.

Holidays away from home allow are a privilege. The break from the sheer busyness and responsibility of normal life is a gift to be savoured. Not only did I manage to read 7 books in ten days away, but I also managed not to read a single newspaper or watch a single television programme. (New Testament Greek isn’t much help when trying to follow the news in Crete.)

But one book I read reminded me of the value of quality journalism and the importance of a media in which prejudices can be challenged and perspectives can be changed. Having read Timothy Garton Ash‘s book about his Stasi record, The File, (and posted on it), I took away with me the collection of writings he has published as Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name. This collection of writings from around the world during the first decade of the twentyfirst century is the epitome of informed, intelligent, inquisitive journalism. A gifted linguist (I heard him in dialogue with the German Bundeskanzler, Angela Merkel, speaking excellent German), he brings to his language a freshness and clarity that drives the reader from piece to piece with curiosity and admiration.

Some of his topics covered matters I know something about (particularly related to Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe); but there were always fresh insights and explorations of ideas that made me wish I had had Garton Ash’s life for him. Nevertheless, he made me re-think my reflexive views on things I thought I had settled in my own mind (for example, the tension experienced in the UK between belonging to Europe or the USA or the nature of liberalism in a culture that silently cedes its freedoms to tyrannies of fear). No doubt the new UK Government will warm to his critique of history teaching in British schools (“We have gone from a simplistic, misleading mythical story… to a condition where we have no story at all.” p. 117), but I doubt we will see any real change for the better in the medium term at least. However, Garton Ash provokes, educates, stimulates and frequently puts his finger right on the button – for example, distinguishing between atheism and secularism, criticising much interfaith dialogue for its pretence at respect, and holding journalists such as himself to account.

It is this last point that hit me while reading him before returning to the reality of my ‘normal’ life. At the beginning of the book he expresses pride at being a journalist (as well as an academic at Oxford and Stanford Universities). Then, in the sixth section of the book, entitled Writers and Facts, he holds himself and his colleagues to account for what they write and how they write. Words matter and journalists’ words can change the world; so their use of words is not a thing to be taken lightly. Whilst arguing for the radical importance of a free press, he also knows the danger of losing such media freedom by compromising its conduct. In a chapter about George Orwell he writes:

In ‘Politics and the English Language’ [Orwell] shows how the corruption of language is crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. But he also shows how we can get back at the abusers of power, because they are using our weapons: words. Freedom depends on writers keeping the word-mirrors clean. In an age of sophisticated media manipulation, this is more vital than ever.

Funnily enough, this is a point made in a different context by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book about Dostoyevsky. Language is too important to take for granted. The corruption of language always betrays the corruption of something far deeper. It is a theme to which Garton Ash returns many times.

I guess this struck home when I switched on my computer and found the news websites dominated by Naomi Campbell’s appearance at the Charles Taylor trial at the Hague. Many media outlets had shown no interest whatsoever in the tedious trial of a man being tried for war crimes the details of which are so horrendous they frequently beggar belief. Mass murder, cannibalism and the demand for justice are clearly sideshows of human importance… until a celebrity turns up and describes her summons as a ‘big personal inconvenience’.

Marina Hyde hits the nail on the head in devastatingly angry language in the Guardian. Her conclusion is inescapable:

Clearly, then, the message from The Hague today is simple: you can kill and rape and mutilate as much as you like, but if you really want to gain a purchase on early 21st-century western discourse and are not simply pissing about, you do need to have once had contact with a celebrity in some incredibly minor way. Even now, let’s hope that Janjaweed militia are making a pitch for posterity by sending baskets of muffins to Lindsay Lohan, because if and when they are ever brought to justice, they sure as Shirley aren’t going to make the major bulletins without that kind of news peg.

What else is there left to say? Other than: this is your world. Try not to choke on it.

The sceptical side of me kicked in the other day when I read that the new coalition government in the UK had proposed allowing the public to choose which laws ought to get dumped in the brave new ConDemNation. My scepticism is awakened any time I hear the word ‘choice’ used where there is no choice – or where the power of choice doesn’t lie where it sounds like it is supposed to be. Would any government really agree to dump laws such as those covering national security just because people wanted them to? I think we should be more honest. (And it is possible that the word ‘choice’ was a media interpretation of an idea in which the word itself was not used by the politicians themselves – but I have been away and am trying to catch up quickly.)

A good example of this is education. For thirty years we have been told that there is such a thing as ‘parental choice’ – that parents can choose the school to which their children should be sent. This has always been nonsense, but it has raised among parents expectations that cannot be met. The most parents can hope for is to ‘express a preference’. It is governors and the local authority who will choose. It isn’t hard to work out that if everybody wants their child to go to the best schools, some aren’t going to be able to get their way.

However, I have now read the BBC’s digest of the new government’s agreed programme and my heart is cheered in one or two significant respects: the banking levy, consumer protection, alcohol, energy, government transparency and so on. But, the most significant element of the programme comes under the header ‘Civil Liberties’. Mention the word ‘morality’ and everybody thinks of sex (especially in church), but I have argued elsewhere that one of the biggest moral issues facing us is the creeping surveillance culture we have allowed to grow.

One of the most interesting books about this is Timothy Garton Ash’s excellent The File. Having lived and worked in the German Democratic Republic, he decided to ask to see the file kept on him by the Stasi. The book is a record of his personal story of being spied upon and being asked to spy for the Brits (which he declined on more than one occasion). Towards the end of the book he grapples with the moral ambiguity of utilitarianism (ends justifying means) and whether spying on neighbours and friends can ever be justified – even when you think you are on the ‘right side’.

In the context of the recent judgement that an al-Qaida leader in the UK cannot be deported to Pakistan because he might get tortured there, this poses a very immediate dilemma. During his trial evidence from intercepted emails and phone calls was used, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were allowed to know what that evidence was. Calls for intercept evidence to be used in trials will now get louder – on the grounds that security is not compromised by such disclosure, but a legal system designed to ensure justice must be transparently just.

So, given fears about the all-pervading and seemingly unaccountable surveillance culture in Britain (in London it is estimated that you get photographed around 350 times each day), we can only applaud plans to introduce a Freedom Bill (depending, of course, what it aims to do, how it aims to do it and how far it reaches), scrap ID cards, ditch the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports. However did a Labour regime ever allow such illiberal monstrosities to grow?  The finger-printing of children at school without parental permission is also to be banned – which begs the question of how it ever came to be allowed in the first place. Other plans include more protections for DNA database, protection of trial by jury, restoration of rights to non-violent protest, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, introduction of safeguards against misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, regulation of CCTV, and a mechanism to prevent the proliferation of “unnecessary” new criminal offences.

The media will no doubt be pleased to see an expansion in the scope of Freedom of Information Act. Wrestling with the morality of exposing and naming those who spied on him, Timothy Garton Ash makes a warning comment in this respect also: that apart from intrusive, but clandestine, security services, the media also transgress the boundary between legitimate reportage and prurient snooping on individuals with the aim of exposing them to public shame. And this from a journalist.

Of all the books I have read on the intelligence world, Garton Ash’s is the best: personal, reflective, questioning and realistic – realistic about human frailty, the impact of circumstance on morality and the subjectivity of moral judgement that is shaped by assumptions of moral objectivity.

As we scrap ID cards and address the other matters of civil liberties, this is an accessible introduction to the issues at hand.


HuberWhere else would you find people queuing early in the morning to hear a Bible Study in a hall that seats in the region of 10,000 people? We turned up for Bishop Wolfgang Huber’s Bible study on Genesis 3 an hour before it started and joined the queue that was already enormous and very good-humoured. Huber (who retires as Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesiche-Oberlausitz and Chairman of the Council of the EKD later this year) is a brilliant communicator and the hour goes quickly – full of memorable phrases and passionate rhetoric. He also knows how to press the right buttons and he is constantly interrupted by applause. It felt a bit like a rally.

The most interesting parts of Huber’s address will need separate treatment later when I have read the text. But he made some intersting observations about power, responsibility and the human propensity to deny responsibility, shift it or blame someone else. Assuming that Genesis 3 asks ‘how we got to where we are as human beings?’, he also pointed out those parts of the ‘Eden’ narrative that easily get forgotten: that the serpent lied – Adam and Eve did not die – and that, despite everything, it was God who searched for Adam and Eve (not the other way round) and God who clothed them. Draw your own conclusions about what this says to a humanity that knows it is naked and can be seen through by the eyes of a God who is interested not only in exposing the badness, but caring for the consequences.

Angela MerkelHuber’s address was followed by a remarkable discussion between Angela Merkel (Bundeskanzlerin) and Prof. Dr. Timothy Garten Ash (Oxford). The theme concerned ‘freedom and responsibility’, but ranged over democracy, history and memory.

TGA asked whether the Germans had been able to build such a good and strong civil structure because it had had to deal with a difficult past: the Protestant Reformation, two World Wars and Nazism, then the DDR. He later observed that it is hard to hold on to two histories (FRG and GDR), but that the GDR would soon be forgotten: it was too short-lived and was artificial anyway. The discussion was interesting because Merkel (a daughter of the ‘manse’) is from East Germany and twenty years ago had a very different future ahead of her.

tgaI cannot do justice to the discussion as I had to leave after only forty minutes, but it was robust, informed, intelligent and really interesting. (TGA spoke very good German.) Is this why something like 7,000 people listened to Huber and Merkel, many of them sitting on cardboard boxes?

Enough for now. I am leading an ecumenical service this evening, but will return to say more about the Ratskeller, the 1908/09 exchanges and what it is that makes this event so unique.