Tag Archives: Germany

Overdone

One of the things you see quite a lot of as an editor is “the next big thing.” Authors with an ego that awes me ensure me that this book will be the sea change we’ve all been waiting for. Things will be different after this is published. I don’t blame them. The trades all say that you’ve got to convince the editor that this project is worth her or his while. Overstating the case is par on this course. All of this got me to thinking. If you’ve read biblical studies seriously you’ll recognize the name Wellhausen. I don’t even have to use his first name—you know who I mean, right? Well, we’ve gone beyond the days when you could be a Wellhausen. When I was a student people spoke of the Wright, Bright, and Albright school. We knew who each of these gentlemen was. Now there are so many spoons in the pot that we’re not even certain what’s cooking.

Have you seen this man?

I’m not sure what the attraction to advanced degrees in this area is. If my case is anything to go by (and I don’t claim that it is) you grow up in a Bible reading family and you want to take the next logical steps. When you’re far enough along on the path to realize what’s happened, it’s too late to turn back. Many things in life are that way. There is a tipping point, a moment of crisis, then nothing will be the same. Then you learn you’ll never be the new Wellhausen. There was only one, and that was a couple of centuries ago now. I run into some pretty strange stuff when it comes to ways of reading the Bible. When the dust settles, however, we’ll still be counting J, E, D, and P on our fingers.

This isn’t a field for fame. Don’t believe me? Approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they know who Wellhausen is. Alas and alack, one of our greatest names is nobody outside the academy! In my own days among the privileged professorate, I never suspected I’d be anything but one of many voices trying to be heard. After all, my training was really more in history of religions than Bible in the first place. Dead languages had to be negotiated, but that’s all part of becoming an expert in something nobody really cares about. But then I think of Wellhausen. There was a time when all of this could make a nation such as Germany sit up and take notice. That day was centuries ago, and I’d better check that pot—I think maybe whatever’s in it may be done.

What’s a Bible?

LegaspiWhat is the Bible? This might seem a strange question coming from someone who holds a doctorate in what has sometimes been characterized as biblical studies. Still, it is a valid question. The fact is, very different things are referenced by the word “Bible.” This is made abundantly clear in Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi points out that the Bible hasn’t always been the central force of Christian identification that it seems to have become. Martin Luther was largely (but not solely) responsible for the view that the Bible alone is sufficient for eternal well-being. Historically it had been much more complicated than that. The church had traditions and sacraments, Judaism had Talmud and rabbinic interpretation. The idea that the Bible alone was necessary was more radical than it might seem in today’s secular world. The problem was, the Bible isn’t an easy book to understand.

It has long been recognized that the Enlightenment and the Reformation went more or less together. The mysticism and mystery of “superstition” were bound to fade in the brilliance of pure reason. The Bible, however, still held a revered place, and it had to be studied. The sea change of the scriptural Bible to the academic Bible took place largely in Germany. No surprises there. What Legaspi demonstrates is that this study was closely bound with the university as an organ of the state. Germany didn’t boast the oldest universities in the eighteenth century, but it could claim the most intellectually rigorous. Among its biblical scholars, indeed, perhaps the one who led to the creation of the academic Bible, was Johann David Michaelis. The book is mostly about Michaelis and his influence and background in biblical studies. Clearly, applying university treatment to an ancient text was not going to be Sunday School.

By the time people like me began advanced study of the Bible, the “academic Bible” was about all there was. Many of us with serious training in the field watch in wonder as some (many) theologians take the Bible literally. They use ideas and concepts that biblical scholars have long recognized as artifacts of antique understanding. The problem is once you’ve gone down this path, there’s no going back. You can’t unlearn the academic Bible. So, what is the Bible? Obviously, it’s going to depend on who you ask, but it is clear that no one answer will satisfy all takers, even if they all claim to share a single faith. And should you venture to those hallowed halls of higher education, you’ll find the Bible is studied here, as are dinosaurs and an earth that is a few billion years old.

Getting Exorcise

ExorcismTo be honest, I can’t recall having heard of Johann Joseph Gassner before. Given his role in the European witch-hunting culture, however, I must have read his name a time or two. As with most names out of context, it was quickly forgotten. H. C. Erik Midelfort, therefore, is to be congratulated with bringing out not only Gassner’s name, but his remarkable career. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany, like so many other books, came to my attention in a bookstore. Books on demons have a strange kind of draw to someone interested in both religion and monsters, and since it was on an overstock shelf, I found it impossible to let it lie. This proved to be a wise decision.

Midelfort proves himself one of the rare academics who doesn’t talk down to his readership, yet makes what could be a complex topic understandable. Complex is about the only word to describe what would become Germany in the Eighteenth Century. The remnants of the Holy Roman Empire left a divided region with prince-bishops—clerics with political control outside their own dioceses—vying for all kinds of authority. Although the Enlightenment was well underway, the region was embroiled in the controversy of a priest by the name of Gassner. Gassner was a healer, but also an exorcist. Believing that many torments suffered by the populace were demon-spawned, he used highly public and, to some, incredible exorcisms before healing those in need. His success was unquestioned, but the church, struggling between Catholicism and Lutheranism, as well as struggling to find a place in the Enlightenment world, found Gassner a bit of an embarrassment. What do you do with demons in a world where science says they don’t exist?

One of the most notable takeaways from Midelfort’s book, for me, is that the Enlightenment did not suddenly change the world. Even fully aware of empirical experimentation and the use of reason, the scholarly world did not utterly acquiesce to a subdued materialism. It still hasn’t. As the case of Gassner demonstrates, our comfortable, physically predictable world holds some surprises for us yet. At least for Gassner, believing demons don’t exist doesn’t stop them from tormenting people. As he cured his thousands, skeptics gathered (including his contemporary Franz Mesmer) to explain away what was happening. Even today, as Midelfort points out, we can’t explain the placebo effect. There’s no question, however, that it works. As does, if the media is to be believed, the occasional exorcism in the twenty-first century.

Parable of Jericho

It had been there my entire life. I hadn’t really noticed it, but it was a powerful symbol—not in the way that it was intended to be. Given the Teutonic nature of many of my musings, it probably occasions little surprise that much of my ancestry is German. I first heard about the Berlin Wall in German class in junior high school. It was a wall to ensure inequality. Then, while studying in Edinburgh, my wife and I came across a friend from Germany. He was standing outside a window, staring in at a television showing the Berlin Wall coming down. Younger than me, he couldn’t believe that this obstacle that seemed so permanent was finally, and suddenly gone. The next summer when we visited him in Germany, he took us to the former border between east and west. Bridges eerily stopped half-way across rivers. Sudden changes in affluence and outlook once you drove across an invisible line that separated us from them. It was all so surreal.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

This week heralds the quarter-century mark on the fall of one of the starkest symbols of the Cold War. People hating people. And as the wall in Berlin came down, walls were about to be erected in other states around the world. Not-so-Great walls intended to keep them from getting to us. We stubbornly refuse to learn from history. Those who have have little patience with those who have not. The borders are all only in our minds. Even as the wealthy elites within our system refuse to admit that crime largely comes from unequal distribution of resources, our own nation looks at others and makes the same tacit refusal to acknowledge the obvious. If wealth is so good, why not share it?

Of course, you can buy a piece of the Berlin Wall. Anything from a fist-sized chunk to several tons. The websites say that the wall is of limited quantity. Buy your piece before it’s all gone. I’m afraid their fears are misplaced. The wall pieces may not come from Berlin, but there will always be pieces available, some day, from the West Bank Barrier, or the Peace Walls of Belfast, or the Green Line in Cyprus, or Operation-Hold-the-Line in the Lone Star State. There are many walls that eventually must tumble. Ironically the prophets of the biblical world declare that every hill will be brought down and every valley lifted up to ease the way back home. Of course, once you arrive at home you naturally lock the door to keep the other out. And now, a quarter century after the embarrassment of Berlin faltered, we continue to erect new follies rather than trying to learn to get along.

World Cup Runneth Over

I’m not a sports fan of any description. I guess the message, “it’s just a game” sank in rather well as a child. Nevertheless, I was curious when some friends invited us over to watch the World Cup finals. New York City has been abuzz over the last few weeks, and if my walk home takes me past a bar in the city, I almost always have to cross the street to get around the crowds standing outside. So, I’ve been a little intrigued. It perhaps helps that some considerable primordial Teutonic blood makes its home in my ancestry. Hey, but it’s only a game. As a sometime jogger, it was interesting watching these guys running themselves ragged for 120 minutes, but what makes the World Cup worthy of a blog on religion is the sheer amount of religious imagery that pervaded the Brazilian broadcast of the event. Several lingering shots on Christ the Redeemer backlit by a halo-like sun preempted footage of the game. When night fell, the shots show Jesus looking down to watch the game.

800px-Obama_family_in_mist_in_Rio_de_Janeiro

The Argentineans, it would seem, should have had the spiritual advantage. With a pope in the Vatican, and a fan or two even dressed up like the Holy Father, the match taking place in some of the most Catholic territory outside of Rome, you might think some blessing would have been ambient. As the game ended Christ the Redeemer was lit up in rainbow colors and the Germans held the trophy high. Perhaps this is just grousing coming from a guy who’s lost as many times as I have, but it seemed that there could have been a bit more bonhomie on the part of those who managed to make their way to the final for what was, throughout, a very tight game. Perhaps they were just exhausted, but a smile for the camera might have gone a long way. They only lost by one.

During the match, as the director chose scenes of Christ the Redeemer, the announcers could be heard saying, “shouldn’t we be watching the game?” A profound, yet utterly human reversal of the usual evangelical trope of keeping one’s eyes on Jesus. But the millions around the world tuned in were not interested in Rio’s most famous landmark; rather, they wanted to see what was happening down on the ground, in real time. Heaven has its place, no doubt, but it should not interfere with matters of worldly importance. For many, some sociologists tell us, sports serves the function of religion. While extremely fit men run themselves to exhaustion, a kind of worship is taking place down on the field. Looking up to the icon on the hill, it is crucial to remember that it is just a game.

Witch Way

WitchCraze2Women generally bear the brunt of religious intolerance. This is an evil that has proven tenacious and insidious, and which has played out in history far too many times. Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany brought this home to me once again. Books on witch hunts are deeply disturbing, but we need to engage with the brutality of the past if we want to prevent its reappearance. Roper points out that although many nations persecuted “witches” in the Middle Ages, even into the early modern period, Germany by far had the highest numbers. There were probably many reasons—no simplistic answer meets all the clues. One is clearly related to politics. Germany lacked the central cohesion of other European nations in this period. Feuding princedoms from a fragmented Holy Roman Empire had no strong central authority. When it is everyone for themselves, scapegoats are never far off. Roper doesn’t leave it at that. She points out that the central characteristic of the witch is the intent to harm Christians. Indeed, the witch is a monster born of religion, and which murdered thousands of women in the name of Christianity.

Compounding this unrealistic fear that Christians have always seem to have had, was the emerging Reformation. Distrust erupted in Germany. Was one’s neighbor a Lutheran or a Catholic? In either case, the other was heretical, from someone’s point of view. Distrust ran at premium prices. And women picked up the bill. Yes, there were male witches, most of them associated with women who’d been accused, as Roper points out. Even as the Enlightenment was burgeoning, renewed hunts for witches broke out, leaving innocent women dead in a land that valued fertility perhaps above all else. Women’s bodies, as Roper notes, were to focus of suspicion and fear on the part of a male power structure that dealt with its phobias by the use of violence. Even the Enlightenment couldn’t wipe this slate clean.

Today in the western world, secular thought has replaced superstition for many people. Women are not longer accused of witchcraft. Besides, witchcraft is a chic new religion in many places. But the longed-for equality is still not here. In many parts of the world religious violence is still directed at females by male power structures that should’ve died out with the fading of medieval Teutonic anxieties. Those who perpetrate such violence hide behind scriptures—even the Hebrew Bible acknowledges the reality of witches. Religion creates its own cadre of monsters, and those with stout conviction look for women to blame. The flames of the pyres did not lead to a universal enlightenment and the Tea Party tells us Christianity is still endangered in a world where it may spread largely unhindered. One truth, however, remains. The truly endangered are women, and men who don’t fight against the real monsters do not deserve to be called defenders of the faith.

Ashes to Ashes

It was just a small blurb in the paper. Down at the bottom of page 17, it could have been easily overlooked. “Alleged witch killed by being set on fire” the small headline stated. And the date was 18 February 2012. This sad incident took place in Nepal. The story notes that “Each year hundreds of women in rural Nepal are abused after being accused of being witches.” Just last week, to the scorn of many, Cologne, Germany reopened the case of Katarina Henot, a woman burned as a witch 385 years ago. Katarina Henot was declared innocent because of the efforts of a priest to raise awareness of the persecution of women around the world. Five days after the story hit the news, Theganidevi Mahato was burned to death in Nepal. Although some called the action in Cologne a publicity stunt, it was anything but. We need to put names on those we continue to allow society to brutalize. Katarina Henot and Theganidevi Mahato, separated by 385 years and many, many miles, both died for the insanity that equates tragedy with women.

How blithely the word “witch-hunt” spills off the tongue. Each time we invoke it, the very phrase trails the ghosts of many thousands of women made to pay the price for society’s paranoia. The answers to why such tragedies occur may never be fully understood, but the events are preventable. The key is education. Even in the most advanced culture in the world, as we like to style ourselves, we heap contempt upon education, claiming that teachers barely work and that professors get paid for doing nothing. We have fallen into the fallacy that one size fits all—not all jobs can be measured by the wicked, black dip-stick of the oil industry, or the quick-cash-and-crash of the stock exchange. Education is a lifelong process, and as the political ridiculousness we constantly hear reminds us, lessons must be endlessly repeated until they sink in. Too many people think it is just easier to burn witches.

Witch-hunts arise when societies are stressed. Scapegoating is one of the most unfortunate legacies religion has left us. Evidence points to the scapegoat as being earlier than the Bible, although it takes its characteristic form there. We hear how the sins of the people were transferred to the goat on a day not so different from Ash Wednesday, to be symbolically born away where the animal would die instead of us. Somehow we’ve come to believe that burning the representative of our neuroses will somehow cure our society. Does it? Has it ever? This day as millions of Christians contemplate their sins and wear ashes on their heads, I suggest that we think of the women whom religion has allowed to become its victims. Whether due to the superstition of a remote village in Nepal or the irrational fear of “civilized” Europe with the blessing of the church, we’ve let scapegoating go too far. And those who’ve been killed are not the nameless females of forgotten times, but are the Katarinas, Theganidevis, Marys, and Rebeccas who were just as human as their neighbors.

What are their names?