Monthly Archives: March 2010

Pious graffiti, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

I must admit that when I visited the Lutherzimmer in Wartburg Castle, what I really wanted to see was the inkblot left on the wall after Luther threw his inkwell at the devil. The room was well lit, but, although I looked and looked, I couldn’t see it. It was like coming away from Lourdes with your ailment unhealed.

What I did notice, though, was all of the pious graffiti on the walls. The same is the case in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg. These places became sites of pilgrimage very shortly after Luther’s death.

In terms of irony this is akin to setting up a branch of Starbucks near Highgate Cemetery for the refreshment of visitors to Karl Marx’s grave.


From Richard Verstegan's Theatrum Crudelitatum (1583). As I say, I'm not a Whig!

I was listening to an NPR podcast interview with Philip Jenkins this morning as I walked to work. The interview seemed to be connected with his new book Jesus Wars, though the question under discussion was whether the Bible is more violent than the Qu’uran. Framed that way, I’m not sure it’s a very useful or interesting question, though I understand that it arises from a certain kind of clash-of-cultures debate that’s raging in the US.

In the course of the interview, however, Jenkins used what I thought was a lovely term: “Holy Amnesia.” By this he was attempting to describe the way in which (most of) Christianity and Judaism gradually repudiated a resort to violence as a way of settling differences between religious groups or within religious communities. In doing so, they forgot the extreme violence that is sanctioned in their sacred texts and has been worked out across much of Christianity’s history, at least. I take it that he thinks the risk in such holy amnesia is that the seeds of past violence remain with us, and that, if we forget our violent past, we will forget how readily those seeds can take root and flourish.

I suppose this struck home, because it described what I take to be one important job of a church historian – particularly those like me, whose research focuses on an era of pronounced religious polarisation and violence. However precarious relationships between religious groups in the modern “west” may sometimes be, Church history can at least keep alive the memory of how hard-won even the most grudging toleration has been. It should also keep alive the memory of how readily polarising religious rhetoric slid into atrocity (and always with the most solid and sophisticated scriptural and theological support).

This isn’t to slide into some glib Whiggery-pokery about religion as the cause of all society’s ills (for that reason, I’m not sure how much I’m going to enjoy Jesus Wars), but it is to try to keep at the forefront of the church’s collective memory what horrors religion is capable of unleashing.

When I was a kid we were told that we should examine our consciences at the end of every day. I was never very good at that. But I am Augustinian enough to think that this is really the only credible way in which church history can still function as history for the church (as well as history for everyone else).

Midsummer's eve

As the sidebar of this blog indicates, I upload my photos to Flickr. Photography is a hobby of mine. I’m getting better at it, but I’d never claim to be more than moderately competent.

However, one of the things that has surprised me since I joined Flickr in 2005 is the number of educational institutions, publishers, news agencies and other bodies (e.g an amateur choir releasing a CD) who’ve approached me seeking permission to use one of my photos for a book or pamphlet or website.

I’ve made all of my photos available under a Creative Commons license and, in nearly all cases, I’m glad to give the photo away free of charge.

Because I make pretty heavy use of images in teaching, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to lay hands on rights-free photos. In fact, that’s why I got interested in photography in the first place: I was trying to build up my own library of teaching images.

On the other hand, it has only gradually dawned on me that with the advent of the internet, my hobby might be doing someone else out of business. Even if my photographs are just ok, an institution might prefer to use them simply because they’re available free-of-charge. The photographic agency or the the photographer are thus done out of payment for their superior but relatively costly work.

And so it comes to pass that we have the Union des Photographes Créateurs and a couple of other photographic bodies launching an e-petition calling on the French government to help them “Save Photography!”

They urge legislation to address the “banalisation” of photography that has occurred as a result of photographic sites like Flickr and the Creative Commons license.

But, honestly, what do they expect the French Government – let alone governments acting in concert – to do?

Like all creative professionals they’re confronting the intractable problem of the last two decades: how do we remunerate those who seek to live by their creativity in an age of mass-publication?

Another question the petition leaves (genuinely) begging is whether “banalisation” is the inevitable result of digital Maoism and the cult of the amateur.

Are professional journalists necessary in the age of the “citizen blogger.”? I hope so.

Are university lecturers necessary in an age of online, distance education? I bloody well hope so, though I must admit I’m beginning to feel the occasional pang of anxiety.

But is banalisation the inevitable result of mass-photography? Looking at some of the magnificent work available on Flickr, I’m not sure.

All the same, I do feel guilty if my photographic dilettantism is doing someone really talented out of a job.

Lutherbier, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

A brilliant bit of public art from the Luther Denkmal in Eisenach, close to the Wartburg Castle in which Luther translated the New Testament (pictured) while in hiding after the 1521 Diet of Worms.

I’ve just uploaded a set of photos from my trip there last April – a sign of how little time I’ve had for such things over the past year.

The Reformation critique of greedy prelates wasn’t very novel. The reformers had a rich stock of medieval anti-clerical rhetoric on which they could draw for that – most of it written by the mediaeval clergy themselves.

Death of the Rich Man, Moissac

The soul of the rich man being dragged to hell, Abbey of Moissac

As Max Weber pointed out, mediaeval Christians had the decency to feel guilty about their wealth, and one of the many scriptural passages that the mediaeval church took a lot more seriously than we do was the claim that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is apparently a passage that Auckland’s own prelate, Bishop Brian Tamaki, reads with a high degree of hermeneutical sophistication and it would be easy at this point for a jaded church historian to reach for what seem to be the obvious parallels. As I’ve already said, Church History can become a glass-half-empty discipline.

But I think that would be to let Brian off a bit lightly.

The medieval and the renaissance church did command pretty impressive revenues (‘command’ in both senses, since it didn’t always get them). On the other hand, it was expected to provide a wide range of social services, including education, care of the poor and sick, legal services (marriage and probate cases) and even engineering works such as bridges and roading. In some cases it provided these services well, in other cases badly – much like any government department.

Bridge of Dee

Bridge of Dee, Aberdeen Scotland built with revenues raised through the sale of indulgences

This is not to excuse the avarice of medieval and renaissance prelates. On the other hand, the next time you gaze on the cupolas of Rome or the gold plated ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore, and find yourself feeling a bit squeamish about the wealth of the renaissance papacy, remember that the same popes were also responsible for fixing and maintaining Rome’s sewerage system.

Wonder, too, whether Bishop Brian will leave civilization anything as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel – or as worthwhile as the Auckland City Mission.

Missale Wratrislaviense, the 15th-century Latin manuscript at the exhibition in the Dominican Monastery in Kraków. Photo credit:

And while we’re on translating…

There’s a debate currently simmering over the new English translation of the Mass that’s to be rolled-out all over the Anglophone world in November 2011.

On the whole, I can’t find it in me to get too exercised about this. The new translation certainly seems a bit of a pastiche — a lot of portentous archaism and tortured Latinate syntax — but I suppose we’d get used to it. Church History is a glass-half-empty discipline. However bad things may be now, you know they could be a whole lot worse.

Still, even if it is the case that there’s no such thing as a good translation (just a series of “less bad” ones) there are a few points in the new draft translation (I hope to glory it is still a draft!) at which you wonder: what on earth did they think they were doing?

Here’s the new translation of the variable prayer Communicantes from the Roman Canon (the traditional Eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite). It sticks ploddingly to the word order of the original Latin, but, I defy anyone to tell me where the main verb in this petition is, or who the subject is:

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, Spouse of the same Virgin,
your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, [James, John, Thomas, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon and Jude: Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian] and all your Saints: through their merits and prayers, grant that in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

I’m not going to take any cheap shots at “spouse of the same Virgin,” and I know where the main verb and subject are in the Latin (because the inflection makes it clear that they’re both to be found in the previous prayer).

But neither the punctuation or syntax of the new translation make this clear. The old translation, for all of its supposed faults, at least managed that.

To be punished by the purse is a thing that ever hath been most grievous to Scottishmen, and keepeth them most in awe

Archbishop John Spottiswoode (1565-1639) in Original Letters relating to the Ecclesiastical Affairs of Scotland, ed. D. Laing, 2 v. (Edinburgh, 1851), 2: 756; quoted in Margot Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (New Haven: Yale, 2002), 31 [one of my favouritest books ever!]

%d bloggers like this: