Martin Luther

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish:

How Martin Luther has shaped Germany for half a millennium

The 500th anniversary of the 95 theses finds a country as moralistic as ever

SET foot in Germany this year and you are likely to encounter the jowly, dour portrait of Martin Luther. With more than 1,000 events in 100 locations, the whole nation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk issuing his 95 theses and (perhaps apocryphally) pinning them to the church door at Wittenberg. He set in motion a split in Christianity that would forever change not just Germany, but the world.

At home, Luther’s significance is no longer primarily theological. After generations of secularisation, not to mention decades of official atheism in the formerly communist east (which includes Wittenberg), Germans are not particularly religious. But the Reformation was not just about God. It shaped the German language, mentality and way of life. For centuries the country was riven by bloody confessional strife; today Protestants and Catholics are each about 30% of the population. But after German unification in the 19th century, Lutheranism won the culture wars. “Much of what used to be typically Protestant we today perceive as typically German,” says Christine Eichel, author of “Deutschland, Lutherland”, a book about Luther’s influence.

Click on the link to see if you agree.

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).

From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station

From the Financial Times, an interesting review of four books dealing with Russia’s October Revolution, whose centennial will be observed next year:

Next April will mark the 100th anniversary of what was surely the most consequential train journey in history. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary and future founder of the Soviet state, travelled from Zurich through Germany to Petrograd, the Russian capital, on a journey that the government in Berlin set up in a bid to destabilise Russia and win the first world war. In Winston Churchill’s inimitable words: “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

From Lenin’s train ride, and from the Bolshevik seizure of power to which it led in October 1917 (November 1917 by the western calendar that Russia adopted in 1918), flowed the 20th century’s most important military and political events. “The Revolution put in power the totalitarian communism that eventually ruled one third of the human race, stimulated the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and thus the Second World War, and created the great antagonist the West faced for the forty years Cold War balance of terror,” Tony Brenton says in his introduction to Historically Inevitable?

More at the link. (Title is a lyrical reference.)

Book Review

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens. I wrote a blog post about it at the time which I reprint below.


God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the latest from Christopher Hitchens, and one of the more popular of the recent spate of atheist bestsellers. “That’s ridiculous,” says my wife. “Everything poisons religion!” The voice of a believer, to be sure, but she has a point. The main flaw of this book is that Hitchens creates a category called “religion” into which he dumps everything he doesn’t like, and a category called “humanism” to encompass everything he does like. So Martin Luther King was not actually inspired by his faith, but Hitler was supported by the Church, and Stalinism was its own religion.* Ergo, religion is bad. Nice! Hitchens constantly refers to Ockham’s Razor, apparently unaware that William of Ockham was a fourteenth-century English Franciscan who was an important scholastic theologian. Peter and Rosemary Grant spent thirty years on the Galapagos Islands observing finch beak evolution; “who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” Not I – but I will say that I’m also glad that armies of anonymous medieval monks patiently copied out manuscripts, as a service to the Lord, so that we could read them today, and I’m also glad that Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk, did his pea-plant experiments so that we could all learn about genetics. Do they get credit for what they’ve done? Or were they just humanists without knowing it?

That’s not to say that the book is a bad read. For every solecism (The Passion of the Christ did not seek “tirelessly to lay the blame for the Crucifixion upon the Jews,” “Vulgate” does not mean “vernacular”; Wyclif and Coverdale were not killed for translating the Bible [nor was Tyndale, for that matter – it was his marginal notes that were found heretical]; etc.), there are ten clever, witty turns of phrase, all strung together in that lucid, vituperative Hitchens style. It’s just, as I say, there are some fundamental problems with the whole thing. Hitchens claims that he had been writing the book “all his life,” and indeed much of it reads like an essay by a very smart high school student. He has a chapter debunking the creation myth of Genesis, and another excoriating the Gospels for not agreeing with each other. (You don’t say! Well, there goes my faith.) He also goes on and on about religion’s repression of sexuality, making me wonder just what sort of upbringing Hitchens had. If only religion didn’t lay guilt trips on us about our sexual desires, then we would all be so much happier! But who even takes such instruction to heart anymore? And surely even he recognizes that sex is dangerous? Do what comes naturally and cheat on your girlfriend – even if she’s an atheist, chances are she’ll be upset. Hit on your atheist students and your atheist self might still get fired by your secular college administration. We don’t need religion to be moral, as he constantly tells us – but we don’t need religion to have good reasons for repressing our sexuality either.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the gauntlet that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and now Hitchens have thrown down to religion as such. The first of these authors is very keen on the idea that religion is an evolutionary social adaptation shared by all members of Homo sapiens, and closely allied to our capacity for language.** I am prepared to believe this, although I don’t draw the same conclusion from it that he does. Dennett would have the exposure of this fact be enough to condemn religion for all time – we have now “broken the spell.” But if it is so intrinsically a part of us (on a macro scale, of course – individual “capacity” for religion varies by individual) then can we just dismiss it out of hand? Not that I’m obsessed with sex or anything, but: I can surmise that female attractiveness is just a trick that nature is playing on me in order to get me to procreate. I don’t think it’s entirely a social construction that young women at the height of their fertility also tend to be the most sexually desirable. Does this mean that we are to give up sex, except for procreative purposes, because we “know better”? Or do we simply try to tame the excesses of sexual desire, hem it in with social custom – by encouraging monogamy, proscribing relationships between adults and children, and banning public courtship beyond a certain stage of undress, but by otherwise leaving consenting adults to act as they wish in private? The latter is of course the more practical (and humane) avenue to take… and I would also apply the principle to religion. Western society is significantly less religious now than it ever has been, and who knows, maybe rising standards of living and increasing discoveries about our evolutionary makeup will cause it to die out eventually. It seems though that religion keeps showing a remarkable tenacity and longevity. This is why I can’t accept Hitchens’s claim that it “poisons everything” or Dawkins’s that it constitutes child abuse. It seems to me that the best thing is to try and channel it in constructive ways, encouraging forbearance, loving your neighbor, community service, and good music, and discouraging self-righteousness, exclusivity, meddling in public school curricula, etc.

* It seems to me that Hitchens has turned Marxism on its head. Rather than religion being a (false-conscious) mask for economic conflict, now economic (and other) conflict is at base religious.

** Although a biologist colleague of mine (a secularist as far as I can tell) says that evolutionary “storytelling” is now much out of fashion among serious evolutionary biologists – unless you have proper data, you can’t just say that “x” is a product of natural selection for “y” reason. It could be just “random crap,” the result of random but harmless mutation or genetic drift – the source, current thinking holds, for many observable characteristics of a given species.

Ho for the Hols

• In honour of Canada Day (yesterday), a rendition of the Royal Arms of Canada from a 50-cent piece from 1946. I always liked the style of this one.


“KG” = Kruger Gray. I like how this one has a real compartment (actual ground that the supporters are standing on), as opposed to the rose-thistle-shamrock-lily “bouquet” that one normally sees. I also like the omission of the motto, helmet, mantling, and crest, and and the depiction of the old-style “Imperial” crown. The maple keys on the branch are a nice touch.

• Also, don’t forget that today is America’s real Independence Day! (And the Millennium didn’t really begin until 2001!)

A Grim Centenary

July 1 marks the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Anglo-French attempt at breaking through the German front during the Great War, near the River Somme in France. The offensive lasted until November of 1916, and made no appreciable gains in territory – at a cost of well over one million casualties.



Depicted is Edward Luytens’s Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, dedicated by the Prince of Wales in 1932.

MORE: From the Telegraph: “Somme ‘Iron Harvest’ will take 500 years to clear, say bomb disposal experts on centenary of bloody battle”

Cultural Revolution

Presumably this is the “30% wrong” part of Mao’s legacy. From the National Post:

Cultural Revolution was a big mistake, official Chinese media reaffirm, as 50th anniversary passes

BEIJING — China’s official media reaffirmed on Tuesday the Communist Party’s longstanding judgment that the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophic mistake after staying silent on Monday’s 50th anniversary of the start of the decade-long upheaval.

The official party mouthpiece People’s Daily published an opinion piece on its website precisely at midnight on Tuesday unequivocally praising the 1981 party resolution that condemned the bloody political movement launched by Mao Zedong to enforce a radical egalitarianism.

“Our party has long taken a solemn attitude toward bravely admitting, correctly analyzing and firmly correcting the mistakes of our leadership figures,” the piece read.

The party has long suppressed open discussion of the tumultuous period, fearing that could undermine its legitimacy to rule and lead to direct criticism of Mao, the founder of the communist state who remains a revered figure.

So political observers have been closely observing the party leadership’s attitude toward the milestone as a bellwether of the country’s ideological direction. No official commemorations have been held, although some Mao loyalists have staged private events.

Irish Codswallop

From the Irish IndependentI did not know this:

Codswallop about 1916 is our birthright

HOW come we don’t hear more about Prince Joachim? If there’s one guy who gets short-changed in this whole 1916 business, it’s Prince Joachim Franz Humbert of Prussia. Had the Easter Rising succeeded in giving the Brits the heave-ho, the name Joachim might be as popular in Ireland today as are Padraig, Eamonn, Sean, Michael and the names of all the other heroes. Instead, we’ve swept the poor sod into the dustbin of history.

Given the day that’s in it, we’ve decided to haul poor Joachim out of that dustbin, brush him down and put him on display. Joachim’s story is at least as interesting as much of the codswallop about the Rising that’s being shovelled at us.

In the GPO, during the fighting, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Desmond FitzGerald had a discussion about the Ireland they would like to see come out of the rebellion. They knew the chances of winning were microscopic, but they had their dreams.

FitzGerald, the only one of the three to survive, recorded that they agreed on an acceptable outcome: “an independent Ireland with a German Prince as King”.

Yes, you guessed – in the GPO, at the heart of the Rising, three of its heroes, including two of its martyrs, agreed that Prince Joachim would make a suitable king of Ireland. Joachim’s dad, Kaiser Wilhelm II, presided over the German empire and was a powerhouse in imperial Europe. Prince Joachim would make a suitable strong man to safeguard the new “republic”.

Had things gone differently, there might today be a Joachim Street in Dublin, a Joachim Station in Kerry, his descendants might be yet on the Irish throne. As it was – in 1918 there was revolutionary fervour in Germany and Prince Joachim’s dad abdicated. By the time Michael Collins’s ruthless campaign brought the British to the conference table, Joachim was two years dead. His political prospects zero, his marriage falling part, Joachim had shot himself at the age of 30.

More at the link – read the whole thing.

(See also Kevin Myers’s contrarian opinions about 1916.)