I admit to a certain fascination with the Protestant Reformers. My motives are mixed: I am genuinely interested in this particular period of history, but this is also about silencing voices in my head.
The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli et al) were the fathers of the Protestant church, so it makes sense – as an erstwhile protestant – that I try to understand a little about them. I will be accused – and rightly so – of focusing solely on the more sinister aspects of the Reformation – it’s theological squabbles, intolerance and persecutions. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to attempt an investigation of the Reformers’ lives and times – and there are thousands of volumes written by historians and theologians which provide a full and expert insight into the Reformers lives and beliefs. Rather it is this odd fascination of mine with the pathologies of the Reformers which I want to explore a little in this blog. It is precisely this space of amateur conjecture I wish to enter. What is this space exactly? Perhaps it is the gap between notions of Christian truth as expressed by the contemporary church – and the cruelties perpetrated by the Reformers in the belief they were the emissaries and representatives of Jesus Christ. Or it may be an irreverent consideration of their likenesses in stone or their painted portraits, which precipitate a kind of darkly humorous meditation: Zwingli’s nose looks the perfect instrument for sniffing out heretics. The imposing statue of John Calvin at the ‘Reformation Wall’ in Geneva has a coldness that is as chilling as his doctrines: his is a stern and merciless look. Holbein’s Luther looks like the unkempt monk the Catholic Church despised as a reprobate and heretic.
I know the flaws of the Reformers do not invalidate the teachings of their Master; but one wonders nevertheless how Jesus, who comforted the weak, the outcasts, those on the periphery or outside of ‘decent’ society, could be so misrepresented by these leaders of the church.
Or was it a misrepresentation?
I want to explore the shadows of my own faith – not to oppose God with the “narcissistic anti-religious extremism”(1) of a Richard Dawkins; but to overthrow a certain false conception of God. I want to pry off the cold iron mask that obscures His face, a mask nailed and bolted there by men.
So my blog is not a theological or historical treatise but a sort of profane rambling in which I seek to disrupt certainties and received wisdom.
The thought keeps recurring that poetry, dance, music and art are expressions of truth no less valid than philosophy and theology … and if I were competent at any of the arts I would attempt to express ineffable things. As it is I must enter the voices of others, find voices which I can sing with, poetry the words of which articulate what I fail to express, art that is a window on world’s I can only dream of, dance which explodes ossified ways of moving. (Suddenly I imagine a modern dance before the stoney-eyed men of the Reformation wall; half-naked dancers moving in a physical, sensual celebration of life. What a theatrical performance it would be to show contemporary dance juxtaposed with a disapproving Calvinist court! I imagine the court sentencing the dancers to have their feet nailed into wooden planks before being burnt alive for their immodest and blasphemous dance – and this punishment would be in Christ’s name.
The spirit of legalism,
of calvinist self-righteousness,
of puritan cruelty,
re-emerges in every age like a wraith
in the guise of Christ.
1983. Durban. South Africa.
Why does this date always conjure the wraith?
I was nineteen: falsely accused of adultery, I was excommunicated from a pentecostal church
– The Assemblies of God.
Some while later – no more than a year – the woman I had briefly loved, died in a car crash.
the elders and minister of The Assemblies of God, stopping short of claiming her death was God’s judgement – inferred that God was not to be trifled with. A bearded, charismatic prophet on a motorbike warned me shortly before her death that if I did not break off my “relationship” with this “evil”woman, “Something terrible would happen”.