Saturday, November 17, 2012

East German Wall Pictures

Thanks to my mother, I now have pictures to go with an event I described in the Preface of Saints and Scoundrels.

In the book's Preface I explain how the book grew out of an experience I had when I was eleven years old and traveled to West Germany with my family. One afternoon my dad drove us to the wall separating West and East Germany. The electric fence dividing the free world from the “evil empire” looked ominous and was more than a little freightening for an eleven year old boy.

As we emerged from the car, we were met by a chill, drizzling rain. On the other side of the fence a lone guard stared gloomily at us. The rest of my family had their picture taken in front of the fence but I was too afraid to venture near. Here is a picture of the family (without my Dad, since he was taking the picture).

A few minutes later I plucked up the courage and asked my dad to photograph me next to the terrible barrier, or as close to it as I dared approach. Here I am:

Three years later, in 1989, the wall was torn down. Communism had collapsed and Eastern Europe was free. A year after these momentous changes when I was fifteen, I went back to Germany with my family. This time there was nothing to prevent us driving into the Eastern section. We traveled to Berlin where the remnants of the wall still zigzagged through the city like a serpent. In some areas there were portions of the wall still intact. Here and there I saw people dismantling what remained of the hated emblem of totalitarianism.

Though I was only fifteen at the time, the experience had a marked effect on me. There was something strangely moving in seeing the broken concrete all over the ground and thinking, “So this is all that is left of a regime that tried to crush truth and freedom.” I stooped down and collected some big chunks of the rubble, determined to show them to my own children one day.
Not too long ago my parents came to visit and they brought the box containing the fragments of the wall. Since then I occasionally take out the pieces and show them to my children. I tell them how amazed I was when I learned about the collapse of Soviet communism. Yet I am also careful to emphasize that from the perspective of all of history the collapse of the Soviet empire should not come as such a surprise. After all, hasn’t every other evil empire been reduced to rubble? The Assyrian empire, for all its boasting, was dismantled by the work of God. The Babylonian kingdom rose to glory but collapsed in ruin. The proud, grandiose claims of the Persians, the Romans, and the Nazis were all likewise brought down to the dust by the Almighty.
It was this confidence in God’s continued victories over the forces of darkness that led the Russian exile Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to predict in 1983 that Christianity would one day triumph over communism. Speaking of the militant atheists that rekindled “the frenzied Leninist obsession with destroying religion”, he said:
But there was something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to labor camps for their faith and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells – they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia…. It is here that we see the dawn of hope: For no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.
What Solzhenitsyn said of Communism is true of all systems, empires and worldviews that have attempted to squelch the gospel: God’s kingdom eventually brings them to ruin.
In toppling His enemies, God does not work alone but uses the faithfulness of His people throughout the ages to accomplish His purposes. From my perspective as a young boy it seemed as though the collapse of communism had come out of the blue. Since then, I have had the opportunity to study about the men and women of faith who played a part in the accomplishment of God’s plans. The destruction of Soviet communism was made possible by people like Solzhenitsyn, Brother Andrew, Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, and countless other individuals who rendered their service to God in the positions in which He placed them.
My boyhood experience helped to ignite my interest in the men and women of faith who fought against evil in various times, cultures and situations. Some of these heroes, like Saint Columbanus, Boniface, and Jim Elliot took the gospel to new and unexplored lands, laboring to dismantle pagan cultures and replace them with societies that worship Jesus. Others, like Alfred the Great in the ninth century, or Edmund Burke in the nineteenth, strove to defend Christian civilization against barbarian attacks or oppressive ideas. Still others, such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Chalmers, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer set themselves against the threat of a corrupting evil springing up from within a nominally Christian society.

The more I have studied about the heroes and heroines of faith, the more I have become convinced that the fight against evil empires like communism is only one half of the job. When Boniface converted the native German tribes to Christianity, or when Jim Elliot laid the foundation for the conversion of the Waodani, that was the beginning and not the end. What is just as important as defeating or converting God’s enemies is the positive work of building up the culture of Christendom. For every Berlin wall that crashes to the ground, there are dozens of churches to be raised up, schools to be created, homes to be established. For each Roman coliseum that decays into ruins, hundreds of libraries remain to be built, hymns to be composed, families nurtured in the faith. Here again, God does not work ex nihilo but calls men and women to be agents in His kingdom-building work. Men like George Herbert, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers lived in times of relative peace and were able pour their energies into strengthening and beautifying Christian culture. When the Nazi’s reigned their bombs down on London, Sayers was not able to conspire against Hitler like Dietrich Bonhoeffer was doing, yet her reading and interpretation of Dante enabled her to leave behind just as valuable of a legacy.

Throughout the Christian era, there have been numerous heroes who have embodied both aspects of this call to service. Some were slayers of dragons, others builders of kingdoms. Some, like Charlemagne and Ronald Reagan, cried to the enemies of God, “Thus far and no farther!” Others, like George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton or T.S. Elliot defended Christendom by showing that the faith is lovely. They knew that the greatest defense against evil is to enjoy the good, that the strongest bulwark against paganism is our capacity to love what is beautiful, that the surest support against the lies of the devil is to be attracted to what is true. Some Christian heroes have embodied both sides of this heroic calling. Indeed, men like Constantine, Charlemagne and Alfred the Great were great builders of Christendom, not merely because they led souls to Christ or defended civilization from pagan attack, but because they worked to advance a distinctly Christian vision of culture – a vision that found expression in art, literature, painting, technology and hundreds of other areas.

In my book Saints and Scoundrels I have not had time to write about all the heroes I would have liked to cover, or even all the ones referred to above. But I have attempted to include a fair selection of dragon-slayers and kingdom-builders. My hope is that these stories will inspire you in your own God-given vocations. Like those saints listed in Hebrews Chapter 11, the brave men and women in the following pages comprise a vast cloud of witnesses which reach down through the ages to show us what it means to put the gospel into action. Let them encourage you to expand your vision beyond what you thought possible, to never cease striving against the dragons and arch-villains that confront us in our own day.

In order that the virtues of these noble men and women may stand out in sharper relief, I have also included some chapters about the dragons. The witness of a woman like Perpetua is all the more remarkable when she is contrasted with the murderous aspirations of a despot like Herod. The stately wisdom of Edmund Burke shines all the clearer when we compare it to the egotistical foolishness of Rousseau or Joseph Smith.
But there is another reason for the presence of scoundrels in this volume; they teach us the same lesson I learned on that rain-soaked day in Berlin when I gazed on the shattered remains of the hated wall. The lesson is this: though villains may rise and fall, the people of God are always there to pocket their remains to show the next generation.

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Interview with Robin Phillips for the Trinity Talk podcast

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Quotations from Saints and Scoundrels

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