Renewal

Peter Hahne’s Schluss mit lustig: Das Ende der Spassgesellschaft (Stop the Merriment: The End of the Fun Society, Johannis Verlag, 2004) is, at least for Americans concerned with the German cultural and religious scene, a curious, telling little volume. The appearance of yet another critical commentary on a contemporary Western society is not in itself surprising, though Hahne writes in an unusually sharp, sometimes harsh tone. That this analysis is done by a prominent television news analyst might also be no surprise–who, after all, is in a better position to sense dominant societal tendencies and who is more likely to get a ready audience? What probably is unexpected, however, is both its trenchant, public call for a return to Christian moorings and the fact that, by the end of 2004, only months after it first appeared, it had already gone through eight printings. Foreign observers accustomed to empty German churches would probably not have expected German readers to respond as they have as interest in the institutional church continues to wane steadily in Germany. Indeed, in March of this year, German Protestant headquarters estimated that it would be closing down fifty percent of its churches and chapels in the next twenty years due to declining membership and a dwindling financial base.

Hahne, arguably Germany’s most prominent lay evangelical voice, does not provide us with a nuanced, careful analysis. He writes as a journalist who is interested in getting quickly to the point and reaching as broad an audience as possible. Though the book is based on his own observation, he does not hesitate to summon a host of witnesses as he builds his case. Among them, of course, are names associated with German church life, past and present, like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Otto Dibelius, and Cardinal Karl Lehmann. But he also moves outside of Germany, quoting authorities ranging from Blaise Pascal to Soren Kierkegaard to Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Vaclav Havel. Nor does he hesitate to call frequently on “secular” figures as well, such as Sigmund Freud, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernst Bloch, Viktor Frankl, Juergen Habermas, and a host of others.

The aspects of German society he censures are legion: hedonism, the decay of civility, raging individualism, abortion, public blasphemy, juvenile use of drugs and overuse of alcohol, violence in the schools, a timid and ineffective educational system, tolerance based only on a lack of conviction, the deterioration of family life, coddled young people, lack of cultural rootedness, an obsession with rights and denial of responsibility, boundless egotism masked as self-realization, nearly total biblical illiteracy, cultural pessimism, and a loss of positive values. Central to all of these problems, in Hahne’s view, is the absence of a binding center rooted in a living faith, stemming from the failure of Germany’s adult generation to live up to its Christian heritage and its obligations to both society at large and to its youth.

Hahne’s solutions to Germany’s malaise are direct and unvarnished: they are to be found in a renewed commitment to biblical Christianity, to a life of prayer, and to the realization that man is not the measure of all things. Though he stresses the necessity of personal commitment to Jesus Christ, his concern is greater in scope: personal renewal must issue in societal renewal. A flight into a private faith and morality fueled by resignation, he insists, will not do. Neither will a prescriptive, dogmatic Christianity devoid of authentic, vital love for one’s neighbor.

Hahne’s clear expression of faith and its necessary implications for society are refreshing for those of us who care about Germany. However, his analysis is also disquieting in that he has, to a significant extent, described our society as well as his own. Our culture, too, despite the presence of churches presumably healthier than their German counterparts, is marked by a lack of civility, an ailing educational system, violence in both school and society, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, a vast preoccupation with entertainment, demands for instant gratification with little regard for the needs of future generations, and the tendency to label anyone with convictions a “fundamentalist.”

As for church and family life, although Hahne blesses Americans for presumably valuing children more highly than Germans do, familial breakdown is statistically as evident in conservative U.S. churches as in the society at large even as American congregations are frequently prone to spend their energies on petty internal squabbling, while failing to get beyond a constricted view of who are our neighbors and living accordingly. Christian and societal renewal quite obviously know no national boundaries, as Hahne’s hard-hitting book reveals.

Wallace Bratt is Professor of Germanic Languages, Emeritus, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.