3 min read

Raw politics: any room for hope?

The high stakes of Easter can confront the natural order.

Owen is a Pastor to Postgraduate Students at St Aldates Church, Oxford.

Preisdent Putin stands behind a lectern with a gold door and Russian flag behind him.

They say Putin is not in touch with reality. But when it comes to raw fundamental political reality, maybe he is? It could well be true that all our chat about goodness and beauty and love and faith is mere decoration. That it’s just a layer of fake grass that we use to cover over the harsher, concrete facts of our existence.  

Things like the basic violence of the natural ‘order’ and the raw power politics inherent in our competing systems. We even have a habit of bestowing the prefix ‘real’ on such politics.  

So is this ‘real’ stuff the concrete base layer of our existence? Is it the deepest truth? Is it the uncompromising reality that is always there, even as we prefer to cover it over with the fake grass of our stories of the beautiful and sweet songs of love?  

Most of the evidence points that way: The stockpiles of nukes, the cutthroat colleagues, the succession of bullies intent on becoming the next big dog in the raw struggle for power.  

I remember witnessing a violent assault at the tender age of eight. And the impact of encountering this ugliness on my young heart was a new shadow of fear. Suddenly the world was a colder and darker place. Then I grew up and became a priest. Which raises the question of whether I am spending my life just “whistling in the dark” to feel better? Am I just tending to the fake grass? 

The celebration of Easter does not deny the darkness. It does not cover over the concrete. It claims, instead, that the ugly concrete base has in fact been cracked open to reveal a deeper subsoil, that there is something even more ‘real’, more true, more fundamental than the brutal struggle for power we currently all suffer within.  

This is the high stakes of Easter.  

it could be that our intuitions of beauty and experiences of love are, gloriously, not the stuff of fake grass and psychological coping mechanism

And here lies the deep and central significance of an obscure death on a Roman cross. It is the moment in which God, who is primordial love, faces up to the violent worst of murderous evil. Not with angel -armies to crush our sorry war-torn mess under a new almighty domination, which would only serve to confirm the lasting truth of the dark concrete layer, but by contradicting it, undermining it, through a humble death followed by resurrection.  

I write it out and, to be honest, it is kind of surprising to me just how many people keep believing this unlikely story to be literally and deeply and seriously true.  

It could be because most of us are not prepared to be as clear sighted as Putin (and all the others). That for some reason, we remain relatively unable to cope with being so brutally in touch with the cold, dark facts of the ugly concrete.  

Or it could be that our intuitions of beauty and experiences of love are, gloriously, not the stuff of fake grass and psychological coping mechanism, but actually have their roots down deep into the subsoil of an infinite beauty and an ultimate love? 

If so, it could also be that the strongest counter evidence available to us, countering all the nukes and bullies and violent domination, is noticing what lifts our hearts and moves us to tears? Beauty can do that. Violence cannot.  

And so I keep whistling.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.