October 2000 Newsletter


Association of Contemporary Church Historians


(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)


John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


Newsletter- October 2000- Vol.VI, no. 10

Dear Friends


1 ) Book reviews:

a) Shapiro, Oberammergau
b) Hoover, God, Britain and Hitler in World War II
c) Kääriäinen, Religion in Russia
d) ed T.Devine, Scotland’s Shame?

2) Book Notes:

a) ed. Hutchinson/Kalu, A Global Faith
b) ed K.Koschorke, Christen und Gewürze
c) ed E.Gatz, Kirche und Katholizismus

1a) James Shapiro, Oberammergau. The troubling story of the world’s most
famous Passion Play. New York: Pantheon Books. 2000. 239pp. US$ 24.00
Fifty years ago this summer I tramped across Europe to the picturesque
Bavarian village of Oberammergau in order to see their well-known Passion
Play. The performance was impressive, especially the crowd scenes in which
several hundred villagers thronged the huge open-air stage, with its
backdrop of the Alpine foothills behind. The play itself was eight hours
long, based on the text revised by a nineteenth century priest. The emphasis
was on the drama of Our Lord’s Passion, in places going well beyond the
Gospel story, especially in the depiction of Jesus’ opponents, the Jews.
At the time, following so soon after the disastrous political events of the
Nazi period, this first post-war performance seemed to mark a welcome return
to the traditions of earlier centuries, a sign of the vitality of popular
Catholicism and an advantageous means of reviving the economy in contrast to
the ruined desperate conditions in the near-by bombed-out cities.
No one, I am sure, attending the 1950 performances could have foreseen that
shortly thereafter both the village and the Passion Play were to become
embroiled in an intense political and theological controversy, which raised
serious questions about the integrity of both. The reverberations still
continue. Now, thanks to the diligent investigations of James Shapiro, a
Professor of English at Columbia University, we can follow the course of
this debate. His book was published just in time before this year’s cycle of
performances, and provides the English-speaking reader with the kind of
background which is certainly not included in the tourist literature.
The first salvo was fired in the mid-1960s by two American Jewish
organizations who deplored the fact that the play should so openly espouse a
virulent prejudice which depicted the Jews collectively as “Christ-killers”,
an accusation virtually unchanged since the middle ages. As Elie Wiesel
said: “the artist cannot be silent when the arts are used to exalt hatred”.
Demands were issued that striking changes should be made to the traditional
text and all antisemitic elements removed. But these protests had little
success until similar views were expressed by leading Catholics, following
the Second Vatican Council and its revolutionary ‘Declaration of the
Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions’, commonly known as
Nostra Aetate. The Vatican now adopted a very different tone, and it became
clear that while the play had not changed, the Church’s message had. Caught
between the anvil of Vatican II and the hammering criticism of Jewish
groups, the Oberammergau authorities were grudgingly obliged to make serious
The feeling of outrage in Oberammergau was palpable. Who gave these
outsiders the right to criticize their play? Had they not faithfully
preserved the traditions established over three centuries earlier? Were they
not literally maintaining their precious heritage by fulfilling the vow of
1633? Outside interference predictably aroused defensive reactions amongst
the villagers.
But the controversy was only made more severe by the Jewish critics’ further
assertions that the kind of traditional Catholic anti-judaism found in the
Oberammergau Passion Play had played a large and formative role in preparing
the ground for the Nazis’ still more radical antisemitism, leading to the
Holocaust. Such accusations were made still more strident when details
emerged about Oberammergau under Nazism, including Hitler’s famous visit to
the 1934 performance, which he had praised as a convincing portrayal of the
menace of Judaism. Several of the more prominent actors, and a large number
of villagers, had been members of the Nazi Party. Post-war denazification
had had virtually no effect, as the same team was responsible for the 1950
as for the 1934 production. So the political legacy of the 1930s was now
combined with the theological legacy of earlier centuries to become a major
focus point of criticism and challenge.
Shapiro’s concern is how to deal with these mutual accusations of collective
guilt: first, that the Jews, as the Passion Play affirmed, were responsible
for the death of Jesus; second, that the German people collectively were
responsible for the Holocaust. His findings are that, after fifty and more
years, the passage of time has eased, though not entirely removed, these
spectres. He is well aware of the bonds which bind the villagers to “their”
play. Their vow to perform the play every ten years is compelling.
Particular roles have often been inherited in families for decades if not
longer. Only in this year’s performance are a few non-Catholics included,
but they have to pass the residency test.
At the same time, Shapiro is aware, as a Jewish writer himself, of the
compelling commitment of Jewish organizations to combat the teaching of
contempt and hatred of Jews wherever it is found. Much of his book records
the exchanges between these Jewish agencies and the Oberammergau
authorities, especially the editor of the 2000 text, and the producer.
Inevitably these conversations proved frustrating. The Jews wanted a new
play, the Oberammergauers wanted to preserve their heritage. Basically the
question is: “Can you do a good Passion Play. i.e. one without villains?”
The chapter on the staging of the play makes the point that the villagers
have always been about a century behind in their presentations. The need to
revise the highly literalist 19th century text, staging and costumes was
acknowledged only in 1970, but progress was slow, resistance substantial.
Even when the worst anti-judaic passages were omitted, and emphasis placed
instead on blaming Pilate and the Romans, this shift only raised equally
painful questions about the historical accuracy of the whole enterprise.
Most Christians, and certainly most Oberammergauers, have no doubt as to the
historical veracity of the Gospels. To accept that they were a mixture of
fact and fiction, theologically edited by their authors to meet first
century conditions, would undermine the very foundations of their faith. But
this raises issues which go far beyond the confines of a small Bavarian
Shapiro’s scepticism extends to his analysis of the Oberammergau myths, both
about the play’s origins and about the spiritual otherworldliness of the
villagers. The contrast between their reputation and the reality became very
apparent during the Nazi years. He pertinently suggests that it was not just
political opportunism which led so many villagers to support the regime. To
what extent had years of proclaiming the play’s anti-judaic diatribes made
them willing accomplices in Hitler’s antisemitic crusade? The Vatican’s
current attempts to draw a distinction between Christian anti-judaism (now
repudiated) and Nazi antisemitism was certainly not apparent in Hitler’s
Bavaria. Religious fervour and racial nationalism, at least at first,
blended closely. Yet Shapiro could have noted that, as the Nazi persecution
of the Catholic Church increased, so did the traditional villagers’
hostility to the Party’s machinations. So their post-1945 claims to have
opposed the Nazi goals were not entirely a hypocritical evasion of the facts
of the past. But he is right to point out that the post-war circumstances
and the need to find new funds abroad in order to stage the play again
dictated a selective and discreet silence. By 1950 the rehabilitation of
Oberammergau had successfully taken place. But not surprisingly Shapiro
remains sceptical as to how completely the eradication of antisemitism has
been achieved.
The final chapter outlines the difficulties faced by the current director,
Christian Stückl, in trying to present the Passion Play as a relevant
up-to-date piece of theatre. This is no longer to be a peasant pageant,
stressing the villagers’ devotional piety. The clash between religious
traditions and artistic innovation is clear, as is Stückl’s intention not to
satisfy the audience’s expectations, but to challenge them. The text for
2000 now satisfies the Vatican’s desired position on the role of the Jews,
though still containing hints of Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.
Shapiro’s sympathies are clearly with the reformers. But it is notable that
a Jewish American writer of his standing should be ready to applaud, rather
than to condemn, the Oberammergauers’ continued enterprise, even to the
point of teaching the correct Hebrew pronunciation to this year’s Jesus.

1b) Arlie J.Hoover, God, Britain, and Hitler in World War II: The View of
the British Clergy, 1939-1945. Westport and London: Praeger 1999. pp xii. +
148 GPB 40.00
There is, Richard Pierard observes at the outset of this book, a great
mountain of literature about the Second World War now available to the
student and scholar, but little of it explores the religious dimension of
the conflict. This will not, of course come as news to the readers of this
Newsletter, but it does no harm to hear that particular drum banged loudly
and insistently again. In fact, this work is the third volume in a trio of
studies by Arlie Hoover of ‘clerical nationalism’ in Germany and Britain in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It surveys a quantity, by no means
exhaustive, of primary material published in Britain by Christian writers,
clerical and lay, between 1939 and 1945. It also draws some valuable
material from the archbishops’ collections at Lambeth Palace Library.
The emphases of the survey are shown by the index: here are doses of Cosmo
Lang, George Bell, William Temple, Dr.R.Davies, ‘John Hadham’ (the unexposed
James Parkes), Martyn Lloyd-Jones, William Paton, Dorothy Sayers, Leslie
Weatherhead, W.R.Matthews and V.A.Demant, all of them in lively, vocal form.
Hoover’s approach is mapped out in the table of contents: “The Legacy of the
Great War’; ‘1939:War Again?’; ‘Dealing with Pacifism’; ‘The Enemy:
Fascism-Nazism’; ‘1945: A New Order?’ The substance of the book is a
discussion of contemporary opinions, expressed and exchanged freely and
powerfully over the whole six year period.
However, the question of context is a worry. The individual writers walk
across a thematic landscape staked out by the author himself, but they do
not inhabit a very explicit historical environment. Little is said about
them, their own religious traditions or their theological backgrounds. One
might not know whether or not Davis was an Anglican or a Methodist, or what
being such things might mean to such people. Lewis Mumford, an American,
appears far more persistently than Archbishop Hinsley or Bishop Henson (who
would not have been flattered by two references). In one important sense,
this does not matter profoundly: the pro-war Christian consensus seldom if
ever spoke a denominational language. But it does suggest that the book is
not growing out of a sensitive and intimate appreciation of a particular
historical culture, which lived and breathed in particular ways. For
instance, the absence of Bell’s landmark volume Christianity and World Order
is a surprise and a disappointment. It is exactly the kind of expansive
treatment which would have deepened Hoover’s account. After all, one can
only get so much out of sermons which must be short and generalizing
But Hoover also seeks to make bolder claims, since this a very personal,
polemical work, and its philosophical targets lie almost as much in the
present as in the past. Readers will either enjoy its robust, open manner,
or instead find it rather obscuring, and shift unhappily in their chairs.
Hoover takes aim primarily at contemporary philosophical fads. He makes his
dislikes abundantly clear in the chapter on Liberal Humanism, when he
launches a general onslaught against all kinds of cultural assumptions and
fascinations, historical and contemporary: relativism, rationalism,
materialism, modernism. Humanism, writes Hoover, was characterized by
’empirical prejudice’ (p.80); while ‘Liberal Humanists make light of sin and
evil’ (p.85). The shortcomings of such liberals or modernists were to be
seen in their treatment of the Bible and their pragmatic approach to
religion. Small wonder they were equally wrong in their politics, and failed
to recognize the Nazi threat until far too late. With all the advantage of
hindsight, Hoover declares himself firmly on the side of standing up to the
evil Nazi dictatorship, and states at the outset: ‘I shall make no apology
for my obvious pro-British stance in this book’.
The result is a lack of complexity, or at least leads to a certain
over-simplification For instance, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy
appears a an expression of naive optimism. Then the scales fall from his
eyes. The same goes for other liberals, all in due course. Were they all
really so very dull and slow? Pacifism, meanwhile, appears but not on its
own terms. It is something that had to be ‘dealt with’. Hoover himself
describes the rationalism of ‘modern intellectuals’ as ‘ a strange state of
stupidity’ (p.81) At times, it is these intellectuals who seem to be his
principal targets. He would appear to be using the Christian writers of the
Second World War as examples for a different philosophical debate of his own
But there are things of value too, The British Christian understanding of
National Socialism is described with clarity in a way not done before. And
the contributions of Christian writers and thinkers in Britain to the plans
for reconstructing the post-war world is the subject of a stronger,
better-grounded, but rather short chapter. For their part, Praeger have
published the book very handsomely. The price is not a little daunting.
Andrew Chandler, George Bell Institute, The Queen’s College, Birmingham.U.K.


c) Kimmo Kääriäinen, Religion in Russia after the collapse of Communism.
Religious Renaissance or secular state. Lewiston,N.York/Queenston,
Ontario/Lampeter,Wales: Edwin Mellen Press 2000 201pp
Sociological surveys on the subject of religion are notoriously inadequate.
The subject is too vast, the questions too broad, the responses too
superficial. Generalizations are necessarily too sweeping, unless some tight
control is placed on the process. These shortcomings are even more evident
in a society such as Russia, where for seventy years the topic of religion
was pronounced anathema, and public opinion surveys were unknown. So the
attempt by a Finnish author, writing in competent English, to depict the
religious situation in the lands of the former Soviet Union, ten years after
the revolutionary changes of 1989, must be judged a brave attempt, but no
After an initial historical chapter which ably describes the failure of
Marxism-Leninism to establish itself as the official state ideology or
ersatz civil religion, Kääriäinen takes up the question of religious values
at the end of the Communist regime. With the help of three surveys conducted
in 1991,1993 and 1996, he charts the decline of official atheism and the
resultant religious vacuum. The increase in the percentage of attributed
believers in the early 1990s was accounted for by the reaction against
Communism, but it was hardly a major source of revival or renewal.
One of the reasons for the low levels of religious beliefs and practice
which these surveys confirm is the long absence of any systematic
presentation of Christian beliefs, so that the majority of adults no longer
profess the faith of their grandmothers, even though these latter are
credited with the active preservation of what little religion remains.
Certainly it is hardly a novelty to learn that in post-Communist Russia
there is no coherent theory or ideology which provides an explanation for
existence or the purpose of life. Although over time the number of believers
and seekers has grown, it is still notable that the highest percentage is
among people with the least education. And by digging deeper, one would find
that in most cases the professed faith in God was almost completely devoid
of content. A large variety is notable in how the nature of God is
understood, often in a non-Christian manner. The forms in which
religiousness is expressed have become idiosyncratic and eclectic.
Yet the sacred does not disappear. In response to national tragedy, recourse
to the churches was notable But what does this mean in terms of belief? The
disfunction between practice and belief characterizes a great deal of Russia
‘s religious life. Yet, as a national institution, the Russian Orthodox
Church still represents stability, and cultivates a nostalgia for the past.
Most Russians want their great cathedrals to be restored so that they can
visit them for special occasions, even while making vague and weak religious
affirmations. But such findings hardly required elaborate sociological
The best part of the work is where Kääriäinen examines the institutional
dimension of religion, in particular the tactics of the Russian Orthodox
Church to find a new legal relationship with the state. Despite the evidence
that only a minority of Russians now claim to belong to the Orthodox Church,
its leaders nevertheless portray themselves as the upholders of a national
church establishment which deserves special privileges. Freedom of religion
for all threatened these claims. Yet the Orthodox leaders are even now
seeking the aid of the state, which persecuted them for so long, in order to
regulate the competition from other sects or communities. What a paradox!
The state authorities, including President Yeltsin, were reluctant to give
in to this pressure, and were upheld by such groups as the Russian
Protestants and Catholics. But these denominations still suffer from being
considered “foreign”, not least from the amount of foreign aid they receive.
The well-known anti-ecumenical stance of the Russian Orthodox Church has
undoubtedly made any accommodation or shift towards religious pluralism more
difficult. But by claiming the position of upholding Russia’s ethnic
traditions and defending its historic culture against international, secular
or materialist undermining, the Orthodox Church has at least gained a
positive response from 90% of the population.
Russians who consider themselves traditional believers are largely women,
while those still professing atheism are predominantly male, and
significantly more educated than the average Russian. Such features have
surprisingly remained constant despite all the political changes. The
surveys would therefore seem to confirm the view that Christian belief acts
as a compensation for lower status, or a means for attaining an inner
personal peace.
Interestingly the questions from these surveys dealing with ethical issues
show that religion plays only a minor role in Russian morality. The strict
nature of Soviet society and practice, except over abortion and divorce, may
still be the cause for the retention of high personal moral standards. But
as the author point out, the real crisis is elsewhere. The new political and
economic factors and developments cry out for the expounding of new
doctrines of social ethics. Unfortunately the Russian Orthodox Church never
had any social ethics, laying its emphasis instead on other-worldly
mysticism. In any case, to expect the Church to produce solutions for the
“moral crisis” in the current incoherence of Russia’s internal developments,
is unrealistic. In this respect Russia is not all that different from other
European countries.
Kääriäinen’s conclusions are rather similar to those of other western
observers, i.e. S. Ramet. Most Russians are seeking an eclectic mix of
religious attitudes, which make them reluctant to embrace the obligatory
doctrines or practices of any one religious institution. Nevertheless one
should not discount the influence of the Orthodox tradition as a means of en
hancing a shared ethnic identity. But this again is not a unique situation,
even though Russia is the one European country whose religious traditions
were interrupted for more than seventy years. It remains to be seen whether
the Russian Orthodox Church is capable of growing out of and beyond its past
shortcomings and restrictive attitudes in order to embrace the new
opportunities for renewal and growth in the new millennium.

d) ed.T.M.Devine, Scotland’s Shame? Bigotry and Sectarianism in Modern
Scotland, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2000. 281 pp GBP 9.99
This is the story of James MacMillan, Scotland’s leading composer, who spoke
at the Edinburgh International Festival of 1999 on anti-Catholicism in
Scotland. All hell broke loose. Four academics rushed to the attack, none of
them having heard him or read his text, but wishing to damp down debate on a
subject usually brushed under the carpet. In fact the MacMillan speech,
which is one of no less than twenty-one papers in this book, was quite
reasonable, apart from a rather odd notion that transubstantiation leads to
artistic or musical sensibility. And that anti-Catholicism is still a strong
force must be obvious, though it is more obvious to the outsider than to the
native Scot who believes that Scotland is egalitarian and prejudice does not
For anyone who does not want to read all these articles, the one by Gerry
P.T.Finn is probably enough. And Finn does deal with the problem of Catholic
schools which are seen by most Scots as the cause of prejudice and division.
Most contributors to this volume, Catholic or Protestant, have not the
remotest idea of how they came about. Finn argues that the state schools set
up in 1872 were effectively Presbyterian, leading Catholics – mainly
immigrants from Ireland – and other minorities to set up their own schools.
It was these underfunded schools which were given state support in 1918,
thereby allowing Catholics to achieve upward social mobility and ultimate
There is a great deal in this book about prejudice, which may still exist,
and discrimination, which it is argued, does not. But here it refers to
discrimination in the workplace, which has disappeared as Scottish industry
and commerce came under the control of foreign managers who cared nothing
for religion. The implication is that most Scots wanted to keep Catholics
down, but were prevented from doing so, And the paper which uses statistics
most skillfully concludes that some discrimination does still exist, though
it is not nearly as bad as it was.
But other papers deal with the idea that, “To be Scottish was to be
Presbyterian .”, and there was no other way to be Scottish. To this
MacMillan answers his various critics by saying,: “Scotland needs more
consensus and conformity like it needs a hole in the head”. Amen.
Gavin White, St Andrews, Scotland.




2) Book Notes:
a) ed. M.Hutchinson and O.Kalu, A Global Faith. Essays on Evangelicalism and
Globalization. Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity 1998
This collection of stimulating, often provocative essays deserves to be
widely known, not only because three of our List-members are contributors,
but also because the subject matter has a number of historical dimensions.
Reg Ward, for instance, discusses the 18th century missionary impulse in
global terms, while Don Lewis has some pertinent things to suggest about
future historical research. Dick Pierard reviews the world-wide spread of
Protestant denominations beyond Europe in various confessional families, and
stresses the resulting tension with the ecumenical aspiration of bringing
all Christians together in one undivided church of Christ. Erich Geldbach
makes some valid points about the character of German evangelicals over the
last two centuries, while the British historian John Wolffe’s analysis of
“Historical Method and Christian Vision” pursues in greater depth some of
the concerns about the writing of church history, as voiced in last month’s
editorial in this Newsletter. As Jan Hofmeyr states: “The current challenges
for doing and writing church history in a multicultural context . . include
the need for theological consideration, ecclesiological awareness,
ecumenical openness, missiological sharpness, an indigenous realization and
scientific reliability” Some task! These essays, despite their relatively
unknown publisher, can be strongly recommended. They prompt discussion on
the significance of an increasingly global culture for Christianity as a
whole and the extent to which it has been responsible for such developments.

b) ed K.Koschorke, “Christen und Gewürze” Konfrontation und Interaktion
kolonialer und indigener Christentumsvarianten. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht 1998 296pp
Hofmeyr’s remarks quoted above can equally apply to this stimulating volume,
which will appeal to the same audience. Third World church history has for
too long been regarded as an aspect of the history of missions. But the
achievement of independence by so many former colonies of European powers
has led to a revival of indigenous Christian communities, some dating from
earlier centuries, and consequently a growth of interest in their history as
part of the search for a new identity. In 1997 a conference was held in
Germany to explore the comparative aspects of the interaction between
colonial and indigenous Christianity. the results are now published under
the jaunty title “Christians and Spices” in the first of what is hoped will
be a series of volumes, appearing in both English and German. The
contributors are all academics from different parts of the world and
different denominations. Their topics cover episodes over the past five
centuries and all parts of the globe. Their findings are highly diversified
and pluralistic, showing how the impact of European Christianity on
colonized territories and the responses of the indigenous peoples, including
those incorporated into Christian communities, was enormously varied.
Although their methodology is traditional, the results of this research are
often highly provocative in arousing an awareness of culture contacts and
conflicts hitherto not sufficiently appreciated by mission-church
historians. It marks a refreshingly novel approach towards presenting
non-European Christianity as an important subject for research and

c) ed. E.Gatz, Kirche und Katholizismus seit 1945. Vol 1: Mittel-,West- und
Nordeuropa. Paderborn: Schöningh 1998 368pp
This is the first of a four-part series designed to give to German-speaking
readers an overview of the socio-political position of the Catholic Church
around the world in its established form over the past fifty years. This
volume supposedly covers central, west and northern Europe, but includes
neither the British Isles nor the Iberian peninsular, and stops short of
regarding either Poland or the Czech Republic as belonging to central
Europe. Each nation covered, i.e. Scandinavia (including Iceland), the
Benelux countries, France and the German-speaking lands, is given a separate
chapter, differing in length according to their importance, and ranging from
2 pages for Iceland to 100 for Germany.
The style is that of an encyclopaedia, informative, factual and precise.
Each chapter provides a bibliography and full footnotes for further
research. Controversies are mentioned but partiality avoided, as is any
description of theological argumentation. So the work will be principally
useful as a reference tool and for comparative purposes.
The major events, such as the Second Vatican Council, the erosion of the
Catholic milieu, the decline in numbers of ordained clergy and the effect of
secular trends such as feminism, are well covered from a non-critical point
of view. But by dealing with each country separately, the impression is only
strengthened that national historio-political factors are as influential, if
not more so, than a common theology. Variety and pluralism still
characterize the Catholic lands at least in this section of its homeland,

With best wishes
John S.Conway