Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.

I stepped off the brick-paved street into the Market Square of Wittenberg. Before me was the beautiful Town Hall. To my left, a statue of Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s collaborator. To my right, Martin Luther. In between the two reformers, from my toes to the steps of the Town Hall, was the Wednesday Market. A little village of tents and trailers, offering doner kebabs, sweatpants, pork chops, belt buckles, fresh vegetables and knife sharpening. There were racks and racks of t-shirts, though none bore Luther’s image.

Luther’s image and story were all around. Up to the right stood the twin towers of the City Church, where Luther preached. Off to the left looms the tower of the Castle Church, where Luther nailed his theses to the door and where he lies entombed. Behind me was the home of Lucas Cranach the Elder, who painted the most famous portraits of Luther.

In a few short days I saw young Luther, old Luther, thin Luther, fat Luther, preaching Luther, thesis-nailing Luther, stone Luther, bronze Luther, papier-mâché Luther, Luther etched in glass, even dead Luther (in a portrait). I stayed at the Hotel Luther, where a larger than life statue of Luther greeted me and guarded the elevators.

In the morning I worshipped beside a monument to Luther’s pulpit. In the evening I prayed a metre away from Luther’s tomb. On Sunday I left the little town of Wittenberg and went to church in Leipzig, where I saw a plaque: Martin Luther Preached Here. I sent word home, “I feel like I’m in a Reformation theme park. I’m in Lutherland!” All the theme park lacked was a ride.

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. There it was! The ride! A train of little cars that took tired pilgrims the length of the main street. Full of mostly elderly, mostly large, mostly German-speaking tourists.

In August I spent a week in Wittenberg, in the former East Germany. The full name of the town is Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Luther City. Lutherland’s not such a stretch. My mission was to attend the biennial meeting of Societas Homiletica, the international academic society for teachers of preaching. The theme was Viva vox evangelii, or, “Long live the gospel’s voice.” The phrase was often ascribed to, you guessed it, Luther.

Don’t get me wrong. Luther’s an interesting character. I found the immersion in the myth and cult of Luther fascinating. I was privileged to be part of a walking tour of the town, including Luther’s house and the Luther Museum, with a guide who made it worth a university credit. He had a doctorate in history. His thesis topic was the commemoration of the Reformation in Germany since 1870.

I had an opportunity to meet and talk with professors and pastors from all over the world, to share a reflection group with colleagues from Europe, to share a day in Leipzig with new friends from Germany, Norway, South Africa and the United States. I was the only Canadian. One of the largest contingents was from Africa. There were Indian and Brazilian seminary teachers and a woman from Greece, who called herself the only female homiletician in all of Orthodoxy. The 2014 meeting of Societas Homiletica will be in India.

I went to the conference because I’m working on a project about preaching in a global context. I also wanted to see how the churches live in post-unification Germany, and where preachers fit in both church and society. A long train ride followed my flight from Halifax to Frankfurt. A friend told me to watch as the train passed from the prosperous west of Germany into the former German Democratic Republic. Could I tell the difference?

The train sped past vast farm fields, through countless towns, along the back fences of city neighbourhoods. The further east it went, the more fallow fields I saw. Warehouses and factory buildings stood empty. Housing stock declined in quality and condition. Town streets looked empty. And everywhere there were churches. Most were little. All were old. Across the fields of weeds, at the heart of dark towns, I saw churches.

Then the train stopped in Leipzig in a grand old station. All seemed bright and renewed. I rode another fast train to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where all seemed clean and cared for. And under construction. As I walked out of the station I thought, “We’re not in East Germany anymore.”

There hasn’t been an East Germany, a GDR, since 1990. Since re-unification the German government has pumped billions into the east, trying to raise the standard of living to western levels, and to jump-start the economy. We look on from Canada and see a thriving economy in Germany, and Germany is indeed strong. Yet the current Euro crisis is a new drain on German resources, which are already stretched by the ongoing cost of re-unification.

Cities like Leipzig are in the throes of massive, federally-funded infrastructure upgrades. Lutherland receives millions of Euros each year for the maintenance of heritage and promotion of tourism. Without the thousands of tourists and hundreds of students who pass through each year, the little town of Wittenberg would be empty. Halfway through the commemorative Luther Decade construction continues in preparation for the Luther Year in 2017.

State promotion of Luther, man and myth, is nothing new. The Prussian princes who ruled over Lutherland in the mid-19th century knew it was good business and sound politics. They built a new Castle Church for the prosperous Lutheran burghers of Wittenberg. It’s a monument to all the European Reformations. The princes were Calvinists, not Lutherans. The central features of the church are bronzed “thesis doors” outside and Luther’s tomb inside. Luther’s words, “A mighty fortress is our God,” ring the round tower, designed to look like a lighthouse, beaming Reformation light to all the world.

The Communists of the mid-20th century initially branded Luther a pariah because he took the side of the princes in the Peasants’ War. It’s the standard Marxist take on the Reformation. To curry favour with the Scandinavian socialist governments who were among the few in the world to recognize East Germany, a monument to the Finnish reformer Mikael Agricola was added to Luther’s house. (Agricola once lived in the house.) In due time the Communists understood that a neat and tidy Lutherland was one of the few things they could show the world in their quest for credibility. They ensured no harm befell the little town. They called Luther a national hero and authorized commemorations of Luther’s birth, marriage and death.

The first German government of the 21st century knows the power of a national symbol and the value of an international magnet for trolley-riding tourists and curious scholars. City and Castle Churches are both receiving facelifts in preparation for the big 500th anniversary. Melanchthon’s house is undergoing a complete restoration, too. An archeological dig seeks the original walls of Luther’s house, including the famous toilet where he confronted the devil. The whole town is kept spick and span. The bricked and cobbled streets are in good repair. Costumed Martins and Katys walk the street, greeting visitors, posing for pictures. (That’s Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife.)

Where does the church fit in all of this? Small congregations still gather in the monumental churches. Baptisms and marriage blessings continue. State support guarantees that most parishes in Germany have pastors, even if the pews are almost empty. University theology departments have full enrollments and, one professor told me, students all want to be pastors. We used to say in Canada that depressions and wars fill the schools for ministry. I wondered if economic uncertainty drives young women and men in Germany toward what is still secure employment.

City churches, particularly in the east, are growing. Some large urban congregations are still strong. St. Thomas in Leipzig counts 4,500 members. On the August Sunday when I was there the church was almost full. After the service the pastor said about a quarter of those present were probably tourists. That meant 200 or more were parishioners. In Friday and Saturday services, when the boys’ choir sings Bach cantatas, two-thirds of those present are visitors. The pastor’s greatest challenge, she said, is preaching the gospel to those who only come for the music.

Church attendance under the Communists was closely monitored by state authorities, and clearly labeled as socially unacceptable. Preachers had to watch what they said to their aging congregations. Preachers in the former GDR who remember those days are still less inclined to speak of politics or social issues than their colleagues from the former west. The young preacher I heard in Leipzig, western-born Britta Taddiken, wasn’t afraid to address current issues like unemployment among immigrants and a proposed ban on circumcision in hospitals. The living conditions and rights of immigrants, racism and religious freedom are of great concern to German churches.

Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany are loosely knit into one national Protestant denomination. There are strong ecumenical ties between Protestants and Catholics. There are new and emergent-style churches in German cities, but the religious landscape is still dominated by historic Christian denominations. Muslim immigrants make up the fastest-growing segment of the population. Church attendance may no longer be significant to the majority population, but a distinct residue of Christendom remains.

Most Germans would probably say theirs is a secular society, but secular in the truest sense of the word. A truly secular society doesn’t exclude religion, nor does it privilege any religion, or any voice over any other. Younger Germans may insist on a definition that excludes religious presence or expression, but it’s impossible to take the church out of German history or culture.

Any tour of grand old Leipzig, the heart of the city, must include two old churches. One is the Thomaskirche, where I worshipped. Luther may have preached there, but J. S. Bach played there. His grave is in the chancel. His monument is in a transept on the right. There’s also a monument to Felix Mendelssohn, who brought the forgotten Bach back to the world’s ears in the 19th century. Tourists fill the nave between services, and sometimes stumble in during worship, unaware the building still serves as a church. A climb up into the tower offers both a commanding view of the city and a history lesson from parishioners who serve as guides. Sunday services always include at least one solo on the Bach memorial organ. The pastor laughed as she said when the congregation argues over contemporary music in worship, they’re talking about hymns written after the 18th century.

A tour must also include a visit to the Nikolaikirche. The old church building also fills with tourists each day. I noted the visitors were mostly German and younger than the pilgrims I met at Bach’s church. The young pilgrims at St. Nicholas’s were there because of events that occurred before most of them were born, but are still in living memory. In the fall of 1989 the old church building became the centre of quiet resistance to the Communist regime. Even when the infamous Stasi filled the pews to keep the people out, thousands gathered in the street on Monday evenings to pray, sing hymns, light candles and wait on God for change. Throughout the GDR the church was a quiet centre of resistance and hope. Change came.

In the heart of Lutherland I found another sign of the church alive. Not in one of the old churches, or at the Institute for Evangelical Preaching Culture, but in the hotel where I stayed. The Hotel Luther is part of a small chain of inns, all of which operate to support the Berlin City Mission. In my room I found a magazine advertising several chains of inns and spas, all called Christian Hotels. All offer reasonably priced accommodation, with profits supporting mission work throughout Germany.

I like to think visitors to Wittenberg are all pilgrims, who seek something spiritual in the midst of all the show. As amused as I was by Lutherland, I heard the gospel preached there, experienced Christian community, and renewed my connection with my spiritual heritage in the Reformation. I also felt at home, both as a Christian and a person of German heritage. I was caught by a spirit of place, and a spirit of time. My Calvinist heart wasn’t moved when I saw Luther’s tomb. I was more impressed by Bach’s plaque as I walked past it to receive communion. My hero, after all, lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in Geneva. I still want to visit Calvinland some day soon.


About Laurence DeWolfe

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe is minister at Glenview, Toronto.