The Ways We Talk

This Advent I have begun an educational series on morality based upon several podcast episodes from the BBC titled, ‘Morality in the 21st Century‘ which is hosted by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  What I admire about the series is the ability to learn from each other, whilst asking difficult questions.  While there are points in each of the conversations that some might describe as ‘more heated’ than others, the general consensus is that using language in a dignified and edifying way certainly helps to debate issues which are challenging.  Many of the deeply rooted ethical conundrums we find ourselves in are about choosing between two ‘goods’, or ‘the lesser of two evils.’  Given the seriousness of the theological, moral and ethical issues which the church faces (or refuses to face) to meet together with some decorum goes a long way.  

Watching debates in German politics feels to me a very intellectual matter, not only for me to consciously translate, but in the way that serious issues are looked at and scrutinized.  To flip over to the Parliamentary broadcasts of the UK House of Commons, is to some extent, like changing channels on the television from the scenic Christmas-log-burning-on-the-fire, to a wrestling match between thespians.  Recent political manoeuvres around the Brexit debate, the challenges made within and beyond the Conservative government and party leadership has made for fascinating late night viewing.  The quick witted remarks, the scathing insults, the show and shout of the backbenches, and the cries from the Speaker — ‘Order! Order!’ — are all a little bit addictive.  The form and function of parliamentary debate have always fascinated me, as much of the Church governance operates on a similar system…without the yelling (usually).  There is some niceties to all of it that being the address of the individual to another member of the house, such as: ‘I would like to thank the Honourable Member across from me…,’ and other small, but important, acknowledgements of world affairs like that of the recent events in Strasbourg’s Christmas Market.  

When I show my children the proceedings of the Canadian House of Parliament, the biggest surprise came from one of my daughters, “Daddy, why does that man have a woman’s voice?!”  As we were watching the proceedings in English the various simultaneous translators, either male or female, work hard to get the messages out in either French or English, so the message can come across with a disembodied feel.  The Canadian House of Commons has a different feel and indeed, a different atmosphere of debate as Members and staff flip back and forth in either one of the two official languages.  While there is nothing on the scale of Brexit in Canada, there remains other national issues that cause debate, and still, the thanks continue to go back and forth across the chamber before arguments and points of order are fired off.  

The Church of England has regular General Synod meetings, which you can also view online, and which also has a parliamentary structure.  Difficult topics can be raised, debated and voted upon.  While these systems in the UK, Canada and Germany slightly differ, they are the models of governance we have to work with, and they do work.  

I think that as Church, canons and regulations are debated, and in Parliamentary systems, country laws and state bills are argued about it.  In every place it is important to remember how we speak to people who may hold differing views.  There may be something that we can learn from another point of view if we risk listening.  

Wild West (Germany)

The past few days I have trying to put some extra time into speaking and reading German.  I’ve made the unilateral decision that at home we speak only Deutsch on ‘D-Days’ meaning Deinstag und Donnerstag (Tuesday and Thursday).  All this was in preparation for a test that never materialized due to a large misunderstanding between the teachers and the students.  Now that the fear of an exam has passed, I have relaxed and begun reading English on the train ride to and from Freiburg.  The book I have just started arrived as a bit of a surprise in a package from Canada. I’m almost positive that the book is from my father as we share similar tastes in novels…well in this sort of novel at least.  Opening the first page of the book while I sat on an empty train platform gave me a shock as I struggled to read the English words having had my mind so set on German recently.  Then again, it might just be the genre that makes the reading difficult.  Here’s a sample, page 1 – opening sentence.  Let’s see how you do with it, dear reader.

“When I came down off the cap rock riding a wind broken bronc, half of New Mexico must have been trailin’ behind me, all ready to shake out a loop for a hanging.”

The famous Western author, Louis L’Amour wrote this in 1966 in The Mustang Man and as the cover tells me, there are over 270 million copies of his books in print.  I can tell you why there are so many copies in print…one reason is that L’Amour was a mustang_man_9780553276817prolific writer, the other reason is that the books are always so formulaic that you just seem to feel comfortable reading them.  At times I have been halfway through a book and realized that it is strangely familiar, but that I haven’t read it before (and sometimes you realize you have!).

Reading on the train, I felt like I had come out of the closet so to speak, as it seemed to cause a sensation with those other passengers siting near me.  “An English book!” “Cowboys!” and more exclamations were made like I was somehow invisible, deaf, or unaware of the growing excitement around me.  At least on this train ride it seems that my fellow German passengers were great admirers of Wild West stories.

I’ve now learned that there are a number of father – son/daughter camps that offer weekend getaways based on a Wild West theme. Who knew!

All in all, it is strange to have this connection with my father…and with my grandfather.  I rarely remember a time when I did not see my grandfather without a Western genre pocket book.  I am sure, judging from the collection of L’Amour books in the basement at my parents house, that we have contributed to the wider circulation of the 270 million copies sold world wide.  In the dark and dank basement, the entire series of books sits on one shelf and my father took them home after his father died.  It does feel strange at times to have an almost genetic disposition for a taste in Western novels, but it is also something to delight in as we can trade books with each other, and know that perhaps three generations have thumbed the pages of yet another old trailside yarn.