In company with eighty intrepid fellow believers, I saw the old year out and the new year in at Bach’s church in Leipzig, East Germany. (Correction: the German Democratic Republic, since the latest official policy is to emphasize the existence of this separate state, now a member of the United Nations, and no longer to favor expressions suggesting a divided Germany that will one day be reunited. So passes the Bismarkian ideal of a unified Germany.) This was my eighth sojourn in the DDR, and my visits have spanned a decade. I know the geography of Luther country, from Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle to Eislcben and Wittenberg, better than the geography of the Chicago suburbs, and have several dear friends who are citizens of that most rigid of all Eastern-bloc nations.

What continues to amaze me most about American evangelicals’ attitudes toward Communist lands is a recurring naivete. Example: before the current trip I received letters from more than one well-meaning person asking if I could smuggle in Bibles that they would supply, since “the Scriptures are not allowed by the Marxists.” In point of fact, there is absolutely no prohibition of Bible-reading or Bible ownership in the DDR, and attractive, inexpensive editions of the Bible in several German translations can be purchased.

To be sure, there is pressure against the Church and against the Gospel, but it is much more subtle than the burning of Bibles. Proselytizing is quite definitely discouraged, and a Billy Graham campaign would be inconceivable. What constitutes proselytizing, however, varies widely according to the severity of current state policy, which is cumbersomely administered in a top-heavy bureaucracy.

Generally, personal evangelism can be carried on with no negative repercussions. The Church cannot “meddle in politics,” which means, in practice, that it is encouraged to speak a good word for Angela Davis and company but must under no circumstances criticize Marxist theory or practice. This is a direct blow to the prophetic function of the Church, but it has at least one positive virtue: clergy are obliged to preach from the Bible instead of reading inflammatory manifestos that may or may not have anything to do with the Gospel!

Most unfortunately, young people are subjected to Marxist-atheistic indoctrination in the public schools (no private or parochial schools are allowed); and efforts are made to provide secular substitutes for the rites of the Church (“dedications” that ape baptism and confirmation). The idea is that if the young people give up Christianity, the Church will die without the necessity of messy purges.

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However, as always, the anti-Christic opposition displays its fundamental weakness of arrogant overconfidence. Church attendance is admittedly low in the DDR, but not particularly lower than it is in western Europe—and those who do attend are hardly doing so to gain social status. Some East German pastors regard the current situation as a blessing, since it has rid the Church of dead wood and hangers-on. Moreover, the theology from the pulpit is almost always orthodox and biblical these days: theological liberalism is a luxury that no church in crisis, with its back to the wall, can afford.

The most dangerous aspect of the American evangelical stereotype of the religious situation in Marxist lands is that it sees the East as black and the West as white, much as in an old Western movie the bad guys (in black hats) were clearly distinguished from the good guys (in white hats). The Eastern-bloc countries are supposed to be the materialistic, atheistic ones, as opposed to “God-fearing” America and its allies. This, of course, is nonsense, and the nature of the nonsense can be well seen by two parallel illustrations, one from East and one from West.

On returning home from the DDR, I found in my mail the 1974 New Year’s greeting card from the regime’s Zentralantiquariat (Centralized Antiquarian Book Dealer), from which I have bought a number of ancient theological tomes. This year the card displayed an attractive woodcut of a window partially open to the morning sun, accompanied by a quotation from Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, author of Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage, whose last years (1948–56) were spent in East Berlin as director of The Berliner Ensemble. I translate:

Pleasures: The first glance out of the window in the morning. The rediscovery of an old book. Snow. The changing seasons. The newspaper. One’s dog. The dialectic. Showers and swimming. Classical music. Comfy shoes. Modern music. Travels. Singing. Friendship.

Materialistic? Not in the narrow sense of the term, for genuinely human values are emphasized. But tragically secular, for the limits of the world establish the limits of Brecht’s list.

In reality, a newspaper reminds one that Koheleth was right after all: there is nothing new under the sun, and the human experience apart from God is vexation, not pleasure. Even François Villon read the deeper message of the snow—its terrible fragility, mirroring the terrible fragility of human life: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” One’s beloved dog dies, never to return. The dialectic, as a formal principle, can more readily lead to Orwell’s 1984 than to the classless society. And what good is the sun of a new year if increasing entropy will eventually bring the universe to heat-death? Without the Sun of righteousness, all is vanity.

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The same mail brought the latest issue of the New Yorker, and one of its cartoons shows a middle-class, middle-age American husband lecturing to his wife in their living room. He points to a blackboard where he has written the following sequence: “Mortgage paid. Solvent. Fully insured. Kids OK—on their own. We have our health. We have each other. Total: HAPPINESS.” Says his wife: “Would you run through that once again, please, Walter?” But no matter how many times Walter runs through it, it comes out the same: a secularism, divorced from eternity, differing in no significant way from Brecht’s conception of happiness.

We might as well admit it. East side and West side are committed to secularistc goals, and all around the town childish human beings are singing ring-around-the-rosy while London bridge is falling down. The trouble comes from satisfaction with earthly cities and objectives when we ought to be seeking “the better City, that is the heavenly one, which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

To strike deeper than pleasure and happiness to true joy, one must learn the lesson taught in Neander’s great chorale hymn, which we sang in Bach’s church in Leipzig as the chimes rang in a new year of grace: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy Health and Salvation!”

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