Darren L. Slider
Aber des Herrn Wort
Aber des Herrn Wort
The above Biblical quotation, a rumination on the mortal and transitory nature of man and everything associated with him which is offset by a declaration of the eternal nature of the Lord and His Word, is a microcosm of the Christian worldview: Man, even at his very best, passes away just like the grass of the field because of his lost condition, but the Word of God (Jesus Christ see I John 1) is eternal, can save man from this lost condition and can share with him the essence of eternal life, both spiritually and literally.
The literature of the twentieth century (in Germany as elsewhere) began as a reaction against the subjectivism and (more than occasionally) escapism of the Romantic period, by attempting an accurate portrayal of reality as it appeared a movement called naturalism. Despite several swings of the subjective-objective pendulum in both directions, the naturalistic worldview remained (and remains) one of the most consistent and telling elements in twentieth-century literature.
This worldview was strongly influenced by several currents of thought which had their beginnings in the nineteenth century. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which portrays man as a slightly more highly developed form of animal; Hyppolite Taine’s Milieutheorie, which views man as a product of his environment and which strongly influenced the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud; the positivism which emphasized the reality of the tangible and concrete at the expense of the metaphysical and transcendental; and Karl Marx’s socialistic ideas, which lamented the degradation of capitalism, denounced religion as “an opiate of the people” and taught that all men should be considered economically (and otherwise) equal: these all exerted an influence on literature that led, in practice, to an emphasis upon the corruption and mortality of man while scorning the possibility of salvation from an outside source (particularly a “religious” one).
Thus, in terms of the Biblical quotation above, twentieth-century literature portrays, starkly and often unremittingly, that “alles Fleisch . . . ist wie Gras,” but generally gets no farther than that: the “aber” is missing. In the works of Bertolt Brecht in particular, man is often seen as a hopeless, meaningless animal about whom only one thing is certain: he will die.
Brecht saw the world from a communist standpoint and never considered a religion or God of any sort as a possible solution to the human dilemma because, judging from his works, he saw religion only as “an opiate of the people,” as a manipulative tactic used by a corrupt system to deceive people into supporting the system and thus enriching the deceivers. Taking this abuse of religion for the genuine article and reacting against it, Brecht was led to dwell upon the mortality of man as described above.
One of Brecht’s larger collections of poetry and satire, ironically titled Die Hauspostille (The Manual of Piety) espouses these themes and repeats them over and over again, stating them in stark, devastatingly obvious terms in the “Schlußkapitel” (“Closing Chapter”), a poem entitled “Gegen Verführung” (“Against Deception”).
In the same book is contained a parody of the text to the chorale “Lobe den Herren” (“Praise to the Lord”), entitled “Großer Dankchoral” (“Grand Chorale of Thanks” again ironically), the purpose of whose savage irreverence we, with all of the above in mind, can now begin to comprehend. We can see the cynicism and despair of a man who realizes profoundly an important aspect of the truth about the world and man but who, in espousing a system rooted in humanistic philosophy as a solution, misses the whole truth, indeed leaves out the very essence of the whole truth: God.
Brecht’s first stanza begins not by praising the Lord, but by praising “the night and the darkness which surround you” (you, although expressed in the plural in German, meaning everyman). Sarcastically, he invites his readers to “draw nigh” and “look up into the heavens,” only to tell them that “the day is already past” them. In other words, they are (man is) lost and can see no sign of relief, only of lost opportunity.
In the next two stanzas, man is put on a level with the beasts and grass in order to show that he is worth no more than they. In the second stanza, man is told, in so many words, “Like grass and beast you live, like grass and beast you will die.” In fact, the entire stanza looks almost uncannily like a direct paraphrase of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras . . . ”! The third stanza ascribes praise to the tree which grows up “rejoicing” to heaven by nourishing itself on the carcass of man: a significant illustration of Brecht’s idea of human worth.
The third stanza ends with “Aber auch lobet den Himmel” (“But also praise Heaven”), as if to change its tone in the manner of the Biblical text quoted above. Instead, however, we get “Lobet von Herzen das schlechte Gedächtnis des Himmels” (“Praise from the heart the bad memory of Heaven”). This and what follows in the fourth stanza are easily the most irreverent (even blasphemous) statements in the poem. Strongly reminiscent of Elijah’s mocking of the “god” Baal on Mount Carmel, they communicate something like the following: “If there is anybody up there, He has a frightfully rotten memory and certainly doesn’t treat anybody as if He were the least bit aware of him personally!”
The poem concludes with an accolade to “the coldness, the darkness, and the ruin.” Harking back to the first stanza, we are beseeched, “Schauet hinan” (Look up [to heaven]), then hit with “Es kommet nicht auf euch an” (which, according to Langenscheidt, can be translated either “you do not matter” or “it does not depend on you”). We are finally told that “without anxiety you may die.”
Thus, from a Christian standpoint, we can see how man can come to view himself as essentially worthless when he views only the world he sees around him as ultimate reality and leaves God out of the picture, even though he may espouse a philosophy which holds that man can change for the better.
Happily, literature and the other arts, even in the twentieth century, contain several instances in which the same problem is attacked from the Christian perspective without ignoring the realities of modern life, such as in the later poetry of T. S. Eliot and the writings of C. S. Lewis. But one of the most straightforward and powerful settings of which I know may be found in the music of the nineteenth century, in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem: “Denn alles Fleisch” is made into a sarabande-like funeral march in B flat minor, by turns bleak and ominous, in the second movement. After it dies out about midway through the movement, the choir breaks out loudly (and almost spontaneously, it seems) in B flat major with “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit!”
Therein lies the Christian response: in the “aber,” in the bold, electrifying contradiction of taking man’s present condition as ultimate reality. Christianity holds that God Himself took action to solve the problem by entering temporal history and becoming man, the Word of God that abides in eternity becoming the Man Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. We as Christians thus have the privilege of portraying that “aber” in our literature and our lives.
LOBE DEN HERREN
Author’s Note: This German literature paper examines Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Großer Dankchoral” (“Grand Chorale of Thanks”), a parody of the text to the famous chorale “Lobe den Herren” (“Praise to the Lord”), in the context of I Peter 1:24-25, which quotes Isaiah 40:6-8: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the LORD endures forever.” I conclude that Brecht’s pathetic despair results from his rejection of the italicized phrase and his intense awareness of what precedes it.