Report from Wittenberg


On Tuesday, four of us trooped to Wittenberg, the capital of the Protestant revolt, a three hour trip by car form Erfurt, Germany where we spent time in Meister Eckhart’s priory. Four of us being Anne, a German citizen and mother of three boys who is also an avid reader and a mystic in her own right; Peter, an Englander who has been living in Germany for over twenty years and who has received a master’s degree from Naropa Oakland; and Jim Garrison, president of Wisdom University and formerly president of the World Forum and the Mikael Gorbachev Foundation. And myself. Peter and Anne would prove to be invaluable not only as translators and interpreters but also as strategists and go-phers.

Our plans were to meet the press and others on Wednesday, May 18 at 4 PM at the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg where Luther nailed his 95 theses some 500 years ago. First, however, we had to stop by the city hall and get official documents to allow us to perform this action. The officials limited us to one hour (4-5 PM) and we were to station ourselves far away from the door “in order to let the tourists be unemcumbered in taking photos of the door.” After considerable persuasion offered by Anne, they relented to allow us to be “near the door.” But we could not pound nails into the door which today, unlike Luther’s day, is no longer wood but metal casting containing his 95 theses. No pounding on that door even if one had permission to do so!

What to do? We decided on an A Frame board of two pieces 7feet by 2 feet held together by a flexible hinge since our scroll was about six feet in length. We set it up outside the short, four foot fence.

How telling it was to me that in the minds of the local authorities the tourists came first. More important than a group calling for a Reformation Today were the religious tourists (very few of them appeared to be pilgrims) who arrived in buses to take a photo at the door and move on. Didn’t this fill out my point in the “New Reformation!” book that churches are museums today? Destination places for tourists rather than for pilgrims. And good for the economy (even if the economy may not be good for them!) This reality inspired me all the more to present my 95 theses.

Two nights previously we had heard the news that skinheads or Nazis youth of Wittenburg had defamed the doors in a protest by throwing bags of yellow paint on them. The paint still dripped from the painting at the top of the door but otherwise had been cleaned up by the time we arrived on Wednesday.

The German media was showing some interest. The editor of the very solid and influential theological magazine, “Publik-Forum” attended my talk in Bad Herrenalb and interviewed me for 90 minutes afterwards. It turns out he had left Christianity for some ten years or so and then reading Meister Eckhart brought him back. His photographer came to Wittenburg as did the photographer for “Bild” newspaper, a blue collar paper with ten million circulation whose editor interviewed me by phone that morning with Peter translating.

I retired inside the church to meditate and get out of the way of Peter and Anne who were building the A Frame apparatus. At 3:50 we received a call that the TV man who was coming was stuck in traffic and would be delayed forty minutes. What to do? We decided on two nailings of the theses. The first for the “Bild” and “Publik Forum” photographers. Then a pause and wait for the TV man to arrive. Only then did I give a brief talk, take questions, and nail the theses a second time.

In between the two events a bus arrived with many black people pouring out of it to look at the doors. They had an English-speaking tour guide. “Where are you from?” I asked one of them. “South Africa.” When the guide had finished her speech, I spoke up and said: “I am a theologian from America and I am here to urge a New Reformation in our time and I invite you to stick around for a few minutes until the TV man arrives and hear more about what we are doing and why.” The guide gave me a killer look and said “We are in a hurry to get to our next destination” but several members of the group hung back and said “this sounds far more interesting than what we are doing.” They had to move on but we gave away about a dozen of the “New Reformation!” books to these South African tourists who, as they told me, were there to look into business connections with Germany.

One of the questions I received with the TV camara going was this: “Is this just about the corruption in the Catholic Church?” “No”, I said. “The Protestant church is suffering differently from the Catholic Church–it is more from boredom and acedia, lack of energy to begin new things.” And I cited a Protestant Pastor we met the day before who said he felt the church was essentially dead drawing as it does 5-8% of the population. A Reformation–better yet, a Transformation–is called for across the board as we enter a new millennium.

The day was chilly with clouds and some sun shining. The media, ranging from serious theological journal to TV station for the entire area (who promised to send us their footage in a few weeks) to the national blue collar newspaper to a local newspaper will presumably spread some seeds. More response may follow. At least we tried something to wake people up. We shall see what unfolds.


See further articles on Matthew Fox's journey to Wittenberg, 95 Theses, and writings on the New Reformation, in the menu at the top of this page.