Friday, February 12, 2010

German Language Dreamin' (On Such a Winter's Day)

Sometimes a subconscious connection happens as I daydream. Today it’s: Friday and the German language.

Why am I daydreaming about that, rather than working? Easy: the first thing we learned in my college German class, over thirty years ago, was “Gott sei dank, es ist Freitag.” After teaching us that mild oath in praise of the week’s end, the prof switched into “Deutsch durch Deutsch” mode and tried, with limited success, to help us learn the word “ding.” He’d point to a chair: “ding.” He’d point to a book: “ding.” He’d point to a desk: “ding.” We’d dutifully guess: chair? book? desk?

I sometimes mention that class to my own college classes. Our prof ended his lecture when he felt like he’d made his point, which could be five minutes or more past the end of the class period. I joke with my current students that none of us in that class heard a single word that the prof said after the scheduled time ended, because we were too anxious about getting to our next class! But that’s another story. So is the nice trip my family and I made to Germany in 2007. Without brushing up on our German (because we were too busy packing outfits for eleven days, I guess), Beth and I managed several awkward but pleasant conversations with people in bakeries and coffee shops.

I found a website, “12 great reasons why you should start learning German today.” ( Several of the reasons are economic and business-related. Number 11 does mention religious studies, which is my own interest. Imagine a list of “12 great reasons why you should learn German” and one of them is: “You can read Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre in the original!” You might not have a mad rush of folks signing up for German courses at that prospect, but the ears of a few, including me, would perk up at the thought of understanding a very large group of authors in theology, philosophy, biblical studies, etc. who were German-speaking.

I used to have a book that specifically taught “theological German.” The book helped you with the specialized vocabulary after you’d gained general mastery of the language. The word that always stands out in my mind is Heilsgeschichte, or “salvation history,” a popular concept in biblical studies. That might be the first German word a young person can latch onto during introductory courses in Christian theology, and oh how impressive you can sound if you can drop Heilsgeschichte into a sermon!!

I used my German the most while studying Karl Barth’s doctrine of creation for my Ph.D. dissertation. I ordered a copy of Die kirchliche Dogmatik, Volume III, part 2, from the publisher through our bookstore, and for several months I hunkered down with the enormous white book as I compared Barth’s original words with the (to me more than adequate) English translation. At the time I still dreamed of being some kind of Barth scholar, but God didn’t guide me in that direction after my doctoral work concluded. God guided me, instead, into writing curricular materials for church people. I’d love to think, very modestly, that Barth would’ve been happy that his influence worked in that way. For certain, his concern for being a servant to the church was significant for me--in whatever my post-doctoral life would be like--as I worked my way through his long sentences those years ago.

In fact, today I’m working on a current-events* curriculum project for church people---on a pretty Friday, “Gott sei dank”!

* Barth famously said we should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website,

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