False gods

This piece was written for one of my church’s magazines in April, 2016, after a very happy visit to Bavaria in southern Germany.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

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Richard Wagner

After Easter this year, I was lucky enough to visit Bavaria in southern Germany for a week’s holiday with some friends. We travelled round and saw lots of wonderful old towns, castles and even walked through snow in the Alps. One highlight for me was visiting Bayreuth, a relatively small town that has become famous because its most prestigious resident: the composer Richard Wagner. He built his home there and established an annual festival, where his music is performed each summer in a specially-constructed theatre. It is a real highlight of the German cultural and social calendar, and tickets for the performances are incredibly hard to obtain.

Visiting Bayreuth was special for me because, like many other people, I love Wagner’s music. However I am also only too aware of the ‘darker’ side of the history of the man and his music. Richard Wagner and his family were deeply anti-semitic, and his music and personal philosophy became inextricably linked with Hitler and the Nazi party in the 1930s. It was also clear to me wandering round the museum there that the composer’s wife, Cosima, had managed to create a semi-religious aura around Wagner after his death. He was only spoken of as ‘The Master’, his writings (several of which are vile anti-Jewish diatribes) were treated as having almost scriptural authority and his possessions were specially-guarded, holy relics. He and his music came to be regarded by many as holding the key to universal truths, and the source of national purification and salvation.

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The clothes of ‘the Master’ preserved at his home in Bayreuth.

However, when you read more and dig a little deeper, you soon realise that, though he was undoubtedly a musical genius, this all too human man did not deserve anything like the adulation he received. He was, in the words of the Bible, a “false idol” – a very imperfect object of adulation, whose image was largely created by himself and others, and who had only too obvious feet of clay.

It was a powerful reminder for me of the danger of putting anything at the centre of our worship other than God. For ultimately anything that we put in the place of the truly divine will prove to be as worthless as the clay or wood idols we read of in our Old Testament: money, status, possessions, education, even other people. It is only God who truly satisfies; only God who is the Creator and Lord of all; only God who has the words of eternal life that can give us the key to begin understanding the mysteries of the world. For me, Bayreuth was an important reminder of that fact and I urge you to reflect on what it is that you truly place at the centre of your life’s worship.

 

Images: author’s own photos.

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