A new translation of the Little Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther

Part III: The Our Father.

When the story broke about an advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer being rejected by the two chains that control 80% of the UK’s cinema screens because it (a) might cause offence, and (b) anyway, they customarily do not show ads with political and religious content, a couple of thoughts came to mind. First, that, as Richard Dawkins (!) said, anyone offended by something as innocuous as a prayer deserves to be; second, that this prayer goes to the same issues of bodily and spiritual health and worthiness that other, obviously more permissible UK adverts routinely do; and third, that I’ve been meaning to translate Luther’s Little Catechism into English for a while now, even though, to paraphrase the misattribution to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, I speak German to God, French to Geneva bartenders, Swedish to my WoW guild, and English to my horse. This seemed like as good a time to start as any.

Part Three. The Our Father.

The address.

Our father in heaven.

What is this?

God beckons us to believe that he is our true father and we his true children, so that we approach him confidently and sanguinely as loving children do their loving father.

The first plea.

Hallowed be your name.

What is this?

God’s name is, it’s true, holy in and of itself. But in this prayer we plead for it to become holy within us, too.

How does that happen?

Wherever the word of God is taught sincerely and purely and we live according to it in holy lives ourselves like the children of God. Help us do that, loving father in heaven! But he who lives and teaches other than as the word of God teaches desecrates the name of God among us.

The second plea.

Your kingdom come.

What is this?

God’s kingdom will come by itself even without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer for it to come to us as well.

How does that happen?

When the heavenly father gives us his holy spirit, that we believe his holy word through his grace and live according to it during time here and in eternity over there.

The third plea.

As your will is done in heaven, so let it be done on earth.

What is this?

God’s good, gracious will is done even without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer that it is also done unto us.

How does that happen?

When God breaks all bad counsel and ill will and hinders those who deny the holiness of the name of God and seek to prevent his kingdom’s coming: the devil, the world, and the desires of the flesh. God strengthens and keeps us fast in his word and faith until our end. That is his good, gracious will.

The fourth plea.

Give us our daily bread today.

What is this?

God gives bread to every fallen human with or without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer that he lets us recognize this and that we receive our daily bread with gratitude.

So what is daily bread?

Everything that life and the body requires, like food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, field, livestock, money, goods, pious spouses, pious children, pious servants, pious and loyal governors, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, supportive neighbors, etc.

The fifth plea.

And forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

What is this?

We plead in this prayer that the father in heaven prefer not to look at our sins and not reject our pleas because we are sinners, for we are not worthy of that for which we pray, and have not earned it; rather, he gives us what we pray for out of mercy, even though we sin every day and have earned nothing but punishment. Thus do we want our forgiveness to be heartfelt and do good unto those who sin against us.

The sixth plea.

And do not lead us into temptation.

What is this?

God tempts no one, but we plead in this prayer, that god protect and preserve us so that the devil, the world, and the desires of our flesh do not betray us and lead us into disbelief and desperation and other great disgraces and burdens, and if these challenge us, that we eventually win and maintain our victory.

The seventh plea.

Rather, save us from evil.

What is this?

We plead in this prayer that our father in heaven redeems us from evil and every affliction of the body and soul and of honor and goodness and that finally, when our moment has come, grants us a blessed end and lifts us in mercy from this valley of tears and brings us to him in heaven.

The resolution.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours in eternity. Amen.

What does “Amen” mean?

That I should be certain in the knowledge that these pleas are received with fondness and heard by the heavenly father. For he himself instructed us to pray in this way, and promised that he would hear our prayers. Amen, amen. That means: yes, that’s how it should happen.

Con Los Terroristas

Towards a Structuralist Understanding of the Harlem Shake

The first thing you notice is the music. The vocal call out (‘with the terrorists’, the internet translates it as) and the steady beat. What comes next has many variations but in its most refined form, it is well crafted and predictable. For fifteen seconds, you see a tableau in which one figure dances, usually masked, helmeted, or otherwise strangely garbed. It draws your eye. As visual boredom sets in, you look at the surroundings: everyone else in the scene sits or stands around, ignoring the only activity. And then the bass drops, and all of a sudden an explosion of movement has already happened, the tableau has shifted, and while you race to take everything in (the man on the tricycle, the inflatable sex doll being waved about, the girl swinging from the rafters) the video suddenly ends. What has just happened?

The arch-meme is a finely crafted instrument. It presents a base template through which many ideas can be pulled. Most memes, in their early form, are about taking a joke and extending it by replaying it in different contexts or with minor variations on the original. The humor gets drained quickly, until all that is left is the format. The prime example of this is the iterations on the famous British propaganda poster, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. By the time we’ve arrived at ‘Keep Calm and Stay Southern’, we’ve completely hacked away the compelling notion at the core of the original (an understated, almost accidentally perfect encapsulation of one national character in a particular era1) and replaced it with something so totally unrelated that the emblem of the crown which adorns it is a nonsensical interlocutor, a signifier that has been torn from its signified. The format lends nothing at this point, except as a vehicle for being redistributed. Is this what we mean by ‘viral’? Not pandemic-scale dissemination, but rather infesting one idea with wholly alien genetic material and using that idea’s genetic code to manufacture new ones, mutations, until the strain is of a totally different taxonomy.

There are many variations of the Harlem Shake, and you can watch them in rapid succession in the form of twenty-odd minute compilations. Taken as a body of work, what is most surprising is that they’re quite addictive, even though you know exactly what’s coming. Partly, it’s the music. Even though it is only the first thirty seconds of a longer song, it loops surprisingly well. That’s probably because the first thirty seconds tell you all you need to know about the rest of the song. It, too, might as well be on a loop. The other factor, of course, is the level of effort and detail that the creators of these videos go to. The simplest videos are the least interesting, whether its five guys in a frat house living room or, as in one particularly arresting example, one guy alone, with his dog. The most compelling ones are the gymnasiums, the universities, the army units, where that bass drop shatters the thin varnish of a scene of reasonably plausible every day life and turns it into a depiction of collective madness that would make Bosch proud. High production values alone doesn’t always win it. Red Bull’s skydiving iteration, though well put together, suffers from giving itself away in the jump cuts. It’s the static camera that does the most work. Like the room at a standstill before the drop, we’re stuck watching the infective dance as it jumps from Patient A in the motorcycle helmet to the entire school around him. We long to join the fray, to leap up from our computer chairs into this brave new world where it’s okay to dance with a floor lamp and take off (almost) all of your clothes.

It’s also impossible to deny that there is a codified sexual release built into this depiction of madness. Men strip down to their underwear, discarding their uniforms or fashionable outfits. Anonymity prevails through costumes. And of course, the music itself is the music of the club beat. The pelvic thrust is everywhere, and whether or not this can be reduced to a symptom of it being the only way left we have of dancing, its implication cannot be wiped away. Other tropes get dragged in quickly, too. Several versions feature Angry Birds paraphernalia, or Pirates of the Caribbean costumes, or whatever else we have handy. Like a Breugel painting, we’ve shoved all of our metaphors into one picture. And it is a picture, the post-animated-gif version of a photograph.

To be sure, the Harlem Shake probably couldn’t have happened until after the Lady Gaga video meme craze, but it is a finer take on the idea, simply for its better absurdity. But this precedent raises another important point: these sorts of videos, this viral spread, is one limited to a specific cultural context. Where Gaga and dubstep have happened, Poker Face and Harlem shake may follow. The low art of the high empire finds its legs in the internal communication channels, but at the borders it stops suddenly and ends. The bizzaro-world democracy of YouTube is one open only to fellow citizens. Whatever the Internet meme culture tells us about ourselves, it tells us only about ourselves, and only in the minutes and half-minutes that the videos last, and only for the week or so in which we pay attention to them. Once they hit CNN, we’re done, we’ve developed the antibodies, and we wait for a new disease to come and take hold of us. Meanwhile, perhaps, we become a little more impervious to the new and strange ideas that leak in from outside our bubble, faster to dismiss the novelty as another passing phase.

  1. Although it’s important to note that the posters displaying this message were never actually used during the Blitz. Although produced, some higher-ups in the government rightly acknowledged that the fundamental message was more condescending than stiff-upper-lip, and it was only decades later when they were rediscovered in a warehouse that the slogan and its spare midcentury typography reached icon status. [back]