From the very moment you dismount the train in Wittenberg, the presence of Luther is intensely felt. In fact, the train station bears the official name of the city, which is “Lutherstadt Wittenberg”, i.e. Wittenberg, Luther’s city.

As soon as you exit the station buildings, the first object which unavoidably catches your attention is a gigantic Bible, a metallic structure covered in fabric, which is shaped as an immense Book – Luther’s Bible.

On the back side of the Book (pictured right), you can observe thousands of small and yet readable rectangles, each representing a page of the Bible, which is reproduced in its entirety; and if your eyes aren’t good enough to read a text placed a dozen metres above your eyes, you have the option of downloading the entire Book as an eBook on your cell phone through a QR code.

Whether consciously or not, this first encounter embodies perfectly the ideal spirit of the Wittenberg celebrations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, which started precisely in this relatively small city, one hour by train from Berlin, on Oct. 31st 1517, when Luther famously posted his theses on the door of the Castle Church. Luther, here, is of course the genius loci, the national hero: if the city itself, as said earlier, bears his name, one can easily imagine how many Luthers are likely to be found in an average walk through the streets.

Serious Luthers, but no lack of kitsch

Serious Luthers, such as those found in the many interesting museums of the city; religious Luthers, such as those found in the churches – including the Catholic church; historical Luthers, such as those commemorated with monuments, street names or historical places; “marketing” Luthers, with shops packed with Luther-stuff – from the Luther beer to the Luther spirits, from Luther-shaped pasta to chocolates, from socks with his motto “Here I stand” to Luther-rubber ducks (I bought one, of course, as a paramount example of sublime kitsch).

If such extremes are obvious consequences of the marketing needs of a touristic city, the complexity of Luther’s character is faithfully mirrored by the variety of approaches to the official celebrations. Just as the mammoth-Bible is a perfect embodiment of faith, history, culture and modernity, and just as Luther himself was a great exegete, a person with intense pastoral concerns, an artist, but also a harsh polemicist and a witty speaker (as his Table talks testify), so the Wittenberg Expo is both fascinating and full of contradictions.

Seven themes, and seven 'gates of freedom'

Indeed, the entire city has been turned into an open-air exposition. Seven thematic paths cross the streets of this beautiful, tiny and ancient medieval city; each path is opened by one of the seven “gates of freedom” which are scattered in its quarters.

The themes are spirituality, youth, peace, justice and the integrity of creation, globalization, ecumenism and religion, culture. Here and there, artistic and symbolic installations offer food for thought. Some are fascinating or touching: personally, I liked the wooden boat-skeletons, like remnants of shipwrecks, found in an otherwise innocent-looking urban pool in the midst of a city park. They are linked to the “justice” path, and all around the lake some quotes from the Bible or other authors invite the passer-by to think about justice.

Some of these quotes, to be sure, seem to advance a precise agenda rather than simply “ask questions”, as many posters throughout the city claim to do (“Reformation means asking questions” is one of the slogans): for example, the juxtaposition of a Genesis quote (“Male and female He created them”) with one claiming that in Christ “there is no longer male and female” seems to suggest an ideological interpretation with which not all Christians may feel in agreement.

Finding your 'deep self'

Walking further, the path about “spirituality” invites the wanderer to go in quest of his or her deep self; this itinerary is symbolized through some above-ground boardwalks, all of whose sides are made of mirrors. Indeed, seeing one’s feet multiplied by thousands is an efficacious invitation to “focus on one’s self”, though this kind of exploration or discovery seems closer to Eastern meditation experiences than to what Christians believe about revelation.

If this slightly narcissistic meditation has left you unsatisfied, you can vent your feelings more expressively, for example by ringing a big bell – I guess this to be one of the children’s favourites here in Wittenberg.

They will probably like also the panoramic wheel, which must offer a very good view of the city and of its many bell-towers, though I didn’t understand why it is advertised as “Seelensorge”, i.e. “care of the souls”.

In fact, I may have been a little lazy: there are so many posters and explanations throughout the city, that in order to read them one should spend many more hours than I could afford. (This, I should say, struck me as an odd aspect of the Expo: churches founded after the Protestant Reformation tended to reject the symbols which were integral to Catholic worship; and yet this exposition is full of symbols, though many of them need a lot of explaining).

Would you like a baptism experience?


Experience-space Baptism, Wittenberg 2017

The same mixture of technology, faith and creativity (in varied percentages) is found in many other paths or installations. The “Baptism experience”, for example, involves three rooms in a city building where one can find: tablets which explain various aspects of Christian Baptism; followed by a space with a maxi curved 3-D screen which surrounds you (quite overwhelmingly) with sounds and images; and, finally, by a room where a lady will dip her fingers into a baptismal font, sprinkle your hands gently with (blessed?) water, and then recite a blessing on you.

Eventually, you will be given a small piece of chalk, wrapped in a paper with “Getauft” (i.e. “baptized”) written on it, and you may use your chalk to write something on the wall in front of the building.

The meaning of this “experience” may be evaluated in various ways: for some it may be a first encounter with the Christian foundation sacrament; for others it may seem a New-Age soothing experience; others may find there a touching recollection of their entrance in the Church, while still others may raise more than one eyebrow at the ambiguous nature of this “experience” (“getauft”? But surely a blessing is not a baptism…).

At least, however, in this case an actual woman with a kind smile pronounced her blessing on the pilgrim, and a blessing is always welcome. What I wouldn’t have cared to do, however, was to receive a “blessing” from “BlessU-2”, the blessing robot. I don’t know whether to find it hilarious, blasphemous, chilling or simply kitsch; in any case, I can’t imagine what sense it may have to be “blessed” by an automaton.

And while I highly welcome both interconfessional and interfaith dialogue, I sometimes think that it ought to be pursued not by renouncing one’s identity, but rather by being fully conscious of and happy with it, so that the dialogue may have some meaning and not become an encounter of platitudes.

An interfaith space

Thus, the “House of One”, which is a praiseworthy attempt to create an interfaith space of prayer for believers of the monotheistic religions, in fact resembles a very anonymous wooden cage, a cube made of listels with actually no religious symbols. And while I wholeheartedly acclaim the idea of planting five hundred trees in Wittenberg – as many as the years since the Reformation – I find it less convincing to observe a great many sad wooden poles in the city park.

These are, of course, just a few among the many possible examples: the exposition is city-wide and full of opportunity for learning, having fun, sometimes praying: from the small red boxes where one can learn about topics such as “With Luther at the barber’s” to the free “Luther Wi-Fi” offered throughout the city, from the Museum of the Bible to the Cranach paintings in the Cranach Museum and in the St Mary Church, from the many concerts and conferences to the sausage kiosks, the city undoubtedly offers a lot to those interested in the Reformation and in its cultural impacts.

What does it all mean?

The big question which remains open, and which this very variety of approaches does not contribute to answer, is: what is the meaning of the Reformation today?

Is it a historical fact to celebrate as the freeing of secular power (and of the German nation) from religious interferences? Is it the celebration of a national hero? Is it a faith experience which deeply touches and matters intensely for thousands of believers worldwide? Is it a cultural force which has worked and/or still works in our history and in contemporaneous society? Is it a product which needs to be made as “glamour” as possible in order to please today’s public, which seems increasingly indifferent to faith?

In part, it seems to be a mixture of all the above, and, of course, of much more than this. But I think that this anniversary may be a good opportunity, especially for Christians of all confessions, Protestant or otherwise, to ask themselves what is the true message of the Reformation, what can be learnt from it, and how some of Luther’s teachings may be relevant for all those who share the faith in Christ.

And I humbly venture the opinion that Doktor Luther would have been as petrified as I was, had he been offered an electronic blessing from BlessU-2.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, was published earlier this year by De Gruyter. Visit her website.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com