Amsterdam was paying tribute this weekend to a woman whom one paper called a ‘figurehead of goodness’, as we started our four-week Summer School of European Studies in the city.
In a funeral service carried on national television, attended by prime ministers past and present, Major Alida Bosshardt of the Salvation Army was honoured by all for her genuine love and acceptance of rejects and royalty alike.
The ‘Major’ is a household name in Holland. Her consistent witness to God’s love won her great respect and affection despite her daily appearance in a uniform harking back to a bygone era. Drug addicts and prostitutes eagerly told television crews how much they had lost a friend. The ‘Major’, they said, would be irreplaceable.
In a city which recently unveiled a statue to honour prostitutes, this outpouring of respect and thankfulness for a woman whose message was clear and consistent is remarkable. That respect has earned her immortality in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, standing in her familiar uniform holding her beloved Bible.
She made no secret of the fact that that book had been her life-long source of inspiration. She pointed countless prostitutes to its central message and to its central character. So much so, it was recounted at the funeral, that criminal elements once planned to intimidate her by throwing her into the canal. Despite a police tip-off, the Major continued her daily duties unperturbed-although she did take the extra precaution of wearing an old uniform that day.
The Bible was also the starting point for our two-week journey of discovery of people and places that had shaped Europe’s past. This ‘Share the Heritage’ trip will take us from Amsterdam to Cologne and Prague before heading back westwards to Zurich and Geneva. After days of intense travel, we will enjoy two quieter study weeks in Switzerland overlooking Lake Thun, exploring biblical perspectives on Europe’s present and future. (Wish you could be with us? You can, next year, the whole month of July! See www.ywam.eu/sses)
This summer school was partly catalysed by the debate about God and the Judeo-Christian heritage being left out of the proposed European constitution. This dispute exposed gross ignorance on the part of Christian and non-Christian alike of the foundations of our European civilisation.
So, as we have done in the past, we made our way as a group along Amsterdam’s streets and canals to the Bible Museum. The question I had presented to the participants was: what can we learn from the museum about the role the Bible had played in shaping Europe’s past?
But, I knew they were in for a frustrating time. For after an hour in the museum, looking at models of the Tabernacle and politically-correct displays about the three world religions with claims on Jerusalem, they emerged almost empty-handed. A basement exhibition of old Bible manuscripts and early translations had yielded one relevant sentence: ‘During the last centuries, the Bible has played an important role in the daily lives of millions of Dutch people.’
Very true. But how?
Later as we enjoyed the evening sun in an outdoor cafe, we discussed what might have been presented to answer that question. Despite the widespread secularisation in recent decades, the influence of the Bible has remained an indelible part of European culture. As with the Major, the Bible has been Europe’s single greatest source of inspiration not only for matters of faith, but also of daily life.
We read together what one secular writer had written last year in Elsevier, a leading news weekly, about the Bible’s influence. For centuries, the majority of the Dutch population had read daily from the Bible, for example, introducing countless sayings, concepts and proverbs into the language, including Armageddon, Gideon’s band, a judas kiss, good Samaritan, forbidden fruit.
The Bible was simply the most important book in history, the writer had bluntly stated. Referring to a recent television series depicting the brutality and immorality of ancient pagan Rome, he contended that even the most hardened atheist would have had to admit that the coming of Christianity had been a blessing. It had been the most exceptional development in world history, claimed the magazine, proof that faith could truly move mountains: ‘a believing minority developed against all opposition into a powerful, religious movement now with two billion followers worldwide, inspired by the Bible’.
Much art could not be understood without knowledge of the Bible, whether by Michelangelo and Rembrandt, or van Gogh and Dali, continued the writer. Constant allusion to Biblical imagery was also found throughout more commercial and popular art forms, from The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code, to Narnia and The Passion.
So much more could be noted, we agreed: the Bible’s influence on the development of education, literature, healthcare, law, family, government and even science. This book, which gave a common theistic worldview to almost all European peoples, was the singular source of Europe’s unique self-awareness.
Over the next few days our visits to Fulda, Wittenberg and Leipzig will more than confirm how much the Bible inspired the careers of Boniface, Luther and Bach as they shaped the culture of their Germany.
Till next week,
Till next week,