I didn’t know that my recent visit to Stuttgart, Germany, would coincide with Kirchentag – because I had never heard of Kirchentag. But as soon as I stepped out of the train station, I saw people, young and old, sporting red stoles featuring Psalm 90:12, “damit wir klug werden” (“that we may become wise“).
For the next several days the city had something like an alternative happiness festival going on, with youth groups, church delegations, families with young children, the middle-aged and seniors strolling around the city, going from event to event of the hundreds set up for them. A nice couple named Rudiger and Christina patiently answered my Germglish (mix of German and English) questions, explaining to me that the Evangelische Kirche’s Kirchentag lasts several days and is held every two years in a different German city. They showed me the chock-full program.
As far as I could tell (from my vantage as a foreigner with a not-very-well-understood German ancestry), the city (with lots of churches but as elsewhere in Germany and Europe, at least according to several lay ministers and pastors with whom I talked, the older established churches are facing their own deep affiliation challenges, and I now realize that this sentence has taken on a very Germanic construction) took it all in stride, happy for the business.
Practical theology often intends to work as a “public theology” when religious or religiously-informed practice is intentionally set into larger public arenas with the hope of making a positive contribution and realizing some valuable end. At Kirchentag, I was interested in the fate of those red stoles. The diversity of ways of wearing them reminded me of a music festival where the swag ends up getting worn in all sorts of ways that suit personal needs and style, thereby re-using a common material to make it do something for the individual.
The whole thing seemed to invite a theological reading informed strongly by fan studies (with an obligatory, but always welcome, assist of course from Michel de Certeau, who I think would have been amused and intrigued). The red stoles were easily visible to the eye and, while older participants tended to wear them draped over the shoulders like a liturgical vestment (making the city something like a liturgical scene with stole-wearers everywhere), some did otherwise and especially the young people: turning the stoles into headwraps, belts, scarves, sashes, ties, headbands, necklaces, wristbands, and more. A nice intersection of fashion/adornment and religious practice (pilgrimage, testimony) as religion (re-)makes a secular scene.
I wondered what we might learn if we could ask everyone about their way of wearing their stole. (Instead of using the liturgical/theological term “stole,” perhaps it would be more neutral to say “ribbon” or “red garment” to acknowledge that there is no set use for it, except that it somehow remains “special” and “public” even if its message cannot be read when it becomes a belt—still the message of a special signification with a public religious “alert” remains. It seemed an interesting example of how people make religious material (here, literally textile material) their own, in that simple practice of personally displaying the festival cloth in myriad ways.
In the next post, I’ll put up some pictures. Tschüss.
Tom Beaudoin, Frankfurt, Germany