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Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann / Protestant Theology
Photo: UniService Transfer

"We must rediscover our religious faith"

The theologian Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann and the manifold possibilities to bring people closer to religious faith

With the book "Who is God?" Professor Dr. Kurt Erlemann, Chair of New Testament and History of the Old Church at the University of Wuppertal, published in 2008 the first volume of a series of theological books that claim to be understood by everyone. "The book 'Who is God' is about images of God in the New Testament, a huge topic that already occupied me at the time of my dissertation in Heidelberg," explains the native of Freiburg, intentionally avoiding the scientifically typical footnotes that often confuse the reader. "I was partly violently hostile by colleagues who thought that such a huge topic could not be presented on such a few pages and in such a format. But the response all over the country confirmed me, and that was the beginning of a series of seven introductions to the New Testament, always with a different focus." The second volume, which then dealt with the Holy Spirit, slowly silenced the critics. "In my opinion, that was even more of a bang, because there is hardly any literature about it," he explains with satisfaction.

The theologian as bridge builder

Born in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1958, Erlemann began studying Protestant theology in Munich, Zurich and Heidelberg at the end of the 1970s, obtaining his doctorate in 1986 and then working as a vicar of the Baden State Church and as a school pastor in Heidelberg. In 1994 he habilitated and after holding professorships in Hamburg and Koblenz he came to the University of Wuppertal in 1996. "After more than twenty years, the focus of research has changed," he says retrospectively, "because today I pay more attention to the ability to communicate to an audience that is not academically educated. I see myself as a bridge builder who wants to transport the theological science from the university to the people through the most diverse channels". In teaching, he often uses block seminars that come closest to his idea of the bridge function, and in his publications he chooses a generally understandable language that meets people's needs. "The demand for theology in the public continues to be very great," he explains, and this is also shown by his positive experiences with lectures in adult education. But the theologian also turns negative experiences of his own student days into positive ones in his lectures. "I attach particular importance to the fact that with me the students do not experience what I experienced as a student, namely that I fell asleep after eight minutes of lecture", he reports with a smile, "because in the analysis of how it could have happened at that time, not only the artificial light was the decisive factor, but also the way a lecture was held. In my time, exegetical lectures about the Epistle to the Romans, for example, were arranged in such a way that each verse was dissected into three separate parts, and at the end of the semester one was not at Romans 16, but at Romans 2.18.b. etc., with the remark that one could figure out the rest for oneself. Therefore Erlemann consistently rejects this frontal lecture style, which often runs over 90 minutes. "I want to make lectures interesting, and for years I have been doing this in a different way, for example by putting my script completely on the net in advance so that students can view the texts on the Moodle learning platform. They are then given the preparatory task of studying the script in detail and answering key questions. These are then solved in group work. This can also be done perfectly with Zoom. We then talk about it, get into the conversation, and a deeper understanding develops from this."

Music was my first love


Another component of his activity is music. Erlemann uses it as a medium with which he tries to transport theological contents. "Music has a highly emotional dimension that cannot be captured by sermons or lectures. A much broader access to this content and these experiences is possible, about which one can exchange ideas. Music speaks to the soul, speaks to the heart. It is about emotions. That is important and indispensable", and has a long tradition with him. 
As the founder of the Heidelberg rock band 'Handmade', Erlemann began to write his own songs, which he still composes and writes today for church services and for community life. "Singing together is once again a completely different way of transporting, exchanging theological content, experiences of faith, etc., to make them more certain and deepen them," he explains. "I developed this for myself during my practical training as a pastor of the Baden Regional Church, then rediscovered it in the Wuppertal period and have been doing it systematically for church and service ever since."
Over 150 own songs covers the repertoire of the industrious musician meanwhile that one can listen under its own Internet sides www.neue-kirchenlieder.com and www.frischezwischentoene.de.

Musical social criticism

Even critical songs in the 'handmade' tradition are always included. It is about our life and our daily routine, as it is or, visionary thought, as it could be. A current example is the song 'The wheel of time'. The chorus says: 'Nobody stops the wheel of time, no power brakes its course. Relax, enjoy the time, take it with composure!', and alludes to the fact that people today find it so difficult to decelerate their lives. "I think," formulates Erlemann, "that in the course of digitalization and globalization we are now confronted with so many possibilities for communication and information acquisition, including in leisure activities, that we no longer know where to access them first. Life in all its fullness has become so full that it is difficult for us to really calmly make a choice here and also to put away many things that simply overwhelm us." 

The parable of the tares among the wheat

In his books the theologian explores not only questions about Christology, the Trinity and miracles, but also unpleasant truths, such as people's anxious question of whether we have to live with evil. "Yes," answers Erlemann briefly and crisply explaining: "In the New Testament, for example, the question is asked more often by the disciples to Jesus, and Jesus answers as so often in parables. A nice example of this can be found in Matthew 13, verses 24 to 30, the parable of the tares under the wheat. It is precisely the experience that there are also people in the churches who are not necessarily classified as the good, who perhaps have a corrosive effect, spread false doctrine and bring in unrest. How should one deal with them?" Even then, the tendency was to remove such members from the congregation. But this parable clearly shows that we should not do this at all for several reasons, because, says Erlemann, "we human beings are not at all competent to distinguish who is good and who is bad, and we must also always look at ourselves, because everyone has both in him. And if you try to eradicate the bad ones, you will probably drive part of the good ones out of the community because of social interdependencies." In the end, everyone would have to answer for himself in God's judgment, so one should not judge here, he advises, but rather try to "awaken the good potential in the so-called supposedly evil ones and turn them around, bring them to the good ones and integrate them. That is the much greater and more important task."

Rediscovering our faith through language

The number of people leaving the church last year rose to more than half a million. This was announced by the German Bishops' Conference (DBK) and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in June. In his book "Why still believe?" (2019), Erlemann translates the fundamental Christian faith contents into the everyday language of the 21st century and says: "We must rediscover our faith. Above all, as theologians, pastors and teachers of religion, etc., we must ensure that what constitutes our faith, that what we understand as Good News, also reaches people again. Society must discover that church is not just a dusty place that people run away from, but church is something that transports values, a vision, a hope, which is very important for our life together. People have to rediscover that faith has relevance for their everyday life." This is also the main focus of his book, in which he has translated very personal, central questions of faith into today's language and offers pedagogues, theologians and teachers a helping hand. "They can then stand as carriers of the Good News in the church, in front of the school classes, to share these contents. They should become theologically linguistically competent. I believe that the church suffers from this in its proclamation that it may no longer be possible to bring good theology in the sense of Good News into society as a currently still relevant message."
He now shares this fundamental concern with many colleagues at the University of Wuppertal in the project "Applied Hermeneutics" (www.hermeneutik.uni-wuppertal.de), which he initiated. The aim is to make the topics, concepts and traditions of our western culture, which have become largely foreign and incomprehensible, accessible to the next generation and especially to future teachers.

Who is God?

The theologian, bridge builder, author and musician Erlemann reaches his counterpart consistently with a target group-oriented language, which he formulates in an understandable way without avoiding any topic. And so he answers the question about the title of his book 'Who is God?' very personally. "This is in fact the origin of my life, the companion of my life and the goal of my life. This is the one to whom I owe my life, who gives meaning to my life and who brings it in a good direction; to whom I can entrust myself at any time, who constantly follows me when I am walking on any wooden paths and makes straight paths out of my crooked ways again. The one who takes me in the direction he would like to have me - to be his image and in the end to be able to say: Yes, my life as it was, was good that way."

Uwe Blass (Interview on 23.07.2020)


Kurt Erlemann studied Protestant Theology in Munich, Zurich and Heidelberg. He received his doctorate in 1986 and subsequently worked as vicar of the Baden State Church and as a school pastor. After his habilitation, he took over professorships in Hamburg and Koblenz. Since 1996 he has been head of the chair for New Testament and History of the Old Church at the University of Wuppertal.