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BURLY, jovial and sonorously rolling his Rs, Horst Seehofer, the boss of the Christian Social Union (CSU), embodies Bavarian populism and bravado.
Mr Seehofer is best observed working the crowd in a bustling beer tent, all ears for the popular mood, building up his “coalition with citizens”.
With a model railway taking up his basement, his hobbies and tastes are reassuringly ordinary.
Both parties are “Christian unions” because they united Catholic and Protestant parties that dated back to the Weimar Republic.
The CSU owes its success to the long transformation of Bavaria from agricultural backwater to industrial and high-tech powerhouse without loss of local identity.
Neither Mr Seehofer nor his CSU is as dangerous as that, says Heinrich Oberreuter at the University of Passau. Geraldine Brooks, author of Year of Wonders, March and People of the Book, has written a new novel about the life of King David.
The afterword to Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, The Secret Chord, notes that “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age.
The life of King David, taken as a whole, is astonishing and tragic and glorious and disturbing.
Needless to say, the novelist or the filmmaker approaches such narratives very differently from the careful exegete. There’s plenty in Brooks’ latest book for the fastidious believer to be miffed about, if they choose.
But if we’re open to it, this fictional appropriation of David’s life has a lot to offer the Christian reader. The Secret Chord teased out for me threads in the Bible account that I’d never noticed before: the contempt that David’s eldest brother shows him (“I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is”) when he shows up at the Israelite front lines, soon to fell Goliath. This is what the novel can do for us, that we struggle to do for ourselves as we encounter the efficiency and relative impassivity of the biblical account. The Secret Chord helps to make these fellow members of God’s people real to us; when we next return to the biblical story, we find that Brooks has dispensed with our need for the reminders of whose cousins or wives or allies everybody is, because they now seem to us like people we know. There’s much in the novel that’s confronting – as there is, if we take it seriously, in the original.
Not only do such retellings help to sustain at least a passing familiarity with the contents of the Bible for a generation with fewer and fewer opportunities to encounter the stories that shaped their culture so decisively, but the force of story lies in its capacity for inviting engagement, waking appetite, lodging in the heart and perhaps changing the mind.
But there are beauty and power, too, especially in the music that suffuses David’s life and soul and city – Israel’s psalmist as much as her warrior-king, and ours too. The messiness of David’s life (and ours, for that matter), set against the patterns of the narrative which are also the ordering of God’s good plans and promises, provokes a deeper, more intuitive, more life-giving response than a statement of doctrine on its own usually can.
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The CSU is a party that only exists in Bavaria, one of the richest, most successful and most distinctive of Germany’s 16 states.
With sly innuendo against the bureaucrats of Brussels or Berlin, against immigrants milking the welfare system or foreign drivers clogging motorways, he can excite an audience even without any clear ideology or policies. Even revelations about an illegitimate daughter have not hurt him, or his party’s advocacy of family values, in a state that lives by a relaxed Catholic brand of live-and-let-live.
Scots, Catalans and Quebecois may have parties representing them, but none has the CSU’s combination of regional and national power. For example, Mr Seehofer is in favour of Germany’s (popular) plan to shift from nuclear and fossil-fuel energy to renewable sources. But like the rest of those enormous chunks of the Bible made up of historical narrative, it’s strangely rare for believers to read it that way. Not that their efforts amount to heedlessness: much painstaking research goes into these retellings.
Predictably, she plays up the love between David and Jonathan as an unambiguously sexual relationship. Its very estrangement of the familiar – Brooks opts, for example, to use the Hebrew of the Tanakh for names; Shmuel for Samuel, Shlomo for Solomon, Yoav for Joab – can do us a great service, making off with our old familiar tales and characters and then giving them back, renewed. The tragedy of his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal, who is “given” to another man when David is driven into exile; when David becomes king and demands her back, years later, her new husband follows her, weeping, as she’s taken away. The extreme violence and apparent cheapness of life, for example; the many, many dead who serve as collateral damage on David’s journey to the kingship and the consolidation of his power. The story is told, appropriately enough, by the prophet Nathan (who really did record David’s life, according to 1 Chronicles 29:29), who is sometimes appalled at the king, but who also loves him, and is bound to him by the voice that speaks through him over the years. Brooks, a Jewish convert, has written about faith in various guises in the past – not always in ways that other believers have been comfortable with. To the extent that Brooks’ novel better equips us to respond that way, even its jarring elements can be a blessing.
It has governed there for almost all of post-war history, often with an absolute majority, as now with “King Horst” as state premier. A Hund is er scho’ (Sure, he’s a dog, in Bavarian dialect) is a phrase often applied to him. That is thanks to an arrangement with its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor.
The CSU also emphasises the “S” in its name, for “social”, which in Germany stands for workers’ interests, class solidarity and some redistribution. And in every campaign—municipal elections are on March 16th—the CSU mobilises voters with the spicy, cheeky language of Bavarian patriotism. But he simultaneously panders to those Bavarians who oppose new and ugly power lines to bring electricity into the state.

We tend to engage with these stories piecemeal: chapter by chapter, over days or weeks, in sermons or devotions, as free-standing episodes holding the promise of nuggets of insight to be dug out and set on the mantelpiece.
Even if you lament the version of Noah’s ark or the Exodus that comes out at the end, for the Hollywood producer or the bestselling author to deem them a worthy investment testifies to how engrossing – bluntly, how entertaining – the stories of the Bible can be. These stories are easily told in just a few lines or chapters that are nonetheless loaded with grief and meaning, and (often) faith, if we’re willing to seek it out.
But these stories about the God of all people are, in a sense, the common heritage of all people, and it makes sense for those of us who believe them to be truth that many are drawn to them, whatever their faith. But its power extends deep into national politics, making it often more volatile and always colourful.
It expresses the macho cocktail of frisson and admiration that is necessary for success in Bavaria, says Werner Weidenfeld, the director of the Centre for Applied Policy Research in Munich. When the two parties emerged in the aftermath of the second world war, they agreed that the CDU would never enter Bavaria, nor the CSU the other German states, but that both would form one group in the national parliament.
Thus half of Mr Seehofer’s act is to cause controversies in Berlin or Brussels so that his Bavarians know he is looking out for them. We need constant reminders of “context” to be able to follow them – the who’s who, the who-did-what (and to whom), the state-of-the-union for Israel at a given moment. And, sure, she takes a few liberties with the chronology, massaging events into a sequence that’s more psychologically intelligible to the 21st-century reader. What was necessary,” is the novel’s uneasy refrain.) The frustration and powerlessness of the women’s lives as well, and the tenuous power they carve out for themselves, or try to. The Old Testament epic is a classic Hollywood staple; and rumour has it that an Apostle Paul movie (with Hugh Jackman in the starring role) is now in the works. By integrating so many different parts, it has prevented the fragmentation and extremism that were the bane of the Weimar Republic, says Mr Weidenfeld. The other half is to drop those controversies quickly to ensure no lasting harm to Mrs Merkel or the country. Writers from Charles Dickens to Norman Mailer and Philip Pullman have all felt compelled to try their hand at retelling the Jesus story. But its strong election results in Bavaria have buttressed every CDU chancellor from Konrad Adenauer to Mrs Merkel. The quality and faithfulness of these accounts tend to be variable, of course; but barring the truly outlandish or malign, there’s almost always something for Christians to celebrate or appreciate – at the very least as a conversation-starter.

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