For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a
subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been
wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile
one cause of hatred on another….A prudent steward will husband the truth–bring it out, I
mean, when the business requires it and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out
for every man what is appropriate for him–[but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has
poured it all out at once, making everything public and giving even cobblers a share in
what is normally handled by scholars as mysteries reserved for the initiated.
– Desiderius Erasmus to Justus Jonas, May 10, 1521, in Correspondence, 8:203
Category Archives: Culture
For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a
For a long time the various church bodies shared more than they disagreed. The core of this really is the Nicene Creed. The various churches have different sacramental practices and ecclesial structures, but in beliefs, even the non-creedal churches, they believed the ancient creeds. The spillover effect of this in the West was that even if splintered the idea of Christendom was just observable enough to continue granting mutual recognition to each other’s ceremonies and rites. What this meant at a practical level was that one church never questioned the baptism of another church unless that baptism was by a clear cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Marriages were universally assumed to be valid. Yes, the argument could be heated and real, but they might have been so because the differences were so small.
Looking at the world today things are not as clear. What the state means by marriage is no longer what the church means by marriage. The church will have to deal with that in some manner. The first step in dealing with it is simply admitting it. Likewise within the church recognizing a baptism is tougher. It is not uncommon to find churches baptizing in the name of the creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Is that the same God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Christ told his disciples to baptize into? Of course there are the fringe churches within mainline denominations that substitute mother, friend and comforter. In each case the form of the triune God is hinted at, but is that the substance or is a different god and a different gospel at work in those waters?
Two generations ago if a church body expressed something it stood for the body. Today, that might not be the case. We have pretended it still held for a generation, early on it was a “no, they can’t really be doing that” while later it was more a conscious looking away like Sgt. Schulz (“I see nothing”). And that is simply within church bodies. What about the thousands of free standing “non-denoms”? You used to be able to assume they were Baptists, but today many of them are prosperity gospel-ers of various stripes. When the Nicene Creed which testifies to Christ “who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried” is replaced with health and wealth, are sacraments valid? Can they be?
These questions go beyond the ancient questions about sacraments performed by a priest who later caved to Roman persecution. The ancient church held those sacraments valid because their source was clear. The status of the preacher’s faith does not impact them. But what about when the God invoked is Christ, but not any Christ that the church has known for 2000 years?
Again, I think we are just waking up to a world where things that have been assumed can no longer be taken for granted. The first step is admitting the changes that have happened. I wanted to share some of the articles that spur these thoughts.
This is Ross Douthat bringing up the idea that the church could decide that marriage laws in many countries no longer fit the pattern for valid natural marriage.
This isn’t the church, but “What Happens when your Rabbi decides He’s Gay”? The work is a piece of assertion and propaganda attempting to state “this is what all good people will think”, but it places the fundamental question of identity. Do I find my identity in God (Christ), or are there other things that are allowed to take precedent, like my view of my sexuality? What is the place of the law in the life of the believer?
This is the inverse of that situation, a woman who believes in the Catholic teaching of marriage but finds herself outside. Here plea is don’t accept what I am, but continue proclaiming the truth.
The last two are political and religious poles that I think help point the way forward. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post calling marriage amendment backers “snake oil salesmen”. I think she is right. But accepting that means accepting that we the church must change how we act. And this is a call about one of the ways that parishes could be re-organized to address the problem.
The apostle Paul would write that we have no business judging those outside the church, but those inside are our responsibility (1 Cor 5:12-13). I guess I see the current moment as a Joshua moment. You do what you want, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. That starts with subtly and civilly declining to accept and use bad definitions of sacraments. The benefit of the doubt is no longer granted.
“In an uncertain universe, some things are still for certain: Dirty plates, if you put them on a plastic rack and push them into the machine and press the button, will come out clean–every time. If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it’s a [bleep] job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you’re stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There’s this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it’s just for you. You think, Hmm, that’s a pretty good [bleeping] plate. And then it’s gone.”
– Anthony Bourdain, here
It is August 28th when I write this which is the Saint Day of St. Augustine. One of the famous stories that Augustine tells in his confessions is of his conversion where a little childlike voice chants “tolle lege” or “Take and read”. He took it as the divine command or invitation to take up the Bible and read it. A book which the educated man had shunned for years. He opened to Romans and the rest is history.
September is a month where we put aside the diversions of sun and fun and summer and tolle lege, pick up and read again. Some of us (child #2 David) reluctantly and other with fondness. In that vein I thought that I might put together a short list. A challenge reading list (since I can’t really assign them) for you this year. These are books or works that have greatly impacted me. They are also books which I believe are worth returning to if just to dip in and remind ourselves. What you saw in them at 12 or 22 or 32 or (sigh) 42, and probably beyond, is different. The scars and lenses change. So here are five + one.
The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism & One Confessional Work
Everyone should read the catechism at least yearly if not devotionally in prayer. Luther’s small portion, like youth, is wasted on the young. There are six parts. Take one a day for a week and ponder the answers. Peruse the synod’s questions and see just how full the biblical basis is for this foundation. Then Challenge yourself over the rest of a month to read the Larger Catechism and either the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord or the Smalcald Articles. I’d challenge you to notice that even as the questions change and get stickier or more opaque, the fundamental question remains. How do we life faithfully where God has placed us? As Augustine might say how does the City of God reside within the City of Man?
The Freedom of a Christian
This is the crossing of the Rubicon work. Yes it includes an opening dedication to Leo X, but the offer reminds me of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace offer of peace to the English. Uncorking 120 proof grace and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the inebriating joy of freedom comes through on every page. Written in German (vs. Latin) it was published and sold for pennies to the folk. And its final plea or prayer is for theodidacti – hearts taught by God as he promised. “Tolle, Lege.”
Surprised by Joy
This is C.S. Lewis’ semi-autobiography. I say semi because the main character might be Lewis, but the real main character is God. Lewis captures the constant presence of Joy in his life, even when he didn’t believe. He captures how this Joy exists mid toil and pain and still abounds and expands. And eventually he captures how this joy finds its fulfillment in the heart of God. “We are restless, until we find our rest in thee.”
Children of Men
Please don’t just watch the very bad movie. Read the P. D. James novel. We are swamped with dystopian novels and heroes from Batman to Katniss. James conjures up such a world that is all too possible, but also manages to hint at how this world actually works. We carry the treasure in jars of clay. The jars are always breaking, but life returns. And it is in the very weakness and loss that God is most fully seen. “Seek not to understand that you might believe, but believe that you might understand.”
Augustine’s Confessions to scholars have always carried a striking relationship to this Latin Epic. Pious Aeneas carries Troy and the household gods to Italy stopping in Carthage with Dido, descending to the underworld, taking up his fate written on a shield, and founding the Eternal Empire. Instead of reading glory from a shield, Augustine takes and reads the scriptures. In the collapse of that eternal empire, Augustine would point to the City of God. Augustine would transform Roman piety to Christian, but it is worth understanding the original. There are two great modern English translations (Feagles and Rudin). “It was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels.” Or maybe, “the good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”
And now for the plus one. All theology ends in doxology; all meditation turns toward prayer and praise. Pick up a poetry book. The hymnal was traditionally the layman’s book. A book full of verse. If you want a modern, try Dana Gioia. He has a good selection on his website. Your great-grandkids will be reading him. Try Litany and Planting a Sequoia for a start. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always free. Then come back to the Psalms.
“Tolle, Lege.” And do let me know if you take any of these up.
I haven’t written much here recently. I think that has been for three reasons. First, I’ve been recording the daily lectionary. One of the phrases of the early reformation was ad fontes – to the sources. Emphasizing the habit of daily bible reading and reflection seems to be a prime pastoral example. Second, the stuff that I’ve felt it necessary to write has either been longer in nature or just doesn’t fit in a blog type post. I could write 500 words that might get read, but all they would do is form two camps – those who have the background to understand what I would write and those who would reject it simply because it assumed too much. I’m sure that sounds terribly pompous, but I’m starting to understand Jesus’ phrase “to those who have more will be given, those who have not even what they have will be taken away (Matthew 13:12).” Having just preached through the parables in Matthew 13, the staggering heartbreak contained in that phrase resonates. I could write 1500 words, or a booklet as I did over the winter that starts at the footings of the foundation, but seeing that length would be immediately ignored – TLDR. The division happens anyway – either by hard soil or thorns. Third, writing is expenditure. I felt that I needed to put something back in the account. I needed to do some reading and some thinking.
Part of that thinking was simply about a fundamental choice in pastoral practice. When teaching the faith or in evangelism efforts, what amount of time is put on argument or persuasion verses simple proclamation – call it apologetics versus proclamation. When you don’t think you are far apart, when you think the same Spirit might be at work, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Apologetics is perfect. When you think it might be a different spirit (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6-8) the apostolic example is not bearing with but rebuking and simple proclamation – here I stand. More and more I have felt that the simple proclamation is the necessary medicine, that apologetics are falling on deaf ears and hard hearts.
Why I’m writing today is that I read a piece of recent research that captures this feeling directly. This is Dr. Mark Regnerus highlighting some of the results from His Relationships in America study. I’m going to post in one of his telling results tables.
Among the survey questions, asked of Americans between 18 and 60 years of age, were positions on the seven activities listed on the left. Orthodox Christian teaching on all seven of these activities is clear. Pornography is a sin. Premarital sex (I take Premarital cohabitation as a euphemism) is a sin, likewise sex outside of marriage (i.e. no strings attached) is a sin. Marriage is to be for life. It would be acceptable for a Christian to separate, but separation does not imply re-marriage unless the first marriage was to a pagan. All of these are actually basic applications of the sixth commandment and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:1-12 or Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.
The total sample representing that population, again Americans 18-60 years of age, was 15,738 represented by the “Population Average” column. Regnerus splits out four subsets out of that group. He finds 233 non-christian gay and lesbians. He finds 191 gay and lesbians who report as Christian. He finds 990 people who attend church regularly (churchgoing for this survey means at least 3 times per month) who support SSM. Dr. Regnerus writes, “In order to ensure this is not just an exercise in documenting the attitudes of Christians “in name only,” I’ve restricted the analysis to churchgoing Christians—here defined as those who report they attend religious services at least three times a month and who self-identified with some sort of Christian affiliation. And I’ve restricted the analysis to those who report a position either for or against same-sex marriage. (I’ve excluded the one-in-four who reported they are undecided.)” He also reports the responses of the 2659 church-goers who don’t support SSM.
Now let me attach this to what I was thinking before about apologetics and proclamation. I don’t know how this is possible but there are 5.1 percent of folks who attend church at least three times per month and oppose SSM but never-the-less think that no-strings-sex is OK. Now I’ve got to believe this might be a butterfly ballot and hanging chad problem akin to those Palm Springs Jews who voted for Pat Buchanan, but if not this is a group that you would use apologetics with. They might go to their grave with a wrong belief, but we all do that in some ways. Love covers a multitude of error. When you look at the response of the gay/lesbian cohorts this is clearly in the proclamation territory. This is the teaching of the church, when you are willing to give it a listen come back, but the first step is repentance. The troubling case is what do you do with the 33% of church-going Christians who support SSM and also agree that key parties are just groovy? The church has said apologetics for decades. This is not what that word actually means, but it has been issuing apologies for clear teaching for a long time. I think what this research shows is that apologetics is the wrong answer. The right answer is a clear call to get your thinking in line with that of Jesus. (It might take longer to get practice in line, and we struggle with the sinful nature entire lives. But it starts with orthodoxy, having the open heart to admit the truth comes first. If I say I have no sin, then the truth is not in me – 1 John 1:8-9.)
Now we turn to the effects of such a turn. The good news, my guess is, is that a large majority of folks in the first column would feel heartened if the church stopped being a squish. But let’s explore the bad news. First, only 17% of the total population is with you. There is another 6% of the total population that are church go-ers. Some portion of that group would repent, but some portion would stick around and “fight” ala the Catholic Spirit of Vatican 2ists and the agitators that have lead the ELCA and the PCUSA off the cliff, and some portion would just melt into the non-churched. You would have dissension for a time within the church itself until it sorted out and the majority learned to ignore the agitators on simple questions of the moral law. (I think some of that is what has already happened, so that may not be as big a concern.) The second implication is that the reduced Christian church would be dramatically at odds with the society around it. Now maybe God is merciful and grants repentance, but it is just as likely that the simple proclamation leads to clear polarization. Good news is that the population at large is not completely with the non-christian gay/lesbian worldview depicted. But what those numbers also indicate is that at current course and speed there is a lot of ruin still possible. Imagine a world where roughly 80% had no qualms about porn vs. 31%. Instead of being late-night Cinemax it would be on NBC prime-time. PBS would be staging Masterpiece Theatre that had the refined take on what I shall not write.
What part of my thinking has been about is just how does a church that is 17% (or less in some places) work? And maybe just as importantly, how do you talk about that emerging reality when, for those say 60+ to match what the survey left out, this is not their experience nor the answers they attempted? There are some very hard choices to be made.
Economist Tyler Cowen interviews Ralph Nader. Prof. Cowen always asks interesting questions typically from two buckets: 1) the hard truth questions and 2) the questions no one else is asking. This falls into the second camp mostly but it is an insightful question and Mr. Nader gives a very interesting answer with a good deal of theological sophistication.
TC: If someone cited to you religion and American churches as the sector of our society
that has best resisted corporatization, would you agree or disagree? And if you disagree,
what would you cite instead?
RN: They’re resisting less. They’ve given up on gambling, and the main bulwark against
widespread gambling—outside of Las Vegas—and against government-run lotteries, was
the churches. But then Bingo started in church basements, and the gambling interests
went to work on the churches. They claimed that their businesses in Atlantic City would
help the elderly throughout New Jersey. The churches lost their credibility.
A society riven with gambling is one that bets on the future rather than builds the future.
So what countervailing force is there? Labor unions are weaker. We have a tremendous
disruption of the community civic values that used to hold commercial values in check. I
only see this emerging left/right alliance against the corporate state that I wrote about in
my book, Unstoppable. It’s the only political realignment that is possible over the next
ten to twelve years. It has the support of public opinion and sentiment. You see bipartisan
reform of the juvenile justice system; a dozen state legislatures are beginning to challenge
the extension of these global, corporate-managed trade agreements in Congress; and
there’s growing opposition to more wars of choice overseas. You’re beginning to see 70–
80 percent support for an inflation-adjusted minimum wage. You can’t get that kind of
poll result without a lot of conservative workers. And the poll results come in at about 90
percent in favor of breaking up the banks that are too big to fail because we fear that their
speculative octopi will get us into another recession.
From an interview here…
Mohler: I get the impression that when you look at American Christianity in general, and American Evangelicalism in particular, you appear to see a church that is looking less and less like the church.
Hauerwas: I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.
It is also my anniversary. Do you think Mrs. Parson would be upset if I told her I just figured out a way to always remember my anniversary date? Every time I see this guy, “hey, that’s the day I got married”. You should google image Athanasius Icon, I wonder why that semi-scowl is a required part of the iconography. I suppose if it is you against the world, we can grant you a scowl. As for the anniversary…
“How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe.” …The Cost of Discipleship
This is the hard starting place for this generation. We hear lots of talk and angst and desire for community but rarely find it. We rarely find it because we are rarely obedient. There is a parallel within marriages or should I say our couplings. We withdraw. They can have our bodies, but not our hearts. They can have our presence, but not our attention. They can have our acts, but not our being. We have committed adultery before even opening our eyes. Likewise we are weak in faith and unbelieving because we will not be obedient to the Word. We do not keep the Sabbath, yet expect the Word to be present on demand. We keep a Sabbath mentally, but harden our hearts to our neighbors. Or keep it with our hearts, but stay our hands. We will not have a true husband or wife withdrawing a part of ourselves, likewise we will not have an ecclesia, a church, withdrawing ourselves. Thanksgiving precedes the miracle, obedience precedes the blessing. To those who have more will be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.
“The community of the saints is not an “ideal” community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. No, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God’s forgiveness…Sanctification means driving out the world from the Church as well as separating the Church from the world. But the purpose of such discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.” ..The Cost of Discipleship
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” …Life Together
If the devil cannot convince you to withdraw from the church before ever really being part of her, he will try the opposite course, to push you through to the other side. The quickest way to accomplish this is to convince you that this group of people you have turned yourself over too isn’t worthy of that offering. This works as one of those brilliant almost truths because the church and that specific church in and of itself is not worthy. They are not worthy because those gathered are sinners. The church will break your heart. It might even rip you limb from limb. It might even put you on a cross. That is what it did to the one you follow. The chief priests and the leaders of the people handed him over to be crucified. The lie that resides in the midst of the devil’s truth is that he has stolen the mirror. When you see a bunch of sinners, we should see our own reflection. Our churches have become devoid of the mirror. Which leads many of us to react like Bonhoeffer’s horrified righteous. We remain alone either because we leave that gathering of sinners, or because we become expert at helping our enemy hide the mirror.
The authentic community is a gathering of lepers who have come for the cure. “You sins are forgiven, go and sin no more”. Yes we will sin again. And we return again and hear the same words – 70 x 7. The authentic church gathers to hear both the healing and the charge. In the healing she finds her strength. In the charge she finds her hope. It will not always be this way, because hope will give way to fulfillment. The perishable will put on the imperishable. The corrupt will receive the incorruptible.
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” …Life Together
Bonhoeffer here captures some of the shallow and rocky points to which the devil can drive us where faith can be shipwrecked. We can see four of these shallow points prominent in the American church of today. We are afraid of being alone or of solitude so regardless of confession or creed gather together under “non-denominational” banners. These gatherings often happen to be the largest because we are afraid of solitude. Not that the smaller church is truly solitude, but because we have no firm words to stand up we need the mass of feeling. The feeling provided by amplified music, lightshows, choreography and well-honed rhetoric often devoid of actual substance. That is the typical mood affiliation of the modern right(eous). Likewise there is a mood affiliation of the modern left that also rejects words for the warm fellow feeling of those who truly “love”. Because of being afraid of being alone the definition of “love” is so broad as to encompass those outside of the church as if they were members of the body. There also exist those who afraid of solitude conjure up the communion of saints through words. Not that the words are wrong or that the communion of saints is false, but we are not after the real content of the words, just the fellowship with an entity we invoke with words we do not understand. Those are the three shallows of the modern church, but a fourth exists on its periphery – in the narthex and the site of baptism but not in communion. The forth shallow are those who refuse the fellowship opting for the vanity of personal spirituality. The sole purpose of such an unconnected faith is to substitute the true body of Christ with a body that looks more and more like ourselves every passing day. Such a love affair can go on for a long time, but meets a rude end when on the death bed this body proves unable to save.
These are the shallows we are called to recognize and avoid. The life of the church is one of feast and fast, of fellowship and of solitude. We believe with the heart and confess with the tongue. We do not neglect to gather, yet we also ensure that we have our own oil and examine ourselves.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” …Life Together
The last peril is actually believing that such a place deserving of our love exists this side of the Kingdom. Even Ephesus was recalled to their first love. Philadelphia kept the word but had little strength. This is one part of what it means to be Christlike. Seeing the manifold faults of the church that separate her from our dream community, we love her as Christ loved her. As long as we are with-holding ourselves for our dream community we will continue to persecute the church as she actually is. It is only love, which covers a multitude of sins, that knows fully. Christ has fully loved the church and knows her fully. Can we say to the member that Christ has washed “I have no need of you”? There is a still more excellent way that everyday creates and abides forever.