“Wholesome Irrelevance”

If you are a traditional, liturgical, confessional Christian, do you ever feel just a little strange being lumped in with Fundamentalists, American evangelicals, and Jerry Falwell? Yeah, me too. So does D.G. Hart. Maybe he is a household name among confessional Presbyterians, but I had never heard of him before I read his The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.

The Introduction begins, “What is wrong with Protestantism in the United States?” Part of the answer, Hart says, is that it is too relevant. In fact, he does not think it a bad thing that creeds/confessions are intolerant. He does not think it bad that some Christians refuse to join together in ecumenical associations. He does not think it bad that LCMS Lutherans have an “irrelevant” liturgy!

What about relevance? The elcA provides a good example of bad relevance to everyday concerns. For that matter, most liberal, mainline denominations are excellent examples. However, the conservatives are just as bad in this regard–see Justice Sunday and Justice Sunday II!

Hart holds that “conservative” and “liberal” are not the two opposing parties in the Christian polis. Instead, they are much more like each other in their concern for activism than is usually realized. Hart argues that instead of those two categories, the categories of “pietist” and “confessionalist” fit much better the reality of American Christianity. In other words, those who think that the goal of the Church is to be the catalyst for people to go out and “live their faith” in every area of life (as opposed to being a place where sins are forgiven!) are the pietists. The confessionalists are those who often are accused of espousing quietism and not “acting on” their faith. Hart says that worship is the one area where the difference really shows:

Indeed, worship is the best indicator of the differences between the pietist and confessionalist ways of getting religion. For the pietist, it is one among many ways for gaining new converts and receiving added motivation for virtuous deeds. For the confessionalist, as the LCMS illustrates, however, it is an end in itself, a time when believers are reminded that the suffering of this life is temporary and encouraged to trust in divine deliverance from such trials in the life to come. As one Lutheran minister [John T. Pless] put it, “For confessional Lutherans, liturgy is not about human activity, but about the real presence of the Lord….The liturgy does not exist to provide edifying entertainment, motivation for sanctified living or therapy for psychological distresses, but the forgiveness of sins.” (p. 162)

There are certainly places where one might disagree with Hart, and I think he has a slight misunderstanding of the Two Kingdoms of Lutheran theology (e.g., he calls them “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of man”; in reality, the Two Kingdoms are both God’s, but one is ruled by Law [the world] and one is ruled by Gospel [the Church]), but the overall point is well-taken, and makes me understand a little better why I feel out of place in the usual characterization of American Protestantism as Fundamentalist/evangelical vs. liberal.

My favorite quote:

But just as important [for understanding why the conservatives (i.e., evangelicals) “are liberal when it comes to historic forms of Christian worship”] is the way that the debate between soul winning and the Social Gospel continues to dominate treatments of American Protestant identity. Lutheran debates about worship reveal the inadequacy of the standard ways of interpreting the recent American Protestant past. They also yield a markedly different side of the culture wars, one in which the pietistic Protestant quest for relevant religion leads to political and social antagonism, and the otherworldliness of confessional Protestant piety results in a wholesome irrelevance. (p. 144)


To Emphasize or Not to Emphasize…

…that is the question. The following excerpt from a book published in 1996 highlights certain qualities of a person in the pastoral office that apparently contribute to the effectiveness of the church’s mission.

“A pastor should possess an attractive personality. That sounds like mere common sense, but all too often problems begin here. He or she [!]must show concern for others, learn names, socialize, shake a lot of hands, smile a lot. I have known clergy who give members and visitors the impression that they might as well not exist. Muttering a reluctant greeting, failing to speak, turning away almost disdainfully to sustain a show of clerical dignity and reserve–that will not wash in Peoria. The same is true of strutting, preening, and all sorts of self-serving fussiness. Loftiness is not necessarily saintliness. As we have seen, Americans do not go to church to be patronized, ignored, and rejected. As for clergy who are just painfully shy, they should seek help to overcome their handicap” (Thomas C. Reeves, The Empty Church:Does Organized Religion Matter Anymore? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 198).
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