[Yes, there are “spoilers.”]

Silence is not a “Christian” movie.  If it were, no doubt the climax would see Inoue and his translator converted, the Japanese Jesuit mission judged an astounding success, and both Ferreira and Rodrigues refusing to trample the fumie (the pictures of Jesus or Mary produced in seventeenth century Japan).

It is also not an easy movie to categorize.  I should say, it’s not an easy story to categorize.  I’ve read the novel by Shusaku Endo twice, and because the film adheres so closely to the book, they can be considered as one story told in two media.

But what kind of story is it?  On the surface, it’s about a man riven with love for the Japanese and his Christian mission toward them, but who cannot seem to help them, no matter what path he chooses.  If he holds fast to his faith, they suffer.  If he apostatizes, they suffer, perhaps more deeply.

The title hints at the significant theme underlying the entire story: the silence of God.  For Rodrigues, though there is sound all around him, he does not hear the only Voice for which he longs.  That contrast of silence and sound is one of the masterful devices of the film.  There is very, very little music.  The sound comes (as it does in the book) from rain, waves crashing, the screams of those being tortured, the chants of Buddhist monks, and the hymns of the martyrs.

Endo’s genius (with Scorsese following) is that both the book and the film are silent about whether there really is an answer according to the terms that Rodrigues sets.  Where is God?  Is He speaking?  Is He speaking in the silence, as Rodrigues seems to hear in the voice of Christ toward the end of the movie and the book?

Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet.  “Trample!” said those compassionate eyes.  “Trample!  Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque.  But that pain alone is enough.  I understand your pain and your suffering.  It is for that reason that I am here.”

“Lord, I resented your silence.”

“I was not silent.  I suffered beside you.”

“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly.  What happened to Judas?”

“I did not say that.  Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do.  For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”

But Our Lord was not silent.  Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.

The question is, of course, is this actually the voice of Christ?  Or is it the voice Rodrigues wants to hear, and so does?  Because this is neither a “Christian” novel, nor a “Christian” movie, we are left to ponder this for ourselves.

But that’s not the only question raised by the story.  Immediately, the question is, what would anyone do when faced with torture if one does not place a foot on a picture?  One of the Japanese interrogators puts it this way in the book:

“The sooner you get through with it, the sooner you’ll get out of here,” roared one of the officials.  “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction.  This is just a formality.  Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

The officials kept insisting to the Christians that to trample on the fumie was no more than a formality.  All you had to do was put your foot on it.  If you did that, nobody cared what you believed.

Is it “no more than a formality”?  Was it no more than a formality for the Christians in Rome to worship Caesar and to deny Christ, even if, in their hearts, they still held to Christ?  When, in an earlier scene, the Christians do trample on the fumie, they are then told that it is not enough, that they must spit on a crucifix and call the Mother of God a whore.  What is in a word, an action, a footstep, an image?  Jesus says that to deny Him before men means His denial of us before the Father.  Is that a spoken denial?  A denial in action?  A denial of omission, or of commission?  Silence requires an examination of all these questions.

And what about Christianity in “foreign soil,” in the “swamp” of Japan, as is repeated more than once?  Is Christianity a tree that grows well in one soil, but not in others?  Is it merely a Western religion, that cannot adapt to Eastern conditions?  This is a thoroughly modern question, as any overview of Christian missionary work can attest.  Is Rodrigues correct, or are Inoue and Ferreira?  Fascinating that reviewers on the other side of Christian faith have criticized the film precisely for the reasons that Ferreira says Christianity doesn’t belong in Japan: evangelism itself implies imperialistic and chauvinistic motives.  And, in a parallel move, that Scorsese has been unfaithful to Endo’s book by focusing on Rodrigues’ struggle, while using the Japanese “other” as a mere foil.  These questions are, in fact, at the heart of both the film and the novel, even 50 years ago when Silence was published.

Endo seems to be working through all of these questions and more himself.  This becomes clearer when reading his other books, where he touches on many of the same themes– though, perhaps, nowhere as powerfully as here.  In a few of his short stories, and elsewhere, the names of Inoue and Kichijiro (the inquisitor and cowardly Judas figure, respectively) reappear, indicating that Endo was working through–both before and after Silence–what these characters mean.

Endo, himself a Roman Catholic, struggles with the nature of a Japanese Christianity.  This is complicated by the historical reality of syncretism in Japan, where Christians did combine elements of Buddhism and ancestor worship with Christianity.  The Kakure Kirishitan were those who secretly held their faith and later, when persecution ceased, were reunited with the Church; while the Hanare Kirishitan continued to be separated and practice the syncretistic religion they had received.  [I recommend the fascinating preface by William Johnston in the Taplinger Publishing edition of Silence.  It includes excerpts from interviews with Endo, as well as examination of his views of Christianity and Japanese culture.]

In one sense, this film takes far more seriously the struggle of flesh and the Spirit than many of the movies that have been marketed to Christians in the past few years, which is perhaps why so few Christians have heard of or seem to be going to see this film.  Compared to something like God’s Not Dead, this film is more substantial, significant, and considered.  And because there are no easy answers, it is far truer to life in this creation.  There is no easy, happy ending.  And, for some reason, that has caused some Christian reviewers to condemn it (as if a film had to have a prescribed ending in order to say something to Christians).

This is much more Job than Heaven is for Real.

Which means that it is far more Scriptural than anything else that comes to mind in “Christian” cinema.  And yet, that’s not to say that it should be viewed as anything more than a semi-fictional exploration of faith, doubt, apostasy, and faithfulness.  In other words, this is not Christian propaganda, or proselytizing, or hagiography.  Endo is not, by his writing, praising or promoting some point of view.  This, I think, is why modern Christians are having trouble with both the novel and the film: they cannot categorize it, so it must be something less than edifying–which, perhaps, says more about Americanized Christianity than it says about the Faith (or the film) itself.  The general comfort in which we live–analogized by the fact that I sat in a leather, reclining theater seat to watch the film–has distanced us from the questions of the novel in such a way that the themes are as foreign to us as Japan seems to the Portuguese missionaries, and Christianity to the Japanese persecutors.

Since when is the Christian Faith so fragile that a fictionalized struggle–which is, at the same time, a real struggle–can threaten its adherents?  Maybe since American Christians have quarantined the Faith into neat boxes with 90 degree corners and perfectly straight lines.  Have we lost the ability to think?  (I fear that to ask the question is to receive the answer.)

I wonder, though, if there is not still another level to the story that makes Rodrigues into a Christ-figure, despite himself.  That is, perhaps very real apostasy–very real sin and denial–are sins for which Christ died.  If Christ’s suffering and crucifixion was graphically specific to graphically particular sins, then Rodrigues (again, in spite of himself) bears on his own shoulders the weight of the Japanese apostasy by taking it on himself.  They are set free from the same sin by which he condemns himself.

But even that action is not unambiguous.  And Scorsese complicates it by the absolute silence at the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy, followed by the crow of a rooster.  Is Rodrigues Christ (as Ferreira tempts him to be)?  Is he Peter?  Or is he Judas (though Rodrigues has continually imagined Kichijiro in that role)?

Endo (and, in near perfection, Scorsese has followed him) has taken historical events and told the story in such complex layers that they have become, like our own lives and motivations, nearly impossible to disentangle.

But maybe that is precisely the point: to discern God’s voice in the myriad deceptions and longings and motivations of our own minds and hearts is a frustratingly silent enterprise.  Like Job in the vast majority of the book that bears his name, God refuses to speak to him.  He prays and rages and asks for an answer, a reason, anything.

God is silent.

But when God speaks, it is not to defend Himself and His ways.  Nor does His answer come where we think it should: in our suffering, or our love, or our desire to be faithful.  Neither is it to give us answers to our whys, or to intervene in the ways we wish He would.  There is an intervention, without a doubt.  But it is in the Son’s suffering, the Son’s love, the Son’s faithfulness.  It is in the Son’s forsakenness, the Son’s being emptied, the Son’s death.

And it is indeed in silence.  A silence more terrible than Rodrigues experiences.  But the counterpoint to the silence of God in the face of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross is not His silence in the face of our cries.  Since the seraph closed the Garden’s entrance to Adam and Eve, that is nothing new, and it is not redemptive in itself.  The final word is not in how God, though appearing silent, speaks through us.  It is in the voice of the messenger sitting on the stone jarred loose: He is not here; He has risen, just as He said.  To look for another Word, or another Promise, or another Intervention is not faith, but a failure to take God at the Word He has given.  It is unbelief at its most pious: to look for a word from God in some other place than where He has actually spoken.

Neither the book nor the film should lead us to facile and superficial judgments on persecution, blasphemy, or apostasy.  Endo–as he himself said–was writing fiction, not theology.  But the best fiction can lead us into the deepest theological waters, as Silence leads us to meditate on God’s silence.  And perhaps God’s silent refusal to answer the questions we think are so profound can lead us to ask the question whose answer He has already given: whose answer is always and only the forsaken, suffering, dead, and resurrected Christ for us.


Indispensable Albums

I’ve been thinking about bands and albums to which I keep returning, no matter how long since I first heard them.

Here’s my list, in the order they came to mind, more or less.

Josh Ritter, Animal Years
Jeffrey Foucault, Ghost Repeater
Vigilantes of Love, VoL; Blister Soul; Slow Dark Train
Sixteen Horsepower, Secret South
Wovenhand, Wovenhand; Consider the Birds
Norma Jean, Redeemer
The Chariot, The Fiancee
Adam Again, Dig; Perfecta
As Cities Burn, Hell or High Water
Aunt Betty’s, Aunt Betty’s
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks; Blonde on Blonde; Time Out of Mind
Bruce Cockburn, The Charity of Night
Over the Rhine, Eve; Good Dog Bad Dog; Films for Radio; Ohio
David Ramirez, Apologies; The Rooster EP
Harrod and Funck, Harrod and Funck
Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog
The Innocence Mission, Birds of My Neighborhood
Jason Isbell, Southeastern; Something More Than Free
Listener, Return to Struggleville, Wooden Heart
mewithoutYou, Brother, Sister; Catch for us the Foxes
The National, High Violet; Trouble Will Find Me
Pedro the Lion, Control
Peter Mulvey, Kitchen Radio
Richard Shindell, Courier
Steve Taylor, Now the Truth Can Be Told
Van Morrison, Hymns to the Silence
The White Buffalo, Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways
Aimee Mann, Lost in Space
The Choir, Love Songs and Prayers
Counting Crows, This Desert LifeAugust and Everything After
twothirtyeight, You Should Be Living
Tom Petty, The Last DJ
Nodes of Ranvier, Nodes of Ranvier
Matthew and the Atlas, To the NorthKingdom of Your OwnOther Rivers
Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America
Sam Williams, Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop)
(so far…)

No Battle Hymns for the American Church

What kind of “battle hymn” can the Church have?  It cannot be one that applies only to a single nation, unless the Church is limited by certain national boundaries.  It cannot be a truly militaristic one, since the Church does not conquer by the blood shed by real swords, or real bullets fired from actual guns, or by taking the physical lives of her enemies.

The Church is indeed Militant, but that means something altogether different according to the Gospel than it would mean in the civil square.  The Church is militant because she struggles, fights, and endures under the cross in the world, and in the face of temptation from the devil and the flesh.  Our warfare is not against flesh and blood–not against other human beings, for whom Christ came, died, and rose from the dead–but against our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world–all of which have the goal of tearing us from Christ’s promise.

This is true generally, but it is even more important to emphasize in a time when religious and secular (which does not mean “bad,” but simply “according to the age”) goals sometimes get confused or entangled.  It is easy to confuse something like “real Americanism” or “true patriotism” with Christianity or what remains of a civic-religious morality.  If it appears that those currently in authority in the United States or the wider cultural moment are opposing “the way things were,” or promoting things that formerly were never mentioned in polite company, it becomes all the easier to bind together an appeal to a prior, generally assumed morality with an increasingly frenzied flag-waving.

The problem is not necessarily patriotism, or national pride, in themselves.  One can, and should, be grateful for the gifts inherent in a nation such as the United States where Christians can gather openly and freely to hear the Word of God, receive His Gifts, and worship Him in return.  But such freedom also opens up the danger of assuming that the liberty we enjoy in the United States is somehow related–or even identical–to Christian liberty.  It’s inherent in such quasi-Christian statements as “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus and the American soldier.  One died for your soul. The other died for your freedom.”  (Which is partly a paraphrase of a lyric from the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” On the Battle Hymn, see below.)

American Christians especially enjoy such Christian-Nationalism (which ought to be a contradiction in terms) when the Lord’s Day falls on or near national holidays such as Memorial Day or Independence Day.  Citizens may indeed sing national songs and enjoy the celebrations that go along with those holidays.  But citizens who are also Christians cannot bring the celebrations of the localized State into the universal Church, which spans time, space, and national boundaries.

It is strange enough to display the national flag in Christian sanctuaries (literally, “holy places”).  Though it may not seem strange to most American Christians, consider the dissonance if the foreign embassy of one nation were to display the flag of the country on whose soil it finds itself.  It has never happened, and it will never happen, because the embassy is considered part of the sovereign nation which it represents, and not the nation that hosts it.  But the flag is mostly inert.  It is far worse for Christians, within the services of the Lord’s House, to sing songs of praise to the nation.  There is a reason why Lutheran Service Book has only three songs in the “Nation and National Songs” section (964-966): because patriotic or national songs have difficulty not blurring the lines between praise of God and praise of the nation–or even supplanting praise of God with the praise of the nation.  If the United States were identical to Old Testament Israel, we wouldn’t have to worry so much, since Israel was the nation of God (and the Biblical type of the eternal Land of Promise to be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom).

But the United States is not and cannot be Israel, because the Church is universal, made up of all the baptized believers within every nation, from every tribe and people and language.  Therefore, the songs of the State, while perfectly acceptable at baseball games, backyard cookouts, and national celebrations, have no place whatsoever within the services of God’s House, where the Body of Christ gathers to receive His Gifts and sing His praise.

It would be bad enough if those songs were limited to The Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful.  Again, no songs of praise to the nation belong with the praise of God.  But it gets worse when there are openly blasphemous and idolatrous songs such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  I suspect that most people know only the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah/His truth is marching on”), plus, perhaps, a few other words, so they don’t realize what this song is really about.  It was written by Julia Ward Howe, a committed abolitionist (which is certainly good in itself); but she was also a a Unitarian and Transcendentalist, as well as a firm believer in the (divine) righteousness of the Union’s cause during the Civil War.  The actual lyrics of the song align the action of God and Christ with the fight of the Union soldiers, and declare unequivocally that God’s vengeance is being carried out by the Union.  This is the worst of the sort of theology Bob Dylan identifies in “With God on Our Side” and the slogan “my country, right or wrong.”  Any unambiguous proclamation of God’s action in the world, in nations, through governments, must necessarily be false, because He has not told us what He is doing in the world.  He has only told us what He is doing for the world through Christ.  However rousing the melody is, the Battle Hymn has a history and a context, and it does not make sense apart from that history and context.

Do we still believe that God’s rule in the civil realm is different from His rule in the Church?  If not, we will not only lose a proper understanding of the role and limits of the State, but we will also lose the pure Gospel and Sacraments of the Church.  They both have their proper place–understood correctly–but the history of both Church and State is strewn with the destruction caused by mixing them together.  (For the unaware, read Michael Burleigh’s accounts in Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes of the idolatry that ensues when the State co-opts the Church or religion.)

[For further reading on the history (and heresy) of the Battle Hymn and Julia Ward Howe, see here, here, here, and here.]


Big Yellow Cultural Taxis

Counting Crows brought 1970 forward to 2002 when they covered the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.”  I remember hearing that song all over pop radio.  The lines stick in your brain (as they must have done for Bob Dylan and Amy Grant, who covered the song as well): “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot/Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Which lyric, by the way, reminds me of this gem of pop Christian music.)

Don’t it always seem to go that way?  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Something psychological happens when you take something or someone for granted and then, all of a sudden, the thing or the person is gone.  Mostly we think of family, whether lovers, spouses, parents, or children, but I happen to be thinking of the liturgy.  There is so much pressure on pastors and churches to give up the liturgy in favor of more user-friendly or missional “worship styles” and many have capitulated.  Even those who don’t give in feel the imposed guilt and perhaps begin to question whether something else might indeed better serve people’s needs.  This in spite of the fact that nearly the entire argument for doing something other than the liturgy is emotivistic.  That doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional, although the emotions are often involved.  It means that every single argument over what a congregation’s gathering ought to look like is reduced to how someone feels.  It is the equivalent of saying “murder is wrong” because “I don’t like murder.”  So: “the liturgy is good or bad” = “I like or don’t like the liturgy.”  The entire quarrel (and that is what it often is) is reduced to gut-reactions and only then framed by some semblance of a rationality.

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What Is Article XIV?

[This post is essentially inside baseball for The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, although it certainly has implications for the Church as a whole, since the Book of Concord is a confession for the sake of the Church.]

It is only one sentence in the English translation of the Latin: “Concerning church order they teach that no one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called.”1 In the English translation of the German, it reads: “Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.”2

The controverted terms today are “no one” (German: niemand; Latin: nemo); “publicly” (German: öffentlich; Latin: publice); and “proper call” [translated “regularly called” by the Triglotta] (German: ordentlichen Beruf; Latin: rite vocatus) (Concordia Triglotta 38-39).

Current controversies in the LCMS seem to revolve primarily around semantics: what does rite vocatus mean? It is often used as shorthand for AC XIV, but no word means anything apart from its context. That fact led to this question: Why did Melanchthon (affirmed by the Confessors) find it necessary to confess just this statement on the public preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? None of the notes on the translations of these words clarifies anything for our modern problems and controversies over who should exercise the Office of the Ministry (or, perhaps better: who should be exercised in the Office). For example, with reference to the Kolb/Wengert edition, what does it mean to be called in a “regular manner by a proper public authority”? (See the note on rite vocatus.) Certainly, the Lutheran Church has historically left it an open question what constitutes a “proper public authority,”3 whether secular officials, consistories, bishops, or synods. “Regular” (and rite seems to bear this out) appears to be “simply the way things are done.” If “the way things are done” has changed from the time of the Augsburg Confession, the words rite vocatus, in and of themselves, cannot bear the weight that we try to put upon them.

Since neither the Augsburg Confession nor the other Confessions confess every possible teaching of the Scriptures, the first significant question is: “To whom or at what practice is this statement directed?” In other words: what is being confessed here and for what reason? It is clear that in the case of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the statements are presented to the Holy Roman Emperor and they are confessions of practice in the face of Roman accusations that the Evangelicals had departed from historic doctrine and practice, i.e., that the Evangelicals had separated themselves from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Evangelicals’ defense is always that they had not departed from the true teaching of the Church (meaning that wherever the Church—including the Roman Church—had correctly explicated the Scriptures and had not contravened or made ecclesiastical law beyond what the Scriptures commanded or forbade, the Evangelicals confessed nothing more or less).

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Allowed to Disagree

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of George Bernard Shaw, “In some matters the difference between us seems to amount to this: that I very respectfully recognize that he disagrees with me, but he will not even allow me to disagree with him” (“Our Birthday,” G.K.s Weekly, 21st March, 1935; in The G.K. Chesterton Collection on Kindle).

Part of the difference between Lutherans and Reformed on the Sacrament of the Altar seems to amount to this: that while the Lutherans (most of the time) respectfully recognize that the Reformed disagree with us, the Reformed will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them about the Supper.  This is not a new phenomenon.  All the way back to the earliest disagreements among the different confessions arising from the Reformation, the Lutherans made church fellowship the sine qua non of altar fellowship, and vice-versa.  One necessarily entailed the other, just as it did from the very beginning of the Church of Christ on earth (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship).  On the other hand, the non-Lutheran Reformed began, at least as early as 1631 at the French Synod of Charenton, to welcome Lutherans to Reformed tables.  Whether it was because sharing mere bread and wine does not require any agreement on what is happening to and for Christians there, or whether it was because the Lord’s Supper didn’t belong to the essential core of the Christian Faith (Zwingli), the Reformed have never understood the Lutheran objection to a shared Supper.  They will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them.  (Regarding the myriad contradictions that serious Reformed see in Lutheran teaching, see Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 105ff.)

Besides the current cultural context, which inevitably reduces and minimizes confessional differences, the Reformed descendants of Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, et al. find the Lutheran position to be a loveless one.  In the uniform (until recently) and historical Lutheran practice of sharing the communion of the Lord only when confessional unity under the Scriptures is recognized, the Reformed hear only an accusation against them that they are not Christians or not “Christian enough.”  But it is at precisely this point where the Lutherans feel the exasperation of Chesterton when arguing with Shaw: we simply want to recognize the real and substantial gulf between the Lutheran and Reformed positions, and they will not even allow us to disagree with them.  The Lutherans believe that the two positions are as far apart as heaven and earth: the bare fact of whether we eat Christ’s Body and Blood with the bread and wine, or whether we do not, is–quite literally–everything.  This is why, for Lutherans, “all questions of the life and teaching of the church ultimately [lead] to the question of the Lord’s Supper” (Sasse, “Why Hold Fast to the Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?” The Lonely Way, I:453).

Finally, we simply want to be honest, and state that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between those who confess Christ’s Body and Blood eaten and drunk by everyone (even, God forbid, an unbeliever) who communes, and those who say that there is only bread and wine eaten and drunk by some or all.  This is not a difference in how Christ’s Body and Blood are present, but whether they are.  Lutherans have never confessed a particular mode, means, or mechanism of describing Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament (e.g., “consubstantiation”).  But Lutherans have always confessed that His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk by everyone, quite apart from an individual’s faith.  This is what Jesus says, and our horizontal unity around the altar depends on making the same confession about Jesus’ own words.  That is what “confession” means: saying the same thing.  And that is what “communion” means: union-with.  Union with Jesus in His Body and Blood (which is impossible if His Body and Blood are not actually there); and union with the other members of His Body precisely because we all share the same Christ as He gives Himself to us.  This, and nothing else, is the cause of “closed Communion.”  Closed to all who refuse to confess with us the simple words of Jesus, but open to all who receive these words with faith and joy.  We cannot force anyone to accept this confession, but we do ask that those who don’t accept it allow us to respectfully disagree with them.


An Open Letter to the Guilty

This is not for anyone for whom everything is great.  This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health.  This is for the guilty and the desolate.

I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really.  You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control.  You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.

You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you.  You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation.  You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.”  You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children.  Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do?  What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?

You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God.  Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.”  But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith.  In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.

You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it.  Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.”  The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.”  The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”

The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners.  All sinners.  You.  And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them.  Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances.  Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig.  The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them.  The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin.  The Gospel is for you.

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“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

Endless Discussion

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Hermann Sasse was frequently prescient, and since his words so often apply to multiple generations, it’s not surprising that he continues (rightly so) to be read.  One particular passage continues to apply to the Church in general, and to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in particular:

Not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion.  It is necessary to remember that in an age which has a superstitious belief in dialogue as the infallible means of settling everything.  There are questions raised by the devil to destroy the church of Christ.  To achieve this, he may use as his mouthpiece not only ambitious professors of theology, his favorite tools, but also simple, pious souls.  Why women cannot be ordained is one of these questions. [“Ordination of Women?” The Lonely Way, II:402]

To which question Sasse spends the rest of the essay giving (or rather confessing) the answer.

Matthew Becker (someone who continually touts his position as a professor of theology) is one of those who holds to continual dialogue as the proper means of (un)settling every question.  I am not commenting on this because I expect that he will be removed from my church body’s roster; I don’t have a lot of confidence in that, even though he teaches several things contrary to what has been the Synod’s unchanged position throughout its history.  On the other hand, I happen to think that Becker’s particular brand of reductionistic Lutheran theology is either going the way of the dinosaur, or is going to be folded into the amorphous blob of modern, Protestant theology (which, as it turns out, are usually the same thing).  But his latest public comments (in one of the few friendly online places left to him in the LCMS) are so disingenuous and pedantic, and their irony is so palpable as nearly to require exhibition.  Not only that, but he manages to strike both the high notes of triumphalism, as well as the bass notes of persecuted humility (which was probably predictable, since the LCMS has failed for twenty years to find anything officially objectionable in his public teaching–which does make one wonder whether any pastor could ever be defrocked for false teaching in the LCMS, at least as long as he was able to take refuge in academic freedom and at the same time sufficiently obscure the pertinent Scriptures).

Becker’s contention is not that he doesn’t teach or advocate contrary to the position of the LCMS (and, it should be admitted, to the nearly unanimous understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout time and space); his position is that the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions do not speak clearly on the issue and, therefore, he is justified in continuing to “ask questions” and pursue the “theological task” with respect to the Missouri Synod’s position.  I’m not going to spend time responding to his claims about what the Scriptures do and do not say about who should serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  There has been more than enough discussion of those points, even if Becker does not find them compelling.  (Or maybe he hasn’t read them, since he seems to think that no one has ever taken up the issues which he is so nobly–even Luther-like–raising?)

But two points stand out:

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An Entirely Wrong Scriptural Sermon

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C.F.W. Walther gives us some insight into why not every sermon (or song, for that matter) that is built from the Scriptures is a true or orthodox sermon.

That is the litmus test of a proper sermon.  The value of a sermon depends not only on whether every statement in it is taken from the Word of God and on whether it is in agreement with the same but also on whether Law and Gospel have been rightly distinguished.  If the same building materials are provided to two different architects, sometimes one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, will make a mess of it.  Because he is dim-witted, the latter may want to begin with the roof, or place all the windows in one room, or stack layers of stone or brick in such a way that the wall will be crooked.  One house will be out of plumb and such a bungled piece of work that it will collapse, while the other will stand firm and be a habitable and pleasant place to live.  In like manner, two different sermons might contain all the various doctrines–and while the one sermon may be a glorious and precious piece of work, the other may be wrong throughout.  …

This frequently happens when students give sermons. [Walther is giving lectures to seminary students.]  You will hear comforting remarks such as “It is all by grace,” only to be followed by “We must do good works,” which are then followed by statements such as “With our works we cannot gain salvation.”  There is no order to such sermons.  Nobody understands them–least of all the person who needs one of these doctrines most.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, 37-38