Heaven and Earth Bear Witness

As usual, the political divisions over various issues do not match the division between a Scriptural understanding and an idolatrous one. In this case, it’s the division between “conservatives” and “liberals”–or, better, between the rabid Republican and the rabid Democrat–on climate change (what an anodyne, meaningless phrase) and other, related environmental issues. You know it’s a disease because any response is immediately knee-jerking, fist-pumping, and unthinking.

But Christians ought not to be caught up in the extreme partisanship of what seems to be America’s twilight years. There is enough foolishness on either side to make any so-called “discussion” an exercise in engaging a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4, not 26:5). When it comes to human responsibility for the volatility of the climate (and similar issues), too many Christians have been sucked into either viewing extreme weather as the moral challenge of our time, an issue of Biblical proportions; or into an involuntary muscle spasm of  mockery and denial.

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Absurdity Between God and Evil

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 19.]

After I watched Troubled Water last week, one of Amazon’s recommendations was Adam’s Apples (2005, streaming on Amazon Prime), about a naive pastor in Denmark, Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who welcomes in a neo-Nazi in hopes of (I think) rehabilitating him. Add that neo-Nazi to a Saudi immigrant who robs gas stations and an alcoholic Dane, and it’s a weirdly religious, absurd black comedy.

In spite of the weird aspect ratio thing that Amazon was doing, I was slowly drawn into the story. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny in its absurdity. The pastor is not only naive, but indefensibly and, apparently, invincibly so. Nothing that Adam does can shake Ivan’s optimism and “faith,” including a picture of Hitler on the wall and beating him viciously. Ivan says that Gunnar’s alcoholism is cured, though he doesn’t hide the many bottles and Ivan even offers to pick up some “medicine” for him when he goes out. And Ivan is convinced Khalid is done with robbery, though there is a balaclava and a large wad of cash in his jacket, not to mention the gun he easily produces to get rid of the crows in the apple tree.

Further, Ivan refuses to admit that his son is completely disabled and that his wife committed suicide. He views it all as an attack from Satan that he is to withstand. All of it: the crime, the alcoholism, his wife’s death, a neo-Nazi beating him up, the crows and worms in the apple tree. It is all a Satanic attack, and Ivan believes that he is simply called to bear up under it with an undying optimism.

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Guilt and Grief, and Relief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

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The Devil and Father Amorth

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 21.]

This isn’t a great documentary. In some ways (down to the design of the credits and titles) it is simply playing on the success and popularity of The Exorcist—though there’s no pea soup, no unnaturally turning heads, and no priests die. (And my wife thinks William Friedkin sounds like Donald Trump. Narrator: he does.)

So while there are a few and minor interesting things in this film, the questions it raises are more interesting to me. What is it that continues to fascinate about exorcism? Why do people continue to make movies dealing with exorcism? I count at least 25 films focusing on possession or exorcism since 2000 (most of which—to placate my critics—I have never seen). Why so many, and why is this a recurring theme?

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Longing for Life

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 30.]

Here’s one for a long and ongoing conversation. Ordet is a 1955 Danish film (and 1956 Golden Globe award winner for Best Foreign Language Film) about a family living in a small town in Jutland, where the division between the organized state church and a conversionist sect becomes the catalyst for everyone’s crisis of faith. This is a hard film to watch for people (like me) who have been inoculated to older (purer?) cinema by technological advances, high production values, fast pacing, and color.

Even so, it is clear that there is nothing unnecessary in this film. Every piece of the set was specifically put in place by director Carl Theodor Dreyer (even to the point of Dreyer going shopping for wardrobe pieces with his actors and actresses), and every shot is exactly the minimum. Many of the scenes are, in fact, a single shot, which sets it apart even further from modern, continuously changing scenes. Dreyer has minutes, not seconds, per shot. In the end, the set is so sparsely decorated that the viewer’s focus is forced toward what Dreyer views as essential.

Adding to the force of the film (at least for a Lutheran pastor) is that the writer of the play on which the film is based, Kaj Munk, was a Danish Lutheran pastor who preached against the Nazi occupation of Denmark and was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 for his opposition. The stone cross erected where Munk’s body was found appears twice in the film.

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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.]

Timotheos

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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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.

Timotheos

Reformation Week: Loehe on the Lutheran Church

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The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord gives his Holy Spirit only through his Word and sacraments, and therefore it recognizes no other effective means than Word and sacrament. …

From its knowledge of human nature it knows that men will sooner open their hearts to the truth when it is gladly but sparingly imparted than when they hear its voice speaking constantly.  Therefore it understands how to give people enough of its means but not too much.  It does not consider it an insult, nor is it eager to interpret it as an insult, when someone says, “This pastor thinks it is enough if he preaches, catechizes, administers the sacraments, hears confessions, and comforts the sick!”  It knows that even the most faithful pastors do not do enough of this.  It has little use for multiplying pastoral duties but treasures those which are commanded in the Scriptures and have been recognized since ancient times.  To many people it is something novel that a man should not be a jack of many trades but a master of the few precious means, yet this is what the church has always thought.  In a word, it accomplishes much through a few means. …

It is enough, and more than enough, if a man just carries out the ancient duties of a pastor.  Superfluous and even a hindrance is the officiousness of modern pastors.  Here the slogan should be, “Not many, but much.”  The poverty of our fathers is richer than the wealth of their opponents.  It is through alternating periods of withdrawal and public appearance, stillness and publicity, through persistent use of Word and sacrament, through giving of a quiet but full measure, through modesty and steadfastness that the Lutheran church attains its goals.

It is not concerned with new means of encouraging good works, although they have been highly praised.  It does not desire to do its good works the way societies or factories do.  It knows that works carried out in the fashion of modern societies easily displace other works, disturb the harmony of manifold good works, and make men one-sided and intemperate.  It is afraid that societies which separate from the church and act as if everything depended on them may become organizations of extravagance and intemperance, even though they carry the name “temperance” in their titles.  …

The church has various activities, therefore, even though the means through which it performs them and encourages all good things are always the same–Word, sacrament, the holy office of the ministry.

Few means–many good works!  That is the way it is with the church.

J.K.W. Loehe, Three Books on the Church, 164-166

New Traditions and Old

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Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place.  I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse).  I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures.  Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe).  Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building.  Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.”  Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”)  Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed.  Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic).  Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.

Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever.  They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith.  They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians.  Fine.

But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old?  It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism.  It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront.  I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy.  I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things.  Language matters and every action teaches something.  I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.  I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries.  I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining.  Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant?  As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?

Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere.  From where do the songs come?  From where do the thoughts about the texts come?  From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come?  From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together?  Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition?  Of course not.  But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church?  I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing.  If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.

[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences.  If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]

Timotheos