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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The Central Message of the Gospel?

Asked about the election of a new pope, Pres. Obama said this:

“I don’t know if you have checked lately but the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States don’t seem to be taking orders from me,” said Obama. “My hope is, based on what I know about the Catholic Church and the terrific work that they’ve done around the world and certainly in this country, you know, helping those who are less fortunate, is that you have a pope who sustains and maintains what I consider the central message of the Gospel that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”

Here, the president is a typical American Evangelical and, at the same time, ironically, a typical Roman Catholic.  That is, however, not the central message of the Gospel, which has always been and always will be: Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for you, a sinner.  Otherwise, it’s simply not good news.

On the other hand, Luther:

In the voice of the Gospel God is glorified and preached in Christ…This is what will take place in preaching.  Nor shall anything else be heard in the church but the voice of praise and proclamation of God’s blessings which we have received.  This song is in conflict with all human wisdom and righteousness, which are our works and in which we seek our own glory rather than give thanks to God.  Hence, to be pleasing to God is simply to acknowledge that we are the recipients of His blessings, not the donors.  A Christian confesses that he was condemned and lost and that he has received from Christ everything that belongs to salvation and righteousness; all his own merits [even love!] he considers worth nothing.  This is the fullest and most perfect sacrifice, and it embraces everything in the Old Testament.  There animals and cattle were slaughtered; here our own wisdom and righteousness, our endeavors and works. [Commentary on Isaiah 12:1, LW 16:128]


Pelosi On Contraception & Faith: “I Do My Religion On Sundays, In Church”

Pelosi On Contraception & Faith: “I Do My Religion On Sundays, In Church”.

Because it’s “private,” obviously.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with how she goes about her job.  But, really, then: why bother?  If what you believe and what you do have nothing to do with each other, one of them is a sham.  At least since the first Roman Catholic was elected as president, this issue has been at the center of politics.  If you look at how thoroughly what Washington and Lincoln, even Jefferson, believed suffused the way they governed, it is a serious deficit when people think that what they believe does not affect how they go about their vocations.  This is not necessarily about Christianity.  I expect atheists to govern as if there is no higher authority to which they owe obedience; therefore, the State or the good of the nation (however that might be defined by an atheist) will determine what he does.  (However, the work of the atheist politician may still, by his recognizing of some order in nature, align with what the Christian thinks the government should do.)   Likewise, if I serve in the government, and I believe human life is not mine to give, take, or manipulate–even for what I think are good ends–then I will work for laws that support that.  If I believe that it is necessary to, first of all, protect all human life by virtue of its being human, then all other goods will be ordered by the standard of that good, whether that be foreign policy, health care, the economy, etc.  What comes first in the order of goods determines how other goods will be ordered.

The fact is, Nancy Pelosi does govern by what she believes (it is literally impossible not to do so), but what she believes is not the same as what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  She is, in fact, not separating out her Sundays and the days when she is at the Capitol; she just hasn’t recognized the conflict between what she really believes and what her Church teaches.  Actually, she probably does recognize the conflict, but she thinks her Church is wrong.  That’s why she wouldn’t answer the question about the teaching of the RCC on contraception.  She knows she’s on the wrong side of the Church on that question.  Further, her highest good must be something other than a Creator of human life, if she can, in any way, support the intentional taking of that life.  I don’t know what she would say is her highest good, but it’s clearly something different than the highest good of what she does on Sundays, in church.  In other words, she is deceiving either herself or her constituents about what she really believes.

How much simpler it would be if politicians would simply state their highest Good, so we could evaluate how that Good might work itself out in their particular policy decisions.  They all have one, and it unites their political positions into a whole (although, I admit, politicians may still hold contradictory positions because they haven’t thoroughly worked through what their primary goods mean for what they want to do).  For those, like Pelosi, who support the unlimited abortion license, their highest Good clearly is not the same as those whose religion on Sunday proclaims a Redeemer who was conceived, born, lived, died, and resurrected for every member of the human race.


Lutherans Unique?

I said to another pastor on Thursday night that it makes me uncomfortable when Lutherans argue or present the case for why Lutherans are unique.  There are indeed some things on which Lutherans tend to focus (in a similar way, I think, to how Roman Christians focus on Mary): for example, the distinction between Law and Gospel (not, by the way, a paradox or even, really, a dialectic), or the primacy of Justification in any discussion of the Church’s ultimate existence.  But every time someone writes or says that “such-and-such makes Lutherans unique,” the “such-and-such” is either not unique to Lutherans, or it shouldn’t be.  Focusing, or even emphasizing, the uniqueness of Lutherans tends toward either the sectarian or the consumeristic.  If we are really unique, in that word’s actual meaning (“one of a kind”), then we are a sect.  If we are trying to get people to join us by saying why we are better than some others, then we have bought the consumeristic lie that we are in competition with the rest of American Christianity for an increasingly dwindling market share. 

On Saturday, I picked up the new First Things and, to my pleasant surprise, there was a short essay by Gilbert Meilaender [subscription required, but well worth it] (pp. 27-30) making much the same argument as I had (though, of course, with much more breadth and depth than I can–breadth and depth are characteristic of Meilaender).  Perhaps one of the reasons I like Meilaender’s essay is that I find myself nodding when he writes,

Inertia has always been a powerful force in my life.  I have long known that what seems to have been Luther’s temperament is not mine, and had I been around in the early sixteenth century, it’s likely I would have remained a catholic of the Roman communion.  But I was not, and, hence, I have to think through what sort ot reasons I might have now for doing what I am termperamentally inclined to do–stay where I am.

What does it actually mean to be Lutheran?  Some see it as a reform movement within the Church catholic, and some, like First Things‘ founder, Richard John Neuhaus (whose essay, btw, “How I Became the Catholic I Was,” is referenced by Meilaender’s title), as a reform movement that has accomplished its purpose, thus necessitating a return to Rome.  But, as Meilaender puts it, “it does not make sense to me to think of Lutheranism, or the Church more generally, in ways that largely bypass what five centuries of history have produced.” 

Although we have developed a distinct indentity from Rome, Meilaender points out what some Lutherans seem to have forgotten: that we claim the catholic tradition for our own:

…its central Trinitarian and Christological teachings formulated before and at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon; its belief in baptism as the sacrament of initiation and in the Eucharistic presence of Christ’s body and blood; its determination to care for the vulnerable and voiceless, including the unborn.

So, for example, the first articles of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 acknowledge and affirm received aspects of the catholic tradition–about the Triune God, original sin, and Christ as the Son of God–before the Confession ever turns to questions that were in dispute.  Being Lutheran is, therefore, one way of being catholic.  Lutherans exist primarily to do what the church catholic should seek to do in every time and place: shape the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience, and be the voice of Christ in and to the world.

 Lutherans should indeed recognize that Rome is of immense importance for all Christians because we are “parasitic upon it, and its achievements and contributions are immense.  If the Church as the body of Christ must, as Bonhoeffer put it, take up space in the world, then it is simply a fact that the Roman church takes up a great deal of space…Rome takes up far more space–and therefore embodies Christian faith and faithfulness in a manner harder to ignore–than does the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.”  On the other hand, the space that Rome takes up is not without problems, since it takes up space as both an ecclesial institution and a political entity–“a blurring of distinctions that suggests that not all of the old sixteenth-century arguments have lost their significance.” 

But the part of the essay that strikes me hardest, that rings most true, is this:

If we Lutherans ourselves were clearer that to be Lutheran is to claim the catholic tradition as ours, we would avoid some of the mistakes that have gone a long way to hollowing out Lutheranism in this country.  In particular, we could rid of the annoying tic that leads so many Lutherans to try–constantly–to articulate something distinctively Lutheran (a sure sign we are worried that our continued existence cannot be justified and, irony of ironies, we must seek to accomplish that justification ourselves). 

And Meilaender quotes Kirkegaard to this effect: “Taken by itself, as the whole of Christianity, the Lutheran corrective [to the medieval Roman church] produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.”  This magnifying and absolutizing of the Lutheran corrective of Justification by grace through faith alone, as true and necessary as it is, is why Lutherans (including myself) struggle with Adolf Koeberle’s The Quest for Holiness (that’s assuming anyone still reads this book; to my mind, the absolute best articulation of Justification and Sanctification that has ever been written) or Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship.  We often, like Luther (who was compelled by his situation), wear blinders to anything but Justification or the forgiveness of sins by pure grace.  Which is, not incidentally, why we (unlike Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, or Walther) have trouble preaching the Law as a good gift of God.  If the Gospel is good, and the Gospel always comes after the Law, our naturally antithetical ways lead us to perceive the Law as bad; reducing the message of the Scriptures to the Gospel (in its “narrow sense,” as Lutherans speak of it) necessarily and evidently leads to a form of antinomianism (as anyone surveying American Lutheranism can easily perceive).  “Though, of course,” as Meilaender parenthetically notes, “the antinomianism is never genuine.  The nomos [law] is simply taken over from the culture, and so, for example, condemnation of divorce or homosexuality is softened while insufficient commitment to ‘sustainability’ becomes a deadly sin.”

Moreover, once we Lutherans give up the obsessive search for something distinctively Lutheran–some teaching such as justification or the law/gospel distinction that must serve as the organizing principle of our entire theology–we will be free to recognize and augment the considerable contributions made by catholics of the Lutheran communion to the life of the one Church. … Many Lutherans of all stripes continue to search for distinctively Lutheran teachings taht offer a reason for our continued existence.  Indeed, quite often these days, whatever their differences, they alight on the same basic formula [bells and flashing lights should be going off! T.].  The distinction between law and gospel, so powerful for the care of souls, gets turned into the organizing principle of an entire theology–a distinctive theology, to be sure, but one that, as Kierkegaard saw, ‘produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.’  We can do better, and, for the sake of the church catholic to whose tradition we lay claim, we should.

That last sentence is indicative of the whole thrust of the Lutheran Confessions (which is not actually the title.  They are not the “Lutheran” Confessions; they are the confessions of the Church catholic, and the confessors understood them this way, and this fact supports Meilaender’s thesis).  Lutherans exist, as always, to bear witness to, to confess, with all the saints the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ and its fruit in the lives of individual Christians and the whole Church, for the sake of the world.


Pelosi’s Favorite “Word”

So.  You know how the whole world goes apoplectic when a Republican politician mentions “Providence” or “God” or a “Higher Power”?  See, it’s funny, because that could be anything.  Whose god?  Whose higher power?  I mean, even George Bush saying that Jesus is his favorite philosopher is nothing compared to this:

I wonder if she realizes that the Word was made flesh beginning with an embryo.


What Does Faithfulness Mean?

Hopefully, this will be my last comment on the whole ELCA thing for a while.  The fallout may be just beginning, although in the first few days, I have my doubts.  Witness this article in the Grand Forks Herald. Anyone who thought the laity was going to save the ELCA better look for another hero.  One lady in a rural North Dakota parish had this to say:

[Edith] Anderson said she’s not open to arguments about what can be said to be right or wrong based just on Scripture.

“What the Bible is is an interpretation of people. To me, it’s not God’s word. It didn’t come out of His mouth. It’s all in how you interpret it.”

That seems to be the attitude of most of the ELCA at the moment.  Who can say?  So I’ll just go from my own instincts and feelings.  Why even belong to a church, then?  Why not just go home and meditate on the gurglings in your stomach?  Of course, if you’ve been indoctrinated with “the Bible is not God’s Word” for twenty years, is such a sentiment really unexpected?

In fact, the past twenty years are really at the heart of this whole mess.  When the ELCA’s predecessor bodies ordained women, they said exactly the same things as they were saying at this CWA.  They were arguing based on their daughters’ experiences of being rejected when they felt “called.”  They were arguing based on their emotional responses to seeming injustice and inequality.  They were wielding the “gospel” against the Scriptures.  They were fighting those nasty “law” proof-texts with Galatians 3:28 (apparently, the proof-text to end all proof-texts).  And there are pastors and people in the ELCA who are surprised at how far their church body has fallen?  They have been entering full communion with any and all takers, and sharing the Lord’s Table with anyone who believes anything about Jesus in the name of “love,” and they’re surprised that people just don’t care what the Scriptures have to say?

Frankly, they made this bed before 2005 (say, circa 1970…1950?), and now they are struggling with whether to sleep in it.  Well, this is how I measure the faithfulness of those who fought this battle to the bitter end: how quickly can you pack your things and get out?  (I say that, knowing that it takes some time to figure out how to get it done.  God bless those who are working on it.)  I’m tempted to say that I know it’s difficult, and that if my church body did the same thing, I’d struggle with leaving.  But I have to say that that would be a lie.  I would feel only the slightest qualms, because I have allegiance to the LCMS only as it holds to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.  As soon as this church body leaves those, I leave it.  (That day may, of course, come at any time.)  But the LCMS has the opposite problem of the ELCA.  Whereas the ELCA has officially approved heterodoxy and officially condoned what God has condemned, there are still some congregations that bravely struggle on.  The LCMS, on the other hand, officially holds to the whole Scriptures and the whole Book of Concord, while there are congregations who have jettisoned both for the sake of numbers, relevance, and worship-tainment.  I guarantee, as soon as the LCMS officially abandons the teachings of the Scriptures or the Confessions (ultimately, to abandon the Confessions is to abandon the Scriptures), I’m done.

The clock cannot be rewound, and some in the ELCA are awakening to that fact.  Others, however, are not, and I have a hard time understanding.  Perhaps a pastor will say that he (she) is staying for the sake of the people; but is that loving, or is it selfishness?  Will they be left to the wolves when you are gone?  (And you will be gone some day.)  Is it not better to show them that their church has left them behind, along with the Scriptures, and there is no going back.  I humbly suggest that there has never been a church this far gone that has drawn back from the abyss.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  To quote someone, “God gave them over…”

So, want to be faithful?  There is only one choice: leave the ELCA.  And if you want to be Lutheran, then there’s no room in Rome.  Besides, Rome won’t be any better than the LCMS if you really think female clergy-type persons are good and closed Communion is evil.  To quote someone else, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”


Whither Hence for the ELCA?

That’s the question, and, although I have my suspicions, I don’t think anyone can really call it at this point.  The two votes which most people will be watching are those on whether to accept a “social statement” (probably roughly the same thing as an LCMS CTCR document) which would effectively bless relationships between two people of the same sex (essentially making a same-sex relationship the equivalent of marriage), and whether to amend the ELCA’s constitution to explicitly allow the ordination of persons who are in open homosexual relationships.  The items up for a vote are here, with more information.  (The actual Task Force recommendation on changing the ministry standards is here.)  Probably the most important vote will be on rules and procedures, and whether to adopt the proposals with a simple majority or 2/3.

There are a number of letters going around trying to influence the vote one way or the other.  There is the Open Letter being circulated by WordAlone and CORE.  There is the dialogue/debate between Herbert Chilstrom and Carl Braaten, both ELCA pastors/professors.  There is a letter from ELCA seminarians.  And a letter from Hispanic ELCA pastors.  Again, it seems that many more prominent ELCA pastors/members are opposing the proposals than supporting them, but it all depends on the voting members of the Assembly.

Now, I respect that there are faithful members of the ELCA willing to stand up for a seemingly unpopular position contra the homosexual agenda (witness this on the ELCA website; interesting timing, don’t you think?  C’mon, practically all the clergy support the proposals!  At first, I questioned the idea of a 2-1 lay-clergy membership of the Assembly; now, I think it may be the only thing that saves the day.)  I respect them, however, as I respect brave people on a sinking ship.  It may not quite be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but the iceberg is right there, nonetheless.  And I have to agree with the former bishop Chilstrom on the CORE Open Letter, regarding ecumenical relationships.  What makes the signers of the letter think that homosexual pastors will make those relationships grow cold, if female clergy-type persons and the church insurance paying for clergy abortions didn’t?  Not to mention sharing altars and pulpits with the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ(!).  Surely, if the Lord’s Supper couldn’t persuade the ELCA to think twice about relationships with Rome and Constantinople, homosexual pastors shouldn’t either (especially if the “gospel” demands it).  I know the ELCA has been more involved in semi-official talks with Rome than, say, the LCMS (something we should remedy), but I can’t believe Rome would consider real fellowship with a church body that has priestesses.  Or a church body that does not discipline those that contravene even its modest rules.  (See here for a list of homosexuals who have been ordained and serve[d] ELCA congregations without or with little discipline.)

Whatever happens this week, know this: the homosexual lobby is as patient as they come.  If not this year, then two years from now.  If not then, then two years more.  This ain’t going away, and if the voting members know that, they might just as well show their exhaustion and say ‘to hell with it.’

I also wonder, incidentally, what a ‘yes’ vote will mean for heterosexuals who want to live with their ‘partners’ outside of marriage?  Certainly a double standard cannot exist, can it?