Thursday, October 15, 2009

I stole this from somewhere

I stole this from someone (sorry, copyright holder if any).

Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister came out with a book a couple of years ago called “The kingdom of God is a party” which raised a lot of eyebrows among those who think church and religion should be serious-all work, no fun, no joy just boring. Tony points out that the kingdom is not only a party but it is open for all especially for those on the streets and considered the least in society.

Tony tells one story of a trip to a corner bar and grill where a lonely woman named Agnes would come everyday and she was sad because tomorrow was her birthday and she had no family, no friends to celebrate it with. Tony got the bright idea to get everybody in the bar to throw her a big party and invite everyone. The next day the whole bar and grill was decorated with party favors and happy birthday signs plus there was a big birthday cake for Agnes. The whole place was filled with not only the patrons but the door was wide open to everybody walking through even prostitutes in the area to celebrate with Agnes. Agnes was so overcome with shock and surprise that she did not want to eat her cake but keep it to remind her of this great celebration in her honor. Tony ended the time with prayer, which shocked the bartender who asked you are a preacher in which he responds, yes the kind that celebrates birthdays in bars along with prostitutes.” The bartender replied “I would like to join that church but there is no such thing.”

My reading of Matthew says that the bartender's comment is a heavy conviction of life in the Church. I don't read this, as some of my Lutheran friends might, as theology of glory or as happy-clappy theology. We we start behaving like Tony's type of Christian, we will find crosses aplenty to carry -- the right ones this time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just a Note from Tertullian

From Tertullian's De Corona (ca. 204 AD):

I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. ... Do we believe it lawful for a human oath [of military allegiance] to be superadded to one divine, for man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mopther, and all nearest relatives, whom even the law has commanded us to honor and love next to God Himself? ... Should it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in battle when it does not even become him to sue at the law courts? And shall he apply the chain, the prison, and the torture, and the punishment who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? ... Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? ... You may see by a slight survey how many other offences are involved in the performance of military officers which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law. The very carrying over of the name from the campt of light to the camp of darkness is a violation of it.

-- quoted in Robert W. Brimlow, What About Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus's [sic] Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), pp. 22-23.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Day of Remembering and Repenting

I know that I said I was going away, but I posted this on my FaceBook today, and I think it has relevance to the reason for this blog, so I repost it here:

Today is the anniversary of a series of horrible events. It marks the eighth anniversary of the deaths (and injuries) of thousands in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. The victims of the crashes should be remembered -- and as the Orthodox say, may their memories be eternal.

But those were not the only victims of that horrifying day. Truth was a casualty that day: Need I mention "weapons of mass destruction" or the "connection" between Al-Qaeda and Sadam Hussein or the political manipulation of threat code-colors or the denunciation of non-existent "death panels"? And how about "liberal" commitment: How many supposed liberals and non-violent Christians found themselves shouting for the bombing of Afghanistan, because "they" (who? "they!") bombed us first. (Scott Simon, of NPR fame and infamy, opened my eyes with his threatened-masculinity tirade in the Wall Street Journal, saying, in essence, "What? We should just take it? Of course not. We have to kill in return -- and it doesn't matter whom.")

And democracy in this country may have suffered a mortal wound: As Ben Franklin wisely noted, "The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either." Nevertheless, in our USAmerican eagerness to forget the past, we stifled dissent -- calling it "treason" and "anti-American" -- even as we institutionalized racial profiling, denied basic human rights with policies of rendition and Guantanamoization, suspended basic First Amendment guarantees (for citizens, mind you) with the notorious and ironically titled "Patriot Act."

Decades ago, Soviet Premier Nikitia Khruschev uttered his (mistranslated) "We will bury you" judgment on the USAmerican future. Of course, the non-critical listeners and thinkers took that to be a military threat, even though it was obvious that he meant that they would survive while we rotted from within. Well, the USSR didn't fare very well in its authoritarianism (although arguably the Russian Soviet Republic is back and holding out). But is seems clear that there was a prophet's wisdom in his pronouncement. We find ourselves in an environment of decivilization (at many levels from Abu Graiib to booing the President in a session of Congress and calling him out as liar to shouting down opponents at "town meetings).

It's easy to say that we lost something precious that day eight years ago -- some have stupidly said that it was our "innocence" we lost. But no, we lost something deeper: We lost lots of dear lives -- but we continue to lose hundreds and thousands of dear lives, only now we don't wear our hearts on our sleeves because they're soldiers and "collateral damage." We lost our heart. Supposedly, we woke up to realize that we could be "hit" on our home ground -- though of course, Timothy McVey had taught us that in Oklahoma City, and we didn't rush wholesale against the fundamentalist-Christian-m
ilitarist-libertarian-racist crowd. We lost our sense -- or reality and of fair play. Did we lose our sense of security? No, we lost our conviction that a democratic structure for truth, liberty, equality, and fair-play can perdure even in the face of threats from those who, in the service of whatever agenda, seek to subvert that structure. We lost our integrity.

And perhaps most sadly of all, the Christian Church in this country lost its faith. We did not and do not pray for our enemies; we did not and do not stand up for the thousands of innocent victims who are massacred (much as were the Twin Towers victims massacred) in the name of American interest or self-preservation. We did not and do not affirm HOPE -- not "wishes and dreams" kind of hoping, but the the firm conviction that just a God raised Jesus from the dead after his Son's life of faithfulness and dedication to his truth, so He will sustain us and, if death it be, raise us up. We have once again committed ourselves to the worship of Molokh, even as we entertain ourselves for an hour on Sundays with bread and circuses.

I wish it were some of this that would cause sadness among USAmericans today and make of this a Yom Kippur instead of a day of licking festering (and in many cases, self-inflicted) wounds.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I have decided that I need officially to note what has become increasingly clear on this blog: I'm going on sabbatical because I find that I have less and less to say. When I have posted recently, I have felt pressure to put something out there. (What hubris!) I have found it useful to think things through in print here -- and I'm grateful for the feedback, correction, affirmation that I have received.

But the press of too many responsibilities has sent me in too many ways to make is reasonable for me to think seriously about any one thing. I need to regain some focus in my study (which is all over the place right now -- you'd see that if you saw the stacks of unread or just-begun books stacked on my night table, on my desk, by my reading chair, and at my work station). Besides that, I've been asked to assume some additional responsibilities with my congregation. And besides that, I am becoming discouraged by developments in my denomination, in my state, and in the United States. I hope to avoid printing out diatribes against and and all of them -- no matter how much they deserve to be rebuked.

Since I've been sort of babbling lately, anyway, I think it best I just babble face-to-face with the people around me, and not semi-anonymously here.

I will keep the blog open, because I expect that I'll continue to post some interesting and well-framed or -phrased thoughts from the reading I am doing. But beyond that, who knows? Friends have returned to blogging after stopping. Perhaps I'll get the urge again. (My grandmother would often commend me for my "gift of gab" -- hardly an Icelandic thing to say, I imagine, but she was 100% Icelander and knew me pretty well.)

More On Marriage

People who know me know that I consider Wendell Berry one of the finest theologians in print. (I should probably tone that down: He is my favorite non-theologian theologian.) He rarely, if ever, has written a "theological" piece. But in the writing he has done, he has guided the world in the ways we should go. He professes to be a Christian, and while he doesn't go all "sermony" most of the time, the vision he draws of how the world is, according to the intentions of God, and of where we have screwed it up and continue to screw it up, and of how we might repent of our actions and failure to act is so far as I can see wholly consistent with the Law and the prophets -- and as those have been fulfilled in Jesus.

Here is a little something on marriage that is better than most church's formal statements on the sacrament. If I were a pastor, I would make reading it and discussing it the centerpiece of any pre-marital counseling that I was called on to do.

Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them sell, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could every join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing – and our time is proving that this is so.

-- Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1993), pp. 137-38.

Friday, September 04, 2009

More on Michael Root's Thesis

In a post, below, I commended a recent paper by Michael Root. In it, he analyzes a kind of development of doctrine in Lutheran theology. Lee commented, and I find that I can't fit my reply into a comment box, so I raise it again, here.

Brother Lee,

You assert that Michael Root misses "the main point: is homosexuality immoral?" Well, obviously, I think, that is not the focus of his paper. His point is to question how we go about answering that question, and he finds our modus problematic, to say the least. I don't know how he would answer your question: Ask him, on his blog. I suspect, however, that two arguments compete: First, if we can't agree on a "Lutheran" approach to answering questions, then we're just sharing opinions. And second, that suggests the need for a more formalized magisterium -- whatever you might want to call it.

No one denies the all-too-human failings of any tradition's magisterium. I don't think that any of my catholic-evangelical colleagues has delusions about that. To use an analogy: Trained as a lawyer and committed to respecting judicial authority, as my entry into the bar requires that I be, I nevertheless look with utter disdain on numerous of the decisions that have come out, even recently, of the United States Supreme Court. That disdain, however, by no means frees me from respect for the institution of the Court or from advising clients in light of its decisions.

The issue is one of authority. Authority need not be read as tight-fisted authoritarianism. In fact, the authority of Christ and of the so-called "office of the keys" should never be exercised in that way. But there is a need (in this the Church shares with all institutions) for someone to guide, commend, and correct the Church. American Lutheranism (at least, the ELCA variety) has never faced the question of how to structure our life in such a way as to vest someone (meaning, too, perhaps some group) with the responsibility of answering to no other source than God -- freed of public pressure, political correctness, mass hysteria in delineating the "boundaries" of God's word.

Do we want the proclamation of the word of God to depend on majority rule? I mean, do we really? It is such majority "feeling" that has resulted in the churches' adopting as their model of operation that of large corporations -- with the consequent concern for numbers and budgets and retirement plans and the yet consequent denial of the hard counsels of the Sermon on the Mount. It was such pandering to the majority that the US Supreme Court issued that debacle of an opinion in the Dred Scott case.

I think Michael is correct in implying that what the ELCA has now is a magisterium of how ever many members are in the ELCA -- everyone is his or her own deacon, presbyter, and bishop. That is part, I think, of what led to the Lutheran allergy to ethics, as you aptly term it. (And I read Michael to support me in that assertion.) For example, it's simply more comfortable to over-stress Gospel freedom than it is to try to maintain the existential and scholastic tension that the "simul" should carry.

I think the problem that Michael analyzes in his paper is especially concerning to Lutherans because of our self-proclaimed seriousness about the importance of the tradition (whatever we mean by that) in guiding our contemporary theology. Lutherans are not the only ones to suffer from a radical refocus in the way they do theology and the sources to which they point. But Lutherans live among the rare breeds of Protestants who claim such guidance from confessions and confessors -- serious Calvinists' being another example. How we make decisions about what to teach and preach and about how to live maters.

Besides, in following of our Lutheran bliss, we have allowed for quasi-magisteria, anyway. When we allow teachers to pick up relatively marginal ideas and thematize them into key points, then we provide each seminary prof a mitre and permission to play around with the Gospel. When we puts points of doctrine up to a vote at a denominational convention, then then we abandon the tradition of bishop, presbyter, and deacon.

The modern word is "accountability" and -- so as not to hang Michael with this analysis I stress that this is my reading -- the current ELCA lacks that accountability. A crowd of delegates, who don't even have to work for re-election to the next CWA, can't be held accountable for the decisions they make by 50%-plus-1. And the people of the Church cannot be held accountable when Church teaching -- and, yes, the teaching of 2000 years -- is overturned or determined by votes of that kind.

I think that the ELCA's way of handling the evolution -- if such it be -- of its teaching on homosexuality has been most unfortunate by both sides. The "left" spoke of "rights" and "justice" and such nonsense. (Reminder: "Self-evident unalienable rights" is not a Christian concept.) The "right" never did make a particularly compelling case on the balancing of Scripture and modern understandings. And a pox on both sides for being so cocksure.

Frankly, I lose much more sleep over the rabid capitalists I know -- especially those who wear clerical collars -- than I would think of losing for gay people. I think they much more obviously transgress and traduce the expressed will of God than do monogamous gay couples. Where's the outrage on the "right" over that? And why are so many gays eager for their own "rights" but ignorant of the needs of the poor and the other powerless?

But do you see how Michael's argument is spot on? You can complain about how a concern for the Great Tradition intersects with the obvious need for a magisterium (or a ministerium or something) when it gores your ox. But watch how it works to gore someone else's, and the objections must be tempered.

I regret that this sounds pompous, glib, and not very clear. But I think that it is fundamental to the Church to be ultra-senstive to its "use" of scripture and its appeals to authority. And that is what I hear Michael saying.

Keep faith,

The Gospel Power of Music

Thanks to the locally produced public radio program, Performance Today, I was introduced to Karl Paulnack, who is a fine pianist and the director of the music division at the Boston Conservatory. (He played today with Jorja Fleezanis, who until recently was concertmistress of the Minnesota Orchestra.) The host brought attention to a welcoming talk the Mr. Paulnack gave to the parents of incoming freshmen at the Conservatory. It has gained wide circulation on the Internet, and I reproduce it here, hoping either that this is now officially in the public domain or that this constitutes fair use.

I will say two things. First, my appreciation for this talk has little to do with the fact that Mr. Paulnack claims that the most important concert he has given in his life was in Fargo, ND. That's not surprising. Second, it was a similar kind of talk given by Prof. Paul J. Christiansen, the legendary conductor of the Concordia Choir in Moorhead, MN (across the river from Fargo), in which he urged those of us at a choir festival to come to Concordia, not to study the things that the world gives money for -- economics or science or pre-law -- but to study music. It was that talk that convinced me to attend Concordia -- not because I wanted to be a music major, but because somewhere deep down, I knew that I wanted to go to a place where such sentiments were given such prominent expression. (I have never regretted that decision.)

Herewith, Mr. Paulnack's talk:

Welcome Address, by Karl Paulnack

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without rec reation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.
At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heartwrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Must Reading

Michael Root, the out-going dean of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary -- who is also the Executive Director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, an ecumenist of great distinction, a terrific theology professor, and my friend -- has just begun a new blog, and I commend it to you. Michael is astute, incisive, plain-spoken, and eloquent, so I expect good things from it.

Be warned, fellow progressives, his blog was inspired by the decisions made at the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly (a foolish title by any measure -- e.g., how can the assembly be churchwide, when it only includes ELCA Lutherans?) regarding issues of homosexuality in the life and practice of the denomination. For those seeking a hard-nosed theological understanding of why even I, as leftist and progressive as I am, opposed the decision, that's the place to look.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


We all know Tevye's meditation on "tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof. And I hope you know Jaroslav Pelikan's distinction of "tradition" from "traditionalism" -- viz., that tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Well, there is also this from G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

More than anything, this has helped me to get a handle on why I think the ELCA is so misguided on the issues of a statement on sexuality and on proposed revisions to the standards of conduct (especially in the realm of sexual relations) expected of clergy (which are really the same expectations we have -- or ought to have -- for members, but that's another story): It disenfranchises the millions of generations that have preceded us in the faith. The martyrdom of the foreparents has been that homosexual conduct is, at the very least, problematic if not execrable. I don't happen to agree with the assessment; I think there is every reason to re-think the Church's teaching, just as we have faithfully done with respect to slavery, the ministry of and by women, the shape of liturgy. But in the past, as painful as the process was, we worked and prayed and studied together to discern whether and how to change the traditional teaching. When change came, say in the decision to ordain women in some branches of American Lutheranism, it came after it was clear that the traditional teaching could no longer be promoted. Oh, there wasn't unanimity in the decision, but it was impossible to say (as does the proposed social statement on sexuality) that we had no consensus (and implied: no overwhelming tide of opinion) on whether to ordain women and so it was OK for some and it was OK for others to resist.

Michael Root says something similar to this, only more elegantly and scholarly, in a comment at the online Lutheran Journal of Ethics. It is well worth reading.

For now, I hope and wish that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (what an awful title for the synod) would heed the words of Chesterton and other wise teachers.