Monday, February 28, 2005

New kyd on the block

We have a new kyd (that's my mother's spelling -- to distinguish children from goats) on the blogdom block. Check the Bag Lady out.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

FaithfulAmerica: Religion and Politics

I'm big on ecumenical organizations, even though I know the shortcomings and follies of such organizations as the National Council of Churches of Christ and World Council of Churches (and in my own Lutheran sphere, the Lutheran World Federation qualifies, given the disparate nature of bodies claiming Luther as their spiritual father). But I think it important that Christians of all stripes recognize their kinship with Christians of all other -- well, at least most other -- stripes. The goal of ecumenical conversation and cooperation must ultimately be the organic reunion of the Body of Christ; the current "denominational" structure is a travesty -- especially when it restricts communion (in the broader and specific term) with fellow Christians of other traditions. At this point, I do not see that a monolithic merger is necessary to fulfill the prayer of Christ, "ut unum sint" -- "that they may all be one." A "communion of communions" -- sort of like the Roman Catholic and Uniate communion -- might very well be a good think, recognizing as it could the lovely variety of races and places on God's earth. But nevertheless, the Churches must overcome their chauvinism, pride, entrenchedness, and arrogance and listen to each other within the brooding breath of the Holy Spirit to overcome their divisions.

That said, I turn to ways in which Christians manage to overcome division to work together in ways that serve the commands of God. This has become the chief focus of the worldwide ecumenical movement, and probably of the NCC, too. But there are, I think more effective projects now extant. And one of them is (a project of the NCC, so watch out for the "liberal" bias, whatever that is).

To quote from their website (or I should say "our" website, since I am a member): is an online community of people of faith who want to build a more just and compassionate nation.

It provides one-click opportunities to impact current political issues and shift the terms of public debate.

It aspires to be an online wing of a powerful, new progressive faith movement, like the ones that fought for independence, abolition and civil rights. is a project of the National Council of Churches with support from TrueMajority and Res Publica. provides news and information about current (admittedly political) issues and urges action on the part of Christians to affect the political process. If it can be faulted, and I know that all my theologically and politically conservative friends will line up to do so, it would be that the organization tends to assume certain positions (which many conservatives call "liberal," but which I find to be quite conservative -- so go figure) without setting out the moral reasoning that leads one to take the steps it advocates. Nevertheless, the organization takes seriously what I think are unquestioned mandates of the Gospel -- viz., to care for the poor, wherever they live, and to tend the earth and her resources. Because the Gospel leads me to a progressivist politics (about which, I continually repeat, I try to remain wary and self-conscious), I have not yet found anything in what the organization has promoted to be a violation of my discipleship. (There have been, for example, no calls for encouragement or even allowance of abortion.)

The organization (a "virtual" community) sends via e-mail regular updates on issues or calls to action. You may check these out or sign up for same by going to the organization's website and following the directions. (If you do sign up, you will not be flooded with posts, I can assure you. And if you're not in the mood to read one, just delete it.)

I personally wrestle with the issue of how to behave as a disciple of Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is never far from my mind right now, and Stanley Hauerwas has carved a niche in my consciousness that will never be otherwise occupied. Both of them make me leery of religiously inspired action. Does it substitute for diligent faithfulness (a redundant term, I realize)? Does it essentially co-opt Christian reflection on issues? These are important questions. Nevertheless, as both realize, we are citizens of the nation and the world, and it as such and in such a situation that we are called to follow Our Lord -- not, for most of us, by withdrawing from the world. (After all, even the hesychasts and ascetics often influenced politics in their region and day.)

And so, I commend to your consideration.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Addendum to Lenten Meditations

I pushed "publish" before I meant to. If you don't want to buy the book without checking it out, you may review the contents (or use it in virtual form) at the Bruderhof site.

The Bruderhof's hospitality extends to providing free use of the publications! Astounding.

Lenten meditations

Good news! Orbis has published the Bruderhof's book of Lenten thought-pieces, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. As a complement to a regimen of prayer (divine office, daily prayer, freestyle. or whatever), this work is, to my eye, unsurpassed. The readings come from a variety of more-or-less modern people, though I would have welcomed at least some attention to the Church Fathers. You can check it out at here.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

"One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic"

I am not a great fan of megachurches or of the "church growth" movement. And I've raised various objections. Now I've run across a person (whom I presume to be a Presbyterian) who says in a precise and witty way some of what I feel.

The internet is a fascinating reality: A brief time cruising just the blogs easily gives one the vision of the sum of human wisdom’s being available at the touch of a few keystrokes. (Yes, I spent much more time following “threads” and links than was reasonable, and I’m trying to justify my expenditure of time!)

Michael Spencer (who is the Internet Monk) reprinted an essay (here, scroll down to the entry for July 21, 2004) by R. C. Sproul, Jr., “Sophisticated Lady,” (from Tabletalk, June 2004, Ligonier Ministries, pp. 60-61) in which this preacher-teacher raises the question of whether the modern (or post-modern) “growth” church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” – and answers with a grieved “no.” The essay is short and worth reading, and I heartily recommend the few minutes it will take to read. (Thanks to Michael Spencer, whom I don’t know, for posting it.) But because there are some simply wonderful formulations, and because I enjoy nothing better than careful rhetoric, and because I think his critique is so marvelously “evangelical-catholic”, I’ll outline and quote here.

Sproul points out that the Church is in danger of losing her soul by adapting itself to the ways of the world in “selling” herself and judging her success by worldly measures of success. He illustrates by reference to “Oakmont Family Worship Center.” While there are “no oaks, no mountains, few families (that is, the families all split and go their separate ways as soon as they enter [in order to participate in various programs]), no worship, and precious little center,” there is a wide array of “offerings” that fit the demographics of the population Oakmont seeks to attract: a gym, twelve-step programs, youth/women/men/single groups, and a coffee bar “right in the narthex, I mean, the ‘greeting center.’”

Sproul then goes on to decry such church-growth plants: Oakmont is not one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Test what he says against your experience and your home congregation’s “lifestyle.” If they resonate, you may want to buy some sackcloth and practice prophecy.

I'll let Rev. Sproul speak for himself, except for the boldface, which I've added.

“It is not one because unlike the true church, its being isn’t centered on the work of Christ. … It is the first church of what’s happening now, and thus is untethered from the church in history.”

“Neither, of course is the church holy. It not only is not set apart, but labors diligently to mimic the world. It is unholy on purpose, because its reason for being is pleasing the lost, rather than the One who finds the lost. … The church begins with the assumption that I can be whatever it wishes and concludes by wishing to be just like the world.”

"The prototypical Oakmont is not catholic either. Not only does it begin with a marketing strategy, but that marketing strategy is to reach a particular niche (virtually always yuppies, not coincidentally). … Its vision of the church extends only as broadly as the demographic it is seeking.”

"Worst of all, Oakmont is not apostolic. It rejects not only the faith once delivered unto the saints, but likewise it rejects the messengers who delivered that faith. It takes its cues from modern-day church growth gurus, who, in turn, take their cues from the madmen of Madison Avenue. Oakmont isn’t concerned with what the apostles said because they make their decisions based on what the market says. And one thing the market cannot bear is sound, old, demanding doctrine. When demographics divide, that’s good marketing. But when doctrine divides, that bad marketing.”

“[This worldview] in the church, then, not only guts the church of her defining marks but givers her a new identity. Now she is no longer the bride of Christ, but a painted lady. When the church hustles the world, it becomes a worldly hustler.”

He goes on to warn the church: “When the church plays to consumers, she will find herself consumed by the One who is a consuming fire.”

Thus R. C. Sproul.

I am eager to compare this criticism of the Church with Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” It has been decades since I read Letters and Papers from Prison, and so I want to see the new translation and think it through again. But it seems to me that Bonhoeffer, like Sproul, was (re)calling the Church to her distinctive identity. Religion comprises all those trappings that we acquire and don when we try to be our own gods or define god or make our own “godlike” way. It is an attempt to manipulate – both God and humanity. To be religionless, for Bonhoeffer, could not have meant leaving behind the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity – but rather to identify those in the journey of following Jesus.

On the basis of my very limited contact with both the writers, I think they work toward the same point – to make known to the Church how she is falling prey to false gods, gods that have been created and revealed by the world on the world’s terms. While the world is the Lord’s, until the final consummation, it remains world over against the Church (the Body of Christ). It must be called to account, to repentance, to faith – and not mistakenly (i.e., sinfully) allowed to shape that account, that repentance, that purported faith on its own terms. Oakmont is religion, regardless of the good intentions of her founders and movers and shakers. And Sproul is right to name it.

Incidentally, I think Hauerwas might appreciate this description, too. In fact, it sounds a little like him. (See why I was taken with this “read”?)

The Lord’s peace, not as the world gives peace, sustain you.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Lenten Resource

It is almost Lent, and I don't know how we have arrived there so early (well, Easter is early -- but that's not my point): Einstein's relatively has something to do with it, I suppose, but I don't know that he focussed on aging as one of the factors.

At any rate, it's time to begin thinking about a little more rigor -- or for the modernists among us, intentionality -- in our daily meditations and musings. I have not seen offered for sale my favorite resource, the Bruderhof's Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. It's an anthology of readings (one for each day) drawn from a simply amazing array of people. Most of them are wonderful. I understand that Maryknoll has released a paperback, but I have not researched the matter. If you find one, snatch it up. I'm grateful that I was able to get the original hardcover before The Plough (the Bruderhof's now-defunct publishing house) went out of existence.

For the more technology-inspired, Ed Schroeder, retired (sort of) professor of theology (with roots in the pre-schism Missouri Synod) has placed on-line a daily meditatioin (quite short, apparently; just enough to give you some time to commune with the Lord of Life before or after beginning a hectic day). It is located here.

There are, of course, numerous books -- many of them considering the Lord's seven last words. Richard John Neuhaus has one that I grapple with, and Walter Wangerin is always good. (By the way, reading Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow would be a good Lenten endeavor.)

I'll try to post a couple more suggestions, but how about you? What's going to guide your reflection during the Lenten journey? Just add your comments.

And to those of you, my officially-being-trained theologian friends, where are your suggestions?

Blessings and peace,

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Something Completely Different

As some of my friends know, I have this year begun a new regime in my pursuit of insights into Christ and Culture: I have begun attending movies with a friend on a regular basis -- viz., almost every Tuesday night. As a result, for the first time in a decade I have actually seen most (instead of none) of the Oscar-nominated movies and stars on the big screen and not waited for rental stores or, now, Netflix (I've got to sing that companies praises one of these days) to provide them.

When I was young, I attended movies all the time, but in my later adult years, that practice has fallen off -- even though I love seeing things in theaters (notwithstanding being driven up the wall by popcorn-chomping-Coke-slurping fellow viewers). I learned to articulate what I liked and disliked about movies, but mostly I enjoyed being carried into another world. Yes, I have never had problems with the suspension of reality; I'm an easy mark.

In my new situation, I relish lists of the "ten best" or the "keepers" or such -- by whomever puts out the lists. I've been a fan of Roger Ebert's criticism since I discovered his review show with Gene Siskel (of blessed memory) on pubic TV, and I continue to enjoy him in his new arrangment with Richard Roeper. (There's a summary of their picks for Best Movies, including 2004, of the past few years here.) And I get a newsletter from Orthodox laywoman Frederika Mathewes-Greene that includes movie reviews on a regular basis. (I often disagree with her.)

Today I came across Christianity Today's lists of the best, and I was surprised to find such stuff there. As a kind of knee-jerk political liberal, I don't read CT regularly, but, as an evangelical-catholic Christian, I feel bad about that. I admit that my prejudices put the journal's efforts at culture-criticism in the "carping" pigeonholde. And for that I repent. (I have expected the tone of the journal to be of a type with the snarling self-righteous tone that infests First Things and Touchstone, both of which carry fabulous stuff but alienate me with the editorial crews' partisanship and tunnel vision.)

CT has published two lists of movies, with critical commentary, that are fascinating to see.

I encourage you to check out, here, the journal's list of the Ten Most Redeeming Films of 2004 and, here, its list of the Ten Best Films of 2004. It makes for fascinating reading, and for the most part, the evaluations are sound -- and even accurate.

Your comments, reviews, or list would be welcome here.


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Prayer for Healing

Our prayers go to God that he restore the health and strength of his servant, His Holiness John Paul II.

Vatican spokespeople assure us that his condition is not life-threatening, but breathing problems are never a minor concern -- and are of even greater concern here given the Pope's Parkinson's.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Lutheran Theosis: A New Book (at last)

There is a new book out (and long overdue) that everyone with an interest in Lutheran theology or ecumenism ought to read: Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther's View of Justification , ed. and introduced by Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). (See how inexpensive it is here.)

Professor Mannermaa (recently retired) was long-time professor at University of Helsinki, where he spearheaded an entire movement (fondly called "The Finnish School") devoted to a careful re-reading and re-evaluation of Luther's own writings. Mannermaa discovered and almost counless of his students and colleagues have since provided more and more evidence that Luther has been misinterpreted around the central issue of the Reformation -- Justification by Faith. Mannermaa discovered in Luther a more Orthodox (as in Eastern Church) meaning to the term "justification" than is usually ascribed to the term. For Luther, per The Finnish School, Christ justifies not just in some forensic way, but "really" -- i.e., by making himself truly present to and in the believer. Christ "enters the believer" and in the process begins a process of incorporating the believer into Christ.

The explication of this argument is a beautiful thing to behold (although very little of the literature is available in English -- it's almost all in German and Scandinavian languages). This short book, Mannermaa's original setting forth of his thesis, finally appears in English. Published over twenty years ago as a part of the Professor's official involvement in the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues in Europe, it represented the groundbreaking for what has become a very fertile -- and very controversial -- line of scholarship.

I was privileged to have coffee with Professor Mannermaa one time, and I can testify that he is a gentle, warm, personable, humble, brilliant bear of a man. He and some of his closest colleagues addressed a seminar at St. Olaf sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (the first of the Center's conferences I ever attened and the long-term result of which is that I now sit on the Center's Board of Directors). The addresses, together with responses by American theologians, were collected into what remains really the only other collection of essays around the theme, even to this day: Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). (You can see a picture of Professor Mannermaa in that book.)

This is stuff that will not and ought not go away, despite the controversy. It radically changed my own personal perspective on Luther -- but that is something I have trouble communicating to more "traditional" Lutherans because of my inability to read Luther in German. I'm not sure to what extent English translations of Luther betray a worldview about Luther different from what the German might convey. Nevertheless, I hope that the book is widely read and discussed. Professor Mannermaa himself participated in the translation of his book, working with editor Stjerna to get just the right meaning. (In her introduction, Professor Stjerna discusses the translation process and thereby documents what an invaluable resource this book will prove to be as an accurate overview of all the scholarship that grew out of it.)

And I think Kirsi Stjerna, who teaches at my alma mater, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, deserves high praise and effusive thanks for making this book finally available to us.