Thursday, July 31, 2008


Here's the latest from Marty Center -- this time on spiritual practices. (In Theological Discussion -- a monthly reading and discussion group I facilitate at my church -- we're reading David Augsburger's Dissident Discipleship, an analysis of Anabaptist spirituality. If only for that reason, spirituality is on my mind, and I find that when coupled with the Matthew study, it makes for a rather unsettling examination of conscience with respect to how I live my life.) I quite resonate with the (implied) criticism of "flexodoxy," which I think is the predominate form of Christianity in this country. (Roman Catholics have long called it "cafeteria Christianity" -- take what you like and ignore what doesn't fit your taste.)

Sightings 7/31/08

The Order of Saint Oprah

-- Aaron Curtis

Is there incipient within the modern cult of the self a desire for a more constrictive way of life? Have those of us who live comfortably within the lax constraints of secular humanism discovered that we long for some rigorous "rule of life"? Some means by which to order a welter of consumer choices (including religion) into a more cohesive lifestyle? One might be inclined to pose such questions in light of the recent spate of "rule of life" experiments, such as A.J. Jacobs' year of "living biblically" or Barbara Kingsolver's year lived as a "locavore" (both of which were turned into bestselling books), or, most recently, one Chicago woman's self-imposed challenge to "design her life" in strict accordance with all of Oprah Winfrey's advice. But what this last experiment reveals, surprisingly, is not so much a desire for a more disciplined lifestyle as an inadvertent reaffirmation of a reigning brand of cultural orthodoxy.

At first glance, it would appear that the experiment undertaken by "Lo"—a pseudonym for "Living Oprah"—has, at best, only a tenuous connection to religious practice. This impression is reinforced by the blog she keeps to track her progress and by a July 10 Chicago Reader article on the project, which features an image of Oprah in a pose and garb resembling Chairman Mao, above the title "The Great Commander." Both the article and Lo's blog emphasize the political and socio-economic implications of this particular cult of personality, opting to leave unexplored the suggestion left by one blog visitor that Lo wear a "WWOD" bracelet, as well as Lo's own impression, after attending Oprah's show, that "it was like a church revival."

But there are two crucial respects in which Lo's "practice" bears an interesting resemblance to more traditional devotional practices. First of all, Lo has chosen to relinquish her power of choice entirely (what she eats, watches, reads, et cetera) and is committed to a faithfully neutral obedience (however much her initial intent may have been critically motivated). She asks, "Will I truly find bliss if I commit wholeheartedly to [Oprah's] lifestyle suggestions?" The true value of the experiment has less to do with the effectiveness of Oprah's advice taken piecemeal than with the change effected on the life of so absolute a follower. Secondly, the project's "faith" is invested in the possible results of predominantly physical practices—that is, without need of an attendant belief in their effectiveness. This bears a certain similarity to a strain of ascetic practice that insists on the power of bodily regimentation to bring about a desired change in one's "spiritual" orientation, rather than vice versa.

However weak these similarities may be to what some would deem "authentic" religious practice, they nevertheless serve to reveal the nature of the "religion" of Oprah's followers. Aside from some supportive advice for the struggling neophyte, the most revealing reaction to the "Living Oprah" project has been that of suspicion and even defensive hostility. On the one hand, Lo is violating an unstated but generally assumed norm of the community: Oprah is beloved as a personality at the center of an alluring communal identity and her authority is to be taken on faith; to test it in such a systematic and empirical fashion is to commit a form of sacrilege, or, at least, to miss the point entirely. On the other hand, and far more significantly, Lo's practice is suspect precisely because it diverges from the orthodoxy of this community. One visitor to the blog responded, "Why would you try to take someone that is only trying to do good things on this planet and make a mockery of her? … I watch Oprah. And take what is important to me and what touches my life. Whether it be medical advice, inspirational stories, her own personal actions or experiences, it's up to you to take from it what you need at that particular time." Here we have a perfect articulation of a prevalent form of modern spirituality that some, especially in orthodox and evangelical circles, have labeled "flexodoxy" —what theologian and scholar N.T. Wright describes as "free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality."

The prevalence of flexodoxy is not news. But it is surprising that, with Lo's experiment, the culture of flexodoxy should end up asserting its own orthodoxy—deciding for oneself what one needs, when one needs it. Those aspects of Lo's project that do resemble more traditional religious practices are precisely the ones that are most threatening to this particular "faith community", in which membership is based more on belief than on rigorous practice, and absolute obedience violates the norms of flexodoxy. By refusing the right of choice and by failing to see value in a sense of belonging rather than in practical effects, Lo is failing to live by Oprah's "rule of life" in its most fundamental sense.


The Chicago Reader story on Lo's project can be read at:

Aaron Curtis is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Note for those concerned: My understanding of Marty Center policy on re-publishing is that it's OK with proper credit, which I think I've provided.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ministry

Lutheran Zephyr rightly takes on a situation in which a Lutheran pastor is touted, in the recent issue of The Lutheran, as the tour leader for a pilgrimage to Las Vegas. You can find his comments here.

This issue of Lutheran pastors' remaining on the clergy roster even though they are working at jobs or in positions that have nothing to do with word-and-sacrament ministry seems to need attention. According to the Augsburg Confession -- that quaint little document that doesn't have much to say to the modern church's structure, I guess -- the Lutheran Church ordains pastors to the ministry of and to word and sacrament. That is, the sole distinguishing mark of pastors vis-a-vis "the laity" is that pastors preach the orthodox faith and minister the sacraments in a accord with the orthodox faith. And as I understand matters, this was in response to a theology of ministry that placed those who were ordained on an ontological plane higher that a mere layperson. While we do not hold a merely "functional" understanding of ministry, neither do we subscribe to any notion that work done by a pastor is holier, more professional, or any other -er than the same work performed by a layperson.

I have found that the Confession is observed as much in the breach as in the observance. We all know all kinds of people working in secular positions, who are not serving ministries of word and sacrament in any sense that makes any sense, who are nevertheless carried on the clergy roster of the ELCA as "pastors." (Note: I don't have any problem with various kinds of lay people's being including under pension plan. It's a matter of the doctrine of ordination.) We have editors at publishing houses, teachers in colleges (I guess it's OK if it's a Lutheran school, but not OK if it's a state university?), "counselors" in social service agencies, various kinds of tent-making "ministries" where there is no congregation in the worker's line of service.

So my question is what is up with that?

The Lutheran Church has never had a very clearly defined doctrine of the ministry (even aside from whether ordination is properly confirmed without a bishop's hands). But I have understood that there is, in Lutheran theology, no provision for the "indelible mark" of ordination: Once one is not preaching and presiding, one is not a pastor. (In my own case, I specifically correct anyone who says that I'm a pastor who works as a lawyer or the like. I was a pastor; I am no longer a pastor. On the other hand, I do not believe that my "derostered" status relieves me of the my ordination vows -- and this is contrary to what some say. Thus, I feel that I must be careful not to teach anything that is at odds with the dogmatic heritage of the Church. If I get to the margins, I have to acknowledge where I'm getting on thin ice.) It is no disgrace to be a "former pastor." But, to the contrary, I think there is something unseemly in (whether literally or figuratively) continuing to wear a collar when one is not ministering to a congregation by preaching and presiding (and more than once or twice a year!).

Implicated here are all those synod and Chicago bureaucrats who maintain the title "pastor" but couldn't preach their way out of a simple Gnostic trap and who wouldn't know an anaphora from a spittoon; "youth" or "associate pastors" whose job is scheduling youth events and hosting overnights or programming hook-up events for young marrieds; congregational "administrators" and "visitation pastors" whose call does not involve preaching and presiding full time. All of this causes me to laugh derisively whenever I read old Lutheran attacks on the Roman priesthood: There was nothing in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic clergy pool that has not been taken up by the post-Reformation Lutheran corps.

Heck, Lutheran pastors' lending their names -- on an occasional basis -- to treks to Las Vegas seems small change compared to all the collars I see running around -- full time -- doing things just as secular.

Still to come: My take on the failure of Lutheran ecclesiology. (I just have to reduce the manuscript from 50 pages!)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ruth Manz, May her memory be eternal.

I have been remiss in not expressing my sorrow at the death of Ruth Manz, wife and collaborator of musician-extraordinaire Paul Manz. My friend Cha has posted a most fitting and inspiring tribute to her at her site, here. Be sure to listen to "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," for which Ruth Manz organized the lyrics.

Rest eternal grant her, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon her.

Passivity vs. Participation

I'm contemplating closing down my blog because I don't pay close enough attention to it. But then along comes something, like Tuesday, and I'm glad to have a place to think things through in black-and-white.

I wrote in the "Acknowledgements" section of my family studies thesis that "an acknowledgements page is an author's place to boast of the quality of his friendships." I think that this blog, too, serves that purpose for me. Let me show you.

Tuesday evening Brother-in-Christ Paul paid a visit. We keep in touch by e-mail, but because of the geographical distance between us, we may see each other about once or twice a year. Returning from a holiday trip, he stayed over in the Twin Cities and spent an evening with my family and me. (The family went to be a lot earlier than Paul and I wrapped up our conversation!)

Paul has been ordained about 4 years now (I was the assisting minister at his ordination, so I feel a special investment in his ministry), and since then he has come to occupy a significant space in my heart and head. We differ, I think, fairly radically on matters of theological expression, but we are kindred spirits in our desire to uphold the classic faith (he's a little less interested in the ecumenical aspects of that faith than am I) and to articulate church's theology in clear, orthodox, serious terms. Paul is a modern-day Gnesio-Lutheran (I think he even styles himself that sometimes, but always with a twinkle in the eye, to which I reply that he sounds more like a Gnesio-Melancthonian than -Lutheran), whereas I am -- what? A dilettante, I suppose. Paul has the makings, and the initial training, to be a first-rate scholar (though I hope he stays in the parish because we need more scholar-pastors); I am a hobbyist. Paul is pastoral, friendly, and diplomatic; I am brash, too-old-to-care-much, and far-from-pastoral.

This time's conversation turned to the issue of grace in the Christian life -- something we both acknowledge is the beginning point for any conversation about the Christian faith. (In fact, I think I caught some Barthian sympathies for a reversal of the law-gospel order into gospel-first-then-law. But I won't press the lad on that quite yet. He did admit, of course, that his great hero and guide, Gerhard Forde, was influenced by and a great admirer of Karl Barth. So there you have it: Jolly good.)

Paul insists on a kind of classic Lutheran, though not an exclusive, emphasis on the forensic aspects of God's grace. I, as I make all too unclear on these "pages," think that an over-played theme. Paul dismisses my fondness for concepts of "participation" in Christ (and consequently, in the Trinity), which I note to him is Biblical-Paul-ine language, and instead urges Apostle Paul's talk of being "conformed" to Christ. On the surface, as I discuss below, that seems to be a wide divide -- and I think there are some pretty serious implications for opting for one or the other (which one, of course, need not do -- by my lights, anyway). But after reflecting for a couple of days, I think I'm beginning to see that Friend Paul and I may be divided by a common language. (Tip of the hat to Mencken.) We use a common Lutheran vocabulary, but we neither use the terms in ways the other person quite understands. And the more we talk, the more I realize that, while we have real differences, the differences are often at different places than I expect.

Of course, that latest insight is precisely the experience of those who engage in theological dialogue -- Episcopalians and American Lutherans; Roman Catholics and Lutherans, Lutherans and the Orthodox traditions. (I'm eager to see reports of the dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Disciples of Christ. That ought to be fascinating.) We need, on the classic debate model, to define terms and concepts carefully; we can't assume that "justification" means "justification" or that "no law" means "antinomianism."

But on to one issue that I'll continue to raise with Paul. I think there is a tendency in "classic" Lutheran theology to make two mistakes, missteps, or something of the sort. (And remember: I'm in this camp, so I speak out of love, not triumphalism.) First, I think the classic expression of Lutheran doctrine (and this is the result, I suppose, of battles in the Lutheran scholastic period) is too static to do justice to the Biblical revelation. And second, I think Lutheranism doesn't really have a theology of the Church (an ecclesiology), and that lack makes it difficult for us to speak of salvation in any but in rather static terms.

First, Lutheran talk is often static: Justification, grace, forensic judgments, and the like conjure up a universe in which human beings just sort of sit there and take it. We are acted upon for the sheer point of being acted upon. And so we are declared justified; we are showered with grace; we are assured of forgiveness. And certainly I have to problem with that kind of language as far as it goes. But "as far as it goes" is precisely my problem: I don't think it goes far enough to capture the biblical witness. This grace business, this justification stuff, this salvific action is not static; it is a dynamic power or process (not in the sense of process theology) that -- according to Jesus and Paul and significant others -- effects (not affects: in this, effects -- i.e., makes happen) what it offers and says.

Often I think of Lutheran "gospel" in these terms: (I didn't get a baptismal certificate; instead, mine is contained in a wonderful little booklet -- very fancy and very classy.) But suppose I got a nicely caligraphed baptismal certificate, such as are common today. I frame it and hang it on the wall. Now I know that I'm grace-filled; the certificate hangs on the wall as a nice reminder and as evidence. It's all done now; I'm free to go about my way, confident of God's love regardless of what I do. It's a sign of status: Dwight is a child of God, and he can prove it. And in this case, the status is permanent and irrevocable (at least, that's the point of most Lutheran preaching I hear). Grace is something done to me -- usually explained in past tense. And it's all very narrowly prescribed, very nailed-down, not very dynamic.

Oh, it's good news, of course. How really amazing -- one might say, big -- of God to reach out to me, a sinner. What wonderful news that he loves me and has taken me to himself (whatever that's supposed to me), contrary to all reason and justice, over the contradindications of my sin. So I will of course worship him every Sunday, firmly announcing my "Amens" to the prayers and singing the hymns with gusto.

But it's still rather one- or maybe two-dimensional. The certificate is a metaphor for my life of faith: It's a photograph, a snapshot, a painting on a wall. It's not a life; it's not a challenge (except to "believe" it so that it's true -- we won't go into the legalism of that kind of talk); it doesn't go very far. Oh, with due respect to my friend, we may be "conformed" to Christ: The Apostle talks of that, yes. But the sense I get from that language puts me in mind of a statue: It's molded to stand eternally on its pedestal; the clay or marble has been conformed to the sculptor's vision or intention. But where does it go?

I counter with what seems to me to be a more dynamic model for/of salvation. I can variously describe it, but an exciting word for me right now is "participation" in Christ -- especially in contrast to "conformed" to Christ. I suppose it roots in my affection for Eastern theology (where sin figures into the picture in different way), my respect for Anabaptist traditions, and my reading for the Matthew class. But this is a major theme in Apostle Paul, too, and I don't know why it doesn't get more play in Lutheranism.

I am drawn to this theological perspective, aside from its coherence with the Biblical narrative, because it excites me, it seems to have a point, it makes sense of all that "growth in grace" talk in the Bible and the liturgy. Instead of God's granting me a status, he inducts me into his life and mission. Instead of my baptismal certificate's hanging on the wall as a status marker, it is rather a draft notice, an induction order. (Of course, it is more invitation than "order" -- but put the best construction on what I'm doing.) This all carries more existential bite than the old preaching.

Following is an excerpt from an evangelical's book on the life of faith (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement). At this point in his analysis, McKnight sets forth his idea that salvation involves being restored to the imago dei of Genesis. He uses the Greek work eikon to substitute for the Latin phrase (and the English equivalent, "image of God"). And here he sets out a description of what being God's eikon means:

To be an Eikon means, first of all, to be in union with God as Eikons; second, it means to be in communion with other Eikons; and third, it means to participation with God in his crating, his ruling, his speaking, his naming, his ordering, his variety and beauty, his location, his partnering, and his resting, and to oblige God in his obligating of us. Thus, an Eikon is God-oriented, self-oriented, other-oriented, and cosmos-oriented. To be an Eikon is to be a missional being -- one designed to love God, self, and others and to represent God by participating in God's rule in this world.
Now I find that really exciting talk. To be so graced by God as to be drawn into this life "in this world and the next" is, to my ear, total Gospel. That this graced-ness has a form also makes perfect sense for continuing to live in the world. It sounds like the Sermon on the Mount, and Bonhoeffer, and Hauerwas. But for that to make sense as Gospel, we must move on to a second practical weakness in Lutheran theology -- that of the lack of (or at least a diminished) ecclesiology. But that is for the next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Summary of the Witness of Jesus

Everything gets run through the prism of Matthew these days: You can probably imagine how I'm dealing with sermons on the Matthew pericopes. And my reading, too, gets the Matthean hermeutical lens.

Here comes Scot McKnight from North Park University in Chicago, and he nicely summarizes the questions, concerns, and conclusions in my own current thinking:

Christians believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that this all took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity – it is our gospel. It explains how the gospel works.

The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians to show up in statistics as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called the “truth of the gospel.” Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

- Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 1

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Are Many Christians Just Plain Dumb?

Here's a sad little tale, courtesy of the Marty Center and its Sightings newsletter. (Note that the author has a joint appointment in theology and computer science. I don't even want to think what that might mean -- even at St. John's!)

Sightings 7/17/08

Left Behind or Left in Cyberspace?

-- Noreen Herzfeld

As a teenager, when a friend first told me about the rapture, in which Christians will be miraculously transported to heaven while sinners remain on earth to suffer a variety of tribulations, I was quite sure that, sinner that I was, I was destined to be the one member of my family and friends who would surely be "left behind." My psychology teacher later assured me that considering oneself the "chief of sinners," as the apostle Paul did, was a normal response, since we each know our own peccadilloes far more intimately than we know those of others. Apparently, however, not everyone shares this proclivity. For forty dollars a year, those who are relatively assured of their own salvation can now leave a final e-mail to less fortunate loved ones who might be left behind during the rapture. A new web site,, allows users to compose a final message that will be sent to up to sixty-two recipients, six days after the rapture occurs. These messages might be used to pass on information, such as bank account numbers and passwords, but the site stresses the opportunity to leave a letter begging those who remain to accept Christ, a last chance with one's loved ones to "snatch them from the flames."

This raises a host of questions, both practical and religious. Is it safe to store sensitive financial information on such a website (answer: no)? Would the web still function after the rapture? Why not play it safe, save the forty dollars, and simply leave a stack of letters on your desk? is one of the latest attempts to market religion in cyberspace. Sites abound hawking a variety of religious books and wares. Beyond the crassly commercial, there are web sites for a wide variety of religious faiths and denominations where one can access religious texts, share experiences and prayer requests, initiate new spiritual friendships, or engage in ecumenical dialogue. As a resource for finding a quick answer to a religious question, the Internet is unbeatable. Web cams let one make a virtual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, or Chartres Cathedral. Avatars in Second Life build virtual churches and synagogues and participate in religious rituals with one another. Each of these draws on the strength of the Internet as a medium that overcomes distance or physical limitations. The computer enlarges the neighborhood, giving opportunities to connect with or learn from a wide variety of people and traditions.

However, what computer technology gives to religion in terms of speed and broader access, it takes away through lack of physical presence. The sacramentality of the Christian faith, for one, calls us to move away from our keyboards and into the real world. In this world we cannot dismiss those with whom we disagree with the click of a mouse. We are asked to taste and feel and smell the world around us in its elemental richness. We learn what is, not what we wish were. Cyberspace is, in the end, an ambiguous place. We do not know if people in chat rooms are who they say they are. We do not know if an e-mail will really get forwarded on. As philosopher Albert Borgmann points out, "ambiguity is resolved through engagement with an existing reality, with the wilderness we are disagreed about, the urban life we are unsure of, or the people we do not understand." Computer applications may seem like a simpler alternative, but they are rarely as satisfying as the real thing.

So I think I'll save the forty dollars. A sealed envelope in my desk and power of attorney documents will cover my much more likely demise from natural causes. And as for worrying about myself or others being "left behind," Jesus' promise that "I will never leave you nor forsake you" is far more reassuring than any web site.

Noreen Herzfeld is professor of Theology and Computer Science at St. John's University, Collegeville MN.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Poor Archbishop Rowan ...

As if he didn't have enough on his plate, now his own gathering of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England in England, has ratified the consecration of women to the episcopacy. Lambeth looms and he must now face threats of an angry schism within English Anglicanism along with all the other rumblings of splits in the worldwide communion. (Thank goodness similar things don't happen in other communions, specifically my own branch of Lutheranism!)

I must confess that, for the life and salvation of me, I cannot penetrate the arguments against a female clergy and episcopacy. I've seen theological, sociological, heretical (especially gnostic), good-faith blathering, et. al., arguments against the ordination (and consecration except to diaconal service) of women. I was told by one prominent Anglican (not episcopalian) theologian (a woman) that she can understand and accept ordination of women to the presbyterate (priesthood or ministry), but that she can discern no similar charism for women to the episcopate. (I know I'm a protestant and can't possibly have a feel for the deep structure of ordination, but her claim completely baffled me!) I've read Alexander Schmemann, may his memory be everlasting; I remember some of the uproar in American Lutheranism over the issue; I've tried to read Benedict on the subject.

And I just don't get it.

Most of it seems to come down to an ontological argument that since Jesus' Twelve were male, then all the ordained must similarly be male. That there were women available apparently makes clear that Jesus did not choose any because he did not want women in positions of the hierarchy (used in the holiest sense, of course, not in any value-laden or power sense). But that doesn't make much sense to me. After all, the early church clearly seems to have had women who presided over their congregations (apparently with an emphasis on much more in keeping with the Lord's intention for this church's operating than did many of the men in similar positions). And besides that, the Apostles were also all Jews. There were Gentiles available, and Matthew ends his Gospel with a mandate for the Apostles to extend the community of salvation to all nations. So the fact that Jesus didn't call any Gentiles to follow him seems to mandate a Jew-male-only clergy, by the reasoning of the "Traditionalists."

I'd welcome any reference to a well-reasoned, non-inflammatory exposition of the theology underlying the extreme reaction to women's ordination. Because I'm just flummoxed!

As a Lutheran, I have done my homework, I think, and I consider this issue to be a classic case of adiaphora and of the genius the Church has to turn an issue of adiaphora into status confessionis. I think that the Church may structure her ministries in any way that serves the Gospel. But I also think the catholic witness has been that a three-fold order best represents Christ's will for the Church. Nevertheless, the lack of same within Lutheranism does not invalidate claims of "legitimacy" for either Lutheran ordination or the Lutheran Church as church. But tell me that the Gospel requires foregoing the three-fold orders (as many Lutherans do) and I go to war.

In this case, I do not believe that the ordination and/or consecration of women is a matter of justice (equal opportunity under the law) or of practical necessity (there aren't enough men willing to serve) or any such misguided nonsense. And so I'm very sympathetic with a traditional stand on the matter. But the minute you tell me that women may not (that's the adiaphorist claim) and cannot (that's the ontological argument) be ordained to the presbyterate and episcopacy, you get my dogmatic juices flowing.

But as ready as my jaws are to sink into a good, meaty argument against women in orders, I bite and find lemon curd. If you've got heartier fare, let me know.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

As We Near "The 4th"

As we approach the 4th of July, listservs are all atwitter with conversation about how appropriately or whether to mark the occasion in church on Sunday. (I am reminded that in the year of my graduation from Seminary and of my ordination, 1976, the 4th of July in the Bicenntenial Year fell on a Sunday. I still don’t know whether that was an act of God’s prophetic power or a sign of his sense of irony.) Those conversations are rather more intense this year, I expect, for various reasons: The debate about whether the “religious right” is in decline, the notoriety of parsons of particularly poor sense lined up with presidential candidates, the fact that it is a presidential election year and that the Democratic candidate seems more comfortable talking about his Christian faith than does the Republican. Nothing like a good dose of caesaropapism to get people stewing: What is the proper balance between our loyalties and commitments as “American citizens” and our baptismal rebirth. (If that doesn’t cause the Lutherans out there to begin salivating over two-kingdoms theories, nothing will.)

I personally accept no second place to anyone when it comes to disdain for formalistic displays of "patriotism" -- and no more so than in church. I totally agree with those who argue that we are citizens of heaven and that our "allegiance" is to the One Lord, not to a flag or a President or a country (which is a social construct, not a "reality," anyway). I don’t “believe” in allegiances to things or to constructs: I invest my allegiance in people. So, in what has become a related issue, I don’t care a whit about “the family”: I am committed to my family members and our relationships; I will do what I can to support our friends in theirs. But my graduate degree in family “ecology” makes me skittish about generalities about the “institution” of marriage, family, or anything else.

At the same time (and here I may betray a subconscious Lutheranism that I am often accused of trying to leave behind), it seems to be most appropriate to pray for all of creation -- in thanksgiving for and for vindication of what is good; for amendment and redemption of what is not. And so I pray for clement weather -- thanking God, e.g., for beautiful days. (I've never done so in a Sunday liturgy for which I’ve composed prayers, but others have and I have not been the slightly offended). Conversely, I pray for the amelioration of "natural disasters" (which is a common issue in Sunday prayers at our place). Just so, and by the same logic, for the blessings of liberty, I think it appropriate to give thanks; for the ability of governments to meld the individual efforts of many into service to a common weal I think it appropriate to ask. And just so, it is appropriate to pray for the repentance of all in positions power so that they use their powers in ways consonant with the will of God.

The key, for me, is to allow the liturgical heritage of the Church to lead us. The secular calendar will most often be put to good use by being ignored: We do not look to the secular calendar to tell us for what to pray; we take our leadership from the Scriptures and the liturgical year. Thus, we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in May, but in August, when we commemorate Mary, the Theotokos; we have a Father's Day – if at no other time then at Christmas, though the festival of Joseph, Guardian of our Lord, provides similar opportunities to learn about fatherhood; we have a day for prayers for our particular governments which is the Sunday when the Gospel text is "render to Ceasar" (the chief point of which lection seems to be that ultimately NOTHING belongs to Caesar, and that may be just the tone we wish to sound in church-state relations).

And the related issue of how flags relate to this, my thinking is quite clear: They don't belong anywhere near a Christian church building, longstanding traditions notwithstanding (and here I include the most elegant justifications that exist for the cozy church-state relationship that have arisen in and out of Anglicanism). Flags are symbols of division -- of human-designed divisions, at that, which will ultimately be overcome. In Christ there is no American or Briton or Zimbabwean, and neither are there flags.

The so-called “Christian flag” is just as objectionable. The “standard” of the kingdom of God is the cross, not a blaze of fabric that parallels territorial banners. I think the deep structure of the “Christian flag” betrays the real meaning of the animal, too: It can’t be a mistake that the colors of the “Christian flag” are red, white, and blue – with no green, black, brown, orange, purple, or other colors that might underscore the variety of the creation. No, I suspect that the inspiration was the almost-natural human inclination toward triumphalism. Flags by their nature serve that impulse. And if for no other reason, that is reason enough to ban them from the premises.