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.

Monday, August 03, 2009


I have swiped some tidbits from Wendell Berry's poem, "Sabbaths 2005." I have yet to find anything he writes other than excellent.

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.

"Are you back to normal?" asks
my old friend, ill himself, after I,
who have been ill, am well. "Yes,
the gradient of normality now being downward." ...

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don't think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. ...

I tremble with gratitude
for my children and their children
who take pleasure in one another.

At our dinners together, the dead
enter and pass among us
in living love and in memory.

And so the young are taught.

Eternity is not infinity.
It is not a long time.
It does not begin at the end of time.
It does not run parallel to time.
In its entirety it always was.
In its entirety it will always be.
It is entirely present always.

Born by our birth
Here on the earth
Our flesh to wear
Our death to bear

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nothing in Particular

Kathy and I attended mass with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, yesterday. (It's the sister monastery to St. John's Abbey, about which I will speak at great length if you but ask.) We were there for the Jubilee (50th anniversary of solemn profession of vows) of the sister of the husband of one of Kathy's second cousins. (It's a long story -- short version: Kathy's relatives are delighted about our interest in "things Catholic," which sparked an introduction to Sr. Cecelia, who was delighted to have at her celebration a couple of Protestants who shared her passion for ordered ministry.)

It was, by most standards, a pretty unremarkable event. It was a straightforward mass, although it was pretty much "run" (as Kathy said) by women, and not by men: The prioress preached the homily, only one man aside from the presiding priest served communion (and I guess he was a former president of the College of St. Benedict, which was established by this community), the prioress presided over the nuns' reaffirmation of their vows, and so on. The Sacred Heart Chapel has been brightened and modernized along Vatican II lines, with a centered chancel, very white walls, an utter impressive dome that now (what with the remodeling) sits over the altar as a kind of glorified baldachin. The music was familiar, with pipe organ supplemented with brass, violin, and for some numbers guitar (which was wonderful with the psalm and a canticle).

But despite the every-day appearance, it was a moving and inspiring event. Sister Prioress gave a precis of each "Jubilant"'s service over 50 years. And one -- well, I -- couldn't help wondering how the Roman Catholic Church could possible function without its nuns/sister and monks/brothers. Of course, I'm partial to Benedictines: When they remember their heritage/mission of hospitality, I can only shout "Amen," because I have been the recipient of that hospitality time and again. When they speak of praying the Psalms, I am humbled. When the schola sang the verses to the Psalm at mass, there was a sense of the familiarity of the texts that I never hear elsewhere. And I realize how important it is that they meet "three times daily" to speak, sing, recite, pray, praise the Psalms. When the sisters speak together or arrange for a luncheon for guests or (as Sr. Dorothy had to do) come fetch guests from the community cemetery in order to be included in a picture, there is something rooted and sound that is often missed by even the most evangelically driven pastor or lay person in my world.

There was an aura of sanctity that attached to the place -- to and through the individual sisters that I met, but also to and through the mere existence of the community (now over 150 years old). Even the chapel looked more modern than my church (and I love the English Gothic building we have!), I felt wrapped up in something big and old and durable. It was Church, with a capital "C".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More Fr Taft

Here are two more quotations from Robert Taft, this time from "'Eastern Presuppositions' and Western Liturgical Renewal":

Nothing is so foreign to the western mentality as the ancient prayers of the Assyro-Chaldean tradition which simply to God without asking him for anything, as in the beautiful Collect of the Lakumara Hymn: "For all your benefits and graces to us past recompense, Lord, we confess and glorify you without ceasing in your triumphant church full of all helps and all blessings: for you are the Lord and creator of all, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, forever."

And shortly thereafter Taft comments

Like the reply of George Leigh Mallory when asked why he climbed Mount Everest -- "Because it is there," he answered -- the Christian east prays to God simply because he is. One constantly hears in the west that people do not go to church because "they don't get anything out of it anymore." What one "gets out of it," let me repeat what I have said on other occasions, is the inestimably privilege of glorifying almighty God.

Res ipsa loquitur, in legal jargon: The thing speaks for itself.

And the people said, "Amen!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

So That Explains It

By Robert Taft's terms, I must be a Byzantine Christian. In an article on "The Spirit of Eastern Christian Worship," the Byzantine rite Catholic scholar of Eastern liturgy notes,

Latin Catholics often visit church to be alone with God; they have a feeling of emptiness in a Protestant church where the sacrament is not reserved. Not so the Byzantine Christians. On entering church they do not proceed to their private prayers without first going round to visit the icons, kissing them and lighting a candle before them, thus saluting the saints and joining in their communion.

That's my experience in church, too, although most of my "special" icons are alive and kicking. This past Sunday, I got to church early (not unusual for me because I enjoy what will happen next), and there were the greeters to greet and hug and share a joke with. (They had time for this, because the great last-minute Lutheran rush was some time off yet.) Then in to "my pew" (sorry, Kate: fourth pew, pulpit side), with a bow to the altar, sign of the cross, and a brief prayer. But across the aisle were Ro and Elaine, so it was out to hug and shake hands and share some excitement about the beautiful day -- and pets. (And then they scooted me up to adjust one of flower vases at the altar so that it was properly oriented. I'm not on altar guild, but I can handle turning a flower urn, I guess.) Then on to deliver an article I had saved for someone and to joke with another friend about the Cathars, for whom we both harbor some affection (if mostly as the source of humorous barbs). Back to the pew and hugs and kisses for the pewmates (among our closest friends) and the people behind us -- who usually sit farther back. And then "devotion" began in earnest -- or is that wrong?

My devotions don't begin when I cut out all the distractions of the people around me to be alone with God. (I have one friend who puts it almost exactly that way, and I can't begin to understand him.) I go to church to be with these very brothers and sisters, the Church. I can't imagine a liturgy without them. (At Mount Olive, we're a two-service church, except in summer. So some of these people I don't always see during the winter except at coffee hour. And so summer is special because I'm able to be with both "service" crowds.) To celebrate the liturgy, to receive the presence of the Lord, is for me entirely wrapped up the hopes and sadnesses of these folks. And not just them. There's the columbarium, where a few brothers share in our "mass" and await God's own good time to reunite them with us in bodily form. And then that great cloud of witnesses of which Paul speaks -- that's not just theoretical: Some of them are pictured in the windows; others we remember in prayers.

I felt that perhaps I wasn't being serious enough at church, even though we're a far-from-dour crowd. But now I get it: It's my Byzantine heart. With them, I take the "communion of saints" with utter seriousness. I'd like to see a more serious attempt to include the saints who have gone before in our prayer life at Mount Olive; it's better than it used to be. But for that to take hold, it seems to me, the kind of communing that occurs among the visible living forms the model for our including those whom we can't see.

And to think of worshiping without them is simply not something I can -- or want to -- get my mind around.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Loving Truth in "Caritas in Veritate"

Pope Benedict's newest encyclical is Caritas in Veritate and is meant to inform "all people of good will on integral human development in charity and truth" (caption). At the beginning of the letter he writes of the importance of holding truth and charity/love together. For while charity "is the synthesis of the entire Law ..." (par. 2), "[w]ithout truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. ... Truth, in fact, is the logos which creates dia-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things" (pars. 3,4).

That's gorgeous, isn't it? Charity, unhampered by truth, easily degenerates into subjectivism and sentimentality. [God is love] does not equate with [Love is god]. Love must have content, form, telos. Absent concern for that, which the Holy Father claims must be grounded in the dynamic of truth in the Gospel, we can't agree on whether something is loving or not. The current lack of consensus on what constitutes love results from "a social and cultural context which relativizes truth, often paying little heed to it and showing increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence" (par. 2).

Yesterday, I was reading Miroslav Volf where he reflected on receiving his first adopted son from the hands of the boy's birth mother. That experience changed the way he looked at love (and specifically his views of birth mothers who give up their children for adoption, whom he didn't consider very loving), for the mother whispered to her newborn, just before giving him into the hands of the Volfs, that she was doing it for him, since she couldn't care for him. (I wish I had the book here, because the passage is just beautiful.) He says that he changed his view of mothers who give up their children for adoption, realizing now that those mothers' motives might be more loving, given the good things it makes possible for the child that otherwise might not be possible, than holding on to the child in satisfaction of some motherly instinct or whatever. In this case, it was not that the mother didn't love the child or didn't want to be encumbered or didn't want to have to change; it was that the mother didn't have the resources to care for the child and, consequently, arranged for the child to be placed in a loving home where he would have the kind of care that would allow him to flourish. Note: This is not just a consideration of who has more money or similar resources; it is about the ability to provide holistic --holy -- care for the child. Who could buy the neatest toys for the kid was not a consideration.

I think the two readings are related -- and I'm not sure I can articulate it. But there is a deep truth at work in the intersection of these two thoughts. My thinking looks something like this: Without "truth's" informing our views and actions of "love," it is easy to overlook that love is not just an emotion (e.g., all mothers must naturally love their children), but something of a policy (that the welfare of the other is the primary concern I have).The truth is in that parenthetical policy statement. And how do we know? By checking motives, feelings, actions against the witness of the Bible -- a kind of "what did [not: would] Jesus do" analysis -- and allowing our instincts, predispositions, ethics and ethos, principles, et. al. to flow from there.

Now I have to go back to reading the encyclical. Because the language to say all of this must be in there -- and I have a lot of pages to go. And I will read the Volf book (Free of Charge: Living and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace), too, in tandem with the Pontiff's encyclical. This is good stuff.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

God and Guns

You maybe can imagine my wanting to scream and rant about the pastor in Kentucky (home of Jack Daniels, for crying out loud) who invited people to bring guns to his church service in order to celebrate the Second Amendment and the propriety of guns in the hands of Christians. I hope that you appreciate my discretion in not entitling such a potential post "Too Stupid for Words." But along comes this post from the Marty Center's Sightings. It puts the matter in an interesting frame. And while I'm not sure that I am comfortable with Laycock's neutrality, he raises some interesting issues. (Incidentally, as I think I have noted before, you can subscribe to the twice-a-week email posts from the Marty Center -- one always by Martin Marty, the other by scholars and students in fields relating to theology and the body politic -- by connecting to the Marty Center's website.)

Sightings 7/9/09

Understanding the “Open Carry Celebration”

-- Joseph Laycock

On June 27th––one week before the 4th of July––New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky held an “Open Carry Celebration” in which visitors and parishioners were invited to bring their firearms to church. Firearms could not be loaded, but celebrants licensed to carry concealed weapons would not be searched. This celebration of the Second Amendment also included a handgun raffle, patriotic music, and information on firearm safety. The event seemed poorly timed after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in a Wichita church and James von Brunn’s assault on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. However, the church’s pastor, former marine and handgun trainer Ken Pagano, had been planning the event prior to these high profile shootings.

The celebration has received wide media coverage. Many find the juxtaposition of firearms and religion perplexing. Even other gun owners have questioned the logic of inviting strangers to bring guns to church. Many articles have linked Pagano to gun lobby fears that the Obama administration is planning sweeping anti-gun legislation. However, Pagano’s sermons on Christian self-defense contain no references to current legislation or the reputation of president Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as being “gun-grabbers.” Instead, material on the New Bethel Church website indicates two factors behind the Open Carry Celebration. The first was the March 8th shooting of Pastor Fred Winters in First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois. In one of his sermons, Pagano read a statement by the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission that attributed Winters’ death to “anti-Christian hostility and a lack of guns in church.” Pagano thought the statement was “over the top” but said he supported the idea that Christianity is compatible with self-defense.

The second factor is a brand of muscular Christianity supported by a theology that seeks a “synthesis” of the Jesus of the Gospels with the divine wrath found in the Old Testament as well as the Book of Revelations. In his sermons Pagano criticizes the axiom What would Jesus do? as “crass commercialism.” He argues that the WWJD approach to life contributes to an overemphasis on the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels, and undermines the doctrine that Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Pagano states in one of his sermons, “Many of the people who are raising the stink [about the Open Carry Celebration] are people who believe in a maudlin, sentimental view of Jesus Christ that really has nothing to do with the sacred texts of scripture.” He cites Luke 22:36, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” and points out that at least two of Jesus’ disciples carried weapons. In one sermon he states that Jesus is, “not coming back as a limp-wristed, stamp-collecting preacher. He’s coming back as a navy seal, a force recon marine, or a green beret.”

At first blush, the Open Carry Celebration would seem to confirm the gaffe made by Obama during the primaries that a weak economy drives “bitter” working class voters to “cling to guns and religion.” However, it would be dismissive to read the event simply as a conservative church supporting a conservative political cause. Within Pagano’s theological framework, the Open Carry Celebration is not simply an affirmation of Second Amendment Rights. The idea that America’s gun culture is compatible with Christianity has become tied to a specific Christology. This is no longer a conflict over gun culture but over what scripture says about Christ. Pagano is not struggling with anti-gun legislation but with an image of Christ that many conservative Evangelicals see as feminized, commercialized, and inauthentic. Pastors seeking to “restore” a manly image of Christ have already brought us events like Mark Driscoll’s “Fighting with God” where Jesus is discussed by athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Within this culture, is a church celebration of firearms really so surprising?


A New York Times article on the Open Carry Celebration can be found here:

Audio clips of Ken Pagano’s sermons can be downloaded here:

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student studying religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).


Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gerson Gets it Right

I don't happen to agree with Michael Gerson in The Washington Post very often. But last week he got it quite right.

We have a white Havanese ourselves, and I can testify that everything he says about his Latte is true of our Krissie (we didn't name here: She had been given that name by the rescue society from whom we adopted her). I have long called her my anti-depressant (the same designation Gerson gives Latte) and Kathy, my wife, claims that she sees my blood pressure visibly go down when I get on the floor to play with the white fluff ball.

Havanese (or Bichon havanais: see here) owners are notoriously chauvinistic -- there is really no other breed for us. And we will talk your ear off about how precious our little beasts are. Gerson is relatively succinct in his praise of the breed. But he does highlight some of the breed's remarkable history.

I've been reading N.T. Wright on resurrection (Surprised by Hope) and he draws a picture of a post-resurrection New Heaven and New Earth that is very earthy. Included, it seems, is a future that will include all that has been precious to us humans -- which would include our pets. Frankly, it's hard to imagine a New Earth that does not include those animals that have provided so much love, joy, challenge to my life. And I take heart in Wright's assertion that I do not need to worry about that.

Even the precious Havanese, which have been bred for no earthly purpose than to provide companionship to their pets (read: owners) will be there. There is likely a sermon in that.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I thank God regularly for the number of good conversation partners with whom He has seen fit to graced me. (I saw recently and somewhere that a Spanish-speaker had translated his own reply to someone, "Muchas gracias!" as "many graces." It's a literal translation I suppose, but just look at how much more charming and eucharistic that translation is than the "thank you" he could have used.) And you see evidence of that here all the time. (If I've ever had an original thought -- for good or ill -- it likely has grown out of the convergence of talks I've had with others, in which I paste or mutilate thoughts onto one another for my own purposes.)

Well, one of those partners is Cha, whose blog, Transposzing, I link to. The other day in a wide-ranging coffee break chat, we were lamenting the absence of a good sense of The Great Tradition from much of Christianity: There is a rude arrogance in Christianity that encourages "me" to be the judge of all that is. (Leithart, in Solomon among the Postmoderns, helps to explain how this has come to be as a kind of natural response to the Enlightenment, with its consequent Modernist hard-headedness and suspicion of authority, in Postmodernism's value of plurality and suspicion of metanarrative [which is really, I think, what the Enlightenment was: an effort to write a metanarrative in which God was not a character].) And I was talking about my Matthew group and how we have had to learn how to read the Gospel properly -- about how wrong is the supposed Reformation ideal that every Christian can just pick up a Bible and read it on his/her own and achieve full revelation of God. We need guides -- and not just the historical critics, either. (Carl Braaten and I recently discussed his view that all the on-going "historical Jesus" investigation -- whether it's Jesus Seminar or N.T. Wright -- is wrong-headed because it posits that there's something behind the Bible which we have to somehow discern in order for the Bible to be true. I'm not sure I agree with him yet, but I am still mulling over his insistence that even to undertake to "prove" this or that of the Bible is to grant legitimacy to a hermeneutic of suspicion -- my term, not his -- that is at the heart of the decline of the Faith.)

I said that it reminds me of the bumper sticker (which I'd put on my car, if I had such a bumper sticker), "If you can read this/thank a teacher." In the faith, before we can read the Scriptures, we, too, need teachers. We need someone -- actually several -- to lead us in the art of Scripture reading that will allow the "meaning" to come forth. The creeds and councils, the Fathers, the great preachers through the ages, our own mentors in the faith -- these all are Spirit-placed teachers who instruct us in how to read the Bible faithfully.

Frankly, this is not limited to the life of faith: We must be taught to read in whatever discipline we probe. I had to be taught to read poetry with the help of John Ciardi's surprisingly titled "How Does a Poem Mean." (How, not "What" does a poem mean? Talk about a perspective changer.) Later I had to be taught how appropriately to read social science reports (actually, I'm not sure that most of that stuff is written in any human language, but that's for another time). Then, I had to learn how properly to read legal precedents and statutes. It is probably impossible to pick up the laws of Minnesota or a volume of Supreme Court decisions and read it without training in how to read that kind of material. (I admit that it's not rocket science; but it is different from reading the newspaper or James Joyce.)

Lamentably, the underlying issue is well-known to almost all Christians, but the greater issue is not: Christians seem to know that they need help in reading and understanding the Bible. But they look to the wrong teachers. The various "quests for the historical Jesus" (whose critics Carl is but the latest in a noble line); Bultmann, Vermes, Borg, Crossan (grr); social scientists (remember Karl Menninger's classic diatribe against preachers' recasting sin as disease, "Whatever Became of Sin?"?), critics and theorists of various sorts (ah, the glories of post-modern pluralism), The Fundamentals, and all the rest -- these become the teachers who displace those who are the Church's true teachers and in the process teach people to read improperly.

I confess, in my typical sky-is-falling over-reaction, that I am tempted to despair when I look at Seminary reading lists. Foucault, Derrida, and people whom I don't know appear, but there is no requirement that students of the Bible read Basil or Chrysostum or Augustine (well, you can go light on him, for my money) or Origen. I also confess that I am caught in the days of my youth: What I learned made sense, and I'd rather things not change. I got into battles with my daughter because she expected me to help her with her math, but I was taught to get an exact result from multiplication and she is taught to get an approximation! (OK, that's maybe simplistic, but I really didn't and don't get it!) But I think there are some things that are still true and haven't changed: There is a difference between who and whom; 4 + 3 does not equal "between 6 and 8; "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is not adequately represented in or substituted by "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" any more than is "Holy Trinity." How do I know? Because I was taught to read and to read properly. (I make no claims that a teacher can teach you to be bright, but she can teach you to discern. Similarly, no teacher on her own can make one believe, but she can put on in a position to hear the true Gospel and be converted.)

Despite my despair, I continue in my hope and confidence that the Spirit will continue to whisper, shout, sing, and chant, as She did to Augustine, "Take up and read!" But her command, invitation, and enticement is now probably, "Take up and read correctly."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Saint Paul Cathedral is now a Shrine

The Vatican has approved the designation of the Cathedral of Saint Paul (located in Saint Paul, Minnesota -- and yes, the official name of the City spells out "Saint") as a national shrine: It will be the first national shrine to St. Paul in the country. The designation seems, to my wishful-thinking mind, to be most apt. For years, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis has enjoyed warm ecumenical relationships with Protestants (relations that seemed to have cooled from lack of attention under the current archbishop) -- especially the Lutherans. It seems more than appropriate to have a shrine to the mutually respected St. Paul set by Roman Catholics smack in the heart of Lutheran-land, with our almost hawkish (I want to say "marianist-like") devotion to the missionary-teacher-preacher (or at least to its interpretation of the guy).

The Cathedral is an impressive building and the history of its placement and construction is fascinating. For example, it sits high on a hill overlooking the City of Saint Paul (and naturally a rather ritzy neighborhood grew up around it); it sits higher than the nearby (and also beautiful) State Capitol building and boasts a dome larger than the Capitol's. Dating to 1917, I think, the Cathedral is on the National Register. It is also a popular place for concerts.

Apparently, the point of a shrine is to provide a destination for pilgrims on a journey with "a pious purpose." Perhaps such a purpose should be the reunification of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In this Jubilee Year of Paul, I hope that this designation will encourage Lutherans (especially) and other separated brethren to make their pilgrimage to the shrine to pray for the fulfillment of Saint Paul's (the man's) urging that there is one Body of Christ and, if that body is fractured, sin is to blame and the members better attend to business, to listen to the Spirit's counsel for unity, and to get over their bitter differences f0r the sake of the Gospel.

Curiously or coincidentally (or perhaps so only in my mind), I have just returned from the annual conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (which met just off the grounds of Catholic University in DC, home to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception), where we explored the continuing relevance and questions of Vatican II for the life of the churches and of the ecumenical movement. The keynote presenter, Dr. George Lindbeck (who may be the only living official observer of the entire Vatican II Council in the States), quoted from a colleague that "In a divided Church, the Eucharist tastes bitter." It's a phenomenally powerful statement of truth and mission.

Congratulations to the people of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis (it may be "of Saint Paul and Minneapolis"). As a Lutheran (which I think by definition makes me an evangelical catholic Christian), I now claim an interest in the Archbishop's home church, if not in yet in his cathedra.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

An intersection of concerns from two aspects of my life has caused me to reflect on “Christian activism” (for lack of a better term) in the world. This blog is all about the intersection of faith and our lives a public beings, so it’s only natural to think about this. But I confess that this hits me where I am most vulnerable in my theology (I don’t mean in an emotional sense):In the issue of how Christians play out their salvation in the world, I often find my intellectual theology in tension with my gut-level politics (evidence, I would argue that I am simul justus et peccator). And I seem to run in circles trying to cut the Gordian knot.

Background, the first event, I’m involved in a little email experiment. Some of us are carrying on an online discussion of N.T. Wright’s recent book, Surprised by Hope. It is a study (and lengthy sermon, I would argue – which what a good theology ought to be) in the meaning of resurrection: What does it mean that Jesus is raised? What does the Bible actually say about resurrection and about the implications for life now and in the future of Jesus’ being raised? It’s splendidly written (I think I’ve remarked before how lucky British Anglicans are to have some scholarly bishops – pastors who are terrifically well-taught in theology and who can articulate orthodox theology in clear and eloquent ways: witness Wright and Archbishop Rowan Williams, as only two examples.)

Anyway, in our discussion, we have been invited to comment on this paragraph from the book:

Despite a thousand Easter hymns and a million Easter sermons, the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like, 'Jesus is raised, therefore there is life after death,' let alone, 'Jesus is raised, therefore we will go to heaven when we die.' Nor even, in a more authentic first-century Christian way, do they say, 'Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised from the dead after the sleep ofdeath.' No. Insofar as the event is interpreted, Easter has a very this-worldly present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, so God's new creation has begun--and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, and making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven!

-- N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 96

The moderator (a Lutheran pastor who always impresses me with his insight, his felicity of expression, and his graciousness) of the group has posed this challenge:

So let's stop here for the moment and ponder particularly that last claim, and perhaps note that it touches a particular Lutheran neuralgia: however can we MAKE Christ's kingdom come? (and Wright will get at this in detail later in the book, so for now we need not get bogged down in politics (as significant as that might be) but only in the claim of our work of MAKING).

Background, the second event: As you know, in my congregation I have been leading or facilitating (a more apt description) a close-reading and discussion of the Gospel of Matthew (for going on two years now, and we’re still not done). We have just looked at the Lord’s counsels in Matthew 18 about how to deal with a “brother” (= member of the church) who sins (some manuscripts stop there and some add “against you”): It’s the familiar command first to confront the sinner, then to take witnesses, and finally, all other attempts’ having failed, to take it to the church.

Well, after Sunday’s discussion, which I think I pushed to consider that the process that Jesus commands is meant to apply to the Church, the congregation, and is not counsel for how to deal with things in the world, I was challenged by a friend to deal with the wider picture. Others and I had admitted that there are implications for our lives in the world. We are to follow that process in our civic dealings, for example, although it may be difficult to call an assailant to convert while dealing with him face-to-face. But the question remained open: Is this a model for how to structure the society? Are we to refuse police forces and armies? Say more about the “worldly” implications of this teaching, my friend said. And thus this post. What follows is an edited version of what I wrote for my online discussion.

The issue of "kingdom come" is particularly relevant to me personally as I lead discussion of the Gospel of Matthew. I have never been a biblical scholar, but I have undertaken seriously to work with the Greek text, some commentaries, and Stanley Hauerwas' quite wonderful "theological commentary" on the Gospel. And I have had to refine a lot of my theology as a result of this endeavor.

Having preached on Matthew very little, I previously have not understood that Matthew writes to a congregation of (probably mainly, if not exclusively) Jewish Christians who struggle to continue in the faith despite the charges by their Jewish neighbors that they are apostates to Judaism. (That's my set-up of the Gospel for the discussion group, in any event.) Matthew describes how Jesus first teaches his disciples and then mandates that they teach the Church how to live the "kingdom of heaven" which has drawn hear in Jesus himself. The counsel of Mt. 18 illustrates: Whether the sinner in question sins against the one addressed or simply sins (sort of in general), the sinner is a "brother" -- a fellow member of the Body of Christ. And the command to talk with the sinner, then take 2 or 3, then address the Church is counsel on how to live as a community. That flashes one back to the Beatitudes, then, to show them not as individual counsels of perfection, but as the "parameters" (sorry, mathematicians) of communal life in the reign of God. As Hauerwas repeatedly stresses, it takes a community to support, direct, and correct individual Christians in living the Christian life. A Christian life is one organized around the Gospel and its sure proclamation that Jesus is the Lord of all of life: The Holy Spirit has called us into community around this Lord in order by our community to manifest and proclaim that Lordship to the world.

Now the implication for that is, I admit, archetypally Hauerwasian: The Church manifests the "kingdom that has come" in its life together -- toward one another and toward those whom it meets outside the assembly. The mission of the Church is not to remake the world, any more than that is what Jesus did. But her mission is to follow her Lord in establishing a community of love, peace, mutuality -- all centered in the reconciliation between God and humanity effected and manifest in Jesus. There is little in the Gospel (or in the rest of the NT, as I see it) to justify (or denounce, I suppose) the kind of civic activism that is possible in our world, but was all but unimaginable in the Roman Empire. The prayer, "thy kingdom come ... ," has as its primary referent "in thy church," so that we may be whom you have made us to be by your Son and the Spirit.

But equally true is that there is no possible way that the world can't be changed if Christians behave as Christians, the people of God. By their modeling of godly life in their own lives, in their lives together, and in their dealings with "outsiders" (i.e., non-fellow-Christians), Christians bring the kingdom -- i.e., the reign -- of God into the world. And by the power of the Spirit (probably dealt with at length in another Wright tome) that seeding of the kingdom can only come to fruition. But that does not involve taking control of governments (a tough admission for this liberal progressive to make -- but one equally binding on so-called conservatives) or anything of the sort.

I have cited as an example that of Minnesota’s political mess: Because of a looming budget deficit and the inability of the governor to work with the legislature to reach reasonable accommodations in each party’s rhetorical stances, the state faces a situation in which the budget deficit will be made up by using accounting shifts (a dishonest, though apparently legal way to deal with things) and by the governor’s exercising what he calls his “unallotment” powers – i.e., his ability (also apparently legal) unilaterally and according to his own discretion to cut program funds wherever he wants. He has announced that most of his cutting will be to health and well-being programs (such as money for hospitals, nursing homes, and services for disabled people) and to GAMC, which is the state’s program of health insurance for the poorest people in Minnesota. In short, he is going to protect rich people from tax increases and balance the budget on the backs of poor and sick people.

Now the governor touts himself (he is quite open about) as a Christian. So I claim that by the counsels of Matthew 18, every Christian in Minnesota should be at his door or in his email in-box to rebuke him for a particularly cruel approach to public policy that ignores the warnings of Matthew 25. After that, we should go in two’s and three’s. Then we should address him through our bishops. If he fails to see the light, we should treat him as a “gentile and a tax collector” – most ironic, given his stance.But note that this doesn’t mean that we join the Democratic Party (heaven forfend, in my opinion) or pray for the success of a candidate who runs against him. Using the political-party system “as Christians” to work our will is not the way to go, any more than that it was Jesus’ way to become a Zealot in order to effect and manifest the reign of his Father. (In fact, I suspect that the current governor’s policy has nothing to do with Minnesota and everything to do with his running for President of the US. So any entreaties are likely to be met with resounding silence – which only further justifies treating him as anathema. I’m not sure, of course, whether that means that we quit praying for him: I just read that Werner Elert, the great German Lutheran theologian who was vocal supporter of the Nazi government, later re-thought Christian responsibility to support the state ala Romans and 1 Peter, was it?, after realizing the error of his ways.)

Similarly, we don’t vet or run candidates as “Christian candidates,” but neither do we withhold our Christian witness to presidents, congresses, and legislatures. While I disagreed with most of what he said in later years, I think Richard John Neuhaus was absolutely right that in this society, the “public square” should not be “naked” of the Christian-qua-Christian witness. So, contrary to the views of many of those who have taught me, I don’t feel particularly annoyed when the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA writes or speaks on behalf of some political issue or bill. It is our “brief” as the Church to feed, clothe, house, reconcile, and all the rest – and given the nature of modern economies, that often means trying to bend the will of the State to the will of God.

In personal dealings, we Christians are similarly encouraged to treat others as brothers or sisters in Christ, whether they are “members” of the Church or not. That’s at least one implication of the Good Samaritan story. So we try to avoid litigation; in our dealings with those who do us dirt, we seek reconciliation, not retribution; in our economics, we seek to share rather than to hoard. And we bring those same approaches to life to the organizations of which we are members, seeking to influence the directions the organizations go.

The resurrection of Jesus, thus, has very much of a this-worldly character: It is proclaimed and -- what is often overlooked -- made visible in the lives of those who live in its power today. Jesus is Lord! The resurrection validates the claims of disciples and evangelists. The world needs to know that any attempt it makes to fight off that Lordship will be defeated -- as was death in its attempt to finish Jesus off. We counsel leaders that violence ultimately fails as a violation of the will of God. And so the Church both models and advocates peaceful living, non-violence, reconciliation. We remind corporate leaders that the amassing of wealth, whether in their own pockets or those of their stockholders, ultimately puts them under the judgment of Christ that "it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter heaven." And so we share with each other in the Church (Acts says that the early Christians “held all things in common.” And at the least we give offerings to assist those of company who are in need.) Do we outlaw profits? Well, as a socialist, I could answer that. But until we can get that under control in our congregations, I think we have little basis for trying to institute changes economy-wide.

The upshot is that we in our time have as part of our identities involvement with the civic structures unparalleled in the lives of those who have come before. That may require a re-examination of the Lutheran "two kingdoms." At least, it requires what we lawyers call a "restatement" of the teaching so that it is clear what it means.

New Vatican Ambassador

President Obama seems to have made a pretty interesting choice for the next Ambassador to the Vatican, theology professor Migues Diaz. He teaches up the road here in Minnesota at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. Apparently one of his specialties is the Trinity!

He is a lay theologian, married with four children. Born in Cuba, he was raised in Spain and then trained in Minnesota at the University of St. Thomas and in Indiana at Notre Dame (master's and doctor's degrees). He was an Obama adviser during the campaign (I wear a wry smile at the thought of a theological adviser to a presidential candidate -- talk about a court theologian!), and has apparently been rewarded for his advice.

By the accounts at the schools, he is a fine man, a good teacher, a faithful Catholic -- so he should do a good job (despite a lack of diplomatic experience -- assuming that we don't count walking through the minefields of modern academic Catholic theology an experience in diplomacy!). He stands in start contrast to the outgoing ambassador, law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who has demonstrated an uncanny ability to identify Roman Catholic teachings with the Republican Party (witness her recent lamentable display of poor judgment and poor theology in her refusal of an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame -- because President Obama was speaking to the graduates).

This issue cuts about as closely to the raison d'etre for this blog as any -- viz., the intersection of faith and public life. I'm sorry to say that I don't know Prof. Dr. Diaz, but I think we should all wish him well and offer prayers for his service to the United States in the Vatican city-state.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"He is Risen, Indeed!"

In my ever-increasing impatience with simple tomfoolery and growing gnosticism in liturgical practices within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and plenty others, lest anyone think that I single out one denomination for special blame), I have been extremely aggravated by a practice/usage in my own congregation. At the vigil, the pastor proclaimed (3 times), "Christ is risen! Alleluia!" and the people were instructed (per the bulletin) to respond, "Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!. Now, at the end of mass, the same dialog between assisting minister and congregation is printed in the bulletin.

I don't know whom to blame -- whether our pastor, with his concern for political correctness, or the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the "new" worship "resource" in our denomination), with its disdain for any masculinity in any reference to God (whether the Son or not). What is clear is that the dialog runs close to heresy: Without the masculine personal pronoun in the response (and so: "HE is risen, indeed!") we run close to saying that it was not the man Jesus who was raised from death and out of the tomb, but rather some force, spirit, or entity other than the fully-masculine Jesus of Nazareth who went abroad after the Ressurection . And that, to my mind at least, is utter faithlessness. You simply cannot be a Christian and raise any doubt, concern, upset, political objection, sexist claim, doubt, or anything else about the identity, form of being, gender, physical status, or psychic awareness of the one who was raised: It was either the man Jesus or our faith is in vain.

This political correctness surrounding whether we can say "he" extends from such mucking around with language, to the nonsense of bowing at the non-gloria-patri that doesn't name the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but instead references one or more of them by a function, a title, or an understood pronoun. ("God, and Son, and Holy Spirit" is one of the stupid of the formulations: Exactly how are Jesus and Holy Spirit not "God"?) It is possible to worship according to the ELW's alternatives without once naming God as Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit. I think that's wrong. But it is avoidable among people of faith. And we need to educate others around us as to the facts and the implications of our acts so as precisely to avoid falling into these ancient quick-sand traps toward heresy.

But this is fundamental: When we disdain the masculinity of the risen Lord, we deny that it is Jesus who was raised and who is Christ. .

And that brothers and sisters is the opposite of our faith.

"Christ is risen! Alleluia!"
and let the people say:
"He is risen, indeed! Alleluia"

Gordon Lell, R.I.P.

Another dear professor of mine has died: Gordon Lell taught Shakespeare with an earnestness, wit, sincerity, and friendliness that continue to inspire me to pick the Bard's plays up for evening reading. (I worked like a dog for his class in the English Department at Concordia College, Moorhead -- both because I'm not a natural Shakespearean and because I wanted to do well for him.) Dr. Lell came to Concordia while I was there and only retired late last year when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor (which turned out to be incredibly fast, virulent, and deadly). There are two generations (at least) of his students who will mourn him, and they will be joined by many alumni who joined him for lunch and discussion around a Guthrie production of a Shakespeare play.

Professor Lell was one of those inspired and inspiring teachers whom one carries with himself long after commencement has sealed the end of his halcyon days of undergraduate life. His model of scholarly engagement coupled with a complete lack of hostility toward the hardheads in his classes rates him a place in the heavenly seminar room. (I've told you, I think, that my vision of the New Jerusalem is that it is a city with many rooms and spaces -- some of which are devoted to the singing of J.S. Bach, some to the reliving of great NASCAR events, and some to the discussion of things literary and theological. Those discussions will feature unself-conscious and non-judgmental face-to-face time with Barth, Luther, and now Lell, inter alia. And what makes it heaven is that even such dunderheads as I will be able to understand and participate!)

May his memory be eternal.

Coincidentally, I have just read and seen a televised production of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit. It came highly recommended in N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope, which I'm reading for an online discussion group. It is a powerful work, and I recommend it.

The play concerns a very respected scholar of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Vivian Bearing, who finds herself diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer -- "there is no stage 5," she says. And it follows her through her treatment in a respected research hospital. (Not too surprising that only staff person who really comes off as meritorious is Vivian's nurse, Susie.) It is at turns humorous, insightful, educational, and painful. That the play involves some reading and interpretation of "Death, be not proud," which is my regular Easter posting, made it even better.

It was a sad irony in my life that the day that Professor Lell died, I was watching this play. It has given my study of Wright's book greater urgency. (On that, more later, perhaps.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For Eastertide

Oops, I almost forgot to post what may be my favorite Eastertide poem. But it's not that late, so here it is:

Death Be Not Proud

by John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Prayer for the Unconverted

As part of my Lenten discipline, I have undertaken to read Richard John Neuhaus' Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. I do so in part to justify having had the book on my shelf for years and in part to repent of my antipathy toward the dude. I can (and do) lament loudly the direction his thought and spiritual development led him, but I doubt anyone can deny that he could be a powerful writer -- an estimate that is confirmed in this book.

In his meditation on "today you will be with me in paradise," Father Richard dwells at length on the notions of hell and whether anyone will be there, on universal salvation, and on a proper distinction between "hope" and "knowledge" on the matter. And in the middle of the meditation, in a phrasing of utterly disarming simplicity, he says this (with reference to the widow who persistently nags a judge for justice until the judge grants it): "The importunate widow pleaded against her adversary. How much more persistently ought we to pray for others, especially those who are our adversaries, and God's. The elect are elected not to be against others but for others."

What a worthy reminder as we prepare for the Triduum prayers -- and especially the Reproaches.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The "Real" Atheists

Check out this column, "Where to Find the Real Atheists," from Christianity Today's email newsletter. I think it provides some very helpful, down-to-earth, plain-spoken guidance on how to avoid falderol about atheism and how to see in the mirror.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Gospel in Fiction

Check out this passage from Wendell Berry's novel, A World Lost. It in the narrator reflects his conversations with this grandmother after the death of her son and his namesake, Andrew. The passage is the adult narrator's recollection of numerous conversations he had with this grandmother while he lived summers with her when he was about 10 and 11. As with all his novels (Wendell Berry competes with Robertson Davies as my favorite novelist), Berry speaks with a grace and depth that can't be appreciated properly with a quick read.

Uncle Andrew and Uncle Will and Uncle Peach [Uncle Andrew's ne'er-do-well best friends and regular partners in shenanigans] passed and returned in her thoughts and her talk like orbiting planets. They divided her mind; they troubled her without end. She could see plainly what a relief it would have been if she could have talked some sense into their heads and straightened them out. It would have been a relief too if she could have waved them away and forgotten them. In fact, she could do neither. They were incorrigible, and they were her own. In their various ways and styles, they had worried and vexed and grieved her "nearly into the grave," as she would sometimes say. And they also charmed and amused and moved her. They were not correctable because of the way they were; they were not dismissible because of the way she was. She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. With them she enacted, as many mothers have done, and many fathers too, the parable of the lost sheep, who is to be sought and brought back without end, brought back into mind and into love without end, death no deterrent, futility no bar.
Thus, Wendell Berry, A World Lost (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996), p. 93.

Now my question is this: Has a theologian offered a better metanarrative for what God was doing in Christ, a better "back story" to the Incarnation? I would take some convincing, for it's all here: overwhelming love that roots not in the lovability of the loved one but in the the loving of the lover; prevenient grace that neither earned nor really explainable, except as mystery; the inability or refusal of Love to let go, regardless of the barrier.

While I find the entire passage almost painfully beautiful (a not-uncommon experience when one reads Berry), my favorit line may be this: She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. I think I'd find a way to fit this into a three-hour Good Friday service in reflecting on "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Father, forgive them -- not despite what they are doing, for they don't know what they are doing. Forgive them in trueness to yourself and ourselves.

And let the people say "Amen."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My own "J'accuse"

Recently, I received another diatribe about the sorry state of the ELCA, lamenting its turmoil over homosexuality. While the group that produced the book was a little unusual in that it included one or two politically conservative non-Lutherans and a couple non-USAmerican Lutherans among the denouncers, there was little new in the formulations or the analysis: The ELCA has sunk to allowing every person to decide for himself (never herself) matters of faith and life. In so doing it has set itself on a path of departure from orthodox Christianity and centuries of uniform teaching. How can the feckless leaders of the ELCA (along with such unworthy communion partners as the Episcopal Church and the UCC) ignore the clear witness of Scripture and the unanimous teaching of the Church since then? Where is the authoritative voice in the Church proclaiming the clear will of God as expressed in Holy Scripture?

As I said: Nothing new, no new insights, no suggestions for resolving the matter, except to announce and enforce policies in keeping with the politico-theological views of the speakers. But what seems clearer and clearer to me as I read these things is that those who lament the state of ethical thinking and commitment in the ELCA and elsewhere with respect to issues of sexuality are reaping the very whirlwind whose winds they themselves have sown. They are in the train of seventeen hundred years of preachers and teachers who have effectively denied the clear meaning of Scripture in order more peacefully to fit into society, and now they have the ironic audacity to be upset because people have learned the lesson.

To illustrate my point: Nothing seems clearer from the whole of Scripture – from Genesis through Revelation – than that the One True God is seriously concerned for the physical welfare of all people. That concern is expressed in explicit commands to care for one another – most especially to see that no one goes hungry or lives in want – and to exploit and oppress no one. Oh, I suppose you could proof-text me a couple of examples to the contrary, but I think I’m on solid ground. Look at the prophets, look at the words of Jesus: When sexual immorality is the subject of teaching, it is usually a metaphor, not something intended to be taken literally. “This wicked and adulterous generation,” Jesus said, but he didn’t mean that everyone was sleeping with anyone who came by. Rather, he, in harmony with the prophets (Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea) used sexual immorality as a metaphor for the propensity of God’s people to stray into mistreating others, for failing to live according to the clearly revealed will of God, for storing up treasures on earth, for practicing violence in order to defend one’s excess against those who have nothing. Similarly, Paul, whose stereotype is that of a sex-oppressed Puritan, much more regularly upbraids his congregations for forgetting the fundamental issue of church – viz., that of mutual care and support.

And yet despite that clear witness, the majority voice in the Church – at least since the day Constantine had his vision of how useful it would be for the Empire to co-opt the Church by “recognizing” it as an official religion – has been to deny that teaching – either actively by “correcting it” or passively by ignoring it. And so the Church has remained remarkably comfortable with political systems in every age that sanction the gross misappropriation of wealth by the upper classes from the lower classes. Capitalism, whose heretical dogma of scarcity is in direct contradiction of the Gospel’s theology of abundance, has been all but baptized by the Church. Even in most recent times, you will look almost in vain for a sermon denouncing unchecked capitalism, or the on-going redistribution of wealth from the poorer classes to the better off, or the growing gap between wealthy and poor, or the concentration of power and money in the hands of a few non-national corporations through globalization.

In Lutheranism this has been aided and abetted by the supposedly lofty two-kingdoms theology. To those not deeply invested in the Lutheran system, that teaching says simply that Jesus didn’t mean what he said. When Jesus said to share the necessities of life, he didn’t mean socialism (and, my, how willingly we have allowed that word to be co-opted by the Soviets). When Jesus said “don’t perpetrate violence,” he certainly didn’t mean not to kill in self-defense or in defense of honor (personal or national) or in retaliation for an attack on us. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he certainly didn’t mean anything about retaliating against someone – anyone, whether the attacker or not – if one is attacked.

The more common-person interpretation of this, which I hear all the time in our congregation’s discussion of the Gospel of Matthew, is that we have to be “realistic.” I mean, Jesus didn’t know much about the real world; what he said is a nice vision of what heaven will be like, but it would be disastrous to try to form a society that exhibited the qualities that he promotes in the Sermon on the Mount, for example.

I would argue that my fellow members of the Body of Christ have learned well from their teachers and preachers: If Lutheranism (and any other tradition one can name) has a crisis of authority, that crisis is longer-standing than the discovery of homosexuality (and keep in mind that the concept of homosexuality is a modern one). And if that crisis relates to sexuality, the causes of that crisis are more pervasive. For once you tell people that the clear witness of Scripture is not clear when it appears to be very clear, and cite centuries of witness to that effect, how can you expect unanimity on those issues of faith and life that are not nearly as clearly addressed? And even many who sound the trumpet on sexuality issues admit that the Scripture’s witness on issues of economic injustice and violence are much more numerous and clearer than those on homosexuality. Who, then, can be surprised when people follow their hearts, experience, science, and whatnot in an effort to be “realistic” about sexuality?

The cries for repentance and for the reformation of ELCA are loud and legion. And I shout some of them myself. I am deeply conservative in my theology and politics (although I probably understand “conservative” differently from the way many do) and find much to complain about. But when I do, I feel that I must be fair: I – as those who vent on the issue of homosexuality – must recognize the roots of the conflict. This is about much more than who-sleeps-with-whom and to what effect, and the forces of retrenchment lost the high ground on this argument long ago.

That charge is not to disqualify their speaking – although if pushed, I might be inclined to ask them to just shut up. But it is to urge that those who would hold the Church to a so-called conservative tradition on homosexuality must demonstrate that their concern is for the witness of scripture and no for some other variable. And up to this point, very few of them can do so.