VeggieTales, Christianity, and morality

June 6th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

Via Gene Veith, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer has recognized the biggest problem with the cartoon series:

I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.

Our kids have enjoyed watching a few of the VeggieTales cartoons on Netflix, and they are basically inoffensive. But Andrea and I have both noticed the (lack of) theological grounding therein: the absence of an explicit Christian message in many of the stories renders them pretty hollow. Our goal as parents is not to raise followers of moralistic therapeutic deism with generic American Protestant cultural and aesthetic preferences; it is to raise Christians. There are plenty of places to get the generic “be nice to each other” message (and probably even more places to get the “here are the Bible’s secret investment strategies” message), but that’s neither law nor gospel.

I imagine this was a very difficult realization for Vischer, and am thankful that he is talking about his change of heart. (I have had similar realizations, but never after building a multimedia empire on a premise that I have later felt compelled to repent from!)

(Speaking of Veith, he also recently linked to an outstanding argument about the aesthetic and theology — such as they were — of late pop painter Thomas Kinkade.)

Translating across cultures

April 30th, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’ve been idly thinking about translation lately, so I was happy to run across Scott Cairns’ poem “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous” this morning. If you’ve spent time in the neighborhoods of the liberal arts that I used to haunt — or even if you haven’t — you’ll probably find it as delightful as I did. (via Alan Jacobs.)

Regarding universalism

March 1st, 2011  |  Tags:  |  4 Comments

Apparently, postmodern Christian Rob Bell doesn’t believe in hell. Perhaps he’s never had to read one of his own books?

“I’m with” soteriology

April 15th, 2008  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War (I realized the last time I taught undergrads that this is no longer a trivial constraint), you probably recall the “I’m with stupid” t-shirt craze, in which the wearer distances himself or herself from the patently ridiculous behavior of a nearby person unfortunate enough to stand within the swath of an arrow. Like almost every pop-culture fad from the 1980s, this has been reborn as an internet cliché; now “I’m with stupid,” followed by an ASCII representation of an arrow, finds use as a not-particularly-humorous denunciation of any debatable utterance.

In general, it can be useful to say “my physical proximity to these actions/truth-claims/persons does not imply an unqualified endorsement.” We all disagree with our friends about some things — say, the role of free will and human agency in salvation — but it is awfully gauche to call them “stupid” simply because they’re wrong. (It is, after all, no longer the 16th century.)

Obviously, the most prominent question when engaging in a heated soteriological debate is “how can I caricature the views of my opponent with a t-shirt?” I am pleased to announce that this question is now resolved:


(Other designs are also available, including ones that you can use to advertise your own position; enjoy!)

Arianism at the Grey Lady

May 31st, 2007  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Sara Ivry at the NYT discusses efforts to market “Evan Almighty” to religious groups. However, Ivry (or her editors) seem to be serious Arians:

By comparison, “Evan Almighty” seems an unlikely candidate for [marketing efforts targeted at churches]. Unlike “The Passion of the Christ,” it is a comedy that portrays God in the flesh (played again by Morgan Freeman, wearing a natty white suit). “Bruce Almighty,” which made more than $240 million at the box office in the United States, was better known for irreverent humor and Mr. Carrey’s mugging than for any underlying religious message.

While “The Passion of the Christ” is no comedy, I’m pretty sure Gibson would characterize his movie as portraying God in the flesh as well.

[NYT article via GetReligion]

More bumper stickers

March 14th, 2007  |  Tags: ,  |  3 Comments






These raise many of my objections to self-righteous contemporary institutional heresy (note the ludicrous oversize comma). Feel free to suggest your own!

RIYL: The bumper sticker is dead, I’d buy one of these.

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Hymn intersections

February 21st, 2007  |  Tags: ,  |  3 Comments

I have written before about the abominably dopey With One Voice hymnal. Among its numerous sins include these: unsingable hymns that don’t scan or rhyme, myriad theological inconsistencies with the Lutheran confessions, total absence of any justification hymns, and liturgies devised by Marty Haugen. What has only recently become clear to me, however, is that even the title is incoherent. What is the “one voice” with which users of this sad blue book are to sing? I identify at least three strains in this collection of contemporary hymns; note that they are not mutually exclusive, and substantial overlap in fact occurs:

Venn diagram
With One Voice hymn categories. (Not to scale)

  1. The post-VC II cash-in. I missed the part of Vatican II that required vernacular hymnody to also be pedestrian and infuriating, but it must be in there somewhere. These hymns are most often written by destitute composers of various stripes in a desperate attempt to collect publishing royalties from anywhere. Inexplicably, these songs have enjoyed enormous commercial success, even though I am aware of no human who can tolerate them. (Take that, Pauline Kael!) As a result, the reach of these virulently banal hymns has extended beyond the Roman Catholic world to many other corners of Christendom — often without changing a single point of theology or emphasis! (Fortunately for other Christians, most of these hymns focus on how great we are for creating a just society, &c., and not as much on any doctrinal distinctives.)
    Warning signs: Guitar chord symbols, especially if “sus” appears anywhere therein. Any text copyrighted by a diocese is a pretty sure indicator. Beware of three-letter acronyms, like “GIA,” “OSB,” and “OCP;” run in terror if you see “SJ” or “Joncas.”
  2. Hymns that no American Lutheran knows. This is where the “with one voice” claim becomes most confusing. These hymns are completely unfamiliar to most Western Christians because they were primarily written by the gentry of some people who were once colonized by Jesuits. Many times, these will reuse melodies from secular folk music, which would be fine if, for example, the scale and rhythmic materials of indigenous Antarctican wedding songs were more accessible for congregational singing. Unfortunately, the contrafacta doesn’t go far enough, as many of these hymn texts are not recognizably Christian.

    Why are these hymns included? Surely there isn’t a large community of indigenous Antarcticans (or whatever) that attends American Lutheran churches and feels disenfranchised by having to sing recognizably Lutheran hymns. Are they there to make the -sons and -sens feel awkward (or, worse, cosmopolitan)?

    Warning signs: Syncretism, awkward text accents, seven distinct copyrights, and monody are all reasonable indicators, but these all apply pretty well to bad 20th-century mainline Protestant hymns as well. However, if you have to drop into Spanish or some language that has to be written out phonetically for the refrain, it’s pretty clear which category you’re in.
  3. Schlock. There are two overlapping subcategories of schlock, which I deem “bad Broadway musical music” and “circus music”. It’s no secret that I am revolted by musicals (I don’t even like verismo), and, while I am not opposed in the abstract to the existence of the circus, I don’t generally need a clown-car overture in church. However, if the composers of schlock were competent, they would be writing in these genres, rather than infecting a hymnal with this music. (This is really the problem with most “Christian rock” as well.)

    Warning signs: The arbitrary appearance of dashes or ellipses where syllables exist in other verses. Compound meters. Unnecessary mode mixture. Systematic avoidance of satisfactory cadences. Monody. “Haugen.”

There are a few hymns in WOV that fall outside or mostly outside the above diagram (not shown): there are a couple of nice spirituals (and a few bad ones), some 19th-century American hymns of varying quality, and even a few standard Lutheran hymns that missed the cut for the not-as-bad-by-comparison LBW. However, one must be careful to look at both the text source as well as the tune, since there are at least a few good tunes that have been debased by limp-wristed Anglican texts or other “postchristian” nonsense. (I think there’s a hymn to the tune of Herzlich tut mich verlangen whose text focuses on how, if we could just be nicer to one another and make a better government, God would like us again.) Consider yourself warned: contra-contrafacta can be hazardous.

Weisberg redux

February 5th, 2007  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I noticed that Richard John Neuhaus had some things to say about that Weisberg piece on whether or not it is permissible to support a political candidate whose religious beliefs you find silly. Neuhaus, as one might imagine, takes a rather different tack than I did in evaluating Weisberg’s argument:

First, what would people think of someone who abandoned the religion of his forebears in order to advance his political career? (Mr. Romney is apparently having difficulties enough in explaining some of his political changes.) Second, do we really want to exclude from high office millions of citizens born into a religion whose tenets strike most Americans as bizarre…? Third, candidates should be judged on the basis of their character, competence, and public positions. That one was born a Mormon is not evidence of a character flaw. That one remains a Mormon may be evidence of theological naiveté or indifference. But we are not electing the nation’s theologian.

I maintain that there are some personal beliefs one can hold that absolutely betray credulity to a degree that should probably disqualify one from serious consideration for public office. I suspect that the line between beliefs that should and should not influence potential voters exists but is perhaps indiscernible. Weisberg makes the mistake of taking the slippery slope too far (as I argued, condemning anyone who believes in anything). Neuhaus, by claiming that religious beliefs should not be a “decisive factor” in the fitness-for-public-office calculus, takes the slippery slope too far in the other direction.

I suppose that Weisberg, like most American voters, has to focus his energies on people who are almost certainly running for president this time and ignore the legislature. Perhaps in a future article he can set his sights on the Senior Senator from Utah (who escaped mostly unscathed in the Slate piece) and the Senate Majority Leader (who didn’t even warrant a mention).

I’m currently listening to Hurt from the album “The Legend of Johnny Cash” by Johnny Cash

Weisberg on Mormons, broadly construed

December 26th, 2006  |  Tags:  |  1 Comment

In Slate, Jacob Weisberg claims that it’s not “religious bigotry” to refuse to support a Mormon candidate for public office solely because he or she is a Mormon. Weisberg’s justification for this claim is that he believes the foundational doctrines of Mormonism to be transparently goofy, and that anyone who believes X or Y is clearly unfit for office. Fair enough, I guess, as long as that’s the only claim we’re making. I’d probably be more polite than Weisberg, but I am certainly on record as saying uncharitable things about various American cults, so perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones.

However, Weisberg is really making a much stronger claim, which I think disqualifies almost all committed believers in any creed from his endorsement. Here’s the crux of his claim:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing.

I see. So “Christianity” and “Judaism” (wait, both of these aren’t wholly monolithic?) are only acceptable because they’ve mellowed out enough so that sensible people don’t really believe their truth-claims anymore? Would Christianity have survived if the apostles hadn’t been so convinced of its truth-claims that they risked death to spread its message to the entire known world? Would Judaism have had a chance to “splinter, moderate, and turn [its] myths into metaphor” if the Israelite people had decided en masse, in the face of one of many historical persecutions, that it was better to regard that covenant with God as more of a helpful metaphor than as a binding contract that created wedges between the Hebrews and a variety of oppressive pagan and secular cultures? Note also the way that “orthodox creed” is used as a synonym for “ludicrous creed” — and how “reform” is, apparently, the process of pulling the teeth out of faith and bringing that foolhardy God-talk in line with the Enlightenment.1

So Weisberg finds the idea that Joseph Smith’s special glasses enabled him to read dictation out of a magic hat to be ridiculous. For the sake of argument, I’ll allow that. However, it’s not as ridiculous as the idea that people of faith must subjugate their truth-claims to an acceptability standard as established by Jacob Weisberg or any other secular observer. I am not saying that the veracity and reasonableness of religious claims and doctrines cannot be evaluated outside of that faith. However, the criterion that Weisberg seems to be using for evaluating such reasonableness is: “does this religious person reject — in public — the aspects of his or her faith that I find most unacceptable?” See, for example:

It may be that Mitt Romney doesn’t take Mormon theology at face value…. But Romney has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine.

This is outrageous. According to Weisberg, a candidate who is nominally affiliated with a ridiculous religion (broadly construed to include belief in anything from magic glasses or aliens exploding DC-10s to bodily resurrection) but doesn’t really believe in it is more palatable than one who is actually committed to a ridiculous religion. Apparently, it’s only reasonable to belong to a religion that still believes, you know, stuff, if you are only doing so in order to publicly disavow said stuff.

We should, I suppose, expect that opinionmakers would privilege hypocrisy over credulity in our elected officials (after all, it goes with the territory). However, I am troubled that credulity appears to be the only justification Weisberg can offer for religious faith. Superstition and credulity should be considered irreparable strikes against a politician’s fitness for office; habitually ascribing belief in the supernatural to these, though, should likewise disqualify a writer from treating religion. Religious beliefs may be true or false and they may be justifiable or unjustifiable, but they are not a priori irrational.

1 As a confessional (a.k.a. “orthodox”) Lutheran, I am both familiar with this common and erroneous interpretation of what it should mean to reform faith (and, by extension, what “the” Reformation meant) and offended by it.

I’m currently listening to Canzon on “O Nachbar Roland” from the album “Instrumental Music of 1600” by Concentus Musicus Wien & Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Oh, “scholars”

December 4th, 2006  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I had a good time in college: I learned to love art music composed before Beethoven1, spent a lot of quality time talking about interesting ideas, and met some of my best friends (including, most importantly, my lovely wife). However, since I graduated, my undergrad institution has apparently been evaluating tenure, policy, and strategic decisions based on only one metric: “Will this infuriate Will Benton ’00?” A list of my grievances would be too long for users on dial-up connections — although I must note that 89.3 FM now broadcasts execrable “adult contemporary” fare instead of the best classical music programming in the country — but I can’t let this goofy press release slide. Here’s a representative quote:

[St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton] Armstrong disagrees with the religious experts and scholars who say that the civil and international unrest plaguing the world today signals an abandonment by God.

Who are these “religious experts and scholars?” (Has St. Olaf given them tenure?) And how on earth did St. Olaf’s “experts and scholars” manage to completely miss the last two millennia of Christian intellectual history — in which other “religious experts and scholars” came up with numerous explanations for the problem of evil that, overwhelmingly, did not involve abandonment by God?

Of course, it seems most likely that the writer of this release didn’t actually consult any “religious experts and scholars,” and made up a transition paragraph that seemed plausible. However, if this is true — that this transition seemed plausible — then we have a much more troubling question. St. Olaf purports to provide an “education committed to the liberal arts [and] rooted in the Christian Gospel.” How is it then, that a college employee — who, in writing this release, served as a mouthpiece for the college — is apparently so ignorant of both the liberal arts and the Christian gospel?

1 I had previously regarded Beethoven as “acceptable” only because a clear evolutionary line could be drawn from his work to that of Mahler. Ah, how three semesters of music history conspire to open one’s eyes!

Briefly noted

April 10th, 2006  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

McGrath contra Dennett

Alister McGrath is one of my intellectual heroes. Last month, Prof. McGrath gave a speech to the Royal Society of Arts concerning Daniel Dennett’s new book about religion. The text of the speech is available as a PDF and is well-worth reading. As usual, McGrath is respectful of his opponents and remains particularly skilled at diagnosing rhetorical chicanery. (One hopes that the stupid “meme” concept will die soon.)

More on the “Gospel of Judas”

Mollie Ziegler at GetReligion has issued a delightful tirade about the “Gospel of Judas” non-story story. (Just as I’d hoped!) Richard John Neuhaus, writing at the First Things blog, treats the story from a framework of what he identifies as a broader pattern of stories — apparently timed to the church year — that seek to debunk traditional Christianity.

I’m currently listening to “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! (Wotan – Die Walküre Act III Sc.3) from the album ”Bryn Terfel -Wagner, Abbado, Berlin Phil. 2000, 2001“ by Bryn Terfel

Heresy in the NYT

April 6th, 2006  |  Tags:  |  3 Comments

From a remarkably tone-deaf New York Times article about the newly-unearthed “Gospel of Judas:”

The Gnostics’ beliefs were often viewed by bishops and early church leaders as unorthodox, and they were frequently denounced as heretics. The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.

As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers….

Easy there, killer. There’s nothing particularly “troubling” to Christians about the existence of apocryphal gospels. Note also that we aren’t losing sleep over the fact that toxic charlatans like John Spong1 have re-created God in their own image and are preaching their own alternatives to Christianity, because it’s basically the same phenomenon. The mere existence of heretics — whether in the third, nineteenth, or twenty-first century — does not present a challenge to Christianity.

It is important to remember that the root of “heresy” (originally from Greek via Latin) literally means “choice.” Heresy is about choosing what to accept, what to reject, and what to fabricate in order to cover up the holes your “choices” have left in a formerly-cohesive whole. It should not be surprising to anyone — not even to the amateur anthropologists at the NYT — that the speculative writings of people who have decided to treat orthodox Christianity as a cafeteria line are not totally consistent with the doctrines believed, taught, and confessed by actual Christians.

The article’s treatment of the issue of the canon demands far more correction than I’m willing to provide,2 but here’s a start: As far as the “historical and political forces” involved in selecting the canon of the New Testament, why not consider a “rational” one first? The Gospel of Judas, according to scholars cited in the NYT article, was written sometime in the third century. By contrast, consider that the four canonical Gospels were completed between AD 70 (standard estimates for Mark) and AD 110 (late estimates for John); the Epistle to the Romans was likely written in AD 58. Why should we expect a document which didn’t appear for a century after the last canonical Gospel to contain reliable information about Christ not contained or even alluded to in the earliest accounts?

The Gospel of Judas is interesting as an historical artifact for what it tells us about Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism is more popular now than it ever has been. (Consider its widespread adoption by secular academics and middlebrow wannabes, including many academic theologians; a different strain of Gnosticism is apparent in the subjective, ecstatic emotivism of much American popular religion3.) Gnosticism is an appealing heresy because its goal some secret and subjective knowledge, rather than trust in an objective, tangible, existing Christ as revealed to us in the Word and Sacraments.

A newly-unearthed Gnostic work may enable National Geographic to sell some magazines or bolster the Nielsen ratings of their pay-TV network. It may provide navel-gazing material for theological dilettantes and the spiritual-but-not-religious set. However, it does not challenge the foundations of Christianity, should not prove troubling to actual Christians, and can not give Christians any additional doctrine to consider “choosing” to adopt. For the NYT to breathlessly suggest otherwise betrays a ludicrous unfamiliarity with Christianity. (I eagerly await GetReligion’s treatment of this issue.)

(For more from me on mass-media ignorance of Christianity, see “Christian angst and television drama” and a post in which I revisit the issue.)

I’m currently listening to O Jesu, Wie Ist Dein Gestalt from the album “A Book Of Chorale-Settings For Johann Sebastian” by Johann Sebastian Bach

1 Indeed, Spong is a stellar argument for the validity of the Episcopal Church’s apostolic succession if I’ve ever seen one.
2 The article’s discussion (such as it is) of the canon is warped, but the bizarre reference to “the literal word of God” is a clear indication that the authors are outside of a comfortable sandbox.
3 For a nice discussion of this phenomenon (and more), see Mark Mattes in Lutheran Quarterly.


October 17th, 2005  |  Tags:  |  4 Comments

This Mere Comments post by Russell D. Moore is sad in its own right, as it basically makes clear how far a publishing house can fall. (Augsburg Press, which merged with Fortress Press in 1987, published Gerhard Forde’s The Law-Gospel Debate and Where God Meets Man.) However, the comments are also worth reading. Several responses treat an interesting question: How should one refer to the ELCA when such a name clearly constitutes an abuse of language?

Two witty commenters suggest the “E*CA” or the “E**A,” but neither seems to go quite far enough. It appears to me to me that every word except “America” demands scare quotes. The Chicago-based non-profit corporation under discussion is

  1. not “Evangelical,” unless they have access to some private evangel that I haven’t seen;
  2. not “Lutheran,” unless the word has nothing to do with the historical Lutheran confessions and now solely describes the caricatured Midwestern quietists that form the source material for interminable Garrison Keillor routines;
  3. not a “Church” in any meaningful sense, since one assumes that a “Church” should have a clearer position on, say, what is happening in the Lord’s Supper than on whether or not the state of Israel should build a security wall; and
  4. most clearly, “of” — and not “in” — America, specifically, of the current whims of a certain subset of Americans at this historical moment.

With such a foundation, it is as hard to argue for the apostolicity or catholicity of the ELCA as it is to argue that the ELCA has any relation (beyond a nominal one) to the (apostolic, catholic, and evangelical) churches that subscribed to the Augsburg Confession.


April 19th, 2005  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I wonder if Peter King thinks that Joseph Ratzinger “matters.”

I have a great deal of respect for Ratzinger, even though (as one might imagine) I have numerous and profound theological differences with him. (I doubt that my set of disagreements with Ratzinger intersects with King’s implicit set of grievances.) In any case, I am willing to go out on a limb and predict that he will “matter.”

When I heard the news, I recalled Melanchthon’s endorsement of the Smalcald Articles:

I, Philip Melanchthon, also regard [approve] the above articles as right and Christian. But regarding the Pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, his superiority over the bishops which he has otherwise, is conceded to him by human right also by us, for the sake of peace and general unity of those Christians who are also under him, and may be under him hereafter.

One can always count on Melanchthon for an irenic statement of a precondition for Christian unity! (As an aside, here’s more on “irenic” statements.) Indeed, the last paragraph of the Missouri Synod Lutherans’ explanation of confessional Lutheran thought on the papacy expresses a substantially similar sentiment.

I’m currently listening to Cantata BWV 126 ‘Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort’: I Choral from the album “Cantatas 181, 216, 127” by Bach-Ensemble Helmuth Rilling

“A pope who will matter”

April 19th, 2005  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

Until now I have resisted the impulse to contribute to the flood of bits spilled in the wake of the recent death of Karol Wojtyla. In part I have kept silent because, as a confessional Lutheran, I have necessarily complicated feelings toward the bishop of Rome; I can agree with the confessions but still be deeply concerned when something happens that is liable to profoundly affect so many of my fellow Christians. In part I have been silent because I felt there was little meaningful that I could say. After seeing volumes of egregiously tone-deaf commentary on cable news and in newspapers, I’ve been a bit hardened against the prospect of speaking in public about the Pope, lest I sound like CNN:

I’m Anderson Cooper, here with Christiane Amanpour in St. Peter’s Square. We’re looking at the Pope’s pallbearers right now. Christiane, is it true that all of these men were hand-picked as a direct result of their staunch opposition to contraception and stem-cell research?*

CNN, the New York Times, and I all have something in common: our opinions about what the Vatican should do do not particularly matter to the Vatican, nor should they. (This is only fair, since CNN, the NYT, and I are not exactly taking marching orders from the Roman church, either.) One of the few things I have learned from my mistakes over the years is to keep my opinion to myself in nearly all situations where it is liable to be disregarded. Unfortunately, shockingly few people who speak in public seem to have picked up on this crucial point; yesterday, a sportswriter provided a near-perfect microcosm of the whole phenomenon.

Peter King, football columnist for Sports Illustrated, indulges his delusions of importance every week by including all sorts of random twaddle at the end of his column. (I’ve written about King before.) Frequently, his self-important logorrhea section involves a discussion of whether the Starbucks in Poughkeepsie is better than the Starbucks in Cherry Hill, endless gushing about some song that’s currently in a cell-phone commercial (“I smell a Grammy. Buy it, now.”), and terse, reductive, and enthymeme-laden analysis of political hot-button issues.

This week, King really oversteps the bounds of his competence. In the last page of his column, he says that his sixth “non-football thought of the week” is “Surprise us, College of Cardinals. Pick a pope who will matter.” That’s not really a thought so much as it is a command, but I’ll let that slide. King’s “thought” raises two huge questions:

  1. Did he assume that the sequestered College of Cardinals would be checking on Monday morning and adjusting their votes accordingly?
  2. What the hell are his criteria for “a pope who will matter?”

The first question is barely worth treating: As the principals in the pope-election process are all forbidden to communicate with the outside world, King’s sage advice isn’t liable to reach the right ears. (This is the case, sadly, even for those cardinals whose Mondays normally wouldn’t be complete without a description of King’s latest caramel macchiatto or the most recent box scores from the Montclair, NJ girls’ lacrosse team.)

It seems that King is simply engaging in a time-honored American tradition: gain a soapbox because of some perceived qualification X, and abuse that soapbox to shoot from the hip about Y. It is unclear what King means by “a pope who will matter,” however. Any pope, by definition, “matters,” whether King likes it or not. The pope is a pastor to approximately one billion Roman Catholics around the world; some of them even (shock!) regard him as an authoritative figure whose pronouncements about faith and morals are normative.

The absurd thing about King’s “thought” is its apparent implication that Wojtyla didn’t “matter.” If we restrict our inquiry to the purely secular sphere, we are talking about a man whose contributions to world politics included no small part in architecting the fall of totalitarian Communism — the system responsible for the largest mass murder of the 20th century, for those keeping score at home. It is a safe bet that secular historians will remember John Paul II long after sports fans have forgotten Peter King.

The most plausible explanation I can find for King’s comment is that there is some issue about which he has a grievance with the Roman church (or, perhaps, with orthodox Christianity in general); the relevance of a “pope who will matter” will subsist in his willingness to submit to King’s magisterial authority on this matter. Perhaps King leads such a sheltered, narcissistic existence — surrounded by people whose thoughts, hopes, and desires move in lockstep with his own — that he assumes we all know precisely what he’s talking about. We don’t.

* This quote is “fake but accurate.”

I’m currently listening to Sonata no. 31 in A♭: II Allegro Molto from the album “Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos 28-32” by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Ash Wednesday

February 9th, 2005  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

Mere Comments links to The Dust of Adam, an elegant Touchstone article by David Mills that touches on liturgy, atonement, mortification, and metanoia — cleanly tying these together in an exposition of the Ash Wednesday rite. Read the whole thing. A choice quote follows:

In Latin, it goes, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” In the traditional English version, it goes, “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” The modern versions have all eliminated that “O man,” unwisely assuming it to be sexist and exclusive, rather than, as we shall see, a statement of the most extraordinary inclusion in the history of the cosmos.

The meaning of the rite depends upon the multiple meanings of man. In that word is the Christian hope conveyed. Without it, the declaration is simply a statement of an unchangeable reality, a declaration of hopelessness and despair. The removal of man in the modern rites eliminated the crucial allusions, or at best made them needlessly distant and obscure. The liturgical effect is to eliminate the hope that alone makes the facts—that we are dust and to dust we shall inevitably return—bearable.

Mills succinctly expresses the Law-Gospel dialectic and argues that, absent the Law, we are more liable to be Pelagians. He asserts, correctly in my estimation, that “the best cure for Pelagianism is reality.” (I submit that antinomianism, autopoesis, and the ecstatic heresy, as illegitimate cousins of Pelagianism, are equally distasteful possibilities.)

One thing that I shall never understand about non-liturgical churches is this: how can one have Easter without Lent? without Good Friday? without Ash Wednesday? Having the Gospel without the Law is like having a physician that only treats the healthy, and, I would argue, nowhere is the Law and its penalty more apparent than in the forced examination of our own inherently frail condition.

If we accept that Luther’s assessment of the human condition is correct*, and that free will can only result in a sinful being, incurvatus in se, then we clearly face an epistemic problem if we are to right ourselves, as Pelagians claim is possible and the antinomians, &c. claim is unnecessary. A being curved in upon itself cannot see itself, and has nothing to compare itself to. When self-examining, then, we are in an unenviable position that resembles the Tractarian picture of the eye and the visual field: the eye cannot see itself, and there is nothing in the visual field to indicate that it has been seen by an eye. Only when we are given a way to see from outside our traditional vantage point can we identify our shortcoming; one use of the Law is to provide such an elucidating perspective.

Today, I went over some favorite hymn texts; most of my favorites seem to be appropriate for the occasion. Es ist das Heil by Paul Speratus is, as I have argued earlier**, certainly one of the greatest hymn texts (and didactic proclamations of salvation) that history has known. Here are two verses that are especially appropriate in light of the current discussion:

From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,
So deep is our corruption.

The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.

* It should be no surprise to regular readers as well as those of you I know personally that I accept this assessment.

**I had planned to link to the Attractive Worship thread on Mere Comments earlier, but did not. It is worth reading; I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit last summer’s arguments (1, 2, 3, 4) prompted by a Touchstone article on contemporary worship. (If you were part of that discussion here — or even if you weren’t — you might be interested in discussing “The Critical Adjustment,” an article by S.M. Hutchens written as a prescriptive to cure the symptoms described in “Please Me, O Lord”.)

I’m currently listening to Sarabande from the album “J.S. Bach, Six Partitas” by Gustav Leonhardt

Where the banshees live (and they do live well)

November 12th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

“No, the problem is that we had a Stonehenge that was in danger of being knocked over by a dwarf!”

The good folks at GetReligion point out that Harry Shearer has wasted no time making the absurd into the hilarious w.r.t. the Episcopal “druidic liturgy” flap. (Bonus points for anyone who can rework “Big Bottom” into a commentary on any other recent scandal, broadly construed, affecting the Anglican Communion.)

Aesthetics, Affect, and Accessibility: yet more thoughts on Christian worship and music

June 11th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  3 Comments

This post is another in my series on Christian worship and music. To see the posts that this follows, please see here, here, and here. Click through for the rest of the article; it is rather long as weblog postings go.

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More on contemporary Christian worship music

June 2nd, 2004  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

My recent comments on contemporary Christian worship music (here and here) have provoked a more heartfelt and interesting discussion than any other article on this site. I have a longer article on this subject in the pipeline, but it will be some time before I can finish it. In the meantime, I have a brief positive note on the matter for tonight. (I am also trying to think of less incendiary topics to write on: perhaps I will start with affirmative action or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

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Hutchens redux

May 22nd, 2004  |  Tags:  |  6 Comments

There were a number of fine comments on my last post, which consisted of a link to a Touchstone article. I’ll address as many of these as I can here; this post is long, but hopefully not too scattered. If you aren’t interested in the theology stuff I post, you may wish to read no more.

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S.M. Hutchens on the dilution, emasculation, &c. of Christian worship

May 20th, 2004  |  Tags:  |  24 Comments

Please Me, O Lord is a great article in the current issue of Touchstone. Here’s a choice passage:

There is no move from soft rock or campfire chorus to Bach or Mendelssohn, from melody-line singing back to the four-part harmonies from which most of these congregations have fallen in a single generation. (Children in the Evangelical church where I was raised learned to read not only their Bibles, but also soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, from singing the parts with Mom and Dad. Now they just accompany, singing melody only, the principal musicians, which they once themselves were.)

They rarely move from skits and anecdotes to Augustine or Calvin, from entertainments to prayer and fasting, from “come to Jesus because he’s attractive” to “obey him, his apostles, and his apostolic ministers, because he’s Lord,” from affection for a cosmeticized Jesus to the fear of God.

I have noticed that “contemporary” worship is less participatory than the more doctrinally- and aesthetically-acceptable traditional variety — one spends a lot of time singing the melodies of refrains as a congregant in such a service. The “contemporary” texts are also horrifyingly theologically vague, inaccurate, or wrong. Certainly wishy-washy hymns to the Enlightenment like “God who stretched the spangled heavens” are obviously worthless, but a real concern comes from the under-the-radar heterodoxy of liturgical mercenaries. A prime example is the work of the whorish Marty Haugen, who has sold the same hideous setting of a “communion liturgy” (complete with explicit references to distinctively RC doctrine and practice) to churches in nearly every tradition.

I suppose that the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is merely growing more apparent. Lex orandi, …

UPDATE: Hello, Touchstone readers. You may be interested in the follow-up to this post. Thanks for visiting.

Television redux

April 21st, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

About a month ago, I posted an entry about Christian angst, Christianity, and the depiction of both in television; my friend Taryn raised some interesting issues in the comments. I’d like to address one of these questions now: she asks

But ultimately, I think there is a question about what function television has in society, which is an old question about the function of art or literature. Is it simply to reflect aspects of human experience, or is it to instruct? (And if to instruct, for whose purposes?) I don?t believe that it necessarily has to be one or the other, since I watch L&O for its shiny no-thoughts-attatched value, but is there a way to negotiate television as an industry and television as some form of art that may delight and/or instruct?

My concern with the depiction of Christianity on television is that it is a sort of minstrel show: a set of conventions mired in stereotype, to be produced and consumed by people who have little to no actual experience with the subject matter. It would be better, one might argue, for depictions of “Christianity” to remain entirely absent from television than for the types that do appear to be the only representations of actual Christianity in the media. Of course, ostensible “Christianity” and “Hallmark spirituality” “sell” well — ratings for shows like Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven are high in certain demographics, despite the fact that such shows, while chock-full of “believe in yourself” treacle, feature none of the distinctive aspects of orthodox Christianity; most are downright heterodox or heretical.

So these shows do not reflect human experience — at best, they reflect a simulacrum, constructed by the media. It seems that any “experiences” of Christianity reflected by television could be discredited by actual experience of Christianity. Certainly, these shows instruct, since a significant number of young adults have probably enriched their understanding of various Constitutional challenges to criminal charges by engaging the Law & Order franchise.

My concern is what and why they attempt to instruct. Our mass media has taken Hunter S. Thompson’s concept of “gonzo journalism” to its logical conclusion; no longer content to create stories so that they might report on them, media agents are interested in creating truth that buttresses their presuppositions. The media operates with a strange logic, in which repeated assertion of propositions increases their truth. One need not look far to see the absurd, patently false assertions that people are willing to assent to simply because of their statement by mass media. Furthermore, the media is more than willing to do violence to our language, making firm concepts into malleable ones to suit a rhetorical or political aim. When the concerns and motives of a group of people are reduced to a caricature, though, the violence is done not just to the word describing the group, but to the group themselves.

One might argue at this point that a variant of my complaint with the media could be applied to any controversial, polemical, or dishonest art, and I won’t deny that it probably could. Few would propose banning a work of art because readers find in it a coarse or defamatory stereotype. Rather, the solution to such offense in art is further reflection and engagement; one need only examine overtly-politicized liberal arts curricula to see that “further reflection and engagement” are in full bloom. (Whether or not the formulation of Fermat’s Last Theorem was informed by “heterosexism” and misogyny is a question best left for specialists.) However, the difference with the media is that it is ephemeral, ubiquitous, and is most often consumed uncritically: we do, as Taryn suggests, appreciate (some) television because it is entertaining and because we don’t have to think about it. Indeed, thinking about it would — in many cases — spoil the fun. Finally, it’s gone before we have a chance to consider it. The problem I have with the mass media, including television, is that it regularly defames people like me; is actively hostile to my concerns, to my motivations, and to my God; and that there is little or no escape.

I’m currently listening to El grillo from the album “Josquin Desprez — Motets et Chansons” by The Hilliard Ensemble

Christian angst and television drama

March 17th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

Without fail, the sort of Christianity depicted in television drama is wholly monolithic. It is a cultural Christianity, marked by the sort of trappings that are readily recognizable to non-practitioners. It is chiefly Roman in character because such trappings abound in the sacraments and pieties of the Roman Catholic church — who hasn’t seen a detective go to a confessional or superstitiously mention the intercession of a saint? — and because Roman Catholicism is, if my experience is any guide, a largely cultural phenomenon on the coasts, where most television drama is produced and where the target audience for most mass media lives.

In the sort of Christianity that exists in television’s world, Christian characters fall under four types. The first is the crazed fundamentalist, a straw man who is always as unattractive as possible and is frequently deranged or sociopathic, but whose main crime is always an improper transfer of religiously-motivated ideals from the private world to the public, generally combined with a zeal for violence or offense. The second is the culturally Christian protagonist; his or her public faith consists of mildly rebuking those characters whose temperament is irreverent, in recalling episodes of religious practice from childhood, or in making moral claims that barely stray outside the acceptable bounds of mass-media orthodoxy. There are a spectrum of these characters; one gets a sense that some are actually Christians in a meaningful sense, even though no direct evidence of this appears on camera. The third is the hypocritical clergy figure; we’ve seen the contemporary incarnation of this stereotype at least since The Scarlet Letter, and it is no less tiresome now. The fourth is the nonjudgmental mentor figure, who can be either a priest or nun, a pastor, or someone whose “saintly” nature is frequently mentioned by other characters. Type Four never explicitly expresses anything remotely related to orthodox Christian doctrine or practice, but instead dispenses semi-coherent Yoda-like wisdom or feel-good clichés devoid of the hallmarks of actual faith.

The Christianity of television drama is also one that has missed out on most of the Christian academic and theological traditions of the last two millennia. In a practice so frequent as to be almost a genre convention, television writers will establish a crisis of conscience for a Type Two character by making her soliloquize about how a good God could allow the possibility of evil, cancer, crime, or eating dinner with one’s salad fork. This is, apparently, television producers’ shorthand for something quite like Dostoyevsky’s “furnace of doubt.” Raising these questions is fine, although it is slightly implausible that an adult Christian has never dealt with them before demanded to by the circumstances of a Very Special Episode. What isn’t fine is that these questions are treated by the medium as if they have no answers, or at least no satisfactory answers. The resolution of the crisis does not come, say, in reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain or in receiving peace that passes all understanding, but in a motivational-poster-like encounter with a Type Four character or in a brilliant triumph of human agency just before the credits roll. I suppose that there are intelligent people for whom the existence of evil or of human frailty is a stumbling-block to faith; with this in mind, it is unconscionable that the “problem” of evil is presented as one which has no solution, especially when the image of Christians as stereotypes divorced from actual Christian faith is so pervasive in the mass media.

Kierkegaard described despair as originating when we try and understand the eternal in light of the temporal: trying to weigh eternal ramifications of temporal choices, for example, or recognizing that our temporal concerns are irrelevant even as they still eat at us. His solution to despair is not in bucking up and figuring things out for ourselves, or in interpreting temporal events as pointing to evidence that we weren’t really confused. Rather, despair is solved only in total reliance on God. Objections to Christian faith like the “problem of evil,” then, are only remotely sensical if the appropriate relation to revealed truth is “attempts at rationalization.” As Christians, we concede that our facilities will always be inadequate to comprehend the eternal. The portrayals of Christian angst in television drama, on the other hand, don’t appear to acknowledge that: for them, the a struggle of faith is the struggle with the world not being as you think it should, or as you believe God would have it to be. At best, this represents a pre- or post-Christian worldview.

I’m currently listening to Zueignung, Op.10, No.1 from the album “Fritz Wunderlich – Beethoven, Haydn & Strauss, R. Lieder” by Bavarian State Orchestra, Fritz Wunderlich & Jan Koetsier

“Where God Meets Man”

February 15th, 2004  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

My grandfather sent me this excellent book by Gerhard Forde, who remains one of my intellectual heroes. It seems to be targeted to lay readers, but is one of the clearest explanations of Luther’s theology of the cross (and of “Lutheran social ethics”; not the oxymoron that some FT authors might claim it is!) that I have ever seen. Forde’s reading of Luther is fairly rare “in the wild,” which is unfortunate, because I think he’s one of the few that gets things straight. Extremely highly recommended.

Easterbrook redux

November 25th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  1 Comment

I realized after I went to bed that there is a much clearer way to say what I believe my last post was trying to say. (This is a special case of what the British call “taxi wit”.) Easterbrook’s assertion seems to indicate that theology has nothing to say about the essence of a god, or — if it does — that theological traditions that derive in some way from others must necessarily share, in essence, the same god. Christian theology has historically had a lot to say about the essence of God; in my opinion, some of that has been universally held, and some of it is the province of over-credulous scholastic speculation. Once we’ve agreed that theology can say something about the essence of a god, however — and this may just be my personal philosophy of language — I believe that I can claim, from theology alone, that I do not worship the same God as someone whose god-concept is essentially different from mine. Put another way (and paraphrasing Alister McGrath’s apolegetic work), one can come to know the Creator through his creation, but one cannot come to know the God of Christianity except through His Word. Since Islam maintains that the parts of Christianity which contribute most distinctively to its understanding of God are to be abrogated or reinterpreted, I do not believe that Islam and Christianity share the same god. A god-concept fashioned by humans and in contradiction to Scripture is no different from a graven image fashioned by humans.

Easterbrook and theological “incontrovertab[ility]”

November 25th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

In an blog entry for today, Gregg Easterbrook makes the following claim:

In theology, it’s incontrovertible that the God of the Koran is the same as the God of the Bible. Islam is the third “Abrahamic” religion, the faiths that trace their lineage to Abraham. Islamic theology views its divinity as the same one addressed by Jesus and the ancient Israelite prophets, while the Koran contains many references to Jesus, Moses, and other biblical figures.

His statement, of course, is far from incontrovertible. (Personally, I would submit that its negation is incontrovertible, for any reasonable understanding of the terms in the statement.)

By Easterbrook’s rationale — that some form of self-imagining contributes to the theological authenticity of a faith’s claim to continuity in a given tradition, and (apparently) that the theologies of people who disagree with me are somehow logically binding upon me — couldn’t one claim that the “supreme being” of philosophical theology or Deism is the same as the God of Christianity? After all, the Deists believed, as Muslims do, that their “revelations” abrogated, augmented, and perfected the canonical Christian scriptures (as well as all other “revealed truth”). Is John Hick’s pluralist god-concept — basically, a more radical, anachronistic Deism — the same as the God of Christianity? Is the god-concept of Mormonism — invented by an illiterate farmhand to fit his own biases — the same as the God of Christianity? Certainly the Mormon texts contain references to “biblical figures”, but that self-imagining does not change the fact that Mormonism is a cult and a fabrication, and is not a religious heir to the tradition which produced canonical Christian scripture. Less controversially: is the god-concept of Gnosticism or Manicheanism the same as the God of orthodox Christianity?

Easterbrook asserts that the only possible objection to these hypotheticals is that certain revelations are not true (which is a matter of faith), but that, “by theology”, the assertion that Allah is the same as the God of Christianity is true. The question, however (like many theological questions) is a semiotic one: what does the symbol “God” point to? For orthodox Christianity, the simplest correct answer is: one God in three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –, almighty, uncreated, coeternal, and coequal. Of course, we can know more specifically about who God is from canonical Scripture. As an example, we can be fairly sure that the god-concept of the Antinomians — who does not require repentance, providing Gospel without Law — is not the same as the God of orthodox Christianity; even though the Antinomians assented to the doctrine of the Trinity, they had re-created the God of Christianity into a god-concept that better fit their own temporal biases and desires. When we re-make an orthodox god-concept in our own image or to our own taste, we are pointing the symbol “God” at something other than the God of apostolic, catholic Christianity. Likewise, merely constructing a connection to a tradition does not mean that one is consistent with it, as the examples of Gnosticism, Manicheanism, Mormonism, and Antinomianism make abundantly clear.

One truth-claim of orthodox Christianity is that the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures point to one particular, distinctive god-concept: the Trinity. One truth-claim of Islam is that Allah did not beget a son — excluding the Christian conception of the divine Christ, the Son of God. Clearly, these two are not compatible, independently of any connection that Islam claims to Abraham. (Furthermore, the incompatibility of these two claims should — for orthodox Christians — cast doubt on Islam’s claim to such a connection.) Alleging that “Allah” for a Muslim points to the same entity as “God” does for an orthodox Christian can only be the result of a god-concept that is broad to the point of falsehood (including the “natural gods” and the “affirming spiritual forces” that exist in the minds of aggressive pluralists and autotheologians), and — really — that there is no religious truth.

Xenophanes clarification

November 10th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

Perhaps I shouldn’t be allowed to just post quotations without some analysis (unless, as I hope, Dan was being deliberately contrarian). I’ve been thinking of Xenophanes lately, since he seems to have presciently hit the nail on the head with regard to the interactions between liberal democracy, moral philosophy, and theology. I have been wanting to write on this in greater detail, but today is a busy day, so I will be brief.

Mark Mattes, in Vol. XVI of Lutheran Quarterly, asserts that

…Kantian autonomy, in which persons seek rationally to accord their behavior to an universal and necessary standard tested by practical reason, has now evolved into autopoiesis, whereby one arbitrarily creates one’s own values for oneself.

Mattes expands on this issue in more detail and examines two alternative moral philosophies that reject autopoiesis, but I will primarily treat the concept of autopoesis in contemporary “Christian” life, and as it relates to the law/gospel dialectic. First, however, I will make the case for why Xenophanes is relevant to the current crisis.

Xenophanes describes a family of theogonies in which peoples have created their god-concepts in their own images, ascribing to their gods all of their human faults and qualities, even asserting that their gods appear and act exactly as they do. There are, I believe, two threads identified here:

  1. People have limited their god-concepts to what they can understand and reason about, and
  2. people have “re-created God in their own image”

Both factors are directly relevant to current specific theological and moral debates in institutional churches today, in that people don’t understand how something can be legal in civil society (or “not falsified” by a scientific assay) and yet proscribed by some sort of moral authority external to the individual, as if God were a legislator; or whether or not behaviors that people feel are natural could possibly not be morally beneficial: after all, God wants us to “be ourselves” and to “be happy”, right?

I’m not interested in treating specific moral issues in this format, especially since the root cause of these problems is far deeper (and more prevalent and pernicious) than any specific category of willful sin. The notion of morality-by-utilitarian-consensus pervades the underpinnings of liberal democracy; comparatively recent innovations like the “right to privacy” are moral noise in our ears, telling us that if we cut down a tree in the woods and no one is around to see it that we haven’t really done anything substantial. God is reduced, then, to a senator whoring out legislation to benefit a vocal constituency, or to a judicial activist, persuaded by an emotional argument that happens to fit a particular agenda. Alternatively, God becomes an imaginary private validator of our hopes and dreams, providing a target for “spirituality”, but not a target for renewal or correction of morally-weighted actions. In either case, the “church” with this God-concept ceases to be “holy, catholic, and apostolic”, since in the first case it is praying to the ideal of mob rule by a particular moment in history’s temporal desires and hopes, and in the second case it is targeting a private ideal, unconnected to any sense of continuity of doctrine, witness, or practice. (I believe Neuhaus once said something to the effect of “People will have an increasingly high estimate of God, but an increasingly low estimate of the church, in which God tells them what to do”, although I can’t find a citation.)

It should be clear that these God-concepts result in a moral life that is necessarily turned in upon itself; whether the moral ideal is consensus within a society or one’s own private conception of happiness or good is irrelevant, for in either case, the life is not directed towards, as we are commanded, continual repentance and sanctification, but rather to a trendy or private ideal of what is right and what is wrong. (The canard that doing what is “natural” — or, rather, what we have determined by consensus is “natural” — cannot be wrong is easily disproven by examining the state of living under original sin: our nature is to sin!) God becomes a rubber stamp on the sort of life we wanted to lead anyway. Christianity has dealt with this issue before, in the antinomian controversies; a good rebuttal to one such controversy is contained in Part VI of the Formula of Concord, or in the Melanchthon-Agricola debates. However, the reason why autopoiesis has become more widespread in more contemporary times is, in my estimation, that we have re-created God in our own image, conveniently fitting him into the rubrics prescribed by reason and human knowledge, as we understand it. We haven’t just decided that the Gospel makes the Law irrelevant and unnecessary, as the Antinomians did; rather, we have determined that we know — better than recorded Scripture and the Christian tradition — what the law really means. God is remade to look like a secularized, middle-class, politically moderate soccer mom from Des Moines — caring, nurturing, friendly, and unwilling to tell you that you’re wrong.

To say nothing of what a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the scientific or social attitudes that inform our God-concept does to the possibility of any continutity of doctrine, it is clear that, by rejecting the Law, even in part, we also reject the Gospel. By rejecting the parts of the Law that we find unpalatable or are unable to follow, we deny our need for forgiveness and remove the target of sanctification. By denying our need for forgiveness, we deny the good news that even though we are living as slaves to sin, we are justified, simul justus et peccator, by faith through Christ’s atoning work on the cross. By denying the target of sanctification, we allow ourselves to be continually enslaved by sins, and are not responding to God’s work in our lives. The problem, then, is not any particular issue (although there are some gravely troubling issues), but that we need to re-emphasize the necessity of continual repentance and sanctification in the Christian life — even when it is difficult, unpalatable, or requires us to go against the grain; we must, in Kierkegaard’s words, encourage the “essential offense” of Christianity. If Christianity is to survive, Christians must continue to be a stumbling block to those who demand magnificent signs and foolishness to those who wish God to fit in to their concept of wisdom.

clarification w.r.t Erhalt uns, Herr

October 28th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  1 Comment

Erhalt uns, Herr, which I mentioned in my last entry, is perhaps not the best example of a Lutheran justification hymn, as it is primarily a polemic against those who cloak the nature and cause of justification. (A better example would be Aus Tiefer Not or Nun Freut Euch.) The English text most often seen today (and even in some RCC hymnals) is a variant of the Winkworth translation/adaptation:

Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son
And set at naught all He hath done.

Here you can listen to an mp3 file of a prelude on the tune and read a translation of the original. If you do, you’ll note that Winkworth “de-sexed” the original (below) a little.

Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort,
Und steur’ des Papsts und Türken Mord,
Die Jesum Christum, deinen Sohn,
Stürzen wollen von seinem Thron.

Hilarious, vintage ML.

That pretty much has the same affect as the explanation for the third possible topic for the Harvard Divinity School’s Dudleian Lectures. The Dudleian lectures were established in 1750 by a grant from a judge; the third possible topic for the speaker is “the Romish church”, explained as follows:

detecting, and convicting, and exposing the Idolatry of the Romish Church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickednesses in their high places.

On the one hand, that’s pretty extreme and is certainly almost comical in these ecumaniacal* times. (Indeed, they changed the topic in 1911 to “Roman Catholicism and Protestantism”, removing any explicit assertion of heresy.) On the other hand, it’s a little sad that no one is willing to make such strong theological statements any more. Of course, if — as some assert — there really exist no substantial disagreements of sufficient magnitude to inspire that sort of ire, then it is good that no one is expressing them these way — but that is certainly not a noncontrovertial point. As an interesting aside, I first heard of these lectures while reading Heiko Oberman’s excellent essay Quo vadis, Petre? Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani generis, which was originally given as a Dudleian lecture in 1962.

* This is not a typo.

Hymnals and worship reform

October 27th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I was absently leafing through the Lutheran Book of Worship this Sunday. The LBW organizers grouped hymns by use in the year, by use in the service and topically, so there are sections like “Holy Communion”, “Advent”, “The Word”, and “Christian Hope”. There are maybe a dozen hymns in the “Justification” section, but I think I’ve only ever sung three or four of them as an adult member of various ELCA congregations. That’s bad enough.

However, if one has any doubts about the spiritual and theological health of the ELCA, one need only look at the asinine With One Voice hymnal, released into the wild in 1995 by Augsburg Fortress publishers. It is organized in much the same way as the LBW, but has no “Justification” section whatsoever. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy of the Hymnal Supplement 1991, which is also used by some Lutherans, but I’m not holding out any hope that it has any good justification hymns, for the following reasons:

  1. The Hymnal Supplement 1991 is published by “GIA Publications”. Are you wondering what that stands for? It stands for “Gregorian Institute in America” — people who wouldn’t know justification if it imputed them in the rear.
  2. As far as I could tell from using it in college, the Hymnal Supplement is the liturgical equivalent of an anthrax-laced envelope — an attempt to “get back” at Lutherans for 500 years of having better hymns by inflicting the sort of Marty Haugen and David Haas dopery that has been a staple in RC churches since VCII on innocent, quietist Scandinavians.

Seriously, read the text to any of Luther’s great justification hymns — Erhalt uns, Herr will do nicely. Do you honestly think anyone with a last name of “SJ” could write anything remotely approaching that?