Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Gifts and Reciprocity - on Bo Holm

"It has been quite common to introduce the Lutheran concept of justification by claiming its nature as a pure gift. God give -- the human being receives. God gives for free, expecting nothing in return...

The understanding of justification as a pure gift may seem to exclude any economy from the center of Lutheran theology. On the other hand, if justification means a renewed fellowship with God and if mutuality is an irreplaceable part of any kind of social interaction, then a form of reciprocity hast to be found even in Luther's understanding of grace as a free gift.

It is also possible to find a great number of formulations that obviously imply a kind of reciprocal structure, such as the "happy exchange" and the metaphorical use of matrimony in Luther's writings. If the concept of reciprocity could be used to elucidate Luther's doctrines of justification, it would be possible to reintegrate under a new perspective the social dimensions of the doctrine. Furthermore, it could contribute to a fuller picture of what an understanding of Luther's theology as a theology of self-giving love could contain.

According to the sociologist Marshall Sahlins, different types of reciprocity can be defined along a continuum... [negative reciprocity is] described as "the attempt to get something for nothing with impunity," is the most impersonal sort of exchange, aiming at maximizing utility at the other's expense and including such actions as gambling, chicanery, and theft. Its polar opposite is generalized reciprocity... What makes generalized reciprocity difficult to describe, especially for those involved, is that in focusing on the reciprocal aspects, there is a tendency to change toward a more balanced type of reciprocity and thus a less social one... [Jacques Godbout] describes the difference between the happy marriage in which the couple do each other favors, and the marriage in fundamental crisis, in which every deed and favor is counted and measured...

Sahlin's scheme becomes interesting for Luther research when it is possible to find the same main types of reciprocity in the center of Luther's understanding of justification... [Luther asks the rhetorical question] "But what does it mean when Christ says: 'the poor have good tiding preached to them?' An explanation of the utility of the gospel is provided at the end of the sermon...

At the end, Luther explains the utility of the gospel. Two things should be learned: faith and love. The faith should be praised, and the love should be done. Marcel Mauss's old insight is here reflected in the adage: a gift not passed on becomes loot. The gifts of God have to be distributed to the neighbors in order to remain gifts.

... Accordingly, if the neighbor remains only a recipient, he or she never has the possibility of participating in the fellowship, To avoid the isolation of the neighbor, it is necessary for him or her to partake in the source of giving... And so, the kingdom of God is not in words but in further giving.

... justification is the transformation of a self-centered do ut des to an opening social do ut des. Consequently it is possible to concentrate the economic structure of Luther's doctrine of justification in the twofold sentence "Deus dat ut dem, et do ut des" (God gives that I may give, and I give that you may give." - Bo Holm, "Luther's Theology of the Gift" in The Gift of Grace 78-86


What a neat passage! I know very little of Bo Holm (he's Danish, he works at the University of Aarhus, he's worked with some really cool people), but this passage from him makes me want to read more.

Holm follows a traditional Lutheran focus on justification by grace through faith as a gift - freely given and unconditional out of pure love. Orthodox Lutherans usually stop there. God's grace is a free gift, it cannot be earned, it is not done in order to "get" something. This grace is closely tied with our ideas of God's freedom, God's sovereignty, God's immutability, and all that good stuff. God loves you and that settles it.

Now me? I'm perfectly comfortable in that framework. That's the bread and butter (or bread and wine) of my faith. But there are many who get antsy around it. I can understand why - even if I don't agree. They tend to believe that it can lead to laziness, quietism, unwillingness to grow, change, or love (never mind that this really wasn't an issue for the Reformers themselves, I suspect those issues come from a different source but more on that another time).

Holm takes these un-nuanced concerns quite seriously, though. He wants to get to the heart of the matter of our relationship with God and neighbor through Law and Gospel. And he wants to do so in an interdisciplinary way by bringing in comments from sociologists. In examining Sahlin's sociological understanding of generosity he discovers that these critiques of Lutheranism don't really share Luthers' understanding of the gift of grace. They're setting up a strawman (though there are Lutherans who are quite comfortable in the straw).

 For Luther (and for us) the Gospel is transformative, and the joy it creates is best freely given in turn. The gift of grace isn't done for reciprocity, it's done relationship, friendship, and congregational life together in God.  Grace itself does the work of bringing us out of laziness, out of quietism, and towards a loving life in God's way. God's generosity and our generosity are not only focused on the individual, but on the neighbor. Each degree of care and presence builds the community more and more. We find some clear parallels to Jüngel's understanding of Christ's self-giving and the identity of God here (which I've often summarized as: "God does God stuff so that God can God more.").

This in turn gives us a great perspective on the imago dei - we bear God's image, in bearing Christ's image, in giving grace, praise, and love in the world. Not because we're doing it, but because God is at work. What a great nutshell of ecclesiology - we are given the grace of God not to be unmoved, but to be moved towards the very love of God in loving and bearing good news to the neighbor, and in doing so, are the Church.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Dorothee Sölle - Suffering

"The symbol for the religion of slaves is the cross, the kind of punitive death reserved for slaves. Is it necessary for this symbol of suffering, of failure, of dying, to stand at the midpoint of the Christian religion? Has not an overemphasis on the cross in theology and piety resulted in the fact that a 'God who justifies misery' was and is worshipped in society?


[The] question whether love requires the cross in order to be authentic appears to me to be posed falsely... the cross is neither a symbol expressing the relationship between God the Father and his Son, nor a symbol of masochism which needs suffering in order to convince itself of love. It is above all a symbol of reality. Love does not "require" the cross, but de facto it ends up on the cross. De factor Jesus of Nazareth was crucified; de facto the crosses of rebellious slaves under Spartacus adorned the streets of the Roman Empire. The cross is no theological invention, but the world's answer, given a thousand times over, to attempts at liberation. Only for that reason are we able to recognize ourselves in Jesus' dying on the cross. We observe the ideology of the rulers who supported the prevailing order. We see the brutality and sadism of the soldiers, who had a hand in it, following orders. We are confronted by the behavior of our friends. All these are possibilities for our behavior toward the stricken. And when we ourselves are struck by affliction, then we can try to learn from the story of Jesus... But de facto love ends up on the cross and within visible reality God chooses to act paradoxically.

Love does not cause suffering or produce it, though it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.

'There is no sorrow that is alien sorrow' says Simonov. That is not a sentence stating observable facts. It is a wish, a kind of hope that lives on the presupposed brotherhood of all mankind. It cannot be proven why there is no alien sorrow, no distant sorrow that does not concern us. Every proof for such a sentence makes it poorer and smaller. It is not deducible. it is much rather something one lays on the conscience of a thinking and feeling being. Wherever there is suffering, that is a concern of yours. That those who suffer belong together, not to be separated from the others, that pain cannot be parceled out into friends and enemies, that is part of the religion of slaves. There is no alien sorrow, we are all a part of it, we share in it.... Suffering tolerates no neutrality, no Pilate-standpoint.

... A person actually has a share in the life that is no longer his but in which he participates. The saying of one condemned to death, 'I shall die, I shall live,' will then apply to all, even those who never learned to say it themselves in their life. There is no alien sorrow, there is no alien resurrection."

Dorothee Sölle Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 162-165; 172-174

Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003) was a Lutheran liberation theologian, and she has always been a low-key favorite of mine since first reading her critique of Christian Masochism in Fall of 2009. She's one of the few theologians who I think successfully pulls off balancing Lutheranism and Liberation Theology. But she does so in a way that is definitely unconventional - particularly from the Lutheran end - and gets into some really interesting work with mystics and rabbinical figures.

Sölle does theology a little bit differently from most 20th century Lutheran theologians. Sölle's work is often described as "theopoetics." And her poems are certainly breathtaking. She also often lifts up voices I wouldn't necessarily lift up (Thomas Müntzer sticks out like a sore thumb in Suffering, among others - for reasons I'm sure I'll rant about some other time). But on top of that she unflinchingly lifts up voices that we need to hear - foundry and factory workers in West Germany, oppressed folks in Chile and Vietnam. People whose suffering we, or our wider society, might believe is "justified." And she forces us to read their words in a new way. Sölle sets out to make us uncomfortable - she sets out to provoke us - and this is a gift. It is good for us to sit in discomfort and honestly wrestle with those we would find an excuse to ignore - even that raving scoundrel Müntzer. Even his suffering, we will see, is pertinent to Christ's suffering. Even if he was a wicked revolutionary and theologian who led his own, and many who weren't his own, into death for his own sense of glory (another time, another blog entry).

We have to remember that Sölle wrote in the wake of Nazi Germany's fall. She saw the heresy of the German Church, and the ways that Lutheranism was compromised from within. She saw what happened when the German Lutherans would simply listen to themselves and ignore the voices of the marginalized, the destroyed, and those who thirsted for justice and righteousness until their deaths. So I think it's intentional and fitting that she lifted up the voices that her theological peers would be be quick to reject, and reappraise them from the perspective of the oppressed. It was essential for her to lift up the voices of those whom we have the easiest time rejecting and reveal Christ among them. Because when Christians see Christ is there, it forces us to reckon with them in a new, and possibly holy way. It gives us the chance to love our enemies.

The passage I quoted for today's blog is my favorite part of this text (though each chapter has something that would take my breath away and make me snap my fingers). First off, she acknowledges the peril that a casual and lazy theology of the cross always encounters: justifying the suffering of people who are worse off than the theologian. Popular theology often makes us pretend as though our suffering makes us holy ("it's just my/their cross to bear"), when it usually just creates a weird self-satisfied sanctimony and victimization complexes among the suffering, and uncaring monsters among unrepentant wrongdoers. A lazy theology of the cross (and a lazy theology of God's sovereignty) pretends that the way things are are the way they are supposed to be. That in turn makes us really good at calling disempowered people and victims of tragedy sinners, and really bad at addressing sin in the way that the Old Testament prophets did. It closes us off to the possibility that we could be wrong, and it closes us off to the freedom and gift of repentance.

As Christ, Paul, and every generation of competent theologians (including Sölle) has pointed out: we don't sin because we're free, we sin because we're sinners. But we are also the people who Jesus Christ loves, and the people whom Jesus Christ has come to save. Love gives us the freedom of a different way of life, and love has the power to bring what is living out of what is dying. We actually need salvation, and we actually need repentance if we want to live in any way that even resembles true living and not just breathing, eating, and farting for a few years. Breathing, eating, and farting are far more than "just" breathing, eating, and farting with repentance and compassion. Trust me on this.

Sölle makes it clear that a life of repentance lives in confrontation with death, and sorrow. Not in evasion, or ignorance, or fear of it. That doesn't mean trying to die on every hill you can make a stand on. But it does mean knowing where you stand, and it means helping people discover where they stand. Sometimes it even means being hated for the sake of love. It means making friends, and not strangers.

As Sölle points out (paraphrasing the poet Konstantin Simonov), there is no alien sorrow, and there is no alien resurrection. God belongs with the suffering, and the suffering belong to God. They are not strangers to us. Indeed, everyone who gets run over by the world is not a stranger to us. We recognize the man on the cross in them. They are where Christ was, and Christ is. When Christ rises from the dead it is for the sake of all the sorrowful. God actually intends to be with those who need God. We cannot prove this, but we can hope in it. This hope produces solidarity and action. It produces works like those Christ did in his earthly ministry. It leads us to be with those who need us. In solidarity with the suffering, we discover Christ and the Church.

So, if you're looking for someone who gets suffering, wants to help us get better at suffering, and is a guide to friendship with people who we're not otherwise likely to be friends with; if you want to read theodicy without nonsense, and a theology of the cross with some unexpected citations; if you need some discomfort in your comfort, read some Dorothee Sölle.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Recent Augsburg Publications Part 2: One Coin Found

This time I'll be talking about Emmy Kegler's One Coin Found. I've been lucky to follow Kegler on twitter (@emmykegler) for many years after I found a good retweet of her by a friend. I followed her right away - partially because of how strangely close our (relatively rare) surnames are, and also that we had the same call (at that time - Lutheran seminarians and today Lutheran pastors), and of course also because her content's always been on-point - even when I think we nuance things differently. So I was rather excited to hear that she was getting a book published and was glad to receive a copy!

As I mentioned in the last entry - One Coin Found is a theological autobiography of encouragement, melding Kegler's personal experience with theological reflection and convictions. That's not my usual genre to review. It would sound silly to look at someone else's heartfelt experience and reflection in a published book and give it some sort of thoroughgoing critique, or elaboration on content as though I have authority over her lived experience.

Kegler's book was written in order to help spiritually struggling folks see that they are first and foremost treasured by God, and second that they have a home in the Church with her. We see a classically Lutheran "One beggar telling another beggar where they found bread" mode of reflection and invitation at work here. Kegler focuses particularly on LGBT folx, who share part of her experience, and bear a mighty burden in a lot of churches - even in theoretically inclusive denominations such as our own. That said - I'm not an LGBT+ person and I still gained a lot from it, and I suspect I'm not alone. We can all learn and reflect from her experience.

One Coin Found reads as an extended written testimony of a Lutheran pastor in the early stages of her career - looking to the future with all the love and conviction that we should all have. Experienced enough to have been burnt. Faithful enough to have hope. Lucky enough to have seen that holy glimpse of God's work and way this side of the grave.

In her reflections, Kegler finds great inspiration in those most sacred parables of Christ found in Luke 15 - the Lost Sheep, the Missing Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Since the book's title is One Coin Found, I may as well focus on her reflection on that parable:

"The funny thing about coins is that they can't get lost by themselves. They cannot roll away on their own. Coins get lost because their owners aren't careful; whoever was in charge was wasteful with them. Coins get lost because they lose their shine, because dirt and rust cling to them, and without careful attention, they turn into a color indistinguishable from dust and mess...

We've known leaders like that, too. There were leaders who saw our value as something to be squandered, something they could be careless with... The trouble with this metaphor is that God is the shepherd and the woman, and if God was careless with the sheep and the coin, that would mean God was careless with us. Metaphors, in Scripture and elsewhere, do not encompass the whole of reality. God has never been careless wit su, but those who claim to speak for God have...

We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted form others' indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and did not see our neglect. But God in big and little ways, has picked up a woman's broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket, God has found us, dustier, and rustier, and without any luster, and held us ip to the light to say: no matter how rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine. "

Emmy Kegler, One Coin Found (Fortress Press 2019) 4-5, 8-9

Emmy sees herself, and the whole Church Invisible (the Church as God would and will have it, not as the institutional entity of any individual day) in this light. She tells her story through these parables and reflects on her entire life. She begins with her blessed, but difficult childhood - which grows through love for the Episcopal Church, and her coming out. It continues through her experiences with an evangelical church which inspired her so deeply through its community and worship, but then attacked her for her sexuality and nearly turned her away from the Church forever. She reflects on how the shame she felt from that experience bled into her mental illness and caused her last harm. But she doesn't stay there - she moves on to the experience of true welcome through distributing Holy Communion at Luther College. When she thought she might be unworthy, her chaplain put a loaf into her hand and gave her the words to distribute. This began a turning of the tide towards grace, hope, and love - and it turns out, towards becoming a pastor in the ELCA.

The book continues in showing her life in conversations with scripture: how she came to live through them, believe them, argue with them, and more. Not as a fact book on a shelf, but a steadfast companion. It closes with a few observations on the divine love of God that "found" her, and what that means for her. The grace she experienced has consequences for her identity - in a similar way to how it should transfigure all of us - not merely covered in rust and patina but glimmering and reflecting the love of God. This is all great stuff - a real testimony of how we can come to read the Scriptures in our lives not as a book on the shelf, but as a story that shapes and strengthens human hearts for the sake of love.

What a great autobiography! I'm happy to have read it, and to have been inspired from it - and I hope that Kegler and Augsburg Fortress decide to write and publish a few more things like this for people who need them when the season is right.

A good friend of mine (@noah_hepler) often reflects that the Church's issues/problems aren't sociological, or demographic at their core. They're issues of identity, and by extension theology. The Lutheran tradition to me, and to I would hope all folks, is so liberating, so hopeful, so critical, so Christ-centered, and so grounded in God's passion (in the sense of fervent love, and the sense of the execution and resurrection of Jesus) in/for the lives of people that it will constantly call more people into its fold in a mode we call "Law and Gospel." For non-Lutherans - that's the revealing of the garbage we get into, and the grace and love that pulls us out of it. Testimonies like Kegler's provide us with the down to earth stories of God's grace at work, and theological reflection applied to daily life. Because she can talk about her life with God, she can invite other people to reflect and come to speak in the language of Law and Gospel as well. And with it, the presence, grace, and persistent blessings of God. And I'm really hopeful that in ten or so years Kegler will write a part two for us as we all grow in faith. Because she's got the gifts to tell her story, and God's story.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Recent Augsburg Publications Part 1: Dear Church

There have been some impressive releases from Augsburg Fortress recently - though not the sort of books I normally write about in here. Still works that I'm glad to have read, and think you should read as well. They're very accessible introductions for how "progressive" theology (a term I use warily - since I suspect they're far more orthodox than most folks give them credit for) can shape the life of churches.

I've been lucky to pick up two of them: Emmy Kegler's One Coin Found and Lenny Duncan's Dear Church. The first is an autobiography of encouragement - Emmy Kegler writing about her pathway to ministry as a lesbian woman - opening up her best and worst experiences to welcome others and show you that you too - the reader of this very blog - has a home in Christ's church with her and all of us. The is styled as a love-letter by Lenny Duncan the the same ELCA. In function it's more akin to Paul's Letter to the Galatians - It's filled with deep frustration and deeper love; ever-abiding hope, and Christly conviction that the ELCA can be something incredible, but is at a critical moment and it cannot stumble in confronting the systemic evils of the modern world.

I think I'll be writing about Emmy Kegler next time - but today I'll focus on Lenny Duncan's book. So let's start with a really compelling quote:

"We stand at the edge of a theological civil war. I don't say that lightly. The Christian church in America, in its slow and often lurching way is taking cues from its members. Right now, its members are at their most divided in modern political history. Right now, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being called "fake news" by one person, while another calls that same person a Nazi. No one is calling each other sibling.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want a church of false unity. And some fundamental truths are worth fighting over. I don't think we need to apologize for formally widening the tent for our LGBTQIA siblings in Christ. Nor do we have to justify welcoming sojourners from distant lands. I will never apologize for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or calling for the abolition of prisons. I'd rather stand with the prisoner outside, thank you.

I shouldn't need to apologize for or tone down the fierce declaration you made to me when I fell in love with you ELCA: "Jesus made no restrictions on this table, so neither do we."

... The gospel is a call for liberation. It infects the hearts of those it has been presented to like a wildfire that scorches away hatred. When did we become so damn afraid of it? Dear Church, we are cowards."

Lenny Duncan Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (Fortress Press, Minneapolis MN: 2019) 4-5

Now that is some Grade-A Law that builds to an even mightier Gospel.

I've said before that I think if the great theologian Oswald Bayer were to have been born in the late 70s/early 80s as a black, LGBTQIA+ kid in Philadelphia (instead of a white German born early in the Second World War and coming of age in a church defined by grasping for hope following its utter moral failing and infidelity in the rise of Naziism) he'd look and act a lot like Lenny Duncan.

Duncan's always challenging, critiquing, and empowering through the fundamental Lutheran patterns. You don't get fancy innovations from him. He's mostly exploring the consequences of Lutheran theology for our daily practice. But unlike the quietists of past generations of Lutheran thinkers (and more akin to folks like Luther, Bugenhagen and in a certain way some of the good Pietists), Duncan puts focus on how the Gospel actively liberates our thought and our communities from destructive, power-obsessed patterns. Our world is lousy with fear, and our church is seldom better. In reading this book, I definitely feel the sting of my own cowardice. Mercifully, as G.R.R. Martin puts it (and Lenny certainly makes clear as well) cowardice is the best occasion for bravery. And in Christ we have exactly what we need to counter it with the Lutheran faith.

In daily living in the USA - Lenny Duncan sees patterns of destruction at work in particular in actions against people of color, and against the LGBTQIA community. That has personal stakes - because he's part of both of those communities. He's seen the hate, he's experienced it directly. He talks about how he'd been used and abused, neglected, imprisoned, abandoned, and hated. He even knows its self-justification in acts and relationships of tokenism that make an exception for him, but only in contrast to the wider community. But in the experience of radical welcome in an ELCA Church, in the uniquely Lutheran proclamation of forgiveness amidst Holy Communion - he found a home he never experienced. It transformed him, and led him into a ministry that subverts the hatred he's experienced. If we're Lutheran - shouldn't that matter in daily life - for us and for our communities? Shouldn't liberation be part of our daily bread?

Why then, the book meditates, does the Church seem so afraid of the welcome he experienced within it? Why does it imitate the patterns it's meant to overturn? Why does it seem more interested in not offending the voices that hurt his communities than it does in embracing his communities?

Duncan points out that this isn't a new phenomena. After all, the ELCA's predecessor bodies failed to fund Jehu Jones' ministry in the early 19th century. They were often tepid in response to slavery. They were been less than responsive to systemic inequalities and injustices. But that didn't stop Jehu Jones from preaching, and that didn't stop the ones who DID speak up from doing just that. Our sin does not negate the Holy Spirit's promise, and the Holy Spirit's work - which true to the Gospel remains active and at work and calling us to the life we seem so afraid of.

That's precisely the hope that Duncan has for us. For every heavy (and true) charge that Lenny reveals about the Church in her/our sin - the love that builds it is so much stronger. And the book is fundamentally a love-letter by a man who "gets butterflies in [his] stomach when" when he thinks about it. Love endures disappointment and struggle. Love likewise builds us and makes both lover and beloved stronger. And the Lenny notes that the ELCA provides countless signs of God's love. The gauntlet he lays down is a challenge for us to believe, and do in kind. The result would be nothing short of a revolution in the American religious landscape. The Holy Spirit's already doing it: "Dear Church, you aren't dying; you're being refined. Like precious metal you are being poured into a new mold. These times are heating you up, forming you into shape. You are being sharpened into a fine edge." The Church will survive this challenge. Let's be part of it. Let's do the Jesus thing.

So if you're interested in how the theology of the Church and the practice of the Church influence one another - this is a great book to pick up. Or perhaps more pressingly - if you yourself are having a hard time seeing yourself in the church due to having a marginalized identity (due to race, sexuality, politics, etc.), well here's a powerful voice in the modern ELCA telling you that they've found themselves in the ELCA - and would love for you to be here too. Still more - if you're struggling with LGBT+ rights, or conversations about race in the context of church this is a great book that shows how to talk about it, and how these talks are done well in the church, as well as just who is at stake and what good we welcome in welcoming the stranger. There's also a lovely discussion guide at the end for group conversation that will make it a valuable book to read in a group.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Legends, Fantasies, Stories

I'm prompted by a small source today, found in another little issue of Lutheran Quarterly, to write about something that the Lutherans (and in the last century of so the Episcopalians) have been rather more fond of than any other Protestants: "Legends" of the saints, and more broadly the use of fiction, imagination, and fantasy.

This may be a surprise for some - a very common belief among Christians is that in Luther's zeal, he did away with "false legends" of the Romans in favor of strictly using the scriptures (and a literal, historically "inerrant" [whatever that means] understanding of scripture at that). Many opponents of Lutheranism even charge Luther of getting rid of the Apocrypha (those nifty books in the center of many Roman Catholic Bibles). But the Lutherans never really opposed these things in the way that either the Calvinists or the Radical Reformers would. The Lutherans were never iconoclasts, nor did they try to remove joyful things like musical instruments from worship. Lutherans recognized that these things could be used for edification and praise, even if they scandalized their opponents.

Luther certainly attempted to purge the preaching of references to stories that drew attention away from the work of Christ. He also certainly tried to get preachers to focus more on the works of Jesus than the works of say... St. George the Dragon-Slayer. And there were certainly a number of stories that he thought contained such stinking nonsense that it would be best if no one read them anymore. Kind of like how I don't think any of you all should be reading or letting your kids "Twilight" - it's just silly nonsense that normalizes gross and harmful relationships. Luther also roundly condemned invoking the saints. But that doesn't mean Luther wanted to get rid of stories. Also - Luther certainly didn't get rid of the Apocrypha. He translated it all, and put it at the back of the Bible for consultation - following a pre-existing tradition that these books weren't of the same "stuff" as the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament. But publishers back then and today generally try to cut down on expenses and tended not to print them.

But Luther and his colleagues observed, like with the Apocrypha, there are all kinds of nifty, fun, and edifying stories, legends, and myths in the Church that can actually help people understand the faith. Johann Steiger makes this quite clear in a neat little article about Luther's use of the legends of St. Christopher in preaching and teaching.

Here's St. Christopher having a RUFF day

For you all who don't know - St. Christopher is a fun medieval legendary character who "was" either a super tall dude, an actual Giant, an actual Ogre, or a Cynocephalus (dude with a dog's head) - which to the average early Medieval mind was definitely a sort of person, who their weird great-great-uncle definitely saw or was killed by when traveling through Egypt, or China, or somewhere inconceivably far away from rural medieval Germany or France. St. Christopher at any rate was a really strong jerk who served the king of Canaan (which again, was definitely a contemporary nation to the story, even if it didn't exist for centuries, history be darned). Eventually he found out that the King of Canaan feared the devil and figured if the devil was so powerful, he should probably just serve the devil instead. So he went to serve the devil with some other jerks, when he eventually found out that the devil was scared of Jesus. So he figured he'd serve Jesus instead, and become an even more powerful jerk. In time he met a Christian hermit, who thought he was kind of a dummy, and said the best way he could serve Christ was to help people ford across a treacherous, unfordable river. In time, a small child asked to cross the river. The river swelled up, and Christopher discovered the child was heavier than anyone ever before him. Christopher found himself in grave danger, but in time managed to cross the river - only to discover that he bore with him the Christchild - who tells him his service is good, and beckons him to place his staff in the ground. The following morning - Christopher discovers his staff has been transfigured into a palm tree.

This story was incredibly popular throughout Europe, and found its way into countless works of art. Most of those artworks, particularly the ones Luther was familiar with, were of Christopher holding tight to his staff as he tried to cross the river, while a placid infant Christ calmly resting on his shoulders (often with a globe in his hands). Luther interpreted the story to his listeners on multiple occasions - telling them at a wedding that the Staff symbolizes the Word of God, which is Christopher's only support through the treacherous waters as he brings Christ from one side to the next. So too must the couple cling to God's Word in times of trouble in their relationship - knowing that the Word is strong enough to bear their troubles and their station in life is a holy one, because it is in service to their spouse. Later, on St. Christopher's Day (one of those mythical, pagan days that Luther allegedly wanted to end) Luther argued that the images of Christopher that so many see can actually be a symbol for all Christians. Luther argues that "Christ-bearers" are weighed down by Christ into baptism, so that they may be lifted up in Christ's mercy. Later Luther uses the image of Christopher to counter his accusers in the Radical Reformation. Where they accused Luther of being slack in the imitation of Christ's suffering, Luther counters that we need not seek suffering out - it will find us one way or the other and Christ will be there for us. (Johann Steiger, "Luther on the Legend of St. Christopher," Lutheran Quarterly v. XXV no. 2 (2011) p. 126-137).

Luther's not the only one to make that point though. Melanchthon also points to the legends of Christopher as particularly telling among others tories of Barbra, Cyprian, Augustine, and others. InArticle XXI of Melanchthon's Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon notes that there are great stories for us to take strength from, it's just that people take the wrong lessons! People will hear a wonderful story about the fictional St. Christopher and his admonition to strength while carrying Christ in preaching and sharing the Good News, and preachers will make them leave with the understanding that they ought to pray to him instead of Jesus. Melanchthon complains "... these clowns, endowed with the knowledge of neither faith nor the administration of public affairs, have invented stories in imitation of the epics, in which there are nothing but superstitious examples about certain prayers and fasts, to which certain things are tacked on in order to earn revenue." (Apology XXI:32-41) Pretty much, people in a place of influence were telling believers invented stories to convince them to give more money to the bishops. The heart of the matter is exploitation, not imagination. And with it, and admonition to true preaching.

Just because something is legendary, doesn't mean it isn't true. Indeed, legends can reveal much truth, and bring much joy. Good ones capture our attention, and bring us a sense of profound wonder.  And this doesn't stop in the medieval period. Contemporary fiction, most famously comic book stories, do this in the modern period. X-Men of course is a story about people who are both insecure and way cooler than us who have super powers. But it's also an allegory on civil rights - in particular the rights of people of color (in the early period) and LGBT+ people (in more contemporary stories). Spider-Man is about coming to terms with yourself. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was/is 90s period gender studies for teens with all the great and all the terrible that entails. All of them are hit-and-miss - with great parts and just awful parts. The presence, or lack, of historic veracity should not concern us so much as what the content reflects and calls for.

We share and we interpret our stories through our faith, and through our convictions, we see for where something divine is at work through the images. We can also reject crappy and unedifying stories that lead people into wacky nonsense. And we can talk about images and stories, and how they help us understand the world. God actually wants us to understand God's will and ways - it shouldn't surprise us that pictures can drive us to understand. And we enter into a conversation of faith and fiction. And that's a really rewarding thing we can do - and we're best equipped when we read theology.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Oswald Bayer's Theses for Church Renewal, a bit Lenny Duncan (in anticipation of more), and the communal nature of justification

"1. Lutheranism has been entrusted with one gift in particular, namely, a clear doctrine which concentrates on the justifying God and on sinful man. [sic]

2. As with every 'charism,' its purpose is not to be sought in self-display, but in service. Being aware of this gift the Lutheran confession cannot be an end in itself, but rather a service to ecumenism.

3. The Lutheran understanding of justification can appear to concentrate too much, if not exclusively, on the personal salvation of the individual. To counter this, the following must be emphasized. Justification is an event which should be perceived in its social and universal dimension as well as in its significance for the individual.


5. The new creation becomes tangible in the distinction between law and gospel.

6. The distinction between law and gospel serves the gospel since the gospel can be unequivocally clear and and certain only when it is freed from having to serve at the same time as law [against Karl Barth's concept of the unity of gospel and law].


9. ... In the law [God] speaks out against me; in the gospel [God] speaks for me: 'here I wrestle for thee.'


15. By discovering the all-important tangible worldly mediation of God's word of salvation, Luther discovered a new "worldliness." In other words, he received a fuller understanding of St. John 1:14 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...'


17. Separated from the First Commandment, such a perception of the world would be blind. Similarly if the First Commandment were separated from the perception of the world ... it would be empty.


20. The Christian as new creation must know, however, what its relation is to the old aeon. ... [the civil end of law] is valid for the Christian. There is no difference between the non-Christian and the Christian, inasmuch as the latter still belongs to the old aeon.

24. Our pilgrimage takes place in the difference between seeing and believing, and is characterized both by waiting and hastening, prompted by the Holy Spirit in patience, as well as in the impatient cry, 'Maranatha!"

Oswald Bayer, Twenty Four Theses on the Renewal of Lutheranism by Concentrating on the Doctrine of Justification, Lutheran Quarterly Volume V no. 1, Spring 1991, 73-75


I like reading Bayer, and I like this passage of his in an old Lutheran Quarterly I picked up at Krauth Memorial Library. Bayer is remarkably clear and provocative at once in his commitment to the basics of Lutheran theology - the distinction between law and gospel, the co-humanity of all people through sin and redemption, the openness to others, the unbridled commitment to the truth, the struggle of faith, and above all justification by grace through faith. In this, Bayer's works set a good foundation for contemporary Lutheran theologians. When it comes to theologians who do Lutheranism well, he comes in short order after the Lutheran Confessions themselves.

In this passage, Bayer sets the stage for Lutheran "renewal." Written in 1991, it is not so new, just never followed through with - and I think not adequately explored in the sense that we need it to - we could use it to open theology up in our contexts, but few theologians are brave enough to do so. Bayer's translated works fail to make this jump as well. They remain generally abstract - though I have to admit ignorance towards his untranslated German works. But their consequence for on-the-ground ministry is profound. Lutheran renewal, Bayer proposes, is done with through a thorough understanding of justification - one that takes fully into account the powers of law and gospel, the perniciousness/ubiquity of sin in the experience of humanity, and the unfailing devotion of God to wrestle for our sake - against the terrors of the law, against the terrors that humans wage against one another, and against sin and death. Bayer's theology takes sin and suffering, the human condition, and the power, terror, and struggle of God far more seriously than most folks dare to. Bayer's God fights and struggles where other theologians seem satisfied for a gentle, distant love with vaguely any skin in the game. But the wrestling that God does is for us.

Critically, Bayer observes that justification has been mishandled in the church. Through a largely uninhibited devotion to the well-being of the individual, justification's effects on communities has been neglected. But for Bayer, the Gospel preached creates faith amid assemblies, not faith amongst individuals. It has worldly consequences of unity, community, collaboration which work together as the body of Christ. And that doesn't mean that the battle is done and everything's perfect in our pretty little churches. It means that the battle is both finished and just beginning. Those who hear the word are in it together.

Because we're still fighting for justice in this world. We're still even fighting among ourselves. There are still people who are suffering and dying and believing that they are forgotten. Many of them are Christians who are oppressed by other Christians, or are oppressing other Christians and hardly realize it. Some of them are not Christian at all, and yet God works through them for the common good. The Good News is that Jesus has actually got this - even if sometimes we see it and sometimes we don't. The Christian life - Bayer observes - has shades of action and shades of patience. It has crying out and it has waiting. And God is there amid it all - unaffected by common hypnoses and psychoses, except through God's own love and passion that drives God to break us out and set us free.

Justification has social consequences - because it creates a community of people who look to the crucified one and say "What Jesus has done is what we are about." The sick are healed, the hungry are fed, the oppressed are set free, the sinners are forgiven, and the power structures that we get passively hypnotized into thinking are just fine are getting overturned the moment we get shaken out of state-sponsored delusions. In focusing on the event of justification - the eyes with which we look upon the world and the heart with which we receive it - find oneness with Christ's own. Who he was in the world, we too may be. And we won't be, we will struggle, and we will fail, and we will be culpable. But our love will be part of something different and something eternal.

I noted earlier that Bayer's books are as basic as they are provocative. They're foundations for more important work, and that important work is the ministry of the Church. Theology's never meant to be something disembodied or removed from the daily life of the Church. In a lot of ways, I think Lenny Duncan does a really good job of "doing" Bayer's theology (his first book Dear Church is coming out shortly). I detect a lot of spiritual kinship between the two. I haven't read the new book yet (didn't sign up for an early copy), but everything that I've read and watched of his seems to track with Bayer's works. What Bayer puts down as lot of the basics of Christian faith and life in the abstract - Duncan shows in practice on the ground when confronting the sin of racism in the institutional church and beyond - what the gift of justification and forgiveness does in the face of oppression. Here the difference between what is seen and what is believed, and the struggle of faith is laid out painfully, powerfully, and clearly. And that gets him a whole lot of hate - including from Christians who ought to know better. This is at once a sad and familiar thing that I don't understand but recognize as fitting into a pattern of costly discipleship. Duncan builds in context what Bayer sets theological foundations for in abstract. So read some Oswald Bayer, and read some Lenny Duncan. It can be really hard to, but it's good, and it's for you.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Frustrations in widespread news media - On the New York Times

As most everyone who reads this knows, I'm a pastor, and Lent is a bonkers season of the church year - which has meant that this blog found its way to the bottom of my priorities. Glad to be back, though.

That said, I haven't stopped reading. But as a change of pace, I'll be focusing on two articles I came across in the New York Times - both disheartening. Normally I want this to be a blog of appreciation, but sometimes I also feel salty. So there you go. I created "Why Read Theology" to encourage people to read more theology - and to spur myself into reading some theologians I haven't spent a lot of time reading, and revisiting ones that meant a lot to me. But sometimes, you've gotta read theology just to debunk and critique the stuff you come across every day.

The first article is an opinion written by Peter Atterton, called "The God Problem," found here:

All three are my reaction while reading article one

It is pretty terrible. I won't give a lengthy quote of it, but it's right there in its entirety if you'd like.

The second is an interview piece by Nicholas Kristoff with Serene Jones - president of Union Seminary. It's also... disappointing. Both in its content and in the content its spurred in my social media circles since it was published. You can find it here:

My reaction like four paragraphs into article two

On the first article: Atterton believes that belief in God (and I believe that he means the Christian understanding of God based on who he cites) is incoherent because there are issues and seeming contradictions/paradoxes when we have to reckon with concepts like omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and moral perfection. There are a ton of issues with this article, but I'm just going to boil it down to this one: Atterton does not understand Christianity. He just doesn't. I don't even think he wants to. I can't say for sure why he doesn't want to try to understand it, I can't speak to his motivations. You can find other critiques if you'd like (leave 'em in the comments), but only someone who is utterly and completely uninterested in Christianity could say something like:

"I shall here ignore the argument that God knows what it is like to be human through Christ, because the doctrine of the Incarnation presents us with its own formidable difficulties: Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?"


When writing an article about how the "omnis" and how "moral perfection" present logical dilemmas for people who believe in God - he is utterly uninterested in dealing with a central guiding concept that has defined orthodox Christianity since the beginning (or, if you're radically skeptical, since the Council of Nicaea): that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. Any time we say any thing about God and the "omnis," we do so through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as attested to within the New Testament. What Atterton rejects out of hand is the linchpin to making any kind of sense of every other issue he brings up if he is speaking to the Christian tradition in particular. Which is what I'm going to assume because he's writing without bringing up any theologians of other traditions - itself a grave error if he's setting out to talk about how all faith in God is "incoherent."

It's laughable, rather trollish image: Atterton tells us what's wrong with believing in God without actually engaging with what Christians say about God. He picks a fight with a straw man that's wearing a cross necklace. Sure, he pays a little lip-service to Aquinas, Plantinga, and Jerome citing them WRESTLING with the omnis and moral perfection, but not actually how they deal with the omnis in a charitable or recognizable way.

To use some classically Lutheran language - part of Atterton's problem (and there are many problems) in this article is that he's focusing all of his attention on what we would call deus absconditus, alternatively the "Hidden God," the "God of Nature," "The Naked God," and sometimes even "God of the Philosophers." This is the God that we set out to understand in our own terms: a God hidden among the omnis and expectations of our own tricky schemes. God's will becomes hard to separate from our own will. We set up the God we want, the rules we want, the ways we want and say "this is God, this is what God wants." That's not something we necessarily do all on our own, but something we also do as a society over generations. We speak of God as though God was not in the room. As though God is saying nothing.

The opposite of the Hidden God is the Revealed God - and Christians believe that the revealed God is Jesus Christ - life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the Word of God, the image of God, the revelation of God, the Son of God, of one being with the Father, the self-expression of God, etc. We proclaim that there is no omniscient one apart from the one who was born of Mary, and knew nothing apart from crying, feeding, and excreting. We proclaim is no understanding of "omnipresent" apart from the the temporal man who taught the Jewish scriptures for three years, primarily among the poor. We proclaim that there's no "omnipotent" one apart from the one who was publicly executed by an empire in said empire's many expressions of oppressing a marginalized religious/ethnic population. This is the truth that our Christ-ian scriptures attest to in the New Testament. This is the message two-thousand years worth of faithful leaders were entrusted with (and were faithful to to varying degrees).

This is what we call "the Revealed God," God clothed in flesh, God made in some manner comprehensible and communicable. It's this God, who lives, dies, and rises, who also does stuff like "create" and "forgive sins," "cultivate just societies," "welcome the stranger," and drink an awful lot of good wine without harming God's self or others. And the revealed God seems a lot more interested in us being involved in those things than in sorting out leisurely mind games about "omnis" or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Indeed, as Christians we find all of those things remarkably linked to one another. We're awfully bad at them without God's help. Indeed, we confess that we need God's help, and the Holy Spirit is actually at work trying to get these things working among us all. And we only deal with concepts like the omnis, or morality, through this lens. Through the cross. Through Christ. That's how we understand God - not in our own terms - but in God's.

To simply dismiss the incarnation in writing about God in Western/Christian terms, is akin to saying you want write about physics, but couldn't possibly be bothered to learn about math. Read theology so that you don't sound like an idiot to Christians when you're an atheist who's making a critique about Christianity.


On the second article - Serene Jones' interview. An old friend suggested it must be edited in some unfortunate way because it just reads far too cringe-inducingly to be truly legitimate. I hope that's true.

For the first three questions, Jones' responses are actually pretty spot-on. She kind of side-steps the issue of the bodily resurrection in ways that reveal that it's just not super important to her. Now me, I think the bodily resurrection is of grave (hem hem) importance. But a lot of better theologians than I am, and faithful believers formed differently from me are far more concerned with concepts like meaninglessness, spiritual oppression, shame, and other similar concepts that rob life of its value more than they are concerned with the bodily aspects of the resurrection. Bultmann, Tillich, MLK Jr., all sorts of good folks fit into that camp. They still believe that Christ is the answer - it's just that they are more concerned by lives ruled by despair than they are concerned about death. I can't fault them for that, the 20th century was a rough time for them all. It's a dark and grim thing to look at these survivors of many terrors (war, racial terror, etc.) and tell them what's good for them when they experienced the love of Christ in different language than we do. Jones has inherited the mantle of their language and it is good language. The dreaded "Liberal Protestantism" isn't always bad, everyone. Sometimes its' better equipped to heal people than the rigidly orthodox. Sometimes we have to see God at work in it.

My issue with Jones comes in the fourth question - and continues throughout the remainder of the article. Jones says: "For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that."

What's wrong with wibbly-wobbly?

First part? Great. 100%. Love is stronger than life or death. Second part about the "physical resurrection?" Ugh. First off, no one will ever find "the body of Jesus" outside of the Eucharist and in the lives of believers in this pilgrim journey. In the most scientific terms - there can physically be no evidence of the body of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, son of God, ward of Joseph. It's just not going to happen. To even bring up that possibility is just silly. No one would believe such a fanciful concept. There is no filled tomb of Jesus - and to see a filled tomb with Jesus' name on it categorically means none of the faithful will believe its' Jesus' historical tomb. It would just be the grave of some dude named Jesus who had a very coincidental name - and probably a forgery. Second, isn't it just a convenient and fancy idea for love to be counted as "stronger than life or death" if it isn't acted upon? The physical resurrection unites word with deed. Without flesh it seems like just an idea and a nice thought among ideas and nice thoughts. Preachers of the physical resurrection have to believe God has skin in the game.

The issue goes on: Jones calls the faith of those who care "too much" about the bodily resurrection "wobbly." That's rough - considering so many of the biblical writers and the theologians and saints of the church have found tremendous comfort in it. To know that Christ bears their wounds, to know that Christ's life was no trick, to know that life and body actually matter in the fullest and richest and most literal sense. They believed in the bodily resurrection - wobbles and all. And you know? Jones knows this, she's not an insular person, she has a whole faculty of brilliant people and has learned from some of the best. It seems really odd for her to make such a comment about the faiths of others as though hers were so much better for not getting into the "meat" of the incarnation and resurrection. We don't need to know the science of it, but to know that Christ's life is true, and true life lives on beyond death, in unity with God. And it's condescending as hell to say that the faiths of people centuries before her are wobbly, or haven't interacted with issues of the historicity of Jesus' resurrection.

We can say the same about her comment on Mary's virginity or the afterlife. It comes off with such a smug and uncharitable reading of others.

And yet - the reaction against Jones in a lot of corners of the internet seem SO MUCH WORSE. The ways she's dismissed as though she's a fool, or a prophet of a false god, or that Union is terrible. I've also seen these critiques combined with a heavy dose of misogyny. But the thing is - her critiques are often either valid or at least have a kernel of truth we must reckon with. I mean, we know that the resurrection has been used in some pretty terrible ways. There are ways to talk about the resurrection that DO sound like the divine child abuse that Jones criticizes. Human hatred justified through religion is dangerous (though hatred doesn't need institutional religion's help to be awful). Charlatans do misuse prayer in order to make us feel like our loved ones die for "not praying enough," and there are selfishly motivated, authoritarian, "orthodox" Christians, whether we like it or not.

Jones' fiercest critics seem to be blind to (or even supportive) of these things. Hearing them talk terribly about her as though SHE were the big problem, as though she were uninformed, is some pretty wicked stuff. We all can, and are called, to do better.

Read theology because there isn't one institutional voice for Christianity. A variety of thoughts and traditions keeps your mind sharp, humble, and willing to be corrected and guided by a Spirit who does love us and is working through us.

Gifts and Reciprocity - on Bo Holm

"It has been quite common to introduce the Lutheran concept of justification by claiming its nature as a pure gift. God give -- the h...