Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Some of us never tire of puppets singing parodies of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Okay, to be precise I never tire of puppets singing parodies of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. And so...

Blessed Christmas to you!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More on the War on...


I will not name him as I do not have his permission. I am probably quoting him inaccurately anyway. The point is that this thought is not original to me. It comes from a member of my social network, a friend who has been described as "sarcastic and wise." He said,

People forget that "Happy Holidays" includes both Christmas and New Year. So when I wish someone "Happy Holidays" and they say, "No, you mean "Merry Christmas'" I tell them "Fine. Have a *****y New Year."

Yesterday Chris "The Lutheran Zephyr" Duckworth wrote a snarky blogpost about The War on Christmas in which he said:

Even though the Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus brings good news to the poor and sends the rich away empty, to fully participate in Christmas America-style, an upper-middle class income or higher is really necessary, because Christmas in America is about the gifts.  (Frankincense, gold and myrrh didn't come cheap, bucko.)  And so Christians established Christmas as a holiday that can truly be shared in its ideal form only by those who are well-off, further thrusting Christ into the center of the American yearning for wealth and material goods.

Read the entire post here, and don't miss the comments. Snark begets snark.

Today, Chris posted again. This time his words are more measured. A sample:

And so by the mid-to-late 19th century Christmas was widely celebrated in America, with a growing emphasis on gift-giving and elves, a large man in a red suit and reindeer.  Washington Irving's popular writings made celebration of the home and hearth central to our understanding of Christmas.  Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, widely read in America by the 1860s, further sentimentalized Christmas as a holiday of kindness and compassion.

This is not all bad, but it ain't Baby Jesus, either.  The imperative to care for the poor and to share gifts surely has roots in Christian tradition and teachings, and Christians should be glad that the wider culture promotes works of charity at this time of year.  But it is hard to deny that in the 19th century Christmas - the Christ Mass - was branded by a variety of cultural traditions and emphases that had less to do with explicitly religious celebrations of the birth of Christ and more to do with good cheer, generosity, and the comfort of the hearth.

Again, the entire post is worth reading. Find it here.

The detail from Giotto's fresco of the Nativity was found here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The War on Christmas: Take Two


Dr. James McGrath is a prolific, and frequently brilliant, blogger. Last Sunday, in a post titled "Christmas: The Christian War on Solstice," he wrote:

Today in my Sunday school class I decided to turn our attention to seasonal matters. Soon, the topic of being wished "Happy Holidays" as opposed to "Merry Christmas" came up. And so I took that opportunity to talk about what I consider one of the great Christmas miracles: the fact that long ago Christians managed to "hijack" the already-existing solstice festival, and turn it into a Christian celebration so thoroughly and so effectively that, more than a millennium and a half later, cultural Christians can complain about the "hijacking" or "secularization" of Christmas without any sense of irony.

Read the rest of his post here.

Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, Father James Martin has an article titled, "The War on Christmas is Over...And Christmas Lost." Father Martin advises:

So what's a Christian to do?

For one thing, surrender. Stop fighting. Enough with the embarrassing and endless "War on Christmas." It's embarrassing because we've lost. It's a waste of time because corporations have more financial firepower than churches, and the consumerism will only to get worse. Get ready for Santa to show up around Labor Day. (You laugh now; you won't in a few years.) Can't fight City Hall? Much less can you fight Madison Avenue -- which has more money than City Hall. Give it up.

Capitulate Christmas? Read the rest of his article here.

The Solstice Card illustration came from Dr. McGrath's site.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Keep X in Xmas


My friend is a PhD now, a church consultant, but a little over a quarter century ago, she was one of my fellow students in seminary. And I remember one December when she jokingly admonished me to "Keep X in Xmas."

This was well before the talking heads had trumped up an imaginary "War on Christmas" to keep the culture warriors on alert. Back then there was only a vague concern among Christians that the celebration of Jesus' birthday was being obscured by Santa, Rudolph and Frosty. Some worried that a  cultural accretion of tinsel and sleigh bells was deafening us to the angel's announcement: "To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord." I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas, but...

There was no "War on Christmas" then. There isn't one now.

It is time we all faced the fact that we live in a pluralistic society. No one is keeping Christians from keeping Christmas. Ours is not, however, the only religion in town. Many people of many faiths celebrate holidays around the time of the Winter Solstice. It is not an insult to wish someone, whose faith you may not know, "Happy Holidays." If you take offense at a kind wish, it only reflects badly on you.

There is a drug store in my town with a marquee sign out front. This time of year they advertise special prices on "C-MAS CARDS" and other "C-MAS" merchandise. I think I see what they are doing. The sign is only so large. An abbreviation for the word "Christmas" is useful. They are a retail establishment. Offending customers is not a wise business practice. They worry that some Christians will take umbrage if they use the abbreviation "Xmas." So they have taken the "X" out of Xmas and replaced it with "C" for "Christ."

I wonder, though, if they realize the "X" in Xmas is not the English letter "Ecks" at all. It is not a mathematical symbol. It does not signify the unknown. It is, rather, the Greek letter "Chi," the initial letter of "Christos" from which we get our word "Christ."  The cruciform letter Chi, which is written "X," has been used for centuries as an abbreviation for "Christ." The abbreviation "Xmas" is not blasphemous. It no more takes Christ out of Christmas than does the abbreviation "C-mas."

Xians who take offense at the abbreviation "Xmas" only show their ignorance of their own faith. Even if "Xmas" were an insult, taking offense would be a betrayal of the Teacher who told us to "turn the other cheek." So this year, I will be keeping "X" in Xmas. My friend was smarter than I even before she got her PhD.

Got 10 minutes? Enjoy Jon Stewart's humorous take on the "War on Christmas" here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Fourth Use of the Law


Lutheran theology divides the Word of God into two distinct categories: Law and Gospel. Gospel is the good news of forgiveness by God's unmerited grace revealed in Jesus Christ. The Law is all of the rules and regulations, the shoulds, and shalts and shalt-nots that the Word of God places upon us.

Theologians talk about three "uses" of the Law. Without getting too technical, the first use of the Law is to give order to our life in community. Drive on the right (or left)  side of the road. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit murder. Clean up after your dog. We need the Law to prevent chaos. This civil use of the Law is sometimes described as a "compass" because it directs our actions.

The second use of the Law is to convict us of our sinful nature. If we examine our conscience in the light of God's Law, especially as it is interpreted by Jesus in Matthew 5, we find ourselves coming up short. Unable to meet the Law's demands, we are driven to seek God's grace. This pedagogical use of the Law is sometimes described as a "mirror," because in it we see ourselves for the sinners we truly are.

The third use of the Law is to teach us, once we have been justified by grace, to live in ways that are pleasing to God. This third use is controversial among Lutherans. Some argue that even for those who have been justified it is impossible to keep the Law. To me it seems that the third use of the Law will always return us to the second. Since Christians are both saints and sinners we will not be able to keep the Law wholly. We will always transgress. We will always be driven back to repentance. This third, pedagogical, use of the Law is sometimes described as a "gift."

I have discovered a fourth use of the Law, one that seems to have escaped the attention of theologians. The fourth use of the Law is to make us feel better about ourselves by condemning others. Other people may be fornicators, dancers, drunkards, homosexuals, Pharisees, gum-chewers, or what-have-you but not us. We're better than that. A friend and colleague describes the fourth use of the Law as a "weapon."

The only problem with the fourth use of the Law is that it is entirely illegitimate. Saying "You hypocrite! Take the beam out of your own eye before you pick at the speck in your neighbor's eye," Jesus roundly condemns the fourth use of the Law.

Why, then, are Christians so fond of it?

I would like to wish a slightly belated "Happy Thanksgiving" to my U.S. readership, and a much belated "Happy Thanksgiving" to any Canadians who are reading this. I cribbed the pic of Charlton Heston playing Moses from the Washingtonian's website, here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I Got Re-posted


I was blog-blocked for a while. I just was not satisfied with anything I wrote. I think the problem was that I had a really snarky little essay that I wanted to write, but it was not appropriate to post here. I finally wrote it just to get it out of the way, and shared it with a few trusted colleagues and relatives.

Before I got that out of my system, I kept trying to write other things. I must have made a half-dozen attempts at writing my last post, the one about the Diakonia Program and Crises of Faith. Even when I got it finished, I was not quite happy with it somehow. Still, I posted it because I thought it was good enough and because a blogpost from me was overdue.

So, I was surprised--delighted, mind you, but still surprised--when I received a request from to re-post that little essay. If you have not seen it yet, is a recently-launched website of the ELCA. Check it out. There is a lot of good content there. Re-posting my piece was the only lapse of judgment I could spot.

Something else you should see, if you haven't yet, is ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's contribution to the "It Gets Better" project:

Thank you, Bishop Hanson.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



If you were brought to this post by a link from the Augustana College website, the correct post, the one in which I wrote about Dr. Levin can be found by clicking here.

The Diakonia program is a two-year school of theological education for laypeople. The twelve courses that make up Diakonia each last five weeks and are typically taught by pastors. The subject matter includes the Old and New Testaments, Practical Ministry, Theology, Ethics, Lutheran Confessions and Church History. Classes meet once a week for three hours. Obviously this represents a considerable commitment  on the part of the students.

I am a big supporter of the Diakonia program.

A handful of ELCA synods have a Diakonia program. The Northern Illinois Synod, of which I am a part, has five sites at which Diakonia classes are taught. I have now taught the New Testament course three times. I find it gratifying to teach people who are so interested in exploring their faith more deeply. Most recently I taught at a brand new Diakonia site. Although I did not accomplish all of my teaching goals, I was pleased to watch the eleven students pull together into a community of support.

Our synodical Diakonia director has said that the program can cause a crisis of faith for some students. Looking closely and critically at the Scriptures may lead some students to question things they had previously assumed to be true. Learning that the Bible was written by human beings, and that those human beings did not always agree with one another, comes as news even to some lifelong Christians.

Hearing that Diakonia might cause some students to have a crisis of faith gave me pause. I had to ask myself whether I, as a pastor, should be in the business of causing faith crises. Most often my job involves inculcating faith or shoring it up. After due consideration, and some discussion with my students, I concluded that my mission as a teacher is to tell my students the truth. A crisis of faith, hard as it may be to go through, can lead a person to a stronger and more informed faith.

Of course, a crisis of faith might also lead to a loss of faith. It is hard for me to say this, but, in some cases that, too, might be appropriate. If taking a clear look at the Bible leads someone to lose their faith, then their faith was misplaced to begin with. They were putting their faith in the Bible, not in God.

Diakonia is a Greek word meaning "service." It is the root of our English word "deacon." St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon, appointed to assist the Apostles in the administration of the church in Jerusalem. His story is told in chapters 6-8 of Acts. I found the picture of St. Stephen above here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How Many Angels


Dr. Arnold Levin taught in the Religion Department at Augustana College, Rock Island, when I was a student there many years ago. He introduced me to the critical tools that scholars use to study the Bible. I don't think I ever told him thank you.

Though it is probably not fair for me to say it, I sometimes thought that Dr. Levin took a special delight in tormenting Fundamentalist freshmen. I remember a particular class session in which he had us compare the resurrection accounts from Matthew, Mark and Luke. He asked the question, "How many angels did the women encounter at Jesus' empty tomb?"

The Gospel of Mark tells us that the women met "a young man dressed in a white robe." Matthew describes vividly how "an angel of the Lord" whose appearance was "like lightning, and his clothes white as snow" descended from heaven, stunning the guards at the tomb and declaring Jesus' resurrection to the women. Those guards, by the way, only appear in Matthew. Luke's Gospel says that the women met "two men in dazzling clothes."

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. Since, most likely, Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their Gospels, we can conclude that they both felt free to expand on their material. We can conclude that Matthew, Mark and Luke were more interested in proclaiming the resurrection than in giving factual, newspaper-like accounts of the event. We can conclude that the three Synoptic Gospels were not intended to be harmonized.

Students who came from faith traditions that stressed the inerrancy of Scripture often had a hard time with Dr. Levin. Some of them thought that Dr. Levin was the devil, or at least one of his minions, come to destroy faith. Those students must not have attended chapel on Wednesday evenings.

I used to see Dr. Levin in campus church, paying close attention to the sermons, sometimes jotting notes, occasionally preaching himself, standing to sing the hymns loudly and lustily. Dr. Levin was a person of faith. Perhaps without intending it, Dr. Levin taught me that one can read the Bible critically, carefully, closely, intelligently and even question its facticity and still be a person of faith. I don't think I ever thanked him for that either.

So, let this blogpost stand as my belated appreciation for Dr. Levin with gratitude for the things he taught me.

Danish artist Carl Bloch painted the image of the resurrection accompanying this post. He apparently agreed with Luke (contra Matthew and Mark) that there were two angels at the empty tomb.  The Gospel of John, we may note, also agrees with Luke and Bloch.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Even Pretty Good Things


I like to check my Blogger "stats" from time to time. They can be interesting, if not instructive.

For example, my stats show that the vast majority of pageviews for this blog come from the United States. Curiously, South Korea comes in second, with  Canada a distant third. I suspect that there may be a bot in South Korea visiting me. A handful of pageviews come from such far-flung places as Germany, the UK, China, Latvia, Romania (Hi, Fr. A!), Japan and Russia.

The "referring URLs" section of my stats shows that most of my pageviews came from Susan Hogan's Pretty Good Lutherans site. If you have not seen it yet, Susan posted this note in the sidebar of her site:

So long …

Dear Readers,

This site launched in early September 2009 as the ELCA entered a critical transition period. It provided a hub for you to find all of the "secular" media coverage about your denomination post-CWA09.

It's also been a place to examine issues together and to lift up your voices. Your response was incredible. Please know that I'm truly grateful.

Now that the year has passed, I'm discontinuing this site to move ahead with other projects. If I reprise the site in the future, I'll let you know. Again, thank you for your generous support.

With gratitude,

Personally, I am sorry to see go. I have enjoyed the regularly updated content, the Lutheran bloggers featured in the sidebar, the links to various news sources, and, well, just all of it.

Bloggers like myself are only opinionated editorialists. Susan Hogan is a journalist.

Susan, if you happen to read this, thanks for a year of prettygoodlutherans, and God bless you in your future endeavors.

The stick figure illustrating this post was lifted from Susan Hogan used this figure to represent bloggers who were featured on her website but who did not provide a suitable photograph. She used the blue bordered stick figure as my picture for quite a while. Funny thing is, I actually look like that.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Catching Up


Well, it happened. I sold one house, bought another and moved all of my earthly goods from thither to hither. It has been a difficult, but rewarding, process and has necessitated my absence from this blog for a little more than two weeks.

Oddly, the world has not stood still while I was away.

The North American Lutheran Church (NALC) has been constituted. I have promised myself not to be snarky about it. So, you won't hear me comment about the "realignment of Lutheranism in North America" involving only 16 congregations. Nor will I point out the irony of this new church body sharing its initials with LC/NA.*

If I may be uncharacteristically sincere for a moment, I actually wish the NALC well. They may not represent a seismic shift in Lutheranism, but I am sure that they will grow. Many of their constituents will be people I consider friends, colleagues, even teachers and mentors. I understand that their consciences are bound such that they no longer feel they can remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). "Go in peace. Serve the Lord."

We have much in common. I truly believe that there is only one issue separating us, and it is not the interpretation of Scripture. I hope that we can stay in touch.

I surmise that the NALC will practice open Communion, at least with those who, like the ELCA, affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Sacrament. I hope that I will be welcome at the NALC's altar rail. Members of the NALC will certainly be welcome at mine. Okay, it's not mine. It's the Lord's table. I will not put any impediment in the way of an NALC member from receiving the means of grace.

Here's a crazy idea: what if the ELCA and the NALC worked out a full Communion agreement? The ELCA has been able to make full Communion agreements with other denominations, why not the NALC with whom we have so much in common? It would be the first such agreement that the ELCA has made with another Lutheran church body. (No one fights like family).

In the meantime, the ELCA's first presiding bishop, Herb Chilstrom lit up the blogosphere with an article posing three pointed questions to those leaving the ELCA. There have been a variety of responses, some downright rude. None that I have seen has answered Chilstrom's first question to my satisfaction. The Bishop asks, Why this issue? What is it about sexuality that became the tipping point for you? Most replies have been to the effect that "It's not about sex. It's about the interpretation of Scripture." All right. I will accept that. Chilstrom's question still stands unanswered. Why is it the intepretation of Scripture about sexuality that has nudged you to leave the ELCA?

Elsewhere on the internet, Father Anonymous has blogged about the Brothers of John the Steadfast, a bunch of Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LC-MS) conservatives **, adopting the motto "Your Grandfather's Church." I commend Father A's blogpost for your reading. I will only add that the LC-MS is not my grandfather's church either.

One of my grandfathers was an Irish Protestant. I do not think that he was particularly observant, though I am told that he recited a ribald toast to the Pope upon occasion. He did have a brother who pastored a spiritualist church, though he did not personally conduct the seances.

My other grandfather was alienated from the Church by an LC-MS pastor. He was not alienated from a life of faith, prayer or spirit. He was simply made to feel unwelcome in Church.

Let me also note the appropriateness of the phrase "Your Grandfather's Church" by a church body that marginalizes women from leadership roles. The LC-MS was not my grandmother's church by any measure.

More to the point, I would not want to belong to a church that has not progressed since my grandparent's day. The world has changed. Startling advances have been made in technology, science and scholarship. The Gospel must be proclaimed in ways relevant to our new and ever-changing circumstances.

Finally, ***  I feel a need to weigh in on Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who has garnered undue attention by announcing plans to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center (WTC). I will not mince words. Terry Jones is a publicity whore and a hate-filled extremist. He does not represent any form of Christianity that I recognize. He does not speak for the God I worship.

To my Muslim neighbors:  Just as I do not assume that the terrorists who destroyed the WTC are representative of Islam, I ask you, please, do not assume that Terry Jones is representative of Christianity.

* Sorry about the implied snark. 

** "Conservative" is a relative term. That is to say, the Steadfast Lutherans are conservative even for the LC-MS.

*** I usually try to keep these essays around 500 words in length. If you are still reading, thank you for indulging me.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Wish I'd Written This

Pondering Pastor Earl Janssen has written a thoughtful Open Letter to Lutheran CORE as they are about to form the new North American Lutheran Church. Here's the teaser:

Please, don’t offer the extreme examples of what you find offensive in the ELCA as normative.  You know that great variety exists within the ELCA and will exist even within NALC in a relatively short period of time.  Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment and make that the cornerstone of of your public and private comments.

Please keep in mind that you are not the only faithful Christians with the name Lutheran.  Ryan Schwartz is quoted in the August edition of “CORE Connections” saying, “Lutheran CORE will seek to help faithful members of the ELCA and ELCIC to continue to uphold the authority of scripture in an increasingly challenging environment …”  Many faithful (to Christ) members of the ELCA uphold the authority of scripture in a way different than you.  I consider myself one of those, and will not need your help.  In fact, your rhetoric is part of my increasingly challenging environment.

The entire post is worth reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This Just In: Obama is NOT a Muslim


The news broke yesterday that 18% of Americans believe that President Barak Obama is a Muslim. Read about it here. Why do people believe this patent falsehood? It is at least partly because it has been insinuated by fear mongering pundits. The insinuations do not have to be true, they just have to scare people. And why do the pundits traffick in fear? Because it works. It keeps the troops on alert. It gets frightened people off the couch and into the voting booths where they will help elect candidates who will promote the pundits' interests.

Click the cartoon to enlarge.

It seems to me that the charge of universalism that is leveled, falsely, against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a scare tactic. Pastors, who should know better, use it to stir up their congregations to leave the ELCA. The sexuality issue by itself may not be enough to motivate some of the laity to vote with their feet. After all, the '09 Churchwide Assembly allowed for a "local option" which means that no congregation will be forced to call a same-sex partnered pastor...or any other pastor for that matter. I know that some bishops have promoted the local option heavily, even offering assistance to congregations that want to append a "no gay clergy" resolution to their constitutions. So, the trumped up charge of heretical universalism is used to scare people who do not bother to check further.

Mnphysicist's theological blog has a nicely written post refuting the charge of universalism in the ELCA. Read it. And if you still think that the ELCA promotes universalism, read it again.

In the meantime, I am left to ponder just what is it about universalism that frightens people? Is it the idea that Barak Obama might get to go to heaven?

I "borrowed" the cartoon from the Progressive Involvement blog, here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Apostle Paul Kissed a Boy


If the title of this blog post offends you, then you will probably do well to avoid reading  R.W. (Obie) Holmen's book A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. If, on the other hand, you find the title of this post intriguing, then you will find a lot to like in this fictional portrayal of Paul, or I should say "Paulos." Holmen does not anglicize the names of his characters. Instead he gives them their proper Greek and Hebrew names. Paul is Paulos. James is Ya'akov. And so on.

Holmen gives flesh to his characters. They eat, drink (sometimes too much) and void waste. They feel love, anger, jealousy, joy and sorrow. They fight and make up. Or not. These Apostles are not Sunday School flannel-graph cut-outs, but  complex, three-dimensional human beings. Paulos is portrayed as a "rigidly controlled gay man" (quoting from Bishop Spong whom Holmen cites in the book's  epilogue) who by tireless effort and strength of personality brings his Gospel of God's grace apart from Torah to the Gentile world. His arguments with Ya'akov and difficult relationship with Cephas (Peter) are believably motivated.

It is clear that Holmen has done his homework. Everyday life in the first century Mediterranean world is evoked with detail and description. The author has also digested a great deal of current New Testament scholarship and woven it seamlessly into his narrative.

Most importantly, Holmen spins a good yarn.

No doubt some readers will take offense at  Obie Holmen's speculative portrayal of the personalities who shaped the Christian faith. But if you, like me, are not offended by the idea that the Apostle Paul kissed a boy, then I can recommend A Wreteched Man. You're in for a good read.

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I am a fan of Obie Holmen's blog "Spirit of a Liberal." Observers of popular culture will recognize that the title and subtitle of this blog are lifted from Katy Perry's song "I Kissed a Girl.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In Memoriam


My first Bible was a small, gilt-edged King James Version (KJV) with a white "imitation leather" cover. It was given to me in June, 1957, a Baptismal gift from my godparents. This was before my godfather got religion, left his wife and went to live in a commune in Texas. So I am told. I have never known my godparents except by name. I still have the Bible, barely used, in its original box. The cover is yellow with age. I keep it as a memento of what was, arguably, the most important event of my life.

My second Bible was a  Revised Standard Version (RSV) in a black bonded leather cover with gold lettering on the spine that says "Helps." This is the Bible I used in Confirmation classes. I still have this one, too. It is falling apart. (It looks a lot like the Bible in the picture above. Said picture was found at this website). The RSV is the Bible version that I heard read in church when I was young. It was based on better textual evidence than the KJV but maintained much of the earlier version's non-standard English usage. The RSV also kept the "thees" and "thous" of Jacobean English in its poetic passages. When I hear the RSV read, it sounds like the Bible to me.

In 1966 the American Bible Society published a paperback new testament in "Today's English Version" (TEV). The cover sported a newsprint design. This was my third Bible. I have at least one dog-eared copy of it around. In those days before Bible translators concerned themselves with gender in language, the New Testament was titled "Good News for Modern Man."  A decade later the entire "Good News Bible" (the abbreviation GNB has replaced TEV) was published in a gold hardcover edition.  Read aloud, the GNB does not sound like the Bible. It sounds like plain, written English, like a novel or a newspaper. This is a good thing.

Although it has gotten a bit long in the tooth, and even though I rarely use it anymore, I admire the Good News Bible.

Until this week, I did not know the name of Robert Bratcher, the editor who oversaw the translation of the GNB. In the August 10 edition of Christian Century magazine, I read an article, pulled from the Associated Baptist Press, reporting Bratcher's death, at age 90, on July 10.

Bratcher was, apparently, something of a controversialist. A paragraph from the Christian Century article:

"Brachter drew the ire of Southern Baptist fundamentalists in 1981 over his critical remarks at a seminar in Dallas. 'Only willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty can account for the claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible,' Bratcher said. 'No truth-loving, God-respecting, Christ-honoring believer should be guilty of such heresy. To invest the Bible with the qualities of inerrancy and infallibility is to idolatrize it, to transform it into a false god.'"

Bratcher was not pulling any punches. The Bible Researcher website includes a fuller verson of Bratcher's words, which ends with a particularly Lutheran sounding statement. "The locus of scriptural authority is not the words themselves. It is Jesus Christ as THE Word of God who is the authority for us to be and to do."

Though I do not think I would call it "heresy," I agree with Robert Bratcher that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is intellectually untenable. Rest eternal grant him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

Dear Godparents, if you are reading this, thank you for the Bible. It means more to me than you can know. Even though you were largely absentee godparents, it's okay. I think I turned out all right. I pray that you have both known God's grace in your life.

God bless.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

God Has A Grammatical Gender...


God is neither male nor female. In spite of the picture many of us carry in our heads, God is not an old man in the sky. God is not a woman in the sky, either.

Human beings are the image of God. Human beings are female and male. The image of God is male and female.

God encompasses the categories of male and female. God transcends the categories of female and male.

The Bible is a product of a patriarchal culture. It uses mostly masculine images for God. Still, there are a few, scattered, feminine images for God to be found in Scripture. Recognizing the limitations of human language in describing the divine, it is legitimate to use both feminine and masculine images for God.

We can have a personal relationship with God. That is, we can relate to God as we relate to another person. God is not an object. God is not an "it."

We have no experience of persons who transcend the categories of male and female. The English language has no third person singular personal pronoun that encompasses and transcends the categories of female and male.

It is awkward, and nearly impossible to avoid the use of third person singular personal pronouns when speaking about a person, even when that person is God.

I was born and brought up in a time when humankind was collectively refered to as "man" as a matter of routine. The assumption underlying such a use is that maleness is the normal condition of humanity. The corollary to that assumption is that femaleness is a lesser or defective human state. Think about that. It's nuts.

In those distant days, God was refered to exclusively in masculine terms. Old habits die hard. I still sometimes call God "he." When I get called on it, my almost reflexive response is the title of this post: "God has a grammatical gender, not a phyiscal sex." That's pure banana oil, of course, but it usually buys me enough time to finish my thought without getting sidetracked by a discussion of gender language.

Forgive me.

I am writing this post on the second day of a three day symposium in Chicago called "Language Matters." Hosted by the National Council of Churches, the symposium deals with inclusive (or "expansive") language concerns. When it is all over, I am sure that there will be head-shaking, finger-wagging and tongue-clucking from some quarters. But as for me, I applaud the intent of the symposium, pray for its success, and look forward to hearing about its proceedings.

Thirty-five or forty years ago, this clever, though amateurish bit of animation introduced me to inclusive language concerns. Take two minutes to enjoy a blast from the past.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Apparently the Lord WAS in the whirlwind...


In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says many good things. Among them:

"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

I really do not know how I overlooked it before, but a former ELCA pastor named Mark Herringshaw blogged an angry rant in response to the ELCA's Rite of Reconciliation welcoming 7 LGBTQ pastors on July 25.

Herringshaw says that the tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis last August was God's judgment against the ELCA's sexuality policies. He also says the fact that nothing happened in San Francisco at the reconciliation service was a sign of God's judgment.

Methinks perhaps Pastor Herringshaw is projecting.

On a more positive note, you might want to read a smart blogpost by Marvin Lindsay that provides an interesting historical perspective on our current sexuality debates.

And to further provoke your thoughts, over at Magdalene's Egg, Father Anonymous does a nice job refuting those who would quote one of my old theology profs as "proof" that the ELCA is a universalist organization.

Happy reading!

If the title and subtitle of this post elude you, read 1 Kings 19. "Sheer silence" is the the New Revised Standard Version's translation of the words rendered "still, small voice" in the KJV.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Of Jesus and Vampires


I read it first on the Progressive Involvement blog. Author Anne Rice, who has written novels about vampires and Jesus, announced today that she is leaving Christianity.
"I quit being a Christian.  I'm out.  In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."


I can relate. 


If I believed that being Christian involved being anti-all that stuff, I'd be out, too. I am not ready to quit, though. I am not ready to concede the faith to its worst representatives.


On her Facebook page, Rice cites the famous words of Mahatma Gandhi.

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

She also provides a couple of horrific examples of Christianity at its worst: Westboro Baptist Church and a "Christian" rock band called, "You Can Run But You Can't Hide." God help us.


She also posted, approvingly, a link to this article in the New York Times concerning the Rite of Reconciliation which received  seven same-sex partnered pastors into the ELCA. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now, unquestionably, a church body with partnered gay clergy. Anyone who has been observing my ELCA knows that this action, inevitable since the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, is controversial and divisive.


Personally, I am proud to be a member of the ELCA and applaud the brave stand that it has taken regarding same sex unions and same sex partnered clergy. Flame on, naysayers, I'm wearing my asbestos drawers.


Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed, emergent, post-modernist and unapologetically Lutheran  pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, was the preacher. Her graceful, gospel centered sermon can be found here. After you have streamed the video or read the manuscript, check out Erik Ullestad's excellent blog post about it.



 Nadia Bolz Weber is the author of one of my favorite recent books, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. I snagged the picture of Anne Rice from her Facebook page.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fanaticism, Doubt and Compassion

A few months ago, Roger loaned me a book, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic, by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. A short time later, Jeff loaned me You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Brad Hirschfield.

I showed the two books to my friend Eric. I asked, "Do you see a theme here?" He replied, "Face it, Brant, you're a fanatic." That is, to my knowledge, the only time that I have ever been called a fanatic and of course, Eric was being sarcastic.

The dangers of fanaticism should be clear to all of us in this post-9/11 world.

Winston Churchill wryly observed that "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." I have been working on my own definition of fanaticism. It is less witty than Churchill's and still somewhat tentative, but I present it here for your consideration.

Fanaticism is dogmatic belief without compassion.

In my earlier thinking, I was toying with the idea that fanaticism is belief without reason, but upon consideration I realized that fanaticism usually has its own internal logic. Also, all religious faith transcends reason. So although I have left reason out of my definition, I do think that fanaticism is marked by its lack of compassion.

Building on that definition, a fanatic is a person who, convinced that they are right, believes that those who do not share their belief system are of less value. Because of this, while a convicted believer might be willing to die for their faith, a fanatic might be willing to kill for their faith.

The two books I referenced above suggest strategies for dealing with fanaticism. Berger and Zijderfeld advocate a kind of methodological doubt as a middle ground between crippling relativism and dangerous fundamentalism. They would subject every truth claim to rigorous questioning. They invoke the principle that "human dignity is inviolable" as the guide for moral deliberation. This, they say, leads to a "politics of moderation." At a time when political and religious conversation is increasingly polarized, some moderation would be welcome.

Orthodox Rabbi Hirschfield's book is written more in the vein of memoir. Hirschfield says that we can, and even should, hold firm convictions, but we must also allow that others are equally passionate and convicted about their own faith. By emphasizing the things we hold in common (e.g. love of God, and the value of life) we may not reach consensus but we can at least respect and understand one another. Hirschfield admits that his vision is idealistic, but insists that it is not naive.

If I am right in defining fanaticism as dogmatic belief without compassion, then less dogmatism and more compassion are the antidote to fanaticism. Showing compassion toward the fanatic will obviously strain one's own faith. I will be praying for more compassion in my own life.

I recently came across two blog posts that epitomize compassion. John Gustav-Wrathall, who blogs as "Young Stranger" is a gay Mormon (a "Moho"!) who has written about Tom Brock, the anti-gay, anti-ELCA Lutheran Pastor who was recently outed by Lavendar magazine. Read this post. And this one.

Illustrating this blogpost are the covers of In Praise of Doubt by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld and You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right by Brad Hirschfield. Both books provide plenty of material for consideration.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Special Note to Followers of Harold Camping


Don't even bother replying to my blog. I will not publish your comments. I have given Harold Camping's apocalyptic worldview more than enough publicity. Anyone who wants to know more about it can follow the links in my previous post. There is plenty of information there.

I am not interested in debating you. You will not convince me that your belief is true. I am sure that I will not convince you that your belief is based upon false premises. May 22, 2011 will tell the tale. It is not that far off. We will all just have to wait a little while.

I am a Lutheran. I believe that I am made right with God by grace through faith. I do not fear death. I do not concern myself with the date of the end of the world as we know it. I trust that God is in charge of these things. I am not interested in escapism. Grateful for God's gift of grace, I try to spend my life serving God and doing some small good in this world.

Martin Luther, when asked what he would do if he knew the world were going to end tomorrow answered that he would plant an apple tree. This seems to me a healthy attitude.

Rev. Chuck Currie, in the comments to this post on his blog has said:

Anyone who has made a comment here claiming the world will end May 21, 2011 and is still alive on May 22, 2011 is hereby required to make a $2011 contribution to Church World Service.

Start saving.

I like that idea. Let me build on it just a little.

If you believe now that the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011, and wake up disappointed on May 22, do not despair. Instead, give up idle speculations about the end times. Then reach out to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the know...all that stuff Jesus talked about in Matthew 25. Or maybe just plant an apple tree.


The point of my previous post was that we are all well served by an attitude of humility and perhaps even skepticism regarding our interpretation of Scripture. I have learned in this life that when we think we have everything figured out just right, God usually has a surprise in store. I will return to this theme.

God bless!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's the End of the World as We Know It


I saw the vehicle in town twice about a month ago. I think it was a shrink-wrapped bus. It was white, had no visible windows aft of the driver's compartment, and was printed on every visible side with Bible verses, admonitions to listen to Family Radio, and most prominently the warning, "May 21, 2011 - Judgment Day."

My curiosity was piqued, so I did what any twenty-first century digital citizen would do: I googled. The results of my search pointed to a radio preacher named Harold Camping, who believes that Jesus will return to rapture all true Christians out of the world on May 21 of next year. Those who are left behind will suffer a five month period of torture and tribulation. Finally, according to Camping, on October 21, 2011, the world will come to an end and the wicked will be annihilated.

Could Camping possibly be right? I am thinking that the bookmakers would give him long odds. Every other doomsday prophet who has set a date for the end has been wrong so far. It might be worth noting that this is the second time Harold Camping has predicted the end of the world. His first predicted date for Judgment Day was September 6, 1994. I am sure that I don't have to tell you it did not pan out.

Please understand. I do not mean to mock Harold Camping or any of his followers. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Camping's sincerity. I simply believe that he is wrong. It is possible to be both sincere and wrong. On May 22, 2011 we will all know one way or the other

Harold Camping puts me in mind of William Miller. If you do not know the story, Miller was a Yankee farmer who, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, studied his King James Bible, along with Bishop Ussher's Annals of the Old Testament, and came to the startling conclusion that Jesus would return to earth sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. At first Miller was hesitant to publish his findings, but eventually he found himself the leader of an interdenominational Adventist movement.

Miller was always reluctant to set a specific date for the Second Coming. Others in the Millerite movement (as it was called) were less reticent. When March of 1844 passed without incident, hasty recalculations were made and the date of Jesus' return was announced as October 22, 1844, a day that later came to be known as "the Great Disappointment." The problem was not with William Miller's calculations. The problem was with his premises. The most rigorous logic will still yield false results if it proceeds from false premises.

William Miller's story ought to serve as a caution, not only to Harold Camping, but to anyone who would put undue confidence in their particular interpretation of the Bible. It is possible to be both sincere and wrong.

The title and subtitle for this blog are borrowed from a catchy little song by REM. The photograph was taken from Rev. Chuck Currie's blog. His entry, and particularly the discussion it engendered, make an interesting read.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010



When a congregation chooses to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sometimes a minority of the congregation wishes to remain faithful to the ELCA. In these cases, sometimes, the synod forms a Synodically Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC). The SAWC concept, as I understand it, grew out of the ELCA mission strategy adopted by our Churchwide Assembly in 2003. A SAWC may be a precursor to a new congregation.

In the comments to my previous post, Kelly gave a link to the website for Peace Lutheran, the SAWC being formed for the remnant of her congregation that remains faithful to the ELCA. It's a great website and an exciting new ministry. I did not want the Kelly's link to get lost in the comments thread, so here it is!

Join me in praying for Peace Lutheran, and for all of the SAWC's being formed as congregations disaffected by the ELCA's sexuality policies leave our church body.

On the subject of sexuality, Justin takes on some of the specious reasoning used to condemn homosexuals. Read about it at his Darthjedi blog.

The fireworks came from Peace Lutheran's website. Appropriate for a SAWC celebrating its first worship service on America's Independence Day!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Eerie Silence


I know that I have been oddly quiet lately, and I apologize to my loyal readers. Both of you. My silence is not because I have nothing to say. Right or wrong, good or bad, I nearly always have something to say. Nor is it because nothing is going on.

There is, for instance, a fascinating story of homosexual self-loathing and unethical journalism that you can read about at prettygoodlutherans.

There is also a recent meltdown via email from WordAlone president Jaynan Clark to ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. I think Clark's message highlights the fact that the divisions in the ELCA are not just about sexuality, nor even about the interpretation of Scripture. They are also, and perhaps primarily, a clash of worldviews. Read about it at Obie Holmen's blog.

So what is keeping me from blogging more? Just that I am trying to buy a new home and sell an old one. Keeping my house in showcase condition is a never ending task. For a while, then, my posts will be infrequent and sporadic.

I snagged the picture of the world's most famous cricket here. Wanna buy my house?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sarah's Sharing The Love!


My friend Sarah, who blogs as Unholy Pastor Mommy, is riding the positive train. She has sent letters of support to our Presiding Bishop, our synodical bishop and to Carlos Pena, Vice President of the ELCA.

You can read her letters here and here. I love her enthusiasm.

If you have been reading my blog and have not yet sent messages of encouragement to your ELCA, synodical and even congregational leaders, what is stopping you? Let's share the love!

A personal note: Sarah beat me two out of three games of cribbage today. I will have revenge. I found the cribbage image at this website.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kelly's Sharing the Love


At her Progressively Lutheran blog, Kelly has published the text of her letters of support to ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and ELCA Vice President Carlos Pena (which is properly spelled with a tilde over the "n", but in spite of Kelly's helpful hints, I still can't figure out how to make it work here).

I always enjoy Kelly's lucid writing. Here is an example from her letter to Bishop Hanson:

I fully support the ELCA’s inclusive policies and commend the Assembly’s bold actions. I firmly believe that we have made the right decision, and I have never been prouder to be raising my daughters to be strong members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I apologize that this letter is long overdue and can never truly express my deep gratitude toward our Church and its unwavering stand to welcome all regardless of age, gender, nationality, socioeconomic class or sexual identity.

ELCA leadership has been the target of much criticism and hate, while positive messages have been few. It takes minutes to write a letter and costs just 44 cents to mail it. Email is even cheaper.

If you support the ELCA's sexuality statement and the rostering of same-sex partnered clergy, why not follow Kelly's example and let our leadership know?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

And My Letter to My Synodical Bishop

This letter is a little longer and more personal as I have a personal relationship with my synodical bishop.

Bishop Gary Wollersheim
Northern Illinois Synod
103 W. State Street
Rockford, IL 61101

June 10, 2010

Dear Bishop Wollersheim,

The turmoil in the ELCA following the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding human sexuality and the rostering of same-sex partnered pastors is unprecedented in my experience. These have been trying times for many of my colleagues in ministry and their congregations. I am writing to express my appreciation for the encouragement and leadership that you and your staff provide.

I am proud to be a member of the ELCA and of the Northern Illinois Synod. I am particularly grateful for the support that you have given to those who wish to remain faithful to the ELCA when their congregations are voting to affiliate with other church bodies. The five Synodically Authorized Worshiping Communities formed in our synod are a blessing to us. I am thankful, too, for the ministry of support that you have provided for congregations which have stayed in the ELCA but have been split over votes to leave.

Bishop, I am sure that these are difficult times for you, and I want you to know that I pray for you and your staff regularly. I look forward to seeing you at Synod Assembly. May God bless you.


Rev. Brant Clements

What do you think? Will Carlos Pena, and the bishops be encouraged by my letters? Wouldn't they be encouraged by a letter from you, too? So quit reading blogs, open up that word processor and write a note of support to our ELCA leaders...and, oh yeah, I know for a fact that a little note of encouragement would make your pastor's day!

My Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson

This one is a little shorter than the letter I wrote to Carlos Pena. I feel sure that Bishop Hanson does not need to be burdened with more reading, but I have to think that he would appreciate a word of encouragement.

Bishop Mark Hanson
Office of the Presiding Bishop
8765 W. Higgins Road
Chicago, IL 60631

June 10, 2010

Dear Bishop Hanson,

I am writing to thank you for your leadership of our ELCA through the difficult times that have followed the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions concerning human sexuality and the rostering of same-sex partnered clergy.

I believe that the ELCA has done the right thing and I continue in my support of our church body.

Please know that I hold you and all of our ELCA leaders in my prayers. God bless you.


Rev. Brant Clements

My Letter to Carlos Pena, Vice President of the ELCA

In keeping with the intent of my last post, here is the text of the letter I have written to Carlos Pena. I hope that others will join me in expressing their support for our ELCA's leadership at the Churchwide, synodical and congregational levels.

Mr. Carlos E. Pena
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
8765 W. Higgins Road
Chicago, IL 60631

June 10, 2010

Dear Mr. Pena,

Pastor Justin Johnson recently blogged about some of his observations from the Upstate New York Synod Assembly. Among his notes, he cited you as saying that the ELCA has not received many letters of support following the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality and the rostering of same-sex partnered clergy. Here, belatedly, is one such letter.

I believe that the ELCA has done the right thing. I believe that the voting members of the 2009 Churchwide assembly acted bravely. I believe that their decisions represent a faithful application of Scripture, Lutheran tradition, theological reflection and discernment of God's activity in our world. I am proud to be a member of the ELCA.

Thank you, Mr. Pena, for your leadership of our church body in this difficult time. Please know that I hold you, and all of the ELCA's leaders in my prayers. May God bless you abundantly.


Rev. Brant Clements

I cannot figure out how to put a tilde over an "n" in blogger. The hard copy of the letter above has Carlos Pena's name spelled correctly. My letters of support to Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and my synodical Bishop Gary Wollersheim will be the subject of posts to come.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Let's Share The Love

On his DarthJedi blog, Justin shared his observations from the Upstate New York Synod Assembly. Concerning t a presentation made by Carlos Pena, Vice-president of the ELCA, he wrote:

"Another interesting thing [Pena] said was that he has received almost no letters from supporters of the decisions made in August, so supporters send some letters!"
Justin's idea got picked up in the comments to this thread on Obie Holmen's blog, Spirit of a Liberal.

This is not an easy time to be in leadership in the ELCA. Bishops and their staffs are on the receiving end of a lot of anger. I am sure that a few words of appreciation and support would go a long way.

So, here is my plan. I am going to write letters to Carlos Pena, Bishop Hansen and my synodical bishop. I will tell them that I support the ELCA and its 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality. I will thank them for their leadership and tell them that I pray for them regularly. I will post the text of my letters here along with their office addresses. I will encourage you, my readers, to send similar letters.

Those of you who have blogs might consider doing the same thing.

Lay members of ELCA congregations might want to send a letter of support to your pastor.

A little encouragement goes a long way. Let's get some ELCA love started!

I found Vincent Van Gogh's painting of the Good Samaritan here. I used it for this post, well, just because.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Katie Bar The Door! Pt. 2


In the April issue of the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE), Church historian Dr. Jon Pahl wrote a scathing critique of LutheranCORE's theological underpinnings. The article caused quite a stir, not least because of Dr. Pahl's no-holds-barred rhetorical tone. The article was accompanied by a brief, dismissive reply from ethicist Dr. Robert Benne.

I am pleased to note that in the June issue of JLE, Rev. Cathy A. Ammlung, "an ordained woman who is a member of Lutheran CORE" offers a more thoughtful response to Dr. Pahl's article. I appreciate that Rev. Ammlung engages some of the very real issues that Dr. Pahl raised. A brief quote:

Dr. Pahl draws the entirely unwarranted conclusion that this represents a Docetic understanding of the Church. This is uncharitable and is a serious misunderstanding of Word Alone and Lutheran CORE. The scandal and pain of schisms, controversies and divisions in the Body of Christ ought not to blind us to the fact that faithful Christians in many denominations understand themselves to be congregationally-based outposts of that Body.
Dr. Pahl's response to both Dr. Benne and Pastor Ammlung can be found here. Though he adopts a less abrasive tone, he sticks by his critical guns. A quote from Dr. Pahl:

Ammlung does address the question of Docetism in CORE, which I appreciated. She feels that CORE members are committed to the church as "the Body of Christ." I hope that's true. But what is the living corpus to which CORE members are committed — is it the congregation, Word Alone, LCMC, NALC, CORE? As I tried to suggest by talking about how "Protestants multiply by dividing" in America, the typical "body" of the church in the American civil religion has no flesh, but is a fantasy of purity that invariably fails — what Luther called a church in "cloud cuckoo land." As is common with Docetics, one senses suspicion of the body of the ELCA and its duly called and elected leaders on the part of some in CORE — a need to control the body, discipline it, punish it, even. And I must confess that I have experienced more than a little punishment from individual CORE members over the past few weeks. I've repeatedly been called a "liar," "ignorant," "narcissistic," "disgusting," — the list goes on an on — usually without any substantive engagement with the theological critiques I offered, or the evidence I gave.
Dr. Pahl's original article caused quite a stir around the internet, including here in my own little corner of the blogosphere. Editor, Rev. Kaari Reierson makes note of the response JLE received and defends the decision to publish Pahl's article.

Many e-mails expressed disappointment that we published an article that was so out-spoken in its criticism. Several writers suggested that publication of the article proved "there's no place for disagreement in the ELCA."

We at JLE beg to differ, and believe JLE's record as a whole supports this claim. JLE regularly publishes articles critical of public documents of the ELCA; moreover, we have often received affirmation for providing a balance of authorship and perspective on controversial issues with writing that expresses sharp disagreement.
There's plenty of good reading and food-for-thought in the links provided above.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Another Good Read

The always interesting online magazine Religion Dispatches has taken notice of the sexuality controversies in the ELCA in an article titled "A Reforming Tradition Struggles with Change "by Brent Hege of Butler University. A teaser:

What are the issues at stake in these discussions? First, I put the term “confessional” in quotes because I consider its use in this context to be disingenuous; it implies that only those Lutherans who are opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ Lutherans are faithful to the historic confessions of the Lutheran Church (The Book of Concord). It also assumes that the supporters of full inclusion are apostates who willfully abandon scripture, tradition, and the confessions to appease contemporary cultural sensibilities.
Read the entire article here.

Really, read it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Straw Wars


The Straw Man argument is a logical fallacy. You hear it a lot on political talk radio. It goes like this: Party A makes a recognizable caricature of Party B's position. Party A then argues against the caricature as if it were Party B's position. Straw Man arguments can carry a certain emotional resonance. They can even fool the inattentive. But careful observers will recognize that while Party A has kicked the stuffing out of a straw man, Party B's true position is left unscathed.

I came across a classic straw man on the Faithful Transition website. If you are not familiar with it, the website's masthead describes its purpose thus:

Sponsored by the WordAlone Network, this website is meant to provide guidance to individuals and congregations who are seeking to affiliate with LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ) and/or the new church body NALC (North American Lutheran Church) being designed by Lutheran CORE.

I actually do not object to Faithful Transition's purpose. For those whose conscience is so bound that they can no longer remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), some helpful guidance might be useful. But about that straw man, the cartoon below was posted on May 15 by Pastor Steve King under the title "We've Hit What?"

I have to wonder just how this cartoon furthers Faithful Transition's stated purpose. Maybe half-truths, misstatements and distortions of this sort make it easier for the disaffected to leave the ELCA.

Understand, I am about as ELCA as a person can get. I agree with the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality and standards for ordination. I even agree with the "local option" which allows congregations to refuse same-sex partnered clergy. I know that this cartoon is supposed to represent the ELCA's positions, but frankly, I do not recognize myself in it.

I have a strong understanding of biblical authority. It is not identical to WordAlone's, of course. I like to think that it is more reasoned and consistent. I reject "Lack of Biblical Authority" as a label that sticks to the ELCA.

I have argued elsewhere against the idea that the ELCA has embraced Universalism. So, "Universalist Rejection of Christ" is nonsensical as far as I'm concerned.

As for "False Gospel of 'Affirmation'" I am not entirely sure what that means. It is another rather nebulous charge along the lines of "Gospel of Inclusion" or "Gospel of Conformity." I would guess that "Affirmation" is supposed to mean something like Gospel without Law. If so, then this, too, is a distortion of both my position, and, as I understand it, the position of the ELCA.

When I first saw the cartoon, I thought, "Two can play at that." So I did Google search for images of icebergs, found one at this website, and used MS Paint to add some text. The result:

When I got done with my little art project, I looked at it and thought, "I'll bet that WordAloners looking at my cartoon would recognize themselves in it about as much as I recognized myself in their cartoon." Building straw men is fun. Kicking them to bits is even more fun, but in the end, what purpose does it serve? It only occasions anger and creates division. It may also violate that pesky Eighth Commandment, you know, the one about bearing false witness.

So, here's the deal. WordAlone, cut the crap. If you must leave the ELCA, leave. If your conscience is bound so that you must stay and disagree, then stay and disagree. But let's all quit building straw men, shall we? Let's show a little respect for one another's positions.

I mean, I will if you will.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Job and God


The Book of Job is a wonderfully rich theological treatise on human suffering. It seems to me that it is woefully underused, and sometimes misused, by Christians.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), the cycle of Scripture readings used by many mainline churches, prescribes two passages from the Book of Job in the course of three years. There is an option in year B of the RCL for another four "semi-continuous" readings from Job. (I may need to take that option in 2012). Other than that, our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal has a reading from Job in the Easter Vigil service and also suggests four and one-half verses from Job as a possible lection for use at a funeral.

Since the Book of Job is made up of long and carefully reasoned arguments, it is difficult, I think, to take excerpts from it for liturgical use.

Occasionally I will see someone suggest that Job 26:7 "proves" scientific knowledge on the part of its author:

[God] stretches out the north over empty space. He hangs the earth on nothing.

And again, Young Earth Creationists will sometimes use the Book of Job's description of Behemoth as "proof" that humans and dinosaurs co-existed on earth.

[The Lord said,] "Look now at the behemoth, which I made along with you;
He eats grass like an ox.
See now, his strength is in his hips,
And his power is in his stomach muscles.
He moves his tail like a cedar;
The sinews of his thighs are tightly knit.
His bones are like beams of bronze,
His ribs like bars of iron...." (Job 40:15-20)

I am not entirely sure what the Behemoth is supposed to be, but on the basis of sound scientific evidence, I am quite sure that human beings and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. It is sad to say, but those Flintstones cartoons I loved as a child had it wrong.

The Book of Job, for all its theological wealth, does not yield much for Christians who mine the Bible for proof-texts.

I think, though, that the main reason that Job is so little and so poorly used by Christians is this: Job's three friends represent a kind of orthodoxy. In their arguments they defend a traditional view of God's nature. At the end of the book, however, they are shown to be utterly wrong. The Book of Job contradicts and questions the orthodoxy of a large portion of the Hebrew Bible.

Maybe this is what makes Job such rich reading. Maybe this is Job's enduring value: it encourages us to question our own orthodoxies. Maybe this is the lesson we should take away from the Book of Job: no matter how orthodox our conception of God, God is something greater, something more. God cannot be contained in our doctrines.

It's in the Bible.

I found William Blake's illustration of the Behemoth and Leviathan here. Scripture quotes in this post were taken from the New King James Version.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Job & Co.

I read from the Bible every day. At least I try to. Last Friday I re-read the Book of Job. I do not know how many times I have read that book now. I love it. It is a wonderful, deep, philosophical treatise on theodicy, that is, the problem of unjust suffering.

The book begins with a prose prologue describing Job as a wealthy and righteous man. God loves Job, but Satan, who in this book is a member of the heavenly court, argues that it is easy for Job to be righteous. Take away Job's material blessings, Satan says, and Job will curse God. God allows Satan to do what he proposes and, in a series of disasters, Job loses everything: flocks, herds, servants, even his ten children, and finally his health. Job is reduced to sitting on a dungheap, scraping his festering skin with a potsherd. His wife advises him to "curse God and die." In spite of all this Job does no wrong.

Three of Job's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to sit with their sick companion. After a week of mournful silence, Job speaks and the book begins in earnest. What follows is a series of poetic dialogues in which Job's friends defend the idea, found in Deuteronomy and the related literature of the Hebrew Bible, that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Job must have done some wrong, they say. Job, in reply, defends his innocence and cries out to understand his suffering.

After Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have had their say, a fourth companion, a young man named Elihu speaks. Since Elihu is not mentioned before this point in the story, nor is he mentioned again after his speech, scholars think that his part was inserted by a later hand. Elihu scolds both Job and his companions and defends God in words that foreshadow what comes next.

After Elihu's speech, the Lord speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. God never answers the question of why Job has suffered. Rather, the speech is a statement of the creator God's sovereignty. Some readers find this satisfying. Other readers think that God dodges the question.

The last section of the book is an epilogue, again in prose. God restores Job's health and double his fortune. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are put in their place. Job lives a long and righteous life.

I love the book of Job with its penetrating questions, its soaring poetry and its grand theophany. When I finished reading it again last week, I found myself wondering why such a wonderful theological book of the Bible is so little used by Christians.

I will take that up in my next post.

The picture of Job and his friends was painted by Guy Rowe. I found it here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Katie Bar the Door!

Jon Pahl, Professor of the History of Christianity at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philedelphia , pulls no punches in his criticism of Lutheran CORE. In an article for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, he writes:

Lutheran CORE claims to represent Lutheran orthodoxy, fact abandons historic Lutheranism at crucial turns in favor of an American civil religion. This accretion of an American imprint on CORE's version of Lutheranism CORE leaders have repeatedly accused faithful ELCA leaders of having themselves sold out to "America." Even more, the leaders of Lutheran CORE, because they assert a self-righteous American moralism about sex and marriage as a litmus test of ecclesiastical purity, confuse law and gospel, and imperil the clear truth of salvation by grace through faith that is the actual core of historical and confessional Lutheran teaching. When teaching about sex replaces teaching about salvation as a defining mark of the church, something has clearly gone severely awry.

The full article (about 10 pages in length, not counting footnotes) can, and should, be read here.