Friday, April 30, 2010

Nothing to see here...


While I have nothing particular to say today, I have come across some posts on other blogs that might be of interest to you.

On her Progressively Lutheran blog, Kelly picked up on something I said and has written a thoughtful post about the way in which Scriptural Authority is invoked to end conversation. Let the following paragraph serve as an appetizer:

It’s easy to label things when you claim Scriptural Authority: Churched vs. Unchurched. Biblical vs. Unbibical. You get the picture. There is no room for debate. Ever. It’s a cheap and dirty way to claim the high ground. It’s like playing Rock, Paper, Scissors (with or without Dyanmite, Lizards or Spock) and someone hauling out NUCLEAR BOMB! I mean, how do you counter that? You can’t. It’s a cheap way to declare, without actually saying, “I’m right and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, and I don’t even want to listen to what you have to say.”

Read the rest of Kelly's post here.

(By the way, Kelly, if you are reading this, I think the word you wanted was "smut" and I like cheese, too).

Not particularly Lutheran, but still of interest is an article at Religion Dispatches concerning some high profile Gospel singers who have come out as gay. The following quote shows how some heteronormative Christians make false assumptions about same-sex attraction:

“It never occurred to me that I was in something that should be labeled as a ‘struggle,’” [Jennifer] Knapp said. “The struggle I’ve had has been with the church acknowledging me as a human being.”

Knapp’s response echoed that of another gay Christian singer, the black gospel performer Tonéx, who came out in a television interview last fall. “Have you struggled with homosexuality?” the interviewer asks Tonéx. “Not ‘struggled,’” Tonéx replies. “It wasn’t a struggle.”

The rest of this article can be found here.

Finally at the MetroLutheran website, the estimable David Preus, who was president of the American Lutheran Church at the time of the merger that formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, explains why he disagrees with the ChurchWide Assembly decisions regarding ordination of same-sex partnered clergy and why he chooses to remain a part of the ELCA. A teaser from his article:

I do not believe this matter is of sufficient confessional import to require division among disagreeing brethren. There are faithful, Bible-believing, confessional Lutherans on both sides of this issue. The debate will continue.

Read the rest of Pastor Preus's article here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Please Read This

Pastor Robert Lee Bennight, whose blog I read, and whom I have met, has written a passionate, honest and important piece. Read it here.

In the end, I have minor disagreements with Pastor Bennight, but I respect his thoughtful and pastoral approach to difficult issues.

God bless you, Pastor Bennight.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

People Who Live in Glass Houses...


Over at, Susan Hogan has published a press release written by Betsy Carlson, trumpeting the new directions being taken by WordAlone Ministries (formerly the WordAlone Network) following their April 19-20 convention. You can read the article in its entirety here.

I would call your attention to the fourth paragraph which reads:

The convention affirmed that Word Alone will continue to serve congregations, groups and individuals committed to proclaiming the Word of God and to remaining faithful to the Bible, although it ended its attempts to reform the ELCA after its unbiblical decisions on marriage and family and on new standards for ministers at the churchwide assembly last August.

Note particularly the word "unbiblical" in that sentence. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that whenever someone uses the word "biblical" or "unbiblical" what they mean is "the Bible as I interpret it."

So if someone uses the phrase "the biblical doctrine" what they mean is "the Bible as I interpret it supports the doctrine that I teach." Again, if someone uses the expression "the unbiblical practice" what they mean is "the Bible as I interpret it condemns the thing that you are doing." I have found this to be invariably true.

Claiming that something is "biblical" does not automatically give one the moral high ground. One can speak as meaningfully about the "biblical practice" of slavery or genocide, as one can speak of a "biblical doctrine" of marriage.

Returning to Betsy Clark's press release, we read:

Earlier in the day, Word Alone President Jaynan Clark presented a new vision for Word Alone Ministries in a dynamic report that included her falling to her knees and repenting for anything Word Alone failed to do that the Lord called it to do in the past 10 years.

Still on her knees, she prayed, “Otherwise continue to call us, guide us; send us leaders, evangelists and (on) a mission to go forward and to get beyond the nonsense of . . . celebration of sin.”

This is the sort of histrionic display that observers have come to expect from Jaynan Clark. Frankly, it brings entertainment value to the sport of WordAlone watching. I will point out, not as a matter of judgment but only as a point of fact, that Jaynan Clark is a divorced, female pastor.

The last paragraph of the WordAlone press release says:

Another important ministry development project has resulted in Lutheran CORE which provides affiliation options for Lutherans who are opposed to the recent unbiblical policies being implemented by the ELCA.

There's that word "unbiblical" again. It is an interesting, some might say "ironic," accusation coming from an organization headed by a divorced, female pastor. You see, there are plenty of Christians, some of them Lutheran, who would say that a divorced, female pastor is "unbiblical." Some might even go so far as to say that an organization headed by a divorced, female pastor is indulging in "the nonsense of...celebration of sin."

For the record, I do not object to the ordination of women, divorced persons, or same-sex partnered individuals. And yes, I am aware of the fact that I am a plank-eyed speck-picker. The picture of the glass house came from this website. There are more pictures there as well. You might want to check them out. They're pretty cool. All I can say is, if I lived there, I would hang some curtains.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Culture v. Reality


When I was a child I was taught that homosexuals were perverts, predators and pedophiles. Back when I spoke and thought and reasoned like a child, I was taught the old stereotypes: Gay men were lisping, mincing and effeminate. Lesbians were masculine and butch. In other words, when I was young, I was taught the standard myths and misconceptions that were current in the heteronormative culture of the time.

Now I know better. Now I have had the experience of knowing homosexual men and lesbian women.

Sadly, some of the old myths still hold currency. A recent article at Huffington Post quotes the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, as blaming the Roman Catholic church's sex abuse scandals on homosexuality.

"I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true," said Bertone. "That is the problem."

Cardinal Bertone should know better. Homosexuality and pedophilia are not the same. In fact, the majority of pedophiles self-identify as heterosexuals. Click here to read a good article on the subject.

The social, behavioral and biological sciences now tell us that same-sex attraction is a variation of sexuality that occurs normally among a minority of human beings. Homosexuals are not perverts. Their sexuality is a not a choice. Homosexuality is not a sickness. Homosexuals do not recruit. The old myths are just myths.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been charged with "cultural conformity" because it has voted to roster pastors living in "publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous" same-sex relationships. In previous posts, I have argued that those charging the ELCA with cultural conformity have made their own compromises with culture, and that the relationship between church and culture is not so one-sided as the critics suggest.

Now I assert that the ELCA is not conforming to culture. It is conforming to reality.

Illustrating this post is the title slide from Boys Beware, a 1961 "educational film" produced by Sid Davis. This film, which can be viewed in its 10 minute entirety here, promulgated many of the specious myths and stereotypes once believed about homosexuality.

Wow! The word "heteronormative" is in Blogger's spell checker!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Complex Relationship of Chickens and Eggs


The relationship of the Church to culture is complex. (Though I believe that this is true everywhere, I am writing from a North American perspective.) Different Christian denominations negotiate their relationship to culture differently. The Amish, for example, have some necessary dealings with the prevailing culture, but have created a distinctive subculture in which they live apart. The holiness churches, such as the Church of the Nazarene, live embedded in the larger culture but reject some of its practices. Traditionally the holiness churches have eschewed drinking, card playing, movies and dancing. Lutherans, for the most part, have been fairly comfortable with culture, though historically there have been pietistic movements and trends.

The Lutheran church of my childhood was largely indistinguishable from the broader culture, mostly sharing its mores and values. It was in that church that I learned the Gospel of God's grace and the universality of God's love. It was there that I learned the virtues of Christian liberty, equality and respect.

The times of my life have seen dramatic social changes. I have witnessed the civil rights movement of the 60s, the feminist movement of the 70s, and now I observe the movement toward full inclusion of homosexuals and lesbians in both church and society. Each of these movements has met with resistance, sometimes vehement, sometimes violent. Still, the overall trajectory of our culture has been toward greater liberty, equality and respect, the same values that I learned in Sunday School.

Critics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decisions allowing same-sex partnered clergy have charged the ELCA with "cultural conformity." I find this a strange criticism. Coming from the Amish, or even a holiness denomination, it might make more sense. But taking it at face value, it raises a chicken-and-egg question:

Were the ELCA's decisions driven by the prevailing culture or has the prevailing culture been shaped by the churches' preaching of liberty, inclusiveness and respect?

I do not pretend that this is an easy question and I do not think that it is simply answered. The relationship of the Church to culture is complex. I suspect that, in this case, the two have exerted mutual influence.

As for the ELCA's critics, I hear in their arguments, an undercurrent of desire to return the church to a former state. A state of say, fifty years ago, when I was a child and the church was indistinguishable from the prevailing culture.

I am not quite done with this topic.

The 14th c. illustration was found here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Cultural Conformity


I have a manila file folder labeled "Blogfodder." There has been a brochure from Lutheran CORE in it for a few weeks now. You can, for the time being, view a .pdf file of the brochure here. I would call your attention in particular to a paragraph that says:

The decisions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on human sexuality and ministry policies that contradict what the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has confessed down through the centuries and across all cultures highlight the theological crisis in Lutheranism in North America. However, the fact that the ELCA is willing to allow pastors to be in same-sex relationships is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a deep and pervasive underlying problem: a culture-conforming theology alien to the classical Christian tradition that has invaded major sectors of the ELCA.

Shortly after the CORE brochure arrived in the mail, I blogged about an ELCA congregation in Montana that is joining the LCMC. Wayne Arnst, a spokesperson for the congregation accused the ELCA of adopting a "Gospel of inclusion." One of the replies to that post came from Michael, who wrote:

Perhaps a better phrasing for Mr. Arnst would be "Gospel of Conformity"?

Apparently "conformity" has become a buzzword in some circles. I take the charge of "culture-conformance" to mean that the ELCA has abandoned the values of someone's orthodoxy and adopted the values of the prevailing culture. This is an interesting argument.

From my reading in the fields of historical Jesus scholarship, Christian origins, and New Testament studies I have come to think that the first followers of Jesus were a profoundly counter-cultural bunch. They stood outside the mainstream culture of Galilee, Judea and the Roman empire.

When thinking about counter-cultures, there are two things to consider. First, a counter-culture is a culture unto itself. Second, counter-cultures cannot sustain themselves indefinitely. They will either be destroyed by the prevailing culture, absorbed into the prevailing culture, or become the prevailing culture. (This is not an exhaustive list of possibilities, but it is sufficient for my purposes.)

By the end of the New Testament era, as it became evident that the parousia (that is, the so-called "Second Coming" of Christ) was delayed, Christianity began to trench in for the long haul. The Christian movement was well on its way to becoming the Church. This was the period of what Norman Perrin called "Emergent Catholicism." Christianity began to adopt the values of the prevailing Roman culture. By the time the last books of the New Testament were written, the Church was adopting a hierarchical organization and women were being excluded from leadership roles. In other words, the nascent Church was conforming to culture.

In the year 325, the Church took what was probably its greatest leap into culture-conformance. This was the year that the emperor Constantine assembled the bishops of the Church at Nicea to hammer out an official body of doctrine. Constantine wanted the Church to adopt a uniform theology for the good of his Empire. The Council of Nicea gave us what would forever after be the orthodox doctrine of the Church.

Though I myself am thoroughly Nicene in confession, I see an irony in all of this. Those who portray themselves as Lutheranism's doughty defenders of orthodox tradition accuse the ELCA of culture conformance while themselves proclaiming the doctrines that came from the Church's greatest culture-conforming moment.

More to come.

The picture accompanying this post is an image of the First Council of Nicea. Prominent among those haloed heads is Emperor Constantine, noted by his crown and royal robes. I found the picture at this website.

Another Good Read

Erik Ullestad, over at Koinonia blog, takes on a critic of the ELCA who has a large pulpit. Erik's post is reasonable, kindly stated and well-written. Read it here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010



An inner panel from Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece depicts the resurrection of Jesus, conflated, perhaps with the ascension and transfiguration.

Jesus has burst living, transformed, radiant from the tomb. The soldiers placed as guards are knocked to the ground by the suddenness (is it too much to say "violence?") of the resurrection. The foremost soldier, his helmet askew, raises a helpless arm perhaps to defend himself, perhaps to shield his eyes from the light streaming from Christ's face. In the background, another soldier is falling to the ground in an attitude that suggests obeisance. The risen Jesus conquers both death and the earthly forces of imperial oppression.

The margins of Jesus' face are obscured by the light beaming from it. His hair and beard shine, not blonde like Dali’s surfer-boy Jesus, but heavenly gold. I love the play of light and color on the unwinding shroud. Christ's resurrection body still bears the wounds of nail and spear, but now they glow with golden radiance. All other wounds are healed. The body of Jesus in Grunewald’s crucifixion was diseased and anguished. Now he is restored, not only to life, but to health.

I read somewhere long ago that miracles of healing were attributed to the Isenheim altarpiece. Patients at the St. Anthony’s monastery hospital were instructed to meditate on the crucifixion panel in which Jesus bore the signs of illness like their own. At a high mass, perhaps on Easter, the altarpiece was opened to reveal the resurrection scene, and patients were restored to health.

St. Athanasius said Jesus “became what we are that we might become what he is.”

Blessed Easter.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Good Friday


In the second decade of the sixteenth century, Matthias Grunewald painted the elaborate altarpiece that adorned the hospital chapel of the Monestary of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace. The altarpiece is now displayed at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France. The crucifixion depicted here is visible when the altarpiece is closed. I have only seen it in reproductions, but I have seen one of Grunewald's smaller paintings of the crucifixion in person.

This is not a pretty painting, but neither was Jesus' crucifixion pretty. The figure of the crucified Christ dominates the composition. It is not only central to the painting, but the figure on the cross is noticeably larger than the other figures.

To the left of the cross, that is the viewer's right, is the anachronistic figure of John the Baptist. The Gospel accounts make clear that John was dead well before the crucifixion of Jesus. His pointing gesture and the symbolic lamb at his feet show his role here to be the same as that in the Gospels. "Behold," he says, "the Lamb of God" The Latin motto behind the Baptist is taken from John 3:30 "Illum oportet crescere me autem minui." ("He must increase but I decrease.")

On the opposite side is a trio of figures commonly shown at the foot of the cross. In white, Jesus' mother Mary faints with grief. She is supported by the beardless young disciple John. Kneeling, an alabaster jar of embalming ointment beside her, is the penitent Magdalene, her suppliant hands twisted with sorrow. The faces or all three are expressionistic masks of grief.

The Christ is dead. His eyes are closed, head slumped, jaw slack. His recent agonies are evident. The body is gangrenous, the lips hypoxic blue, the hands and feet gnarled with pain, the abdomen hollow. The corpus bears the marks of scourge, nail and spear as well as the unbiblical detail of thorns piercing flesh all over the body.

The hospital of St. Anthony's monastery specialized in the care of patients suffering skin diseases. The Crucified in Grunewald's painting bears the marks of their diseases. The crucified Savior shared their lot.

The crucified Christ shares the lot of all humanity.

Blessed Good Friday.

I found the image of Grunewald's crucifixion here.