Monthly Archives: October 2016

On “Being Lutheran”

CPH’s latest attempt to claw and grasp at ‘popular culture’ or ‘relevancy’ is titled ‘Being Lutheran.’ Now, besides the ontological and metaphysical questions raised by the title of the book which are certainly never addressed, it’s quite a confusing compilation of sentences. I’m not just trying to use interesting language when I say ‘compilation of sentences,’ though, because that seems to be the style that Rev. Sutton has chosen to use. For the purposes of this review, I won’t be discussing anything other than the free chapter available online, not because I haven’t read more of the book, but because this is the portion which assumedly the author, editors, and publisher have decided is the best ‘hook’ to get the young, trendy, Lutheran hipster kids to buy the book. You can download it here: http://books.cph.org/being-lutheran-download

being lutheran

It’s tough to understand where Rev. Sutton is going with this book without him telling you himself. This is because apart from the vague title (Is it prescriptive? descriptive? questioning? Etc.), the flow of thought is very scattered.  When I decided to write this review I realized that I couldn’t quite nail down what the structure and flow of the book was, so I went to the CPH website and found this helpful and yet confusing description: ‘Thus, he divides his book into two parts: what Lutherans challenge (being closed, lukewarm, confused, lazy, and ‘pastel’), followed by what Lutherans cherish (the new, the ordinary, the unresolved, purpose, and the local.’

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Those are pastels. We hate those as Lutherans. Except on Easter Sunday (the peak of the Church Year) when we paint eggs and hide them in our lawns. As Lutherans do.

On the surface, one could look at this and twist and contort your mind in order to say ‘Well the Lutheran Confessions speak this way. “They speak specifically about what we agree and disagree with.” But one of the main problems I have with this is that these listings of what we challenge and cherish are weak at best and misleading at worst. In my reading of the book, it seems to be rhetorically geared towards 5th-8th graders. The sentences are simple and utterly devoid of any nuance, especially when it comes to speaking of aspects of Lutheran theology where the nuance is crucial. Take for example this passage from the book: ‘Uncertainty fueled the selling of indulgences. The Church during that time in history taught that God’s grace was a spiritual steroid for doing good works. Grace empowered believers to reach salvation. Forgiveness was earned by doing good works as repayment for sin.’ While this is not explicitly incorrect, it certainly keeps alive and actively promotes this Lutheran caricature of Roman Catholic doctrine that involves confession and then paying for an indulgence which grants absolution. This was not Roman doctrine at the time of Luther, nor is it the case now. The indulgence merely was seen as a remittance of the temporal consequences of sin which remained after the sin was forgiven by a priest. This is not a challenging thing to present in simple language (2 parts vs 3 parts to forgiveness).

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Even I understand the nuance of indugences…

In presenting things this way at multiple points in the first chapter alone, the author does a serious disservice to all of the seemingly intended target markets. The young or inexperienced Lutheran will now be given insufficient glosses of their own theology. The ‘other’ Christian will either see no difference between their Baptist roots and Lutheranism or, if they are Catholic, they will say ‘That’s not what my church teaches.’ For the unchurched individual, the purpose, characters, and Reformation itself will seem trite and simple. 

I can hear the objections now: ‘But sir, this isn’t a book for theologians! It’s for the youth and the under educated…’ Indeed! We need more resources for that area! Train up a child in the way he should go… and so on! (That’s Proverbs 22)  This is why we need to be so strict about the quality of such publications! It was the book of the month for our seemingly only effective Lutheran public outreach! This is important!

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We support this book!

The other objection which I feel could be raised against my review is that of ‘context.’ Any Lutheran who has debated or investigated church doctrine knows that in everything ‘context is key.’ This book provides many simplistic statements followed by a related anecdote, and the topic moves on. This means that there is no context by which the simplistic statements can be saved. The result is that the book gives young people what they should have (proverbs which they can extrapolate from in their daily life) but rarely gives them the best or most discerning.

So we come back to the stated structure from the foreword: “what Lutherans challenge (being closed, lukewarm, confused, lazy, and ‘pastel’), followed by what Lutherans cherish (the new, the ordinary, the unresolved, purpose, and the local).” I repeat this because it so perfectly encapsulates how the book reads. Speaking as a theologically trained Lutheran, I can read those lists and in my head complete them ‘Lutheranly.’ For example, I as a Lutheran cherish the new (Adam), the ordinary (ordinaries, actually), the unresolved (tension between the reality of the now and not yet),  the purpose (honestly, I can’t shoehorn this one) and the local(ized presence of Christ Himself in the Eucharist). However, since the printed words on the pages are empty platitudes with no self-contained linguistic identity within the Lutheran tradition, anyone could read them, apply their own theological tradition and ‘be Lutheran.’

Also, let’s be honest here, Lutherans don’t ‘challenge being closed,’ unless of course your communion policy advocates for being pretty gosh darn open. Lutherans cherish closed-ness because Christ did as well. He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. Nobody will reach salvation without Him. In order for us to comfort those within the fold of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, we need to retain ‘being closed’ as a virtue. It is not those who advocate for closed communion who are the problem, in fact, in my experience they are often more effective at bringing people to the faith than those who equate ‘closed’ with ‘close enough,’ (see above) which is a false and harmful thing to do.

As Lutherans (not Being Lutherans….) we have a great tradition of doing things well.  Luther was a great writer, translator, preacher, and scholar. Paul Gerhard and Bach are remembered and honored outside of the Lutheran church even in our modern age for their contributions to music. Countless great churches  have the title ‘Lutheran’ engraved upon their cornerstones. I would in fact argue against Gretchen Jameson in her review and say that we need much more ‘blatant Lutheran grandstanding,’ because we do actually have countless grand treasures on which to stand. The aesthetics, style, writing, and tone of this book take the pressure-formed and highly polished diamonds of Lutheran history and theology and presents them not as valuable treasures, but rather as bubblegum machine trinkets.