All posts by Johannes Waremund

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.

 

Against Ad Pseudonym Attacks

It appears my fellow writer here at DoorCellarTheCellarDoor or however you wish to make reference in your Facebook posts (Personal fave so far was the comparison to Christian News. Keep’em coming, guys. 1000 points to the most creative slams), has stirred up a bit of a ruckus. Now, I’m not sure that I personally agree with all of his assertions or style (and have told him as much), but good golly did some people get their Hanes in a bunch. Among the responses which I watched with half-hearted interest, there was one complaint which came up several times with which I took personal umbrage: the charge that writing under a pseudonym was a) cowardly, b) weak,  or c) invalidated whatever was said in the piece.

These objections struck me as odd. It’s a well-known fact that a sizeable number of writers, poets, theologians, and philosophers throughout history have used some sort of pseudonym. Kierkegaard himself had at least 9 known pseudonyms. Mathias Flacius had over 15. Give me a few minutes and I’ll hop in my time machine to ask them why they were such cowards.

……………….

Ok. I’m back. I realized when I got there that I haven’t kept my Danish skills up to snuff, but I’m pretty sure Soren answered the accusation with the Copenhagen equivalent of “That’s the dumbest set of objections I’ve ever heard.”  Flacius was too busy trying to put sugar in Melanchthon’s gas tank to respond, but I’m sure he’d agree.

These men and the many other great publishers of essays and treatises like them did not write with false names because they were timid. They had a multitude of reasons from grouping their works by thematic aim, avoiding their own previously known reputations, and sometimes even personal safety. Hell, even Stephen King started using a nom de plume for a bit to see if people were buying his books because they were good or because they had the name King on the cover. Turns out that there’s a lot in a name. The book sold 10 times better when the secret was out.

You see, when it comes to opinions, thoughts, writings, musings, and other types of literary diarrhea which get posted on the internet, their inherent nature is usually ridiculously egotistical. The thoughts, arguments, points, and rhetoric get immediately weighed and measured before they are read and processed. The measure of a man and his ideas in this age of glowing screens and smartphones is no longer his capability of communicating, but rather the little blue name next to his attempted Facebook wit or Twitter blather. Not only that, but those who build their own little following in the world of the tubes begin to get careless with their method and statements and, like the American Church, begin to say and signal whatever will continue to grow their number of likes and retweets. It’s all pretty disgusting.

It’s then no surprise that the loudest complaints about the pseudonymous nature of DoorCellarThe came from those among the Lutheran milieu for whom the descriptor “self-aggrandizing” is an all too perfect fit.

Cowardly? Eh, maybe, but not likely. That’s not the reason for the editorial choice for fake names. Instead, we aspire to be a place where ideas, poetry, essays, and just plain suggestions can be floated out among the web-o-sphere without the weight or curse of nonymous reputations. The ideas have to stand for themselves because that’s the only thing any reader will know about what he’s reading. Maybe you’ll be able to read into the choices different people have made for their pseudonyms, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be convinced you know who wrote this or that. Maybe you’ll be right, but more than likely you’d be surprised. To tell the truth, I know that there are several accounts for this little e-think tank of whom I am unaware of the “real” identity. It’s more fun that way. We are Cellar for we are many….or at least several.

So maybe some of you will get offended by some of the things presented there. Feel free to respond, but be aware that since the nature of the Cellar is one centered on rhetoric and discussion, you may wish to check your emotional reactions and self-importance at the door.