Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bible Study Concept of the Year: Fides Qua, Fides Quae

2014 is coming to an end, and that means it’s time for the lists of “top stories of the year.” While the news outlets are talking about Ferguson, Ebola, ISIS, and Malaysia Flight 370, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the past year in Bible study to try to identify a standout concept—something that really made a difference in my perspective.

My nominee for 2014: the distinction between fides qua creditur (“the faith which believes”) and fides quae creditur (“the faith which is believed”), which we covered in a Bible study on closed communion. (Also important in that study: the related distinction between vertical and horizontal dimensions of communion.)

I should note that I’ve never been 100% persuaded about closed communion. The name itself sounds a bit inhospitable, and it seems odd to welcome visitors enthusiastically (as in the announcements: “We’re happy you’re here! Please come again!”) yet exclude them from the Lord’s Supper.

In the official words of the church—the communion liturgies, hymns, and Luther’s Catechism—we learn that the Lord’s Supper is a gift, one that confirms the forgiveness of sins and strengthens our faith. It’s a gift for all who believe, who confess their sins, repent, and believe that their sins are forgiven through Christ’s body and blood, which are truly present in the bread and wine.

Shouldn’t everyone who shares those basic beliefs about Christ be able to participate?

Well, no, say many churches, including my own. I’ve heard the arguments for closed communion many times, but I started to see things differently when I learned about the distinction between fides qua creditur, our personal saving faith, and fides quae creditur, the Faith—the body of doctrine—that we profess to believe. As Rev. Klemet Preus put it: “We could say that Christians have faith in the faith.” 

It’s that latter sense of faith—the shared profession— that’s at issue with closed communion. When our liturgies address a “you” (e.g., “Dear friends in Christ! In order that you may receive this holy Sacrament worthily…”), the you, I’m told, is not just anyone listening but rather people who share a unified profession of faith (i.e., members of a particular church or denomination).

And that brings us to the vertical and horizontal dimension of communion. To this point, I’ve seen communion largely in the vertical sense, as something between a particular believer and God, involving personal faith. I haven’t seen it so much in the horizontal sense—as a profession of unity of faith (fides quae), which is attested, for instance, in 1 Cor. 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Both dimensions are important.

I still have questions about what properly constitutes the fides quae (Core teachings? Absolutely everything?), but for now, it’s enough to have a better understanding of why we do what we do, and to be able to explain our practice to those visitors we love having in church.  

ART: Hermann Wislicenus, Die Fürsten des Schmalkaldischen Bundes empfangen das Abendmahl unter beiden Gestalten (1880). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Better Left Behind: Church Cookbook Mustard Ring

I thought this was a good idea—something a little lighter after the holidays, in keeping with the inquisitive spirit of the blog. Who isn’t at least a little curious about some of those recipes in church cookbooks?

Of particular interest today: the mysterious Jell-O salad.

I remember two of these concoctions from the church dinners of my youth—an orange one with shredded carrots and a green one with cottage cheese. Thankfully, my mom never made these at home (not that I recall, anyway, but she did own some nifty copper molds).

My Best of Minnesota Cookbook includes a number of recipes for these salads (Tuna Garden Loaf, anyone?), and they always prompt the same reaction: “Really? Who thought of this? Who would eat this?”

Time to find out. For this post, I present my experiment with Mustard Ring Salad, a recipe from the Lutheran Church Basement Ladies cookbook. What hooked me was the testimonial: “The Sodality ladies ham dinner was memorable for this salad. Simply delicious with ham!!”

Remember that: TWO exclamation marks.

I actually like the individual ingredients. Vinegar, eggs, mustard. Not bad. Sounds like
deviled eggs.

But then you have to add gelatin, whipping cream (whipped), and cabbage.


I pressed on, assembling my ingredients, contacting friends with Jell-O molds (thank you, Martha!), and looking up directions for making one of these things. (Yes, there is an art to getting the mass to come out of the mold. Now I know.)

The process was fairly straightforward. Mix a few ingredients. Cook the egg mixture. Whip the cream. Cut up the cabbage. Mix everything together and place in an oiled mold. Then into the fridge to set up.

I didn’t really notice the smell when I was making the mold, since it was masked by the chestnut soup simmering on the stove.

But then came the time to unmold the salad. Ugh!! The smell alone puts this recipe in the reject bin for me. (As a point of comparison, I once picked up Ingrid from a piano lesson, and her teacher was making kimchi. The smell of this mustard ring was worse.)

I would’ve just dumped the salad right then, but we have a rule in our house: no turning up your nose at any food until you’ve tried it.

Jon rose to the challenge, and his expression pretty much says it all.

“It’s not so much the taste,” he managed to choke out. “It’s the texture.”

Exactly. You can probably imagine what a gelatinous mass of crunchy cabbage, whipped cream, and mustardy cooked eggs might taste like. And if not, you can make the recipe yourself (but only if you're really, really curious).

As for me, I’m done with savory church Jell-O salads.

“Simply delicious with ham??” 

Church basement ladies, what WERE you thinking?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book of the Month: American Christianity

Stephen Cox’s American Christianity (U of Texas Press, 2014) highlights the broad and varied nature of religious experience in America. As a general reader, I learned some interesting new facts about religion in America. As a Lutheran reader, I was reminded (briefly) that Lutheranism may be a part of American Christianity, but it’s not central to it.

American Christianity is an accessible read, offering an engaging look at the ebb and flow of religious life in the United States. More broad than deep, the book addresses everything from the Great Awakening to charismatic religious leaders (like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham) to millenarianism to church architecture.

Through his myriad examples, Cox paints a picture of American Christianity in a state of constant revolution, with churches attempting to maintain ties to the past while moving in new directions. The outcomes of those movements, according to Cox, are largely unpredictable.

In the final chapter of the book, Cox concludes that “because individual decisions are so important, no generalization about American Christianity or prediction about its future has much hope of being right” (p. 224).

What’s more predictable, I suppose, is the limited attention paid to Lutherans in this story. Lutherans are mentioned just seven times, and then largely in passing. Among the references: in the mid-twentieth century, one of the most popular Christian radio programs was produced by the LC-MS (presumably The Lutheran Hour, p. 122), and today, a Lutheran church in San Francisco “now calls itself Her Church, worships the ‘God/dess,’ and prays the Goddess Rosary” (p. 18).

Lutherans are thus largely invisible in this tale, but I found myself asking questions about them at various points in the discussion. In chapter 10, for instance, Cox describes a growing tendency in American Christianity to water down hymns.

“Virtually all modern hymnals, “ Cox writes, “try to cut traditional offerings down to three or four stanzas, and the most intellectually and scripturally provocative lines are the first to go” (p. 212).

An interesting observation, but that's not my impression of our newer Lutheran hymnals. (I do wonder, though: are there lines that we no longer sing because they’re too “intellectually and scripturally provocative?”)

Cox can’t be faulted for not covering every church body in detail. And frankly, when I hear the term American Christianity, I tend to think first of evangelicals, and then of everybody else.

So what, then, of the Lutheran story? There are histories available (e.g., Nelson’s Lutherans in North America; Lagerquist’s The Lutherans), and I should read one. I really should.

For now, though, I’m moving on to January’s Book of the Month: Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen (2012). If you’re interested, read along. I’ll write about it on January 27.

ART: William T. Ellis: Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message. Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston Co., 1914, p. 148. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Canons Follow-up: Preaching, Teaching, and Learning

The results are in, and they’re not surprising. Content is king in the good Lutheran sermon (as it should be in all speeches). Those of you who commented on last Tuesday’s post singled out Law-and-Gospel preaching, in particular.

Cranach, The Law and the Gospel (1529)
A couple of examples:

“A sermon is good that preaches me to hell and preaches me to heaven.” (J. S. Bruss)

“If the content doesn’t convict me of my sin and remind me of Jesus’ death and resurrection - if it doesn’t preach Christ crucified and my need of the cross - what exactly is the point of it?” (Kenya Patzer)

The relevant canons here, of course, are invention and disposition. The good Law-and-Gospel sermon conveys the right subject matter (as noted above) and “makes clear the place to which each thing is to be assigned” (Rhetorica ad Herennium).

Earlier this week, Pastor Scott Murray captured these points in “Persistent Preachers,” noting that the law has a place, but “the gospel must be the predominant component in all Christian preaching and teaching.”

Pastor Murray’s comment brings to mind the other main takeaway point from Tuesday’s discussion, the idea that “all preaching is teaching, and all teaching is preaching.” If preaching is teaching, then hearing should involve learning. We hearers do learn, no doubt. But could we be learning more?

In the classroom, imagine how much would be lost if students never took notes, didn’t discuss ideas, didn’t engage with the material outside of class, and didn’t assess learning along the way.

Granted, a sermon is not a class. The teaching and learning expectations are different. Handouts and exams and outside reading would be out of place during the divine service, but note-taking seems feasible. I’m thinking here about Kenya Patzer’s observation about “sketchnoting” sermons: “Retention—way up. Deeper understanding of the message was also there.”

I discovered the same thing when I downloaded a copy of a recent sermon by Pastor Peter Lange at St. John’s that I had remembered as being good. I reviewed it, highlighting the Law and the Gospel, and saw things in the sermon that I hadn’t remembered. And now, after highlighting, I still think the sermon is good, but I have a much better understanding of why.

Hear, read, mark, learn. It works.

I’ll be there Sunday with pen and notebook in hand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Lutheran Spin on the Five Canons of Rhetoric

It’s the third Tuesday of the month, and that means we’re talking about rhetoric. Perfect timing, because I’ve got the “good sermon” on my mind.

Specifically, I’m thinking of all the times I’ve heard someone say to a pastor after church, “Good sermon!” The pastor typically smiles and says thanks, maybe adding, “To God alone be the glory.”

And that’s that. These brief exchanges always leave me hanging, wondering why the parishioner said, “Good sermon!”

It’s not that I disagree with the assessment. It’s just habitual thinking, formed through years of exchanges with public speaking students. (Me: “So, what did you think of Reagan’s speech?” Student: “It was a good.” Me: “Okay. Can you elaborate?” Student: “Umm…I don’t know. It  just really flowed.”)

Granted, it can be tough sometimes to identify specific reasons why a speech or sermon is effective. That’s why I’m a big fan of the five canons of rhetoric (from the Greek κανών, standard of measurement).

Some of you might have encountered the five canons. If so, great. If not, you’re in good company. The canons—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—are typically news to my students, but they’re very useful for thinking about rhetoric.

Here’s a quick overview from Book 1 of the Rhetorica ad Herennium (the earliest surviving Roman treatise on rhetoric, written in the 1st century B.C.):

Invention (inventio) is the devising of matter, true or plausible, that would make the case convincing. Arrangement (dispositio) is the ordering and distribution of the matter, making clear the place to which each thing is to be assigned. Style (elocutio) is the adaptation of suitable words and sentences to the matter devised. Memory (memoria) is the firm retention in the mind of the matter, words, and arrangement. Delivery (pronuntiatio) is the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture.

The canons model is incredibly flexible, thanks to the general yet comprehensive nature of the categories. I have yet to see a speech genre that can’t be explained with the canons.

That includes sermons. What’s interesting to consider is how each canon applies in a given genre. With Lutheran sermons, for example, which principles of invention are particularly important? What options for arrangement are most effective? Are some canons more important than others?

I’ll return to this topic again on Friday, but in the meantime, think about a sermon you’ve heard (or read) recently, one that you thought was really good. What made you think it was good?

If you say, “It just really flowed,” you already know what my response will be.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Honk If You Like Old Hymns

This sign caught my eye on a recent trip to Home Depot: “We sing the old hymns.”

I was ready to give the sign a thumbs-up as I drove by, but then I started thinking about some of the conversations I’ve had with people about old hymns. 

“I just love those old hymns,” they'll say, then they rattle off a few titles, and it quickly becomes clear that we are not fans of the same thing.

What exactly are old hymns?  Are they the hymns people grew up singing? Hymns written before a certain time period? Favorites? Anything not contemporary?

Lets start with option #1, familiar hymns from the past.

I paged through The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) and came up with a list of 20 hymns that I clearly remember singing in Lutheran elementary school. They’re old standards; you can find all of them in the ELH (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary) and the LSB (Lutheran Service Book).

Why did we learn these hymns? If I had to guess, they’re easy to sing, easy to memorize, and easy to play on a flutophone, which was our first musical instrument. (Just imagine the sound of Glory Be to Jesus on flutophones!) Most important, these hymns teach the faith in a simple way.

They certainly fit the bill as “old hymns,” but that doesn’t mean I’d actually look forward to singing them all in church. If I were to make a list of those hymns, it would look more like this one: “Top 25 Hymns Lutherans Love to Sing.” You’ll probably see some favorites here (as well as some not-so-favorites).

You may have ideas about omissions, too. For example, I’d add “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand,” “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” “Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense,” and “In Jesus’ Name” (a Norwegian hymn that’s old in years but still relatively new to me). 

There are also some interesting hybrids to consider. What about new texts and old tunes (as found, for example, on Lutheran Hymn Revival, by Pastor Mark Preus)? Or old texts and contemporary tunes, as featured on Pastor Zac Hicks’ site? (Check out, for example “Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus” on Without Our Aid.) Old hymns? 

Its probably safe to say that in the road sign above, old hymns doesnt mean a rocking version of Angels from the Realms of Glory, but it may not mean In Jesus Name, either. Which old hymns get your vote?