Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Media Savvy Martin Luther

Ah, the things you find in Topeka.

I wasn’t expecting to find Brand Luther (2015), but there it was in the New Books section of our library.

The title made me curious, but the subtitle really sealed the deal: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.

Luther + communication strategy? Irresistible.

And author Andrew Pettegree doesn’t disappoint. Get thee to a library (or to an online bookstore) if you have an interest in a) Luther and his works, b) Reformation history, c) history of rhetoric/mass communication/print, or d) history, generally. If all of these categories apply to you, move at superspeed.

In the final paragraph of Brand Luther, Pettegree restates the central paradox of the book, noting that “printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry” (338). Pettegree makes this case convincingly, describing (in text and visuals) how Luther marshaled the resources of the print industry to defend his positions and advance his cause.

The book works as a biography of sorts, providing key details of Luther’s life, works, friends, and enemies. At the same time, it’s a story about media and movements—about writing great content quickly, tailoring it for an audience, getting the work into circulation, and crushing opponents with your output.

Pettegree offers some fascinating statistics on that output. He notes, for instance, that “in the years between 1521 and 1525, when the pamphlet war [Reformers vs. the established church] was at its height, Luther and his supporters outpublished their opponents by a margin of nine to one” (210). 9-1! As Pettegree points out, this dominance was a big advantage, helping to create “a clear impression of an emerging consensus.”

One of the real strengths of Brand Luther is Pettegree’s thorough research, including the colorful facts sprinkled throughout. For example, Pettegree reveals that Luther wrote 99 theses (against scholastic theology) just a few weeks before posting his 95 theses, but the former drew no interest. Artist Lucas Cranach was a three-time Bürgermeister (city leader) of Wittenberg. And the pamphlet wars saw titles such as Duke Heinrich’s Well-Grounded, Steadfast, Grave, True, Godly, Christian, Nobly Inclined Duplicae Against the Elector of Saxony’s Second Defamatory, Baseless, Fickle, Fabricated, Ungodly, Unchristian, Drunken, God-Detested Treatise. 


Brand Luther maintains a sharp focus on the past, to Pettegree’s credit, but I did find myself thinking about contemporary connections at times. Among the topics that flitted through my head: 

Celebrity pastors
Luther fits the bill. If he were living now, would he be in the limelight?

The megachurch “look,” or visual identity
Luther’s publications all had a recognizable “look.” How are we doing with branding of Lutheran churches/publications today?

Donald Trump
Or, how to dominate the airwaves. Luther and “the Donald,” as it turns out, have something in common.

Iowa style
Luther had it! Short, direct, colloquial. (For more on Iowa, click here.)

High aesthetic standards
No Comic Sans font for Luther. Probably not even Times New Roman.

Overall media strategy
Timing. Genius. Friends in the right places. A strong “voice.” Influence over media channels. An expanding crew of evangelizers. A recognizable brand. You can see Luther’s strategies everywhere you look, from product promotion to serious public debates. How might Luther operate in the digital age? (Just imagine those tweets…)

Before reading Brand Luther, I probably would have described the man as a reformer, theologian, preacher, professor, genius. Now, Id add one more label: “media savvy communicator.” 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

100+ Reasons to Attend Church: What’s on YOUR List?

Last Sunday night, I ran into a fellow parishioner, who told me she had been so busy over the weekend that she had to miss church—a rare occurrence for her.

“I really don’t like that,” she said. “I need to be in church.”

That brief conversation got me thinking.

Why go to church? If you had to make a list, what would be on it?

I started to sketch out a list, but I decided I was done after just one item: “I’m a sinner (problem), and church is where I find Christ crucified (solution).”

One item ≠ a proper list.

Time to head to the web for inspiration, where lists abound. I found several “why attend church” lists; when I put all of them together, I had over one hundred reasons for attending.

Interestingly, many of the items I spotted would NOT end up on my own list. (Why? Probably because of what I hear in church every week.) And in some cases, it wasn’t what was there, but what was missing. (Christ crucified? Absolution? Baptism?)

The first two lists I looked at—one with 5 reasons for attending, another with 99 (!)—are good examples.

If you study these lists, you’ll see a strong focus on living the good Christian life. Why go to church? To inspire your non-attending neighbors. To be like Jesus. To get motivated to live a better life. To improve your self-esteem. To help you be a happy person.

The message: Go to church; be a better person. See a positive payoff in your life. (E.g., “A miracle you need may come to pass.” Hmm…)

Church attendance might correlate with some of these outcomes (e.g., making positive changes in your life), but overall, this line of reasoning misses the mark. The lists do get closer to the target with some items (e.g., from the list of 99: “Real forgiveness is found there”; “Jesus is there”), but as one of my freelance clients likes to say, “It’s a little squishy.”

For something less squishy and more Lutheran, check out this list from Holy Cross Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Trumbull, CT. Initially, what youll see is Theodore Roosevelt’s list of 10 reasons to go to church—more “good person” reasoning that may make you wonder if Lutherans are actually capable of coming up with a good list of their own.

But then comes this line: “Along with President Roosevelt’s ten reasons we would add the following ten.”

Those ten reasons are spot-on. Christ is right there in reason #1 (“To have fellowship with the crucified and risen Christ”) and again in reason #10 (“To promote the Gospel”). In between are familiar expressions. Word and Sacrament. Repentance and forgiveness. God’s voice in Scripture, liturgy, and hymnody. God’s gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.

Okay, now we’re talking. THIS is why I go.

In other words: This is what my list would have looked like, had I made it past that one lonely item.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Friday Figure: When Is a Metaphor Not a Metaphor?

Finally! A familiar, easy-to-pronounce Friday Figure: metaphor.

This is probably one of the first figures of speech we all learned. Metaphor comes from the Greek μεταφορα [metaphora], meaning “a carrying from one place to another; in Rhetoric, a transferring to one word the sense of another” (LSJ Greek English Lexicon).

The real appeal of metaphors, according to Aristotle, is that they create new knowledge. “To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are pleasurable” (Rhet. 3.10.2). Metaphors pair two concepts in a fresh way, and that prompts us to see things differently.

Scripture is loaded with metaphors that reveal truth and teach it in a memorable way. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress” (Ps. 18:2). “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5).

And then there’s this line: “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Wait a minute. A metaphor?

“Certainly not!” 

At least that’s the response I’d expect from those of you who were trained, as I was, in the Luther school of interpretation.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. Some, like E.W. Bullinger (author of Figures of Speech Used in the Bible), think Luther got it all wrong. Listen to Bullinger’s take on Matthew 26:26, “This is my body” (τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ σῶμά μου, touto esti to sôma mou):
Few passages have been more perverted than these simple words. Rome has insisted on the literal or the figurative sense of words just as it suits her own purpose, and not at all according to the laws of philology and the true science of language. [. . .]
The Metaphor, This is my body,” has been forced to teach false doctrine by being translated literally.
Luther himself was misled, through his ignorance of this simple law of figurative language. In his controversy with Zwingli, he obstinately persisted in maintaining the literal sense of the figure, and thus forced it to have a meaning which it never has. He thus led the whole of Germany into his error! For, while his common sense rejected the error of Transubstantiation,” he fell into another, and invented the figment of Consubstantiation,” and fastened it upon the Lutheran Church to this day. 
The language law being violated, according to Bullinger, concerns the gendering of pronouns in language meant to be understood figuratively. I’ll just leave it at that for now and encourage you Greekish word sleuths to follow the link above and check out the full argument in Bullinger if you’re interested in testing his case.

Whatever you think of Bullinger, it’s an interesting puzzle, one not easily solved. Wouldn’t it be nice if the words of institution were followed by a line like John 16:29? “His disciples said, ‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!’”

But alas, that’s not the case, which has led lots of people to conclude that “this is my body” is a metaphor. (“How could Christ have been passing out His body and eating it when He was sitting right there?)

As for the Lutheran take on the matter, perhaps the most succinct, convincing, layperson-friendly argument I've found is in the explanation of the Small Catechism (ESV), which includes the question: “How does the Bible make it clear that these words of Christ are not picture language?”

The answer (in part):
1 Cor. 10:16: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
1 Cor. 11:27, 29: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. . . . For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
The bread and wine are there. The body and the blood are there. Together.

How? I’m not sure. It remains a mystery, but I’m pretty convinced it's not a metaphor.

Image 1: The Good Shepherd. Attributed to Philippe de Champaigne [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Make It More Iowa (or, Praise for the Plain Style)

The scene: Friday night, 9:30. I’m sitting in the cold church basement with our capital campaign team and our consultants, working on hammering out a case statement for the campaign.

This might not sound like the most exciting way to spend a Friday night, but I actually walked away with something pretty valuable, an expression I'll use from this time forth and forevermore:

“Make it more Iowa.”

If I could, I’d see to it that “Make it more Iowa” is in every public speaking and homiletics book in the land.

What it means (as I understand it): Use a plainer, more direct style.

Example (fictional): “Chuck, I like the basic idea of that sentence, but I’m not sure about ‘render thy first fruits to the glory of the Lord.’ I think we need to make it more Iowa.”

Put differently: “That line is too theo-literary/archaic/highfalutin/abstract/academic/essayish.”

All hail, Iowa!

I say this with no sarcasm whatsoever. “Iowa” is not code for dumbing down, not in my book, anyway (and I say this both as a rhetorician and a southern Minnesotan—i.e., practically Iowan).

To “make it more Iowa” is to communicate in the plain style (as it was called in ancient rhetoric texts): Direct, clear, familiar, simple, concrete, conversational. 

You can see some nice examples of the plain style in the First Things article, “Going to Church in America,” by James Mumford. In the article, Mumford, a Brit, describes a visit to an American church, and he lets us listen in on the sermon (which he calls “an absolute tour de force”). 
After a reading of Jonah: “This is absolutely true. It’s also pretty hilarious. And it’s written because He loves you.” (Short, simple sentences. Repetition. Familiar words.)
A description of Jonah: “the worst missionary the world has ever seen. . . . Jonah was given simple instructions on where to go, and then fled in precisely the opposite direction.” (Maybe “fled” could be replaced with “ran,” but overall, this still follows plain principles.)
Instructions to listeners: “I want you to shut your eyes and imagine in your mind’s eye a group of people, a group of people whom you despise. You can say you don’t despise anyone. You can say that. . . . What I want you to do is to hold them in your mind. Now hear the word of the Lord to Jonah: ‘You are not better than them.’” (Subject-verb, subject-verb. Personal language. Repeated ideas. Nice.)
Mumford’s assessment of the preacher: “One of the most arresting I’ve ever heard. No British blathering. No dithering. Cuts to the chase.”

That’s what he heard in America—Virginia, to be more precise. But it sounds pretty Iowa to me.

Image: By United States Mint [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Looking for an "A" on the Holy Test? Look No Further than the Bible.

It was an unexpected sight, there among the piles of giveaway theology books stacked on a table in our church courtyard: The Quran.

When I saw it, I was seriously tempted to become its new owner. I flipped through the pages of the book, but ultimately, I left it on the table.

Now that I’ve taken the Holy Test, though, I’m rethinking that decision. The Holy Test is one of those fun, time-killing online quizzes, with the added bonus of actually making you think in the process (i.e., it’s a bit more substantive than, “Which Luke Skywalker Are You?”).

The test consists of 10 short quotations. Your job is to identify whether the quotations come from the Bible or from the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. 

An example: “The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.”

Bible or Quran?

I’m not telling, lest I spoil it for any of you who decide to take the test. If you do take it, I hope you do better than I did. I scored an 8 out of 10 the first time around, which got me thinking again about that Quran on the free book table.

What does that book say, and should Christians take the time to read it?

There are plenty of opinions on this question floating around on the Web. If you’re curious, you might want to check out this article in Christianity Today, which presents three different answers. 

I can see why a Christian would want to read the book, or at least be familiar with it, given our increasingly diverse society as well as current events involving the Islamic State. And I’m just plain curious about Islam, especially after reading articles that describe the young Jesus speaking as an infant (Quran 19:29-31) and making birds out of clay (Quran 5:110; the birds-from-clay story, incidentally, also appears in a second-century non-canonical gospel text, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—perhaps a subject for another day).

Curious as I am, I’m still a little reluctant to forge ahead. In part, it’s a matter of realistic expectations—how much can I really learn about Islam from reading the Quran?

The following account from Jason Knight, who documented his year-long Quran-reading project, gives me pause: 
I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.
That last line is key for me. We only have so much time to devote to reading and study. Why devote time to studying the Quran when I could—and should—be reading the Bible?

True confession: I have yet to make it all the way through the Old Testament.

With that said, I’m okay with bypassing that Quran on the free book table. I may get at it some day, but for now, I think I’ll get back to my OT reading—a New Years resolution for 2016.

If I stick to that plan, I should have no problem acing the Holy Test.

You only need to know one book well to do that.

ART: A Mongol prince studying the Koran. By unknown / (of the reproduction). Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Schacht [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.