Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mixing It Up: Pastrix and Mere Christianity

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

The saying typically applies to weddings, but today, it describes the book of the month selection, which actually turned into books of the month.

Something old and blue: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952), my version of which has a partially blue cover.

Something new and borrowed: Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix (2013), which I borrowed from the library after seeing it perched on the shelf next to a Luther video.

The official book of the month selection is Mere Christianity, but I decided to throw Pastrix into the mix after seeing the following testimonial from an enthusiastic reader in the front of the book: “This book is Mere Christianity for an altogether new kind of Christianity that’s also blessedly ancient.”

A new Mere Christianity? Okay! Let’s go!

Book #1: Pastrix
Verdict: Could relate to it (in a qualified way)

For the record, Bolz-Weber and I could not be more different. If we were at the same party, we’d likely end up on opposite ends of the room—Bolz-Weber on the “heavily tattooed, recovering alcoholic, former stand-up comic, swears like a sailor” side (all ways in which she describes herself in her book), and me on the “conventional, by the book, terrified by the thought of being a stand-up comic” side.

But we’re both Lutheran. And we’re about the same age. And we’re tall. So we’d have something to talk about.

Actually, I’d be fine just listening to her stories (particularly sans profanity—if you want the cleaned-up version of her tales, check out this interview on NPR). Bolz-Weber has lots of stories, and that’s what her book is about—her experiences with her faith, particularly as lived out in her church work. 

We’re different kinds of Lutherans, no question, but I found myself nodding along with statements such as these: “The thing I love about baptism is that it is about God’s action upon us and not our decision to ‘choose’ God” (p. 141), and “My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word” (p. 50).

Anyone who feels their “poor miserable sinner” status would be able to relate to Bolz-Weber’s own struggles with things like anger and pettiness and resentment. I may not be able to relate to her particular experiences or theological worldview, but the human weaknesses? The clear need for Christ? Absolutely.

Book #2: Mere Christianity
Verdict: Lives up to its reputation as a classic

I’m not sure what that testimonial writer had in mind, but Pastrix and Mere Christianity are two very different books—one is a memoir, the other a work of Christian apologetics. When you finish Pastrix, you know more about Nadia Bolz-Weber. When you finish Mere Christianity, you know more about the Christian faith.

Lewis, an atheist-turned-Anglican, avoids denominational lines in his book and focuses instead on beliefs common to all Christians (e.g., beliefs about the moral law, conceptions of God, Christian virtues). 

Like the books of G. K. Chesterton, Mere Christianity (presented originally as radio talks in the 1940s) is marked by interesting argumentation and memorable lines. A few that I starred:
In response to the popular claim that “Jesus was a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept him as God”: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell” (p. 52).
On the nature of Christian life: “A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ himself carried out” (p. 63). 
On the believability of Christianity: “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe in Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. [. . .] It has just that queer twist about it that real things have” (p. 42).
Ah, such brilliance. Imagine Lewis on the radio today, on Issues, Etc. or NPR—with special guest Nadia Bolz-Weber.

I would definitely tune in for that one.

Friday, May 20, 2016

What Doubting Thomas and Justinian the Slit-Nose Have in Common

Some of you creative types could probably come up with some very interesting connections between the disciple Thomas and the Emperor Justinian II, but if you’re stumped, here’s a clue: It’s Friday, and this is a “Friday Figure” post.

Doubting Thomas. Justinian the Slit-Nose.

Add to those examples God Almighty, Jesus, Son of the Living God, and Alexander the Great.

Today’s figure is the epithet, which is a naming of a thing by describing it (from the Greek epithetos, meaning added, annexed). As noted in Bullinger’s Figures of Speech: “The figure is so-called when an adjective or noun is used, which adds to the sense of the thing spoken of by simply holding forth some attribute, character, or quality descriptive of it.”

Epithets should not be confused with epigrams (pithy, clever sayings), epitaphs (words in memory of a dead person, as on a gravestone), or epigraphs (words, phrases, or poems at the beginning of a book or chapter).

You may hear of epithets being described as “glorified nicknames.” If you’re looking to kill some time as you wait around for something really fun to happen this weekend, check out this list of monarch nicknames. Some will no doubt be familiar (e.g., Richard the Lion Hearted; Bloody Mary), but others might not be. 

Basarab the Little Impaler? Eric the Priest Hater? Ethelred the Unready?

If you had an epithet, what would it be?

Hopefully, it would be more flattering than “Louis the Sluggard.” But today, that’s how the term “epithet” is often understood—as a term of abuse, offense, or insult (think ethnic slurs, for example.)

As with all figures, there are some sticky areas with the epithet. How does it differ from a metaphor, for instance? When Christ calls the scribes and Pharisees “serpents” and “brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:32), is he hurling epithets or using metaphors? Perhaps they’re metaphorical epithets? (Good thing this isn’t a test, huh?)

And what’s the difference between an epithet (“bright-eyed Athena”) and just a plain old adjective? From Dictionary.com we have these definitions:   
Adjective: any member of a class of words that modify nouns and pronouns, primarily by describing a particular quality of the word they are modifying 
Epithet: any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality 
They sound pretty close. From the definitions, it looks like the pool of adjectives is larger and more generally applicable than epithets, but again, I wouldn’t want to see something like “my fiery grandmother” on a matching test and have to choose between adjective and epithet (especially if “only one answer is correct” and/or “answers can be used more than once”).

So there you have it—the epithet. That’ll do it for the Friday Figure posts, too. After churning out these entries for a year and a half, I’m ready for something a little less “grammarly.”

But if you’re looking to test your comprehensive knowledge of the figures, I’d be happy to write you a quiz.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

There's Something About Topeka: WWJD, Pentecostalism, and Preachers of Hate

Central Topeka is home to Washburn University, a cool retro Dairy Queen, and a long line of famous religious newsmakers.

Okay, maybe the line isn’t THAT long, but it is in comparison to most small cities in the country, where the number of famous religious figures is probably zero.

On tap today: a tour of this little hot zone of religious fervor, where we’ll find the birthplace of “WWJD,” a church of hate, and the site of the “Topeka Outpouring of 1901.”

Stop #1: Central Congregational Church
Home of “What Would Jesus Do?”

Many of you no doubt remember the “WWJD” bracelets that were popular in the 1990s. Maybe you even owned one. (“Madonna concert? Hmmm….What Would Jesus Do?”)

While the bracelets were a 1990s phenomenon, the question “What Would Jesus Do?” was popularized much earlier by Topeka pastor Charles Sheldon, who preached at Central Congregational Church (just 6 blocks southwest of the intersection of 9th and Fillmore).

Sheldon, a strong Social Gospel advocate, introduced the phrase in 1896 in the story In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?” The story was the seventh in a series of sermon stories that Sheldon began preaching on Sunday nights at Central Congregational; each Sunday, he’d read a new chapter of the story, leaving listeners with something to think about during the week until the next chapter was read. According to biographer Timothy Miller, the stories packed the church for years. 

In His Steps was published as a book and became wildly popular, and Sheldon rocketed to fame. Among Sheldon’s other claims to fame: He played a central role in establishing the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. He also took over the Topeka Daily Capital for one week and ran the paper with a WWJD philosophy (e.g., no ads for alcohol or tobacco). During the week he was in charge, circulation exploded, from a daily average of 11,223 to an average of 362,684.

Stop #2: Westboro Baptist Church

The first time I saw them outside my church I was floored.

I had seen them on TV and in news stories, with their neon signs proclaiming that God hates…well, pretty much everyone and everything.

America. Gay people. Lukewarm Christians. You.

But when I moved to Topeka, I learned that the famous picketers of Westboro Baptist Church don’t confine their activities to out-of-town funerals and Blake Shelton concerts. They also picket in front of local churches, including ours.

There they are, with signs that say (among other things), “Your pastor is a liar.”

You may not agree with what they say, but if you’re curious about why they say it, you’ll find the FAQ page on their website to be pretty informative. (You may even learn a thing or two, including the fact that Jesus invented picketing.)

Stop #3: Corner of 17th and Stone
Site of the “Topeka Outpouring of 1901”

In 1900, an enormous mansion at the intersection of 17th and Stone in Topeka became home to Bethel Bible College. The college, open to men and women, was established by Charles Parham, a key figure in the emergence of the twentieth-century Pentecostal Movement.

The 40 or so students at Bethel gave up all their worldly possessions and counted on God to sustain them. They studied, prayed, and worshiped together, seeking to receive “the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” 

And according to reports, they did receive! On January 1, 1901, one of the students, Agnes Ozman, asked for hands to be laid on her, and she was granted the ability to speak in another tongue (“a marvelous manifestation of the restoration of Pentecostal power”—p. 37 of The Great Outpouring). Just a couple days later, 12 students were speaking in tongues; a witness reported seeing little cloven tongues of flame above their heads.

The school moved away shortly thereafter. And the mansion? It went up in flames, mysteriously, on December 6, 1901. The site is now home to Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church.

Stop #4: Dairy Queen

As long as we’re touring this area, we might as well stop at that Dairy Queen.


I’m not seeing a Honey, Nut, and Fig Blizzard. Guess Ill opt for the Royal Oreo. 


Following In His Steps: A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon, by Timothy Miller (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2015).

The Topeka Outpouring of 1901, by Larry E. Martin, ed. (Christian Life Books, 1997).

Image of WBC by Americasroof [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Is "Poor, Miserable Sinner" a Miserable Choice of Words?

O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.

Sound familiar?

A poor, miserable sinner. The picture isn’t too flattering—a sharp contrast to all the Mother’s Day messages in the card aisles last week. (Amazing! Inspirational! Awesome!)

But I’m okay with the label. It fits. I’ve been saying those words from the p. 15 liturgy in The Lutheran Hymnal since I could read them.

We are simul justus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner. The doctrine is so deeply ingrained that I don’t even think about it much.

But the “poor, miserable sinner” expression doesn’t sit well with everyone. Here are a few different perspectives, from discussions around the Web:
  • We were constantly reminded of our wrongs in school and at home, rarely our rights. So to top it off and say that you are a 'poor, miserable sinner' every Sunday during a service, only drove that feeling home further! It was very confusing as we felt rather condemned. Since then at least half the class walked away from church entirely or left the synod. . . . If Christ truly abides IN US, how can we at the same time define ourselves as sinners?
  • For years after I left the church this phrase, “I, a poor miserable sinner,” offended my sensibilities.  I could not relate to a punishing God, to my being a sinner in my essence, to Jesus’ death being a necessary sacrifice for my sins so I, though a sinner, could go to heaven since Jesus paid the price with his life, etc. This struck me not as the “good news” of the Gospel, as it was intended, but rather as a fear-based message, a message aimed at putting me in my place as a “poor miserable sinner” in my essence, in my very being.
  • I know a retired pastor, commenting on the confession in Divine Service 3 [LSB], who said, “I don’t believe I’m a poor, miserable sinner; I’m NOT miserable. We should emphasize the gospel. 
The simul justus et peccator doctrine is at issue here, yes, but so, too, is word choice. Are we really “poor, miserable sinners?”

“I’m NOT miserable,” says one of the people above. How about you?

I agree, at least in one sense. I don’t feel “wretchedly unhappy or uncomfortable,” as the word is often defined and understood today. But I do believe that my natural state—lost, helpless, “wretched”—is pretty pitiable.

That’s consistent with the origins of “miserable,” a Late Middle English term from the French misérable, from Latin miserabilis 'pitiable', from miserari 'to pity', from miser 'wretched'. (Oxford Dictionaries)

But what about the Bible? Does the “poor, miserable sinner” formulation appear there?

Interestingly, the word sinner typically stands alone in verses in the Bible, unmodified by adjectives other than an occasional “great,” or “notorious” in some translations (e.g., the “notorious sinner” Rahab in Heb. 11:31, who is called a prostitute in the English Standard Version).

You can find other Biblical support for the idea, though. In Romans 7:22-24, for instance, Paul says,
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched [ταλαίπωρος] man that I am!
Wretched! Talaipōros! Translation: “suffering hardship, miserable” (Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon).

One place you can find specific talk of poor, miserable sinners—or at least sheep—is in Luther. In a sermon on the Good Shepherd (John 10), Luther says,
Christ only is needful to us, whose poor miserable sheep we are, that He only is our strength, our salvation, our defense, and our refuge; that our own powers and our own words are of no avail whatever; and that we are to put no trust in them. 

The “poor and miserable” expression is thus well-established, but judging from other comments included here, some would prefer an alternative. If you had a chance to edit the confession in the liturgy, would you tweak “poor, miserable sinner,” or would you let those words stand?

The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 1st half of 5th century [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

On Overlooked Lutherans

I think I just blew a big opportunity.

I was sitting next to Dr. Gene Edward Veith a couple days ago at lunch. We talked mainly about his blog, Cranach, but here's what I should have asked: 

“Why aren’t Lutherans more of a voice in American Christianity?”

Or maybe, “How have you become the kind of writer who’s so often mentioned by name in these discussions?”

Veith is frequently held up as evidence that, yes, Lutherans DO have something to say, and yes, they CAN reach a wider audience.

He was mentioned, for example, in Pr. Martin R. Noland’s recent Logia article, “Why the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Its Kin [ELS/WELS] Have Declined in Membership and What to Do about It.” Noland suggests 4 reasons for the decline (rejection of unionism, rejection of Charismatic thinking and practice, aversion to sheep-stealing, and avoidance of American evangelical politics), then asks what we can do about it.

One possibility: “We should tell people that in regard to the four key beliefs of Evangelicals, we are Evangelicals—Dr. Gene Edward Veith has been saying this since 1999, if not before—and we have so much more to offer than what is found in Evangelicalism.”

Veith’s name came up, as well, in the comments section of another thought-provoking piece on Lutheran influence (or lack thereof), Prof. Paul Raabe’s “Do Non-Lutherans Pay Attention to LCMS Theology?” In the article, Raabe describes LCMS Lutherans as “dwarves with a secret pot of gold,” noting important work being done in areas such as Reformation history, the early church fathers, and homiletics—important work, but overlooked outside confessional Lutheran circles.

He then asks why this is the case and offers a thesis: “Non-Lutherans simply don’t know the theological work currently being done in the LCMS.”

Are we too insular? Not asking the right questions? Not speaking in “outsider” language? Not respectful of other traditions? Raabe puts these questions on the table, and readers offer a lot of interesting responses in the comments section.

Veith’s name appears here, along with Rod Rosenbladt and Chris Rosebrough and Issues, Etc. In the words of one commenter: “We need more people like [Robert] Kolb and [Rod] Rosenbladt out there in dialogue with other non-Lutheran confessional church bodies. Gene Edward Veith is another good guy who is well respected by all of Christendom.”

Readers identified some interesting specific ideas for getting Lutheran ideas out there, among them:
  • “A first step would be for the establishment of a webpresence like the Gospel Coalition.”
  • “What if seminary faculty and pastors in the LCMS wrote more journal and blog articles directed toward non-Lutherans? For example, I really enjoyed the interview The Gospel Coalition had with Paul McCain awhile back.”
  • “The great thing about how Rosebrough (who is a Lutheran Pastor in the AALC) does his show is that he never mentions the words “Lutheran” or “Lutheranism.” He simply compares what popular pastors are saying to what the Bible says in context, and the discrepancy is readily evident.”
I’m all for suggestions 1 and 2. It would be fantastic, for example, to research questions for this blog online and see answers from a Lutheran-run site at the top of the list (which never happens).

As for #3, avoiding the term “Lutheran,” I’m still thinking about that one.

Yet another good question I could have asked at lunch on Sunday.