Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Two Reactions: Has American Christianity Failed?

I usually don’t recommend books I haven’t read, but I recently made an exception for Has American Christianity Failed?, by Bryan Wolfmueller (Concordia Publishing House, 2016).

My reasoning went as follows: Great title + a fair amount of buzz + familiar author (e.g., Issues, Etc.) = a solid bet.

So I recommended it to my sister Ann, who agreed to team up with me on this review.

The bottom line: The book wasn’t what either of us expected, but for different reasons. 

Reaction #1 (me): Surprise! The book is more about Lutheran doctrine than American Christianity.

That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’re in the market for a primer on Lutheran beliefs. When I first heard the title, though, I envisioned a Frontline-type documentary, with scenes of evangelical worship services, massive gatherings, altar calls, busy Christian bookstores, and maybe some political moving and shaking, interspersed with historical information and commentary from church leaders and religion scholars. Throughout, you’d follow stories of believers initially excited about their decision for Christ but who wind up weary and dejected by the end of the tale. (“Have I done enough? I don’t know. Guess I just have to keep on working.”)

There IS some of that in the book. Wolfmueller shares his personal experience, and he identifies key beliefs in American Christianity (e.g., that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbols, not sacraments). That material, though, takes a back seat to the explanation of Lutheran doctrine.

And that explanation might strike some readers as a little dark, which brings us to Ann.

Reaction #2 (Ann): Surprise! Not everyone will find this book comforting.

One of Ann’s first comments about the book was, “I didn’t find much solace here,” which I was a little surprised to hear. When I read the book, I wasn’t expecting solace and actually skimmed big chunks of the Lutheran doctrine material. Ann, on the other hand, paid close attention, and she found herself asking a lot of questions. Her general impression:

“If you’re studied in Lutheran doctrine, maybe this appeals. But for a layperson, I don’t think the argument against American Christianity is too effective. I can see why American Christianity appeals. I understand the Lutheran perspective, but the Lutheran arguments seem cold to me.”

She’s saying that, by the way, as a lifelong Lutheran. “I get that ours is a life of suffering,” she says. And she appreciates the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, saying, “It’s comforting to know that my 10 good works won’t have to compare with Mother Teresa’s 1000.”
She heard the Gospel message of God’s love in the book; she just thought it was overshadowed by the Law.

She points to the chapter, “How Bad a Boy Are Ya?” as an example. Early in the chapter, Wolfmueller writes:

“The Scriptures teach that we are ‘dead in the trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). Our sinful flesh is incapable of knowing or understanding God’s Word (1 Cor. 2:14). We are, by nature, God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). The diagnosis is bleak” (p. 57).

That’s all straight from the Bible. But for Ann, the repeated drumbeat of the message throughout the chapter (“There it is again: ‘You are dead in the trespasses’”) got to be a bit much. (Wolfmueller says himself at one point in the chapter, “Not a cheerful teaching, but true”—a sign of his emphasis.)

At times, Ann even felt a little ticked off at God.

“I was thinking, ‘Really God, why didn’t you just stop at Adam and Eve, or Noah?’”

I can relate. It’s a human question, which is one of the reasons Ann thinks American Christianity might appeal. People want to feel connected to God in prayer. They don’t want to constantly hear that they’re bad. They want their actions to matter.

“I can see the author’s arguments against American Christianity,” Ann said, “but I can see its appeal. It works with our humanness.”

One example: good works. Ann wonders: “Is it unique to American Christianity, or do all of us feel this way, that we’re always feeling like we’re not good enough? We measure everything! From the time we’re born, we’re measured. (‘Your child’s weight is in the 25th percentile. You can do this and this to change it.’)”

It’s hard to hear that our works don’t matter. “Are they worth nothing? Like God says, ‘Okay, that’s nice, but they don’t matter?’ What if you treated your own kids like that when they did something good? ‘That’s nice, but it doesn’t matter. You’re a bad person. But I love you anyway.’”

That’s left her with an important question: How can a person witness these beliefs in an uplifting way?

“At my stage in life, I’m trying to be a better witness, to be better prepared for a conversation should it present itself. If I were to encounter someone in the American Christian tradition, what would I say? People are human. We don’t want to be told constantly that we’re dirt. If you’re by human standards a generally good person—you’re a good neighbor, you don’t steal, etc.—how do you witness God’s love?”

If you have a good recommendation, share it in the comments. If not, Pastor Wolfmueller might want to think about writing a sequel. (Dark Lutheranism for Happy People?)

* * *

About Ann (one of Garrison Keillor’s “Happy Lutherans”)

Ann (middle) and I, reading with our Aunt Nancy 
Occupation: Parish assistant

Favorite Hymns: “Lift High the Cross” and “Thine is the Glory”   

Most vivid memories of our Lutheran church and school: “Our third-grade teacher smacking someone on the backside with one of those long erasers…and leaving marks!” she says, laughing. She also remembers the pastor’s “fire-and-brimstone sermons” (which might explain why she leans happy today).

Currently reading: The second book of Kings

Ann is also handy enough to be on This Old House, but that’s for another day.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Word of Praise for Gospel Tunes

The words have been popping up in my head all week. In the yard. At the computer. In front of the TV, after watching the latest Saturday Night Live parody of the presidential campaign:

I will sing of God's mercy,

Every day, every hour,
He gives me power.

Eating lunch. Standing in line at Walmart:

Trust and never doubt,

Jesus will surely bring you out,

He never failed me yet.

Such is the power of a good gospel tune—in this case, Robert Ray’s “He Never Failed Me Yet.” And I’m a fan.

Fortunately, the choir director at Topeka High School likes this stuff, too, or I’d probably never hear it.

Not in church, anyway. The song isn’t your typical Lutheran hymn. You don’t even need to hear it to figure that out.

Here’s a description from the sheet music site J.W. Pepper:
With its driving beat and enormous appeal, this powerful gospel work has become the definitive selection in this style for an entire generation. Use one or two soloists and be prepared for spontaneous, hand-clapping joy as your group reaches the finale. Impressive!
Driving beat? Enormous appeal? Spontaneous hand-clapping joy?

Perfect for a choir performance (and for selling music).

Maybe okay in a contemporary church service (IF you had the voices to pull it off).

Odds close to zero in a traditional Lutheran church service.

I understand why. I’ve read Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. Traditional Lutheran hymns teach doctrine. They provide comfort and express objective truths about God in poetic ways. They say, “This isn’t about what you’ve done for God; it’s about what He’s done for you.”

I’m not thinking about trading in Lutheran hymnody for a steady stream of gospel tunes any time soon (and, lacking the musical gifts of a Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin, I doubt I could sing those songs anyway).

But I really do like hearing them once in awhile, especially when:

a) the Law is making me really weary (“OK, I’m a bad person, and a powerless person. Got it.”)

b) I’ve over-intellectualized the Good News

c) I’ve sung a hymn with a tepid tune like, “These Are the Holy Ten Commands.” (The text is fine, but when I think of Exodus 19 and 20, with the trumpet blasts and thunder and lightning and trembling people, the tune just doesn’t cut it.)

In those instances, “He Never Failed Me Yet” is perfect.

If you’re a fan of gospel (or if you’re just curious), you can find a number of recordings of “He Never Failed Me Yet” on YouTube, including this one from Sandy Creek High School. (A choir member gives a brief intro first, which is interesting in and of itself).

But be forewarned: Watch this just once, and you, too, will probably find those words in your head:

Trust and never doubt,

Jesus will surely bring you out,

He never failed me yet.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We Pray, "Come, Lord Jesus." But What Does That Mean?

You’re at a potluck at a Lutheran church. Before you can make a beeline to that tater tot hotdish you’ve spotted, the pastor says, “Why don’t we say the common table prayer?” You fold your hands and bow your head. The pastor begins: “Come, Lord Jesus…”

And you all jump in: “be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest.”

Everyone with Lutheran DNA knows this prayer. Sure, maybe you say, “Thy gifts” or even “these Thy gifts.” Or you might offer an enthusiastic “Amen!” after the prayer, only to feel awkward when the rest of the crowd keeps going: “O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. For His mercy endures forever.” (Whyyyyy do we do that? Aren’t thanksgiving prayers supposed to come AFTER the meal?)

Whatever the case, we’ve got this one down. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily think too much about it. And when we DO think about it, we may be surprised by what we’re saying.

I like the prayer, but I might consider looking around for something different.

It’s not because of its sing-song nature, which is something Dr. Gene Veith took issue with in a 2009 blog post. Back then, Veith asked:
Why is this a good prayer? I have never understood why Lutherans, usually so insistent on solid content, always say this prayer in unison before a meal. It seems, well, childish, and, with its sing-song rhyme, more like a nursery rhyme. Can someone give a good reason for praying that particular prayer? 
People weighed in with various reasons, including family habit and the prayer’s suitability for all ages. I’m guessing many of us learned this prayer when we were wee ones and have simply stuck with what we learned. Old habits are hard to break.

And frankly, the common table prayer might be a perfectly fine old habit. A couple years after Veith’s original post, Dr. David Loy unpacked the meaning of the prayer in the Lutheran Witness, saying, “We’ve grown so used to it that it sometimes seems cozy and quaint, just another decoration in the house. We say it to give thanks for our food, little realizing what a punch this little prayer packs.”

The prayer has been around for a long time; it can be traced to a 1753 Moravian hymnal, where it appeared in a section for 17th-century evangelical hymns (many of which were written by Lutherans). If you haven’t thought much about the common table prayer, take a look at Loy’s article. It’s a good piece, but since looking into the prayer, I’ve gotten hung up on one phrase: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

That phrase does have biblical support. There are many accounts of hospitality in Scripture, and there’s also that passage in Revelation: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Loy points to Revelation, in fact, in his explanation, saying,
When we pray these words before our meals, we join our voices with that of the apostle John, who prayed those same three words near the end of Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Jesus will come again on the Last Day. We long and pray for that day when He will appear again in the flesh. We will see Him face-to-face, and He will take us to spend eternity with Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Veith, interestingly, has also come around to that point of view. In a follow-up article on the common table prayer, Veith reminds readers of his original opinion, then says:
Since then I have come to appreciate and to use that prayer. Above all, it is a prayer that focuses upon Christ’s presence—asking Him to come into our lives, into our vocations, into our family as everyone is seated around the table.
In the comments on Veith’s post, one remark gave me pause, though: “To be honest, it rubs me to say be our guest, as if we are serving him” (and not the other way around, presumably).

That’s an interesting point. Are we simply asking Christ to come and join us sinners, or is there something more to this idea?

Here’s one take on “inviting Christ to the party,” from a Reformed site. The central idea in the article is that we should invite Christ to be with us. Among the prominent claims:
The first step in the Christian faith begins with an invitation to Jesus Christ.
If your desire is to be blessed by God you must invite Jesus to the party, and you must do what He says. 
Thats not what you’d hear in Lutheran catechesis. I’m more inclined to think along the lines of the wedding parable we heard about last Sunday, where it’s the king who’s doing the inviting (“Come, for everything is now ready,” Luke 14:17).

We’re free, of course, to reject the Reformed interpretation. We can have our own Lutheran understanding of “Come, Lord Jesus.” Honestly, I probably won’t give it a second thought the next time I say it at a potluck.

At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to think about alternatives. Suggestions welcome.


Family Saying Grace (1585), by Anthonius or Antoon Claeissins (www.weissgallery.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Parable of the Wedding Feast (2014), by Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Scriptures Are Clear. Or Are They?

Today’s post is unorthodox. It may make a few pastors wring their hands and target me for an intervention.

I’m game (meaning, I would love to hear a good explanation of what I’m about to discuss).

The problem statement: “Scripture is clear.”

It’s one of our standard Lutheran teachings, but I’m not convinced.

That’s not a trivial thing to say. In the book Has American Christianity Failed?, author Bryan Wolfmueller discusses the clarity of Scripture, saying, “The devil asserts the ‘unclarity’ of the Scriptures. He insists that something else is needed to understand the Bible. Any church that needs someone of something to come alongside the Scriptures implicitly denies the clarity of God’s Word” (p.43).

I hate the idea of being “in league with the devil,” but I’m going to press on and challenge this idea. It seems to me that the Scriptures aren’t clear—definitely not to the untrained, and at times not even to studious lifelong Christians. (How many of you still encounter passages that puzzle you?)

Some of you might be thinking, “Well, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean Scripture isn’t clear.” Translation: We mean something else when we say, “Scripture is clear” (e.g., something along the lines of Luther’s thoughts in Bondage of the Will). 

Fair enough. I recognize that this idea probably needs some unpacking, but isn’t it a little ironic that our simple statement on clarity needs clarification?

For now, let’s just take the expression at face value. If you look up the definition of “clear,” you’ll see that it means “easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.” Synonyms include plain, uncomplicated, simple, and straightforward.

When I think of God’s Word, I don’t typically think, “easy to understand, simple, and uncomplicated.” Rather, I think, “complex, challenging, and sometimes (often?) confusing.”

In other words, I’m with the apostle Peter, who said about Paul’s letters that “there are some things in them that are hard to understand.” (The Lutheran Study Bible confirms in a note that Paul’s epistles “may indeed be challenging even for the faithful to understand.”)

God’s certainly no slouch when it comes to rhetoric. Nor is He devious. Nor is His meaning a matter of subjective opinion. Ultimately, His meaning is clear. It’s discernable, but you have to work at it.

If that weren’t the case—if the Bible were perfectly clear and we needed no aid in understanding it—what would be the point of sermons and Bible studies that explain God’s Word? Or resources like study Bibles and commentaries? Or catechesis? Or translations?  Or opportunities to learn Greek and Hebrew? Or rigorous seminary preparation? Or the Confessions?

Speaking of the Confessions: We hear lots of talk in Lutheran circles about “Scripture Alone,” but I hear “Scripture and the Confessions” just as frequently (if not more). One example: In a recent Rite of Installation, the pastor first confessed his belief in the Bible as inspired and infallible, then he confessed the three creeds, then the Confessions. A bit later, he promised “to be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions.”

Why both?

The Confessions aren’t Scripture, but we recognize them as a true exposition (explanation) of  God’s Word. If we didn’t have this “something” alongside Scripture as an authoritative interpretive guide, where would we be with respect to understanding God’s Word?

I suspect we might be in the same boat as Martin Luther, who himself struggled to understand verses like Romans 1:17: “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

To reiterate: I’m not arguing that God lacks rhetorical skill, or that we can make the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean because it’s just so darn muddled.

But I do think the expression, “Scripture is clear,” and the things we say about it, could use another look. (Dissertation, anyone?) At the very least, it calls for more explanation than what we find in the Christian Cyclopedia.
Entry for “Perspicuity [Clarity] of Scripture”: “Quality of Scripture according to which the doctrine of salvation is clearly set forth in Scripture; see also Exegesis and Hermeneutics.”
In the entry for Exegesis: “The Bible is a clear book (see Perspicuity of Scripture).”
And round and round we go.

If you think I need an intervention, I understand. Maybe we can get together and talk about the Book of Revelation while we’re at it.