So I was surfing the theo-web and I stumbled upon this: a video of the Sarcastic Lutheran, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a popular blogger over at Patheos, addressing a robust crowd of young Lutherans. Within the course of about 20 minutes, she delivered a short spiritual biography and, more pertinent to my discussion here, explained the role Lutheran distinctives play in her life.
Now, before you hit Send on that comment, I want you to do three things:
1. Forget for the moment about the issue of women’s ordination. Imagine she is a layperson wearing long sleeves.
2. Forget that she’s ordained in the ELCA—that is, forget the ELCA’s politics and the fact that it is in “full communion” with denominations that are anything but Lutheran, which brings into question how Lutheran the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a denomination is. (I pass no judgment whatsoever on individuals within it.)
3. Don’t forget to forget about numbers 1 and 2.
OK. Did you listen to what she had to say to her auditors? Was anything she said necessarily un-Lutheran? (Again, remember #3 and don’t forget to forget numbers 1 & 2.) It may not have been comprehensive, but for what it was, a short address to young people who probably are not all that theologically sophisticated, it was quite effective, no? At least in terms of getting them hyped about being a Lutheran Christian?
I was quite impressed with her presentation, although the saint/sinner paradox as she explains it is not quite right. The “saint” part of our identity has nothing to so with our capacity, before or after baptism, for kindness or generosity or empathy. It has to do with the imputed righteousness of Christ. But I bet a lot of Lutherans in the pews, regardless of denomination, understand it as Bolz-Weber presented it.
Nevertheless, I can see why the Lutheran church appealed to Bolz-Weber, and why someone like Bolz-Weber would be very appealing to teens and twenty-somethings—and frankly, to anyone of any age who has been run over by the ultra-fundie bus (which can only ever run you over, because the grace-transmission thingee is broken).
Let me explain where I’m going with this before some of you bring out the short knives. Anyone who is familiar with my spiritual journey (short version here; ignore the date on that post—it originally went live June 26, 2006) knows that I made my way through evangelicaltisticalism, in its Wesleyan and Calvinist flavors, enjoyed a brief flirtation with Rome, and wound up back at Wittenberg. Yet even though I formally left the PCA in the fall of 2005, I have to this day never formally joined another church. It took me a good long while even to join Redeemer Presbyterian in the first place. In fact, it was the first church I had pledged membership in since I was confirmed in the LCMS at age 14 (only to promptly leave and declare myself an agnostic, then an atheist).
For years after returning to the Faith, I was a “mere” Christian with no unwavering denominational commitment. The fact that I simply am not a joiner did not help matters. Plus, I couldn’t make up my theological mind. And I simply am not a joiner. I have a library card. I’m a registered independent who refuses to associate with other independents. Yet sometime around 1997 I finally acknowledged that living with one foot in the world and one foot in the Church Universal made my walk look funny to strangers. So, after immersing myself in the Institutes and nightly doses of Spurgeon, I took the plunge. I attended membership classes at Redeemer, was interviewed by two elders as to why I thought I was rotten enough to be a sinner saved by grace, and was accepted on the condition that I never really show up or anything. (OK, I made that last part up.)
Long story short, over time, and in the aftermath of losing my father, I found that Calvinism, even the soft-core version preached by Tim Keller (and for whom I still have enormous respect), left me with more questions than answers. I grew to hate the God who apparently hated so many of us for daring to be born under his abiding and predetermined wrath. So I shook off the Westminster Confession like a mental cramp, and headed for . . . what? Was it time to chuck Christianity as no more capable of making sense of my life than a humble agnosticism? Catholicism? It was exactly at moments of crisis as I was experiencing that many Reformationals head Romeward. But I only skirted the Tiber, dropping out of RCIA not once but twice. There was much I found beautiful about Catholicism. But I would have to stop thinking about a lot of issues and just take on faith doctrines I simply did not believe. Spiritual exhaustion was no reason to jump from the firing pan into the fire. (But that’s another post.)
So I resolved to go back where I started: I began looking for the Lutheran church I remembered from my adolescence.
Only it had kinda gone poof.
A combination of the Seminex blowup and the Born Again boom had taken the LCMS in strange directions. Both the church I was baptized in and the church I was confirmed in had abandoned the MIssouri Synod for what became the ELCA. Of the three pastors I had known growing up, one was as dead as Martin Chemnitz, and the other two had become Catholic priests. Great. Thanks for all the fish.
As for the remaining LCMS churches in New York City, there were several congregations playing with evangelical praise-worship lite, which I had already see glimmers of in my teens (and which landed with a risible THUD among me and my peers). In redoubts on the fringes of the city were also congregations (namely two) dedicated to the neo-confessional movement (if you can call anything Lutherans do “movement”). Details about this push to repristinate the LCMS by returning to it to its confessional roots I gleaned mostly from the Web, especially after I had started up Luther at the Movies and began receiving e-mail from confessional types sussing me out about my commitments.
It took me a while to get up to speed on the issues and players. I found I also needed a deeper Lutheran theological grounding. Our religious education as kids had been limited to Luther’s Small Catechism, a black Thomas Nelson RSV Bible (with maps of the Holy Land), and heaping doses of tedium, supplemented in my case by a course at NYU called Great Christian Thinkers (for which my final paper was titled “Luther, Indulgences, and the Birth of the Reformation”).
It made perfect sense to me that Lutherans should be, well, Lutherans. Otherwise, why pose? Get out the tambourines and the Rubbermaid for the rebaptizing and be done with it already. (Which is what drives me crazy about so-called progressive Catholics. Admit it: you’re Episcopalians. You know it. We know it. The pope knows it. Go make a pilgrimage to Second Avenue and stop whining. You may think there’s some cachet in being a rebel, but standing up to the Vatican in 2012 is about as edgy as peeing in the Olympic pool. And you all sound like Veruca Salt off her meds. Shut your pie holes and go walk a labyrinth.)
But I digress . . .
Let’s just say, I was having a helluva time finding a Lutherany Lutheran church that didn’t require half a day’s journey by bus and train (as a city boy, I was car-less). The LCMS churches in my vicinity all worshiped a little differently, and it was hard to pinpoint exactly where they were on the confessional continuum.
Some were suitably somber and sang the discordant Setting One of the new Lutheran Service Book, which was decidedly not the Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 that was still in use in the 1970s and that I knew by heart.
Some congregations dismembered the liturgy and pasted the decomposing parts into worship folders, along with “children’s church,” a passing of the peace that took longer than the passing of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and projection screens that threatened an appearance of Emmanuel Goldstein and the advent of hate week.
Some fell somewhere in between.
One referred to the Divine Service as the Mass and emphasized that the pastor was available for private confession at fixed hours during Lent.
And one or two were The Journey with flowing robes and broken kneelers.
This went on for years. And if there’s one thing I did miss from my evangelical days, it was the preaching. Lutheran preaching varied wildly, not only in its quality, which is to say its resonance, but in its emphases. I may have left Reformed soteriology behind, but it has produced some profoundly gifted preachers (but, again, that’s another post).
Once in a blue moon I’d find a congregation that used Setting Three of the Service Book, which was more or less the Order of Holy Communion I grew up with. As a matter of fact, and more to the point I’m trying to make, just a few weeks ago I traveled to another state to attend just such a church. Here is what I encountered.
I entered the narthex to find a handful of people flanking the doors of the sanctuary. Which was as empty as a Starbucks in a Seventh Day Adventist theme park. Here I thought I was running a little late. Did I mess up on the time? Did they have special summer hours?
“Is there a service?” I asked all doe-eyed and innocent like.
“It’s Sunday, isn’t it?” was the reply.
“Yes, I know, but the door is closed—”
“We worship on Sundays” was the abrupt follow-up, in case I missed the inference of his original point.
“Yes, I got that. But there’s no one—” and back and forth we went, confirming that it was (a) Sunday, and (b) they had church services on Sunday.
I mentally cried “No mas” and made a movement in the direction of the sanctuary doors, forgetting that “Lutheran” and “movement” are a mismatched pair. The “greeter,” for whom the right hand of fellowship came bearing brass knuckles, jumped up from his anxious bench to say: “We have Holy Communion today. You’re not supposed to take Holy Communion.”
“It’s OK. I’ve been here before.”
“You should talk to the pastor.”
“It’s OK, I’m confirmed.
“You should talk to the pastor.”
“I am baptized and confirmed. I believe what you believe. I spoke to the pastor the last time I was here.”
“Oh. I apologize. Here.” And he handed me a copy of the bulletin, which I expected to emit a pesticide of some kind.
Just as I was about to step onto holy ground, the pastor appeared fresh from Bible study. The “greeter” (who I later realized was also an elder) immediately jumped at the chance of appropriating ecclesiastical confirmation of my “true” status, even though I thought we had achieved our own little Peace of Westphalia.
“Oh, pastor, pastor! This fellow says—” but before he could finish expectorating, the pastor in question smiled at me and said, “Oh, yes, hi. You’ve been here before.”
Finally, calm was restored to the kingdom, but not before I had been made a spectacle of before tens of onlookers, as if I had come bearing snakes for the Feats of Faith competition.
A few minutes later, the church filled, with all 18 of us packed into our pews with just enough room to accommodate Trajan’s army. I received Communion with barely a rumble from the heavens. Service over, I headed back home, freed from the burden of my sins and even so much as a sideway glance from a fellow penitent.
Now I have defended closed communion in blog discussions. I understand the reasons for it. Other churches do it: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and those Reformed serious about “fencing the table.” Got it. You have no problem with me there.
But was that embarrassing bit of business before so much as a “good morning” really the best way to go about it? Can we think of nothing more welcoming and less abrasive than such a scene? And from an elder?
So imagine a young Nadia at a particularly vulnerable stage in her life stepping into that church, wary of things Christian, wary of the HAMMER OF THE GREAT DO NOTS swinging for her kneecaps, and greeted with a hearty: “Who are you? What do you want? You know you can’t take Communion. I don’t recognize you. YOU’RE NOT ONE OF US. Pastor! Pastor! Help!”
Which leads me to an affirmation and then a question. First my affirmation: I’m glad Nadia Bolz-Weber is out there. Even though we would no doubt disagree about points of theology. Even though I wonder whether “social justice,” and all the political baggage it carries, isn’t also part of the “piety” and “law” that grace seeks to liberate us from. And even though it seems to me that many in the ELCA interpret the law/grace distinction as little more than “Love, and screw who you please,” a perverse turn on Augustine’s pithy (and oft misunderstood) apothegm.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of hurting people who are fleeing fanatical religious backgrounds and who are filled with anger and shame and fear and guilt—some of which, even much of which, may have have come courtesy of their church upbringing—and who need a Nadia the Tattooed Lady to put a colorfully embossed arm around them and say, “Of course you’re welcome here. Of course this can be your home. In fact, let me tell you my story. Now let me introduce you to people just like you.” Torn curtain. Open sanctuary. Smiling faces.
It may be the only time they ever hear, or let their guard down long enough to hear, about that Jesus who reached out to the “untouchables” of his day.
And I think Jesus should be allowed to take it from there. He may finally lead that person out of the House for All Sinners and Saints (or its equivalent) and into something more traditional or conservative or confessional.
(Yes, yes, I know we all need teachers, and God uses means, but why is it that so many of those who fashion themselves guardians of God’s ABSOLUTE SOVEREIGNTY nevertheless act as though it’s collapsing every time something goes wrong on the Internet?)
I would not want Nadia’s church to be the only concern in town, by any means. There are plenty of self-satisfied ratbags who are also wary of things Christian but who need a right fulsome kick in the spiritual ass, with a little hellfire shooting out of the boot. But I do believe Nadia’s approach does serve a purpose that perhaps some confessionally minded churches have lost sight of. (A hearty welcome whoever you may be and however many tattoos you may wear and a clearly enunciated Theology of the Cross are not mutually exclusive.)
So that was my affirmation. Now for my question: Who is a Lutheran?
Is it simply someone who self-identifies as a Lutheran? Is it someone who has been baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church? If so, which Lutheran church? Does it matter? In which case, was I a Lutheran even while attending the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene and Redeemer Presbyterian and Christ Church and Our Saviour?
Is it a matter of being versed in, and embracing the tenets of, Luther’s catechisms? How about the Book of Concord? (How many Lutherans do you think have actually read the BoC?)
Can I be a Lutheran and reject Universal Objective Justification? How about Luther’s notion of unregenerate man’s having lost both the image and the likeness of God? Exactly how much Luther do you need to be a Lutheran? Did his focus on forensic justification distort his interpretation of scripture in other areas? Does anyone really understand his construal of baptismal regeneration, as opposed to just parroting it? Do infants really believe? If so, what do they need with baptism, when scripture plainly teaches that the child of even one believing parent is already hagios (holy)? Isn’t this just a fudge, an attempt to hold together a sacramental realism and justification by faith alone?
What if you believe women should be allowed to be ordained? Can you still be a Lutheran? What if you believe women should not hold office in the church at all, even in positions of mere human origin (say, the presidency of the congregation), or where scripture clearly teaches that women enjoyed roles (the diaconate)? What if you believe that the order of creation does not stop at the church door, and that women should not hold authority over men even in the civil realm?
What about law and gospel? Are you still Lutheran if you reject the Third Use of the Law, even though Luther taught it? What if you believe any exhortation to self-discipline, good works, or (gulp!) holiness is a bastardization of the gospel, an infusion of works righteousness into the paralysis that should be the perfectly passive reception of grace with no hint of damnable obedience?
What if you believe that sanctification and discipleship are not sufficiently preached from Lutheran pulpits? What if you believe faith without works is dead? Does this make you a pietist in confessional clothing, hence a lesser species of Lutheran?
What if you don’t believe that the six days of creation in Genesis are to be interpreted as literal 24-hour days? And what if you find the Lutheran Science Institute about as edifying as Lysenkoism, and about as embarrassing?
What if you believe there is enough scientific evidence to support evolution but still believe in a historical Adam, a first covenant man, whose relation to God and the rest of creation was absolutely unique and God-breathed, and whose fall through disobedience is reversed by a historical second covenant man—Jesus. Are you still a Lutheran, even though Luther rejected as unbiblical something that is now as demonstrable as heliocentrism?
What if you believe the earth must be 6,000 years old, because the scriptural account read as a scientifically tenable rendering of the appearance of everything makes less sense with an old earth?
What if you’re convinced six-day creationists have made an idol of their hermeneutic, or are merely ignoramuses afraid even to consider how God could use the cultural context of pre-scientific people to convey all that is necessary for salvation?
What if you believe that Noah’s ark is lodged on Mt. Ararat and that the church should pursue this kind of “historical reliability” method of apologetics?
What if you consider yourself pro-life but think abortion should be legal in the cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is danger? What if you’re just pro-choice? What if you think any woman who has had an abortion for any reason has committed murder?
Again, what makes a Christian a Lutheran Christian? Who’s in and who’s out? Tullian Tchividjian (man, I hope I didn’t screw that up) and the guys over at Mockingbird Ministries seem pretty solid on law and gospel. But that doesn’t make them Lutherans, right? (And if Paul Zahl’s church were any more invisible, I could wear it as a hat to a New Atheist convention.) But aren’t they at least Lutheran-ish?
Is Nadia Bolz-Weber a Lutheran? Or something else?
Who is an examplar of Lutheran orthodoxy, and who should be relegated to the Dead Lutheran Office, stamped “liberal” or “mainline” or “antinomian” or “pietist” or “fundamentalist”? Where is the dividing line? Full subscription to the Book of Concord? Are there no gray areas even there? And if so, who arbitrates between shades of gray? (First person who references that crap book gets a kick in the shins.)
Lest anyone think this is some insidious plea for a more liberal or Big Tent Lutheranism, it is not. I don’t even know what that would look like. And if I wanted to throw a Molotov cocktail into the potluck supper, I’d do just that. I am many things, but subtle is not one of them.
Please note: I am not looking for a debate over evolution or the nature of the sacraments or women’s ordination or the necessity of good works. Experience has proved it to be pointless. At the end of the data dump, everyone pushes back from their keyboards as deeply entrenched in their views as ever. So please take this post at face value: I’m asking for a discussion over Who is a Lutheran, and I’m asking because the Lutheran Church, wherever it is, whatever it is, should be the landing place for people tired of wandering the evangelical wilderness. But the LCMS, as one example, is slowly losing members. And I know a lot of folk who are sick of denominations that say they know exactly who they are, and are proud of it, but find adiaphora to be the true motif, with congregations varying wildly as to what must be believed, what’s permissible to believe, how God should be worshiped, who’s in, who’s out, who’s a heretic, who’s a liberal, who’s a fundamentalist—and so finally give in and head to bastions of “generous orthodoxy,” or finally give up and head to Rome. Or simply stop going to church altogether.
And I’m asking because I sit here still identifying as a Lutheran but one who is as likely to worship with a Continuing Anglican congregation as with a middle-of-the-road Lutheran one. (The question Who is an Anglican? I will leave to Alister McGrath or C. Fitzsimons Allison or Robert Hart or Eric Metaxas to ask. I have enough on my plate.)
The issue of Lutheran identity has been befuddling and dividing folk since the days of Melanchthon and the Gnesios, which would be a great name for a band. There are probably as many answers as there are Lutheran “camps.” Coming to terms with Luther is a lifetime’s work, never mind what constitutes his genuine theological legacy. Minds as great as Kierkegaard’s seem to have misunderstood the Reformer on key issues. And so it’s probably an exercise in futility even to broach the subject. Nevertheless it’s what I do when I’m not programming my DVR to record every episode of Burn Notice.
And because, damn it, I’d still like an answer.
UPDATE (April 6, 2013): Jack Kilcrease makes a crucial, and Bonhoeffer-esque, distinction between justification of sin and justification of the sinner, and relates this to Bolz-Weber’s ministry. Draw your own conclusions.