Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Digital Christmas

My colleague, Mark Bartusch, forwarded this to me and I thought it was worth passing along.

There are a few factual problems--leaving aside the whole electronic aspect, the Gospel of Matthew indicates the magi did not visit the baby Jesus in a manger/stable but brought their gifts to the child Jesus (age two or so) in a house--but all of that aside, this is a creative piece...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy 200th Birthday, Johannes von Hofmann!

This past December 21st marked the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-1877), perhaps the most significant conservative Lutheran theologian of the nineteenth century and certainly one of the most impressive Protestant theologians of the past two hundred years. (Please note that his family name has one "f" and two "n"s.) He served as a professor of theology at the University of Erlangen for over thirty years. Without question he was the most prolific theologian during those decades:  In addition to writing numerous essays and addresses, he published a two-volume (740 pages) work on biblical prophecy and fulfillment, a three-volume summary of biblical theology (nearly 2000 pages), and a 17-volume commentary on the whole of the New Testament (approximately 2 million words on nearly 6,000 pages) that was incomplete at the time of his death. For over thirty years he also edited the monthly journal, Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche, in which many of his essays were published.

This uncommon professor was actively involved in each of the so-called three "publics" of theology analyzed so well by my teacher David Tracy (The Analogical Imagination): society, the academy, and the church. Hofmann lectured and wrote on a range of topics in the three disciplines of theology: systematic theology, historical theology (both OT and NT exegesis and church history), and practical theology. Karlmann Beyschlag, whose own book on the Erlangen tradition of Lutheran theology is so informative, calls Hofmann the one "genius" in that tradition. Hofmann's most famous student, the New Testament scholar Theodor Zahn, used similar language.

Aside from his impressive scholarship, Hofmann was elected provost (Rektor) of the university six times, he served for seven years in the Bavarian Parliament as a representative of a liberal-progressive party, he engaged in welfare relief for widows and orphans, and he organized and funded a local orphanage. While he and his wife did not have any children of their own, they served as surrogate parents to many and regularly hosted university students. Hofmann and his wife liked to discuss the spiritual classics (e.g., Augustine's Confessions, Thomas a' Kempis, Pascal's Pensees, etc.) with students at their home every Tuesday during the semester. Frau Hofmann took an active part in these theological discussions.

Although Hofmann was undoubtedly influenced by his own most important teachers at Berlin and Erlangen, such as Hegel, Schleiermacher, and especially von Ranke, he set his own course and differed in significant ways from the German idealists of his time. Without question, he was the center of a loosely-related group of theologians who all taught or studied at Erlangen. This group, sometimes called "The Erlangen School" but more accurately described as "the Erlangen Tradition," stressed similar themes in theology, such as the importance of the actual experience of baptismal regeneration, the certainty of personal faith, the historical-critical appropriation of the Lutheran confessional writings, and an organic-historical view of the development of the Bible, the church, and the church's confessions.

As the principal figure in this complex theological tradition, Hofmann's significance resides in his response to what is perhaps the premiere question of modern Christian theology: What is the proper relation of Christian faith and experience to historical knowledge?  On the one hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian, Hofmann struggled to interpret an historically-oriented faith in response to the nature of history and the critical methods used by historians when they conduct historical investigation.  On the other hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian of faith, Hofmann was concerned to define the nature and basis of Christian faith itself. How, if at all, are God, personal faith, and history related?

The publication of David Friedrich Strauss's Leben Jesu in 1835 heightened Hofmann's awareness of the crisis that critical-historical consciousness posed for faith in Jesus Christ. As a serious student of history he knew it was impossible for the Christian scholar simply to turn a blind eye on historical scholarship and take refuge in a traditional scholastic-orthodox doctrine of scriptural inspiration and infallibility, as the Berlin biblicist E. Hengstenberg had done. For Hofmann the problem was how to interpret the basic "facts" of biblical revelation correctly without succumbing either to "unhistorical" biblicism/dogmatism or to the radical skepticism of historicism (Historismus).

In view of these problems, he sought to understand and express his Christian faith by means of a theological method that would correlate a systematic analysis of the Christian experience of baptismal/ecclesial regeneration and personal faith with an historical investigation of the Christian scriptures. He thought that by articulating the unity between experiential faith and historical investigation he could continue “to teach the old truth but in a new way."

A number of recent historians and philosophers of hermeneutics, both philosophical and theological, have concluded that Hofmann helped to provide a positive re-orientation for all later hermeneutical discussion. According to Joachim Wach and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hofmann's unique understanding of the "hermeneutical circle" correctly acknowledged that the interpreter's own faith commitments deeply shape the interpreter's understanding of whatever he/she is seeking to understand. In other words, the interpreter's "pre-understanding" of the text significantly informs his/her "post-understanding."

In my library is a copy of Hofmann's Der Schriftbeweis that was once owned and well-used by the Yale Bible scholar, Brevard Childs. The marginalia in this copy show that Hofmann was a big influence on Childs' understandings of the nature of the biblical canon. This is yet further proof that the Erlanger's influence has extended far beyond his native land and time.

Happy Birthday, J. C. K.!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Schleiermacher's Christmas Eve Celebration

The following is a review of Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christmas Eve Celebration, which has recently been re-edited and re-translated (based on both the 1805 and 1826 editions) by Terrance N. Tice and published this year by Cascade Books (Eugene, Oregon). It is available on Amazon for $18.00. This review was originally published earlier today on the website. An introduction to the review there is given by Dr. Edward Schroeder.

For those who were classically trained in the Missouri Synod (or almost classically trained; I graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1988) and who stayed awake during Dogmatics 101, 102, and 103, where the main textbook was either Franz Pieper's Christian dogmatics or J. T. Mueller's compendium, there was no one worse among the heterodox theologians than Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Pieper even had a label for him and his ilk: "Ich-theologe," which is probably best rendered as "self-centered theologian" or "theologian of the self." Pieper accused Schleiermacher and those influenced by him, such as the Lutheran Johannes von Hofmann (1810-1877), of substituting the subjective views of the "theologizing subject" for the sole, "objective authority of Scripture."

In Pieper's view, as soon as one gives up the divinely-inspired and inerrant Bible and replaces it with something else, such as the theologian's own religious self-consciousness, then it will naturally follow that eventually the vicarious atonement of Christ will be replaced by something else as well. "Now, since Christ is always right, Schleiermacher, Hofmann, Frank, and all who employ their method, all who ask the 'Christian subject' to furnish independently of the Word of Christ full assurance or, at least half assurance, are in error. Their theological method is not Christian but unchristian" (Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols. [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950-53], 1:115).

Strong words, indeed. Of course another, much more famous theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), was just beginning to set forth his critique of Schleiermacher and the liberal theological tradition he inaugurated, when these words were written in the 1920s.

B. A. Gerrish
While I had my doubts about Pieper's view of the Bible, the world, and theology already in seminary (who wouldn't, given that he doubted the verity of the Copernican Theory and thought that Einstein's theories of relativity would eventually vindicate a geo-centric biblical cosmology?!), I did not have sufficient time then to study Schleiermacher for myself. That study came later, especially when I participated in the year-long dogmatics seminar at the University of Chicago that was taught by perhaps the leading Schleiermacher scholar of his generation, Dr. Brian Gerrish. This was one of the great intellectual experiences of my life. While the ultimate goal of the seminar was to develop a contemporary summary of the Christian faith, the means by which we did this involved very close readings of Schleiermacher's 1821 Glaubenslehre (The Christian Faith) and Calvin's 1559 Institutes. (The syllabus recommended that we work with the original languages as much as possible.)

As a result of these investigations I came to conclude that Pieper's view of the so-called "father of liberal Protestantism" was at least partly wrong. I also came to appreciate Schleiermacher's attempt to restate the content of the faith in the post-Kantian world that was nineteenth-century Prussia, even if I also was convinced I had to depart from his own conclusions at several key points.

If I had to recommend a place to begin the study of Schleiermacher, I would not direct a student to the famous second speech of the 1799 Speeches on Religion, which is where many are first told to go. Instead, I would send that person to the slim volume that I have been asked to review here, Christmas Eve Celebration, which is just under 90 pages in length. As my teacher Dr. Gerrish told us, "This is quintessential Schleiermacher in both thought and style." It is the closest the Reformed theologian ever came to writing the novel that his friends had wanted him to write. (He was close to several in the Sturm und Drang movement and lived for a short time with the creative writer, F. Schlegel.) Terrance N. Tice, himself a long-time major scholar of Schleiermacher's life and work, has done a masterful job of bringing together both the 1806 and 1826 editions. His translation is generally good, and his notes are excellent. This is now the single best place to start one's reading of the famous Berliner (or to refresh oneself, if it has been awhile since one has read the Reden or the Glaubenslehre).

Written in the three weeks before Christmas 1805, when the bachelor theologian was apparently experiencing some intense feelings about the celebration of Christmas, he intended the work as a Christmas gift for his friends. Set in the form of a dialogue, the story centers on a Christmas celebration in a typical middle-class German home. Through the dialogue the author hoped to evoke a mood or feeling of Christmas joy in the reader. I have to say that the booklet does give one a sentimental view into a by-gone era, especially if one has romantic sympathies to begin with.

As I re-read the dialogue today I couldn't help but think back to the Christmases I've celebrated with my family in southwestern Germany. The book does capture a Christmas mood that one can still experience today, perhaps in a Christkindlmarkt or in the warm and inviting home of friends before a Valpo Christmas concert...

After descriptions of the main activities on a typical German Christmas Eve, such as the singing of songs, the opening of gifts, the initial banter of friendly conversation, and the sharing of the latest family news, the focus shifts to a more serious set of issues. First there is a discussion about the nature of music itself. In keeping with the author's own love of music (this was the era of Beethoven), one of the gathered guests suggests that music is a more basic means of expressing the essence of religion than the spoken word. This idea is considered for a short time until the very precocious young Sophie steals the scene and directs the reader toward childlike Christmas simplicity and spontaneity. This is the second movement, if you will, in a kind of musical dialectic that goes from elemental feeling (Gefuehl) through childlike naivete and on to... "feminine nature."

Yes, that's right. All is leading toward the "feminine mystique," ala Schleiermacher's version of it. Here, in the middle portions of the dialogue, he slowly reveals that for him "the feminine" presents the clearest picture of what religion in general is all about and what Christianity in particular is all about. For him, romantic that he was, women had a distinct advantage over men because of their intuition, that is, their ability to intuit "the heart of the matter," to get beyond cold rationalizing and to stress warm emotion. Women, thus, are a perfect example of the nature of religion, which is a matter of feeling, mood, and intuition--and most definitely not a matter of knowledge, praxis, ethics, or outdated doctrines.

F. D. E. Schleiermacher
Apparently Schleiermacher once admitted that he would have rather been born a woman than a man. Make of that what you will, he was a sensitive fellow. Unlike Luther, who rather reluctantly married Katie (and only because nobody else would have her), Schleiermacher wanted to marry. Unfortunately, the woman he truly wanted to marry, the woman whom he loved, was already married to a Lutheran pastor, and unhappily so. (This woman seems to have served as the model for the hostess in the dialogue.) All of this was in the background when he set out to write his little Christmas gift. It is not too far afield to think that he was likely projecting his own lonely-hearted romantic longings into this fictional middle-class Christmas party.

When the male guests begin discussing critical questions about the sources for the historical Jesus, casting doubt on their reliability, and wondering about the real meaning of the historical Jesus for redemption, the party takes a turn for the worse. In fact, the men almost totally destroy the mood that had been created by the children and women.

As the men are arguing and debating among themselves, a late-comer, Josef, flatly refuses to join them in their critical discussion. For him Christmas is taking part in "every little happening and amusement I have come across. I have laughed, and I have loved it all. It was one long affectionate kiss that I have given to the world, and now my enjoyment with you shall be the last impress on my lips, for you know that you are the dearest of all to me. Come, then, and above all bring the child, if she is not yet asleep, and let me see your glories, and let us be glad and sing something pious [frommes; Tice translates this as 'religious'] and joyful" (87). And this is how the Christmas party ends, at the piano, with hearts full of joy, and a pious sentimentality infusing the Gemuetlichkeit.

For Schleiermacher the task of Christian theology is to reflect critically upon the kind of Christian piety that is displayed in the Christmas Eve dialogue. Indeed, the dialogue form is essential to the work. For just as in Plato's dialogues, which Schleiermacher had begun translating and editing the year before the Christmas Eve, whatever truth is under discussion only emerges through the entire dialectic of the dialogue itself. In other words, no one person in the conversation or scene has a complete purchase on the truth; each contributes something to the larger whole.  (Schleiermacher would eventually complete his edition of Plato's dialogues four years later. We tend to forget that for more than a generation he was the leading scholar of Plato's philosophy in Germany.)

In the case of the Christmas Eve dialogue, the essence of Christmas emerges as a dialectical movement through nonverbal music, the naivete of the spontaneously free and uninhibited child, the intuition of the woman, the joy and love of the pietist AND the critical-historical analysis of the men. But the latter rational analysis is clearly subordinated within the larger contexts of the former elements.

David F. Strauss (1808-74), who at one time attacked Schleiermacher's Irenaean Christology for its mythical, non-historical foundations, once noted that the content of Schleiermacher's Glaubenslehre is just one dogma, namely, the person of Christ. If the Berliner's picture of Jesus, the Savior, made popular in the Moravian piety of his youth, was no longer viable after his university studies, a new picture emerged for him in the wake of a kind of "second naivete" (to use the much later language of Paul Ricoeur) that followed a second religious conversion. While the piety of his youth was never totally jettisoned, by the time of the Speeches he had become, as he told his Reformed chaplain father, "a Moravian of a higher order," that is, a Christian who sought to hold piety and critical-historical-philosophical understanding together into a single whole.

Strauss didn't think this was possible: either history or faith. Feuerbach would also level similar criticism: If theology is simply about analyzing pious self-consciousness, even a collective consciousness in the historic church, who is to say that the object of theology is not a projection based on one's needs, a fiction, a product of one's imagination, and not something that has any real basis in historical facts?

One of the guests, Leonard, speaks for all skeptics. A pleasant-enough fellow, he nonetheless notes how miraculous it is that so many people believe things about Jesus that serious historical scholarship has concluded are unlikely or even absurd. The gospels contradict each other and contain the most outlandish stories, and yet believers go on believing despite the contradictions and the fantastic claims.

In response to Leonard's historical skepticism, two other male guests ignore his historicism and point in another direction: what must be the actual source of the Christian piety that is celebrated at Christmas? The only source for that must be the actual person of the Redeemer himself. So who must Jesus the Christ be if he is to have this effect? First, he must have the quality of being an "ideal type" (Urbildlichkeit), that is, he must be more than a mere moral example to follow but a truly perfect human being (Irenaeus's "Second Adam," following Romans 5) who also has a perfect sense of God, a perfect God-consciousness, which Schleiermacher further defines as "a veritable being of God in him" (which is his rather weak way of asserting Christ's divinity).

Second, the Redeemer must also have the quality of being able to evoke this ideal in others (Vorbildlichkeit), that is, he must be able to communicate his perfect God-consciousness to others. Christ works on his followers in such a manner that they are drawn into the circle of his sinless perfection. This faith is transmitted down through time under the power of his personal influence in his historical community, the church. This sinless perfection of Jesus, his absolutely potent God-consciousness, radiates from his historic life and creates and sustains the new community he founded.

"Is Schleiermacher right? Is it the case that if Christians look into themselves, what they find is an influence of Jesus that is at once similar to the experience they have of strong personalities and yet unique in coming from a sense of God to which they know no parallel? Is this, further, a sufficient point of departure for a theological estimate of Christ's person? And how well has Schleiermacher answered...the intellectual difficulties posed for Christology by the Age of Reason? The questions remain" (Brian Gerrish, A Prince of the Church [Fortress, 1984], 50).

Perhaps both Feuerbach and Pieper (now there's a combination!) were partly right about Schleiermacher. His theology is open to the charges of creative invention and a lack of sufficient attention to historical details. The Christ of his piety seems so removed from the apostolic Christ, whose witness isn't quite "history" but neither is it "fiction." Whether we like it or not, the gospel witness is a historical "mixed bag," but that's ok. What counts, finally, is the historic import and impact of those deeds and words that were seen and heard and interpreted by the apostolic witnesses and passed on through their proclamation, liturgies, sacramental acts, and lives. Faith has nothing else to cling to, save the word proclaimed of Christ.

Despite the greatness, yes, even the genius, of Schleiermacher, despite the historic importance of the liberal evangelical tradition he began, and despite the fact that every future Christian theologian will have to wrestle with him and his life's work, his Christology and Soteriology come up short when measured against the prophetic and apostolic witness to Jesus. To interpret Christ's work in terms of the communication of his perfect God-consciousness is to minimize the historical particularities included within that apostolic witness to the redemption accomplished through Christ. In contrast to Schleiermacher's Jesus, who is a kind of romantic, religious virtuoso, the prophets and apostles witness to a Christ who is lowly, non-docetic, undignified, one whom God made to be sin for us (Second Cor. 5:21), one who truly dies God-damned on the cross, one who screams out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Without these elements, Christmas just doesn't mean that much.

Schleiermacher's Christmas Eve is a great sentimental gift for Christmas, maybe better even than Dickens' ghost story. It is also its own kind of witness to a most important era in Christian theology. One can learn a great deal from Schleiermacher and wrestling with him.

But as a witness to the Christ of Christmas this Celebration is too purified, too clean, too refined, too neat and tidy, finally, too rosy. The messy, crying baby in the smelly straw, the one who spits up his mother's milk, who vomits his food, who fouls his drawers, who lovingly aches, suffers, bleeds, and eventually saves us from our sins by dying on the cross--that's all missing. If you want that kind of Christmas story, better to turn to one by my friend and colleague, Walter Wangerin Jr.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Martin Marty on WGN Tonight

I learned yesterday that friend and mentor, Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is going to be interviewed tonight on WGN radio AM 720 at 10pm. I'm not sure what they'll be discussing, but it is always enjoyable to listen to Marty.

To listen on-line one can visit the following url:

First Things and Valparaiso University

In the November issue of First Things one finds a list of colleges that were ranked by the editor at the time, Joseph Bottum. Apparently he spent a couple of years working on this project and developed his own idiosyncratic algorithm for giving numerical values to a school's academic quality, its social conservatism, and its religious character. The university where I teach theology, Valparaiso University ("Valpo"), did not fare well in Bottum's rankings: Valpo was given a "29" for its academic quality, a "34.9" for its social quality, and a "29.3" for its religious character. These are based on "50" being perfect.

Here is his further analysis:

"The administration and some of the faculty are trying hard to undo the school's Lutheran heritage--which is why Valparaiso is on our list of declining schools. Why rush, this late in the game, to become just like everyone else? Still, religious students, including Catholics, report that the school can offer a supportive environment for their faith. (First Things board member Gilbert Meilaender teaches there, after all.) Students also report relatively low levels of sexual activity and alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drug use. And relatively little studying, for that matter."

The first thing to say about this ranking and analysis is that Joseph Bottum is no longer the editor. The person who is now serving in that role is Jim Nuechterlein, who happens to be a friend and an emeritus faculty member at Valpo, where he also served as editor of the university's main scholarly journal, The Cresset.  I suspect that Jim would not have allowed this ranking to appear as it did.

I suppose if one has nostalgia for what Valpo was like under O. P. Kretzmann (one of its fondly-remembered and cherished presidents) and what it became in the 1950s and 60s, one might regret the loss of its rather parochial Lutheran beginnings, but I would not describe Valpo's changes over the past two decades as a "decline." In many ways, Valpo is growing up even as it attempts to hold on to its distinctive way of being a Lutheran institution of higher education.

The next "first thing" to say about the survey's critique of Valpo is that it is inaccurate. The current administration and some of the faculty are not "trying hard to undo the schools' Lutheran heritage." That is a patently untrue statement. I don't know with whom Mr. Bottum spoke at Valpo, but I know of no one on the faculty who would agree with his statement about the administration or with its implication that there is some kind of faculty cabal that is actively seeking to destroy the university's Lutheran heritage.

The mission statement of the university is quite explicit about its commitments:
Valparaiso University, a community of learning dedicated to excellence and grounded in the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith, prepares students to lead and serve in both church and society.
The university's Board of Directors adopted this statement and then helped to develop and finally adopted the university's vision statement and core values. Together these serve as the foundation upon which all further stages of the university's strategic planning will be constructed.

The president, the provost, and three of the five deans are all committed and active Lutherans, as are many, many faculty and staff. Of the university's eighteen full-time theology faculty--yes, 18, surely among the largest undergraduate theology faculties in North America--fifteen are Lutheran (eight LCMS, six ELCA, and one is a pastor in the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany). Beyond the 18 there are other Lutherans, too, who teach theology on a part-time basis, such as the world-class author, Walter Wangerin Jr.. Over in the honors college, a truly hard-core intellectual environment, eight of the seventeen faculty are Lutherans. This includes two of our post-doctoral Lilly Fellows, one of whom, Piotr Malysz (Ph.D. from Harvard), is fast on his way to becoming a world-class theologian.

One of our "closet Lutherans" is my friend and colleague, Ron Rittgers, whose Ph.D. dissertation from Yale focused on Luther's understanding of sin and confession. Although Ron is not officially Lutheran, he knows the Reformer's theology very well and regularly teaches courses on him and the Reformation. For example, this term he led a high-powered seminar on the Luther-Erasmus debate.

If one examines the university's entire curriculum, Lutheran theology figures prominently, as it should. In addition to Ron's courses there are also courses on "Luther and the Lutheran Confessions" (which I'll be teaching next term), "Creation" (which I taught this term, partly on the basis of volume two of Lutheran theologian W. Pannenberg's systematic theology), "Topics in Lutheran History and Theology," "Luther and Bach" (which I taught in Germany, but which will also be taught on the main campus), "Church Vocations Symposium," "Basic Homily Preparation" (taught by outstanding Lutheran preacher Fred Niedner Jr.), "Studies in Theology, Health, and Healing" (taught by German Lutheran theologian and missiologist, Christoffer Grundmann). These are in addition to the courses in Bible, church history, and practical theology that are taught by our Lutheran faculty members.

Then there's the music department, most of whom are also Lutheran Christians. Not only do the choirs and musicians focus a lot of attention on the Lutheran musical tradition (starting with Luther himself but especially concentrating on its zenith in Bach), many are Lutheran composers and artists themselves. Chris Cock is a world-class soloist, Bach expert, and well-known Lutheran musical director. He and his wife, Maura, are major contributors to the Lutheran ethos on campus. Each year Chris and the Bach Choir perform one of the major works by Bach (and help to organize a regular Bach Institute) and he and the main student choir have performed around the world. Principal organist, Lorraine Brugh, is not only an expert in liturgical studies (directing the annual Liturgical Institute that meets on campus for several days) and a main participant in the group that put together the new ELCA hymnal, but her leadership helps to give Lutheran shape to so much that takes place in and through the chapel ministries. Dennis Friesen-Carper wrote the university hymn which is sung at major university convocations and special events. Each of its four verses hits Lutheran themes, but I'll draw attention to only the first: "Firm in commitment to learning and service, Consummate scholarship, faith above all, Scholars believing 'In thy light we see light,' Humbly we stand here to answer your call."

That hymn is usually sung in our chapel, still the largest and most impressive structure on campus. (To see more pictures and information about the chapel, visit:

Evidently O. P., whose vision and that of his artist-pastor brother were behind its construction, wanted to make sure that if ever the university lost its heritage and went the way that Fr. Burtchaell would later describe in his book, The Dying of the Light, then the chapel would stand as a great embarrassment to the campus community. Valpo's campus ministries seem to be as strong as ever. Yes, I'm biased since I regularly participate in many of those activities, but how else would one be in a position to make an informed decision about their vibrancy? I am thankful to hear substantive and edifying sermons, to witness student leadership and participation in all sorts of religious projects and events, to join with the faithful in excellent liturgies, to be cared for by and to witness the vibrant campus ministries of both Jim Wetzstein (LCMS) and Phyllis Kersten (ELCA), and the list goes on. I haven't even mentioned all of the ways that Valpo intersects with the main Lutheran church bodies through its Office of Church Relations, headed by Deb Albers, but that certainly would also have to be added into any discussion of Valpo's Lutheran character.

Roughly 35% of our students come from Lutheran backgrounds. Some 25% are Roman Catholic. Another 30% reflect the religious landscape that is the upper-midwest. I'm pleased to report that from my perspective many of these students could do as well or better than the best students at the top universities in the country. (I know I'm sounding like a proud parent commenting on his Lake Wobegon kids... but it is true!) Late in the afternoon on these dark wintery days, my heart has been stirred when I look out my office window and see so many students studying in the well-lit, modern library that is the Christopher Center, named after the Lutheran family that has given so much to our campus community. One further sign that perhaps Mr. Bottum and others should take a second look at Valpo.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Follow-up to Women's Ordination and LCMS Partner Churches

I guess my little blog post of Tuesday has upset some folks in both the SELK and LCMS. The LCMS Director of Church Relations--Assistant to the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod read my post and then sent a message to a SELK pastor: "I hear SELK is going to ordain women." The SELK pastor then sent an email response, copied to dozens of individuals in both the LCMS (dps, sem profs, me, others) and SELK, that read as follows:

First of all: our Bishop was "teed off" that you did not contact him directly.

I had passed your e-mail on to him and he is as embarrassed as I am about what is being said about SELK in our sister church. I immediately translated Becker's article into German so that the Bishop and others in the Kirchenleitung can have full access and a better understanding of this stuff. The Bishop will likely give an official response to MB.

The article bristles with mistakes and unproven assumptions.

1:  It was not "a special Synod of the SELK" in Hesse-North. Rather it was a district convention in SELK. At the end they did not pass a resolution calling for the introduction of women's ordination. Rather their vote was a personal response to the presentations made, like "how do you feel about it?"

I know, that's embarrassing enough! But since when do we vote in district conventions about what doctrine is to be valid in the church at large?

2:  It is true that the majority of professors in Oberursel is in favour of the ordination of women; one (Dr. da Silva, the Brazilian) is opposed, another (Dr. Klän) believes it to be "possible" according to his reading of New Testament evidence, but he also believes that the Church is at liberty to decide either way.

3:  Absolutely wrong is the assertion that "many of the seminarians" are in favour; the contrary is true, by far most of the students are opposed -- God be praised.

4:  On what factual evidence does Becker base the assertion: "Clear majorities in the SELK"  favour women's ordination?  Fact is, the Church in convention has at least 7 times (in words: seven times!!)  rejected the introduction of women's ordination. Our problem is that the proponents of WO keep coming back to every pastoral conference and to every general synod.

5:  It is right to point out that to change the SELK constitution (including Art. 7) a 2/3 affirmative vote is needed. Never once has even a simple majority for WO been achieved -- except recently that odd vote in the district convention in northern Hesse.

6:  Here I want to place my personal opinion, which is shared by many of the SELK clergy young and old: Should a general synod of the SELK ever get to a   2/3 vote in favour of WO, that would mean the end of SELK as we know it! Even many of the proponents know that, they are aware  of  this danger --  and for that reason even some of them will not vote in favour of WO.

7:  Last point -- Becker calls the consultation process on WO "cordial, civil, evangelical, fraternal and serious". How does he know that? Was he part of this process -- or did he have some Wikeleaks informant who gave him the inside lowdown?

The consultation process was (perhaps) necessary, but it was at times difficult, heart wrenching and extremely time consuming. An east / west divide became evident in our church. The mission outreach of SELK in Germany and its confessional witness to the nation almost came to a standstill -- because we were so caught up in discussing internal church problems. Relationships have suffered; friendships broke down. All because the WO proponents held on to the issue like a dog biting his bone.

My conclusion: The church at large and many members in the parishes are just fed up and sick and tired of what in most congregations is a non-issue.

I hope I did not bore you with my comments. But I just did not want to
pass up this opportunity to react to Matthew Becker.

Sincere fraternal Advent greetings from
[name deleted]

Here's what I wrote in response:
Dear Pr.-----,
My blog does not "bristle with mistakes and unproven assumptions."

There is no difference in meaning between "a special synod of the SELK in Hessen-Nord" and "a district convention of the SELK in Hessen-Nord." In our churchbody it is common to say "a convention of the LCMS in Washington" or "a district of the Synod in the Northwest."

I did not write that that synod passed a resolution calling for the introduction of the ordination of women. I wrote "At the end of the day 20 delegates indicated their support for the introduction of women pastors in SELK, seven were opposed, and two abstained."

I indicated that there is not unanimity on this issue at Oberursel. I'm pleased that a majority of professors there favor the ordination of women. This is my theological position, too.

I have been told by students who have studied at that seminary that "many of the students favor the ordination of women." The key word here is "many." I didn't write that "most" are convinced of this. How many does there have to be to be accurate with the word "many?"

The SELK has in convention rejected the proposal to ordain women. That is true. But look at the numbers of those voting for and against. Look at the faculty of the seminary. Look at the informal vote in Hessen-Nord. There are "majorities" that favor the change, but not a 2/3 majority of the SELK as a whole.

I know about the process from the official news releases, from the downloadable collection of documents, from personal reports. From these materials and reports the process seems to me to have been "cordial, civil, evangelical, fraternal, and serious." I didn't include the words "easy," "quick," or "pain-free." At least the SELK has been having a decade-long process. That is non-existent in the LCMS, which was one of my points.

Fraternal greetings,
Matthew Becker

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Women's Ordination and LCMS Partner Churches

More than a decade ago the Selbstaendige evangelisch-lutherische Kirche, the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), formally decided to discuss openly the question of the ordination of women to the pastoral office. This decision was a milestone, since it allowed individuals in that church body to discuss the matter openly without fear of reprisal. This decision and the subsequent years of theological discussions about the matter in the SELK stand in stark contrast to what has happened about the issue in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS), heretofore a partner church body of the SELK. Missourians who have attempted to bring the matter to the forefront in the synod have been marginalized, shunned, silenced, labeled "false teachers," publicly denounced at synod conventions, brought up on charges of "heresy," removed from the clergy roster of the synod. Despite these actions and threats of further action, earlier this year the Daystar group within the LCMS published several essays on the ordination of women, including one by yours truly. These appear in The Daystar Reader (see side bar). The essays there share much in common with the SELK essays that are favorable toward the practice of women pastors. All of these essays are similar, too, to those that have been publicly presented and discussed in another of the LCMS's partner churches, the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA), which has also been publicly engaging the issue for many years. (For documents on the ordination of women in the LCA, visit its website,

For the past decade the SELK has been carefully and civilly discussing the issue of women pastors. For a helpful 72-page document that recounts the process and summarizes the important essays, see  Just a few weeks ago a special synod of the SELK in Hessen-Nord met for an entire Saturday to discuss the "complicated" issue in a systematic-theological manner. At the end of the day, 20 of the delegates indicated their support for the introduction of women pastors in the SELK, seven were opposed, and two abstained. At the SELK's seminary in Oberursel there is not unanimity on this question. Several professors publicly favor the ordination of women, as do many of the seminarians, several of whom have also studied theology at the larger German universities. From what I can tell, it is only a matter of time before the SELK formally approves the ordination of women. Clear majorities in the SELK favor that decision, although 2/3 of voting delegates at a SELK convention would be required to enact that change.

What strikes me about the SELK deliberative process is how cordial, civil, evangelical, fraternal, and serious it has been. Papers on several sides of the issue have been treated with respect and given a fair and open hearing. Last year, at the SELK's general pastors conference, all of the pastors agreed on a common statement that included the following:

"Advocates and opponents of women's ordination proceed… from the general commitment to the Holy Scripture… They therefore take seriously first of all the different replies to the question regarding the admissibility of the ordination of women to the office of the church, because they take into consideration--perceived as indeed binding--the insights of the other side in the differing interpretation of the Holy Scripture. The existence of both positions regarding this question will not be considered as church-dividing at present."
The statement went on to note that the meetings that have occurred in the SELK during the past decade have contributed strongly toward building confidence, improving the state of affairs, and deepening theological understanding. Mutual respect has grown with opponents as well as advocates of women's ordination, even when no side could be convinced theologically by the other side.

Despite the intensive deliberations in the SELK there is at present no unanimity about the question of the admissibility of the ordination of women, although a clear majority of SELK pastors favor the practice. In view of the present situation, the general pastors' conference admits its perplexity about how to attain unanimity in this question. However, it trusts the "leading of the Holy Spirit, who according to the promise of the Lord of the Church will lead us into all truth" (John 16:13). In this confidence, further patient work is required to attain such an understanding. The SELK will meet in convention in the coming New Year when the matter will again receive attention and perhaps a vote.

All of this brings to mind the recent actions of the Synod's president, Rev. Matthew Harrison, who has threatened to end completely Missouri's partnership with the Japan Lutheran Church (NRK), if that latter should vote to approve the ordination of women at its convention next May.  It should be noted that since 1974 the NRK has officially held that the ordination of women to the pastoral office is a matter that is "neither commanded nor forbidden" in Scripture, that is, it is an "adiophoron" (a matter of "indifference"). At the present time the NRK is leaning toward the ordination of women for the sake of its mission in Japan.

Finally, I can't help but recommend the latest book of my friend, Dean Lueking. This would make an excellent Christmas present for the pastor or teacher or mission-minded friend in your circle. The title is Through Their Eyes: A People's View of the Global Church (River Forest: Tyra Books, 2010). The foreword to the 472-page book is by Dean's close friend and one of my mentors, Martin E. Marty.

I plan to write a complete review in the coming weeks, but for now I'll simply point out that Dean has a wonderful chapter on the Lutheran Church in Japan. To get a feel for the challenges to Christian ministry and mission there, one can do no better than to read that chapter and learn about Toshifumi Uemura, Takako Ohashi, Yoshiro Ishida, Kazuteru Matsukawa, and others.

I know from private conversation that Dean, too, is troubled by the recent actions of the current synod president toward the synod's partner church there. I can't help but wonder if Rev. Harrison is also going to threaten the SELK and the LCA in light of their decade-long deliberative process on women's ordination, a process that also seems to be leaning them toward accepting this practice. Why pick on the NRK and not the SELK and LCA, especially when the latter seem to be moving in the same direction as the NRK?

Of course this issue involves more than just the theological question about women's pastors. Equally significant, perhaps more significant, these actions raise before us the question: How do we deal with those in our own church body and those in our partner churches whose serious commitment to Scripture and its teaching leads them to very different theological and practical conclusions? Can we not agree with our SELK brothers and sisters when they publicly state that holding such different conclusions about the matter of women pastors need not be church-divisive? I would hope so.

By the way, to obtain your copy of Pastor Lueking's excellent book, contact him through or

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lutheran Airlines

After a week of professorial and pastoral duties, I was ready for a little humor. My colleague, George Heider, who also serves as the chair of my department in the university, sent the following to me. I'm passing it along to my readers in the hope that it will bring you a smile/laugh as it did to me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Daystar Journal

After much trial and error, I have finally launched the new Daystar website. It is most definitely a work-in-progress, but at least it is started. It is a very, very simple site, but one that I hope folks will visit from time to time.

In the coming weeks, I will be uploading all of the past Daystar essays and articles
(at least the ones that pass the test of time). I will also be adding links to other
important websites (Such as the Creator's Tapestry, Crossings, the main Lutheran
church bodies, etc.).

The web address is:

Please add this to your favorites and tell others about it. Those of you who are Lutheran will probably be most interested in reading its contents, but others of you may find a tidbit here and there as well.

If you know of a blog or a web site that should be added to the links, let me know.

I will continue to work with Bob Schmidt to identify topics and authors for upcoming issues of The Daystar Journal. But meanwhile, if the Spirit moves you to write something of theological importance and you're willing to let it stand out there for all the world to see, send it my way.

Any advice on how to improve the site will be greatly appreciated.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pericopes of the Week: Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)
The Wedding at Cana, 1984
Hand colored Kappazuri dyed stencil print on Momigami (crumpled) paper, 32/100
University Fund Purchase, Watanabe honorary degree campus visit
Brauer Museum of Art, 87.17.001
 Last Friday marked the end of a truly fine exhibition of biblical stencil prints by the legendary Japanese artist Watanabe Sadeo (1913-1996) at Valparaiso University's Brauer Museum of Art. Richard H. W. Brauer, after whom the museum is named and who taught art at VU for many years, served as the curator for this exhibit, "Heeding the Voice of Heaven: Sadao Watanabe Biblical Stencil Prints." The accompanying catalogue, which also tells the story of Watanabe's connection to Valparaiso University, is edited by my colleague, Gregg Hertzlieb, who directs the museum.  The book reminds us that Watanabe received an honorary doctorate from VU in 1987. At that time he said, "I owe my life to Christ and the gospel. My way of expressing my gratitude is to witness to my faith through the medium of biblical scenes." Gregg was kind to allow me to use in today's blog a few images of these biblical prints from the catalogue. These pictures will serve as this week's pericopes.

The story of Watanabe takes us back to my post of a few weeks ago, when I reported that the current president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod has threatened to sever his church body's ties to the Japan Lutheran Church (the NRK--Nihon Ryuteru Kyodan), all because the latter is poised to allow women to serve as pastors. Watanabe became a Christian in Japan, was an active member in the United Church in Japan, was a close friend of key LCMS missionary to Japan, Bill Danker (about whom I wrote in the earlier blog), and has influenced many in the Christian churches here in this country. While the LCMS is threatening to break ties with the NRK, thankfully it will be unable to break its own members' connections to Christians in Japan. Watanabe's artwork helps to remind us of these important connections.

A friend of mine emailed me today to share his thoughts on this situation between the NRK and the LCMS. (I should add that he, too, owns a wonderful stencil print, signed by Watanabe, that hangs in his office.) Here's what he wrote:

"I am aware of the JLC (usually called the NRK – Nihon Ryuteru Kyodan) situation and it is unfortunate that the LCMS is not looking at the entire picture/challenge that is currently facing and has been facing the NRK for decades. Simply, an already small and fragile church body is  losing members and is enduring a decades long shortage of pastors. It is well known that less than 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, let alone Lutheran. And, without the work of missionaries in Japan, people like my wife may not have come into contact with the Lutheran/Christian faith, would not have been baptized, etc.. Surely the Great Commission includes all those, men and women, who are called and capable to preach and/or share the Gospel message."

Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)
Adam and Eve, 1980
Hand colored Kappazuri dyed stencil print on Washi paper, 16/100
Gift of Josephine L. Ferguson (VU 1946) and Byron L. Ferguson (VU 1948)
Acquired from Rev. Dr. William Danker
Brauer Museum of Art, 86.07.002
Today I am grateful for those Christian/Lutheran missionaries who were instrumental in helping Watanabe Sadeo to come to faith in Christ, to be baptized, and to join that small community of Christian believers in Japan. I am grateful for the Christian witness that Mr. Watanabe makes through his beautiful art.

Martin Marty notes in his essay that appears in the catalogue that Watanabe's prints "make the familar strange, and the strange familiar." Marty describes an experience I had, too, when I first came across a Watanabe print, "What's that all about?" "Once grasped by a Watanabe work, alerted or inquisitive viewers linger and muse, for they know how important it is to give new visual art experiences their chance, much as one must be open, curious, and patient with new music" (Martin Marty, "The Masks of Watanabe," in Heeding the Voice of Heaven: Stories from Genesis to Revelation Envisioned by Sadao Watanabe [Valparaiso, Ind.: Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, 2010], 16)

Watabe has himself said, "Theology will not take deep root in Japanese soil if it is merely an import. I feel it is my mission to create Christian art for the Japanese people."

Thankfully the art has not remained confined in Japan. Dr. Danker helped to make Watanabe and his work more well-known in this country. Many of the pieces on display at the Brauer Museum normally hang in the homes and offices of several of my friends, colleagues and acquantances, people like Jim and Joanne Albers, the family of Bill Danker, Arlin and Sharon Meyer, Ed and Marie Schroeder, and the family of Robert Schnabel. (My wife, who will not read today's blog, doesn't know that she's receiving a Watanabe signed print for Christmas. So "Jonah and the Whale" [1979] will soon hang in our living room.)

Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)
Listening, 1960
Hand colored Kappazuri dyed stencil print on Momigami (crumpled) paper, edition of 520
University Fund Purchase
Brauer Museum of Art, 2010.01
  "I have always aspired to portray stories and episodes from the Bible. In this disturbed world, I would like to heed the voice of heaven" (Sadao Watanabe, "The Artist's Comment," in The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, by James A. Michener [Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1962], 30).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Further Sign of LCMS Times

A close friend and fellow-LCMS clergyman, who is in good standing in the LCMS, recently served as the keynote speaker at a joint LCMS-ELCA national theological conference. Yes, such conferences still exist, but they may be a dying breed, given the current LCMS leadership and the actions it has been taking toward other church bodies in the world.

My friend, who has spoken at a previous conference of this group, was invited partly because he is indeed an LCMS theologian. The tradition of the group, whose annual meetings go back forty-three years, is to invite speakers from the two major Lutheran church bodies. Partially funded by Thrivent, these annual conferences have "focused on and celebrated the importance of ministries in chaplaincy, pastoral counseling, and clinical pastoral education in the Lutheran church" (to quote from the conference brochure).

The planners for this conference, which was held in October, had invited the President of the LCMS, who at the time of the invitation was President Kieschnick, to address a plenary session. The presiding bishop of the ELCA was also invited to address the group, which he did. But with the change of leadership in the Missouri Synod, the new Synod President, Rev. Matthew Harrison, chose not to attend. Instead he asked an LCMS chaplain who did attend to inform the group as to why he, Rev. Harrison, could not attend.

The reason? Answer: Because Rev. Harrison did not want to appear at a conference where my friend was the keynote speaker. According to the chaplain, Rev. Harrison could not be on the same podium as my friend because the latter had expressed public support for some preliminary documents that led up to the ELCA's decision last summer to ordain gays and lesbians who are in committed, life-long, publicly-accountable relationships.

Please note, my friend and Rev. Harrison would not have been on the same podium at the same time. Even if they had been, Rev. Harrison would have been speaking for himself and would have brought greetings and comments separately from my friend. Instead, Rev. Harrison chose to avoid the conference altogether, merely because my scholarly friend was the keynote speaker.

This behavior, which one expects to observe on a grade-school playground but not at the administrative level of a Christian church body, strikes me as founded on fear, the fear of appearing to endorse perceived "uncleanness" among others. Because my friend has spoken out in support of another church body's decision about homosexual clergy, he is now deemed doctrinally and ethically "unclean" by the Synod President. The implication of this view, of course, is that the President of the Synod is righteous and right and that he does not want to make himself "impure" by coming into contact with my "impure" friend.

Apparently, for the time being anyway, the issues of women's ordination (as in Japan) and homosexuality (as in the ELCA) have become the litmus tests of orthodoxy in the LCMS. The doctrine on which the church stands or falls is no longer the gospel of Christ Jesus, but rules and regulations. It is almost as if one could say, paraphrasing an LCMS scholar of an earlier time (Walter Bartling), "If a woman is ordained to the pastoral office, Christ is not raised and your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" or "If a practicing homosexual is ordained to the pastoral office, Christ is not raised and your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

Has the fear of "impurity" become so great that one cannot even risk being seen "in the company of sinners"? In an earlier time, and still in some places today, LCMSers have taken risks for the sake of the gospel and Christian love. They haven't worried too much, if at all, about "purity" and "impurity," about "clean" and "unclean," but have sought to become all things to all people so that they might by all means save some.

Then again, maybe it was a good thing that Rev. Harrison didn't attend this inter-Lutheran conference. One can imagine what he might have said to "the impure" in his midst. Surely saying nothing is better than saying that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pericope of the Week: Wangerin

One of the great blessings of teaching at Valparaiso University is that one occasionally crosses paths with Professor Walter Wangerin Jr. In the years since I joined the faculty he and his wife, Thanne, have become friends. We have shared many meals together and I have enjoyed interloping several Friday-afternoon theological sessions between Walt and my other close colleague, Fred Niedner Jr. These two "juniors," both sons of Missouri-Synod pastors ("A wandering cleric was my father," is how Walt puts it), who have met regularly on Fridays for seventeen years, have helped me to expand my theological and intellectual horizons in so many ways, and for that I am grateful.

Long before I ever met Walt or Fred I had learned of and from them. In Walt's case, first was The Book of the Dun Cow, which won the American Book Award for Best Science Fiction Paperback in 1980 and was the New York Times' choice for best children's book that year. Then there was Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, from which I generously borrowed and often cited during my first years of pastoral ministry in West Dundee, Illinois. These great books were followed by others: Miz Lill and the Chronicles of Grace, which tells of Walt's first pastorate, The Book of Sorrows, among the best of our beast fables, The Orphean Passages, which is yet another story of a pastor and the drama of his faith, and As for Me and My House, which I think is the best book on love and marriage that I have read. (If you can believe this, I actually took a copy of it on my honeymoon to Antigua, many, many moons ago! I later used it with the young-couples group in my congregation in that first year of marriage.)

If you have kept up with news about Walt's health during the past years, you know that he suffers from lung cancer. Thankfully the cancer is now pretty much in check, although he must occasionally use oxygen and stop to catch his breath. While he has had to retire officially from the university, he continues to show up periodically at his office two floors down from mine. He still writes quarterly for The Lutheran, the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church body in which he is a rostered pastor. I recently learned from him that he plans to teach a masters-level course on campus next semester. And he continues to write. And write. And write. In fact, he's probably written more during the time of his chronic illness than before the cancer's onslaught. Just a few months ago he passed on to me drafts of some new poetry and fiction about which he has invited my response. (Likewise, he has been very gracious to give me feedback on my own attempts at non-fiction.)

This past weekend I was privileged to co-lead a spiritual retreat with Walt for 28 of our Christian students. We were out at a local Roman Catholic retreat center on Saturday and Sunday. He did the two presentations on "friendship" and "intimacy" and I served as facilitator of discussions and preached and presided at Sunday's eucharist. Driving to and from the retreat center gave us some time to catch up on our families and the latest about our respective writing projects.

So I thought it would be fitting this week to select the pericope from one of his books, the one from which he himself drew this past weekend. He spoke on three of "the characteristics of the marriage contract": (1) it is one's total commitment unto the other, its comprehensiveness ("I promise you my faithfulness..."); (2) it is one's timeless commitment unto another, one that is not affected or changed by time ("Until death parts us..."); and (3) it is grounded in faith ("that we have faith in the God who loves the both of us, who encourages such a relationship as marriage, and who is above time..."). And then he spoke on a fourth:

(4) Forgiveness. This is the single most significant tool we have for meeting and for healing the troubles which marriage shall surely breed between us. What those troubles will be, we do not know. But that they will be, we may be assured. And nothing--neither our love, our effective communication with each other, our talents, our money, nor all the good will in the world--no, nothing can make right again the wrongs as can forgiveness. This tool, so practical and so unequivocally necessary to the healthy future of the marriage, must have its own chapter, and shall (As for Me and My House [Thomas Nelson, 1990], 24).

And what is forgiveness? It involves "giving up," "giving notice," and "giving gifts." For these "givings," you'll have to read the book... Or go to his website to listen to his presentations:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Veteran's Life

On this Veteran's Day my thoughts turn to the remembrance of my dad, who was drafted at the age of 19 and sent to Korea in 1951. There he served in the Second Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment, of the U. S. Army. This was, of course, the so-called "forgotten war," the Korean War. From September 13th until mid-October of that year he fought in the fiercest battle of that war, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (Height 1211). This was a month-long battle that claimed approximately 3700 U. S. casualties and many more North Korean and Chinese dead and wounded.

After seeing the 1986 film, Platoon, about a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War, my dad remarked that what the end of that film depicts as taking place over the course of one night was something he and his buddies went through every night for three weeks. The beginning of Clint Eastwood's 1980s film, Heartbreak Ridge, tries to capture some of the awful intensity of that battle, which serves as a backdrop to the rest of the film.
In an October 1951 charge up Height 1211 everyone in my dad's platoon was killed. Also my dad. A medic pronounced him dead on the battlefield. Later that afternoon, somebody else saw him barely breathing on a pile of dead bodies. So he was rushed to a MASH unit, where someone like Hawkeye Pierce was able to patch him up enough so that he could be transferred to Tokyo and then to San Antonio, where he spent the next several months as a patient at the Brooke Army Medical Center. He was in a coma for the better part of a year. His injuries were the result of at least two bullets to his brain, grenade fragments in his eyes and one ear, and bullet wounds to his chest, hip, and legs. All of these injuries left him with the total loss of one eye, partial blindness in the other, deafness in one ear, partial paralysis on the right side of his body, deep scars on his chest and legs, and loss of some brain function. (Whenever my dad made a mental mistake he would jokingly point to his head and say, "You got to understand I'm working with only part of a brain...") For his service, he was given the purple heart and other medals.

When my brother, sister, and I would ask him about his service during the Korean War he would tend not to want to talk much about it. He did tell me once that the day of his injuries was like hell on earth. "Frankly those whole three weeks were one long hellish period. I prayed often, tried to hum hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (my dad was the son of a Lutheran pastor), anything that could give me a bigger picture of what I was facing." He also told me that after he was injured, in the midst of very violent, hand-to-hand fighting, a calm sensation came over him. He did see a bright light, but it didn't last for very long. "The next thing I remember was waking up in Texas many months later."

A few years ago I read the definitive history of the battle of Heartbreak Ridge and learned that my dad's company was purposely sent up one side of the hill, against overwhelming numbers of Chinese, in a so-called "diversionary tactic." The battle itself has been described as "a fiasco," because the U. S. totally underestimated the strength of the North Koreans and the Chinese. Only later, after sending in tanks, did the United Nations' forces secure that hill, which was eventually given back to the North Koreans.

When my dad finally returned to Oregon after his rehabilitation, he was able to find work in the regional office of State Farm Insurance. There he worked in the mailroom, sorting mail, making photocopies, trying to be a productive individual.

But every so often the scars of his infantry service would make themselves known. Throughout his life he was deeply troubled by all of the killing he did. I will never forget Memorial Day, 1972, twenty years after my dad returned from war. He was watching the news in our living room. My brother, sister, mom, and I were finishing our dinner in the kitchen. All of a sudden we heard my dad crying hysterically in the other room. My mother rushed to help him and to find out what was wrong. "David, what did you see on television?!" After ten minutes of soothing by my mother he calmed down enough to tell her that on the news that night they had run a story about North Korean orphans and widows from the war. My dad, who had suffered infrequent nightmares ever since he "came home," could only think, "Maybe I killed that child's father or that woman's husband..." We went to bed early that night.

This is only one anecdotal example, but I suspect many others could be told about military personnel who suffered and suffer deeply as a result of their "justified" killing. These stories seem more human and humane to me than the all-too-familiar bravado-pleasurable kind, the kind of story we heard not too long ago from a U. S. army general who spoke publicly about the "pleasure" of killing Afghans or any other "enemy."
War is terrible and we should never grow fond of it.

Is war sometimes a "tragic necessity?" Yes, sadly, but we cannot ignore the tragic pathos that inhabits many (most?) soldiers when they kill, a pathos that comes over them and returns to them after they come home. No amount of "joyful vocation" language will cover over that pathos.

The front page of my local paper today has a picture of one such suffering veteran who served in Vietnam. The subtitle of the article states, "On any given night, hundreds of vets are left homeless in Northwest Indiana. The scars of war have left some fighting to get back on their feet." Nationwide, about 1.5 million veterans are considered at risk of homelessness.

After Korea, my dad fought to get back on his feet. Initially bitter and resentful toward country and God (when he was given his medals he supposedly threw them out the window in a moment of rage), his parents did all they could to help my dad get counseling. They continued to bring him with them to my Grandfather's church services. Later after my dad met the woman who would become his wife and my mother, she encouraged him in his job-search that eventually led him to State Farm. Her abiding love and faithfulness to him kept him from sinking too low. Friends and co-workers helped him to find joy and happiness in life and work. He made many friends and could often point to the difficulties in his life as a way of encouraging others who were also struggling. He became a kind of "wounded healer," to use Nouwen's great phrase, active in his local Lutheran congregation, involved with social services in his home town, a true inspiration. When he retired from State Farm, the line of people to congratulate him and wish him well stretched out to include more than 700 of his co-workers, past and present.

Following his "first death" in baptism (we Lutherans speak of baptism as putting "the old, sinful Adam" to death), and his second death on a Korean battlefield in 1951, my dad died for the third time on June 17, 2004. He is buried at Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Ore. Nearby are graves of individuals who died young in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther!

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach Sr.
Today marks the 527th or 528th birthday of Martin Luther. (We don't know for sure in which year, 1483 or 1482, he was born.) This anniversary has led me to reflect back on my two years in Germany (2007-9), when I regularly taught a semester-long course on Luther that included a week-long trip to places connected with the Great Reformer's life and work. In four different semesters (and in the summer before the first group of students arrived), I traveled east, through Thüringen, Saxony (Sachsen), and Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt). Along the way we visited Erfurt, where Luther attended university; Eisenach, where he lived for a time as a young boy; Wittenberg, where he lived in the Augustinian monastery and taught theology in the university; Weimar, where he occasionally preached; and Leipzig, where he held his famous debate with Dr. Eck.

Prior to our trip, the students and I had worked our way through several key texts, read the slim biography by Martin Marty, viewed segments from the excellent PBS documentary, Empires: Martin Luther, and discussed aspects of the Reformer's work and world. After examining Luther's childhood and early education in Mansfeld, we immersed ourselves in Erfurt 1501-05, where and when he had studied philosophy and the liberal arts and, briefly, law, and analyzed his religious crisis (i.e., the cut artery in his leg, the deaths of several friends from the plague, his guilt and fear before God, and finally the storm near Stotternheim). We then explored his decision to become an Augustinian monk, his life as a friar and priest, and his reluctant agreement to become a doctor of Holy Scripture. We sought to understand the terrible Anfechtungen ("spiritual crises," depressions, panic attacks?) that overwhelmed him, and how his mentor, Staupitz, and the theology of humility that he had learned from the Psalms, had helped to calm his troubled soul.

A major goal of ours was to understand how this preacher-theologian became such a fierce critic of the Roman Catholic Church and its sacramental system. We thus studied his early biblical commentaries, his anti-scholastic writings, and his 95 theses against certain abuses in the sale of indulgences, which reveal his struggle with the true nature of repentance and thus with the proper relationship of sinners before God. The so-called Indulgence Controversy, which intensified as Luther's widely-published scholarly theses were attacked by established church authorities and ultimately by the pope, in turn contributed to his so-called "Reformation breakthrough," sometime between December 1517 and the following summer. This Durchbruch gradually occurred as he came to understand the righteousness of God as that by which the righteous lives as a gift of God, i.e., as righteousness received by faith alone. The gospel reveals this passive righteousness of God through which the merciful God justifies us by faith, for Christ's sake. God does not punish, but he gives, and he makes us right with himself by our trusting in the good news about Jesus.

After engaging materials related to this breakthrough, the students and I traveled several paths: to the theology of the cross, the freedom of the Christian, Luther's sacramental theology and reforms, his critiques of monasticism and forced celibacy, the bondage of the will, his political theology and reaction to the peasants' uprisings, and finally to his apocalyptic outlook, his marriage and family life, and his troubling views toward the Jews and Muslims.

But the fieldtrip really made the course: