Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

The half-decade of 1850-55 has been called "the American Renaissance," since the most important American literary masterpieces were produced in this "one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression" (F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman [New York: Oxford University Press, 1941], vii). "You might search all the rest of American literature without being able to collect a group of books equal" to Representative Men, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Walden, and Leaves of Grass.

Missing in that list and mentioned by Matthiessen only once in nearly 700 pages is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose 160th anniversary will be celebrated next year. (This past month has marked the 200th anniversary of Stowe's birth.) Matthiessen limited his analysis to the works of the two authors named in his subtitle and to the writings of three others: Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. That Stowe was left unexamined is difficult to fathom, especially when one considers that her novel became the most politically significant literary creation in nineteenth-century America. Did Matthiessen share the judgment of Sinclair Lewis, who once described Stowe's novel as "the first evidence to America that no hurricane can be so disastrous to a country as a ruthlessly humanitarian woman"? Perhaps. One could also argue that Uncle Tom's Cabin doesn't quite reach the level of literary beauty and aesthetic form that one detects in the best fiction of the others. Nevertheless, that novel's moral vision and persuasive power put it on the same level as the best that Americans have produced. Certainly President Lincoln thought so when, during the height of the Civil War, he famously said to its author, "So is this the little woman who made this great war?" No other work was as instrumental in changing people's minds about the evils of slavery. Many have concluded that without that novel there might not have been a Civil War.

At a time when people like the first president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, who was born in the same year as Stowe, argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good, Stowe set forth a minority position that was also biblically-grounded: slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for "the lowliest members of society." The full title of the novel is Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. (I highly recommend the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition [New York: Norton, 2010], which contains copious background materials and scholarly essays and criticism.) What she did through that novel was to shift public opinion in favor of her biblical vision, despite the fact that many were using the same Bible that she read to support a pro-slavery position.

The Beecher family into which Harriet was born on June 14, 1811, had already become well-known in American public life for its progressive views against slavery, intemperance, and other social ills. Her father, Lyman, was an articulate and well-known, if somewhat dull Calvinist preacher (and later president of Lane Theological Seminary), and her younger brother by two years, Henry Ward, was from early adulthood until his death in 1887 the leading figure in American liberal Protestantism. Harriet was the seventh of nine children. After her mother's death, her father married another woman and had four more children with her.

Already as a young woman, Harriet was judged to be an intellectual cut above the rest of her siblings. Because the pastoral office was off-limits to her because of her gender (both she and her father wished that she had been born a male, since she had the intellectual and physical gifts to be a pastor), she channeled her creaturely gifts in the one public direction that was then open to women: writing. She described her calling as  a "vocation to preach on paper." The mother of seven children, Harriet always found time to write, in between her responsibilities as mother and home-maker.

Later, she told those who would listen that her most famous novel came to her as a series of heavenly "visions," not unlike the fulfillment of Joel's famous prophecy, quoted by St. Peter in Acts chapter two. Such "revelations" have long been a feminine experience within the Christian tradition. One thinks immediately of Julian of Norwich's Showings, but there have been many others. The recent work by historian David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2011), which received a very favorable review in last week's New Yorker, explains that Stowe's visions began in 1851. While she was taking Holy Communion, she "saw four figures: an old slave being whipped to death by two fellow slaves, who were goaded on by a brutal white man." Uncle Tom was the beaten slave and Simon Legree the white man.

So this month I have been giving thanks to God for this woman story-teller/preacher who was called "to preach on paper."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Hermeneutics of Promise

Less than two weeks ago many of us who gathered to celebrate the Christian festival of Pentecost heard from Moses and Joel and Peter. From chapter eleven of Numbers we heard about how the LORD took some of the Spirit [Hebrew: Ruach (a feminine form!)  = "breath," "wind," "spirit"] that was on Moses and put it upon the seventy elders. "And when the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again" (v. 25). Unexpectedly, and beyond the prophesying at Moses' tent, the Spirit also rested upon Eldad and Medad, who prophesied in the camp. One young man--perhaps not unlike some young LCMS pastor upset with "how things should be done in the camp" ("in the synod)"--ran and tattled to Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp" (v. 26). And even Joshua, the assistant of Moses, was offended: "My lord Moses, stop them!" "But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit upon them!'" (vv. 28-29). Moses seems to be saying, "Would that all of God's people were prophets and spiritual speakers."

In the New Testament reading, Peter applies the prophesy of Joel to what was then taking place within the Jerusalem Christian community: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit [Greek: pneuma (a neutral form) = "wind," "breath," "spirit"] upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy…" (Acts 2:17-18). After hearing Peter's sermon, the crowd asked, "What shall we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him" (vv. 38-39). In the last days, both men and women, both Jews and Gentiles, both slaves and free, will  receive the Spirit, and the Spirit will lead them to prophesy, teach, proclaim God's words.

With Holy Baptism comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit come the various gifts of the Spirit that are detailed elsewhere in the New Testament. The purpose of the Spirit's gifting is to build up the body of Christ, to elicit and strengthen faith, to teach faith that is active in love and service. What qualifies a person to proclaim God's words? The baptismal gift of the Spirit and the Spirit's gifts of speaking, teaching, administering, hearing, thinking.

Surely there is a great tension between the promise of the Spirit's outpouring upon both men and women, so that both men and women preach and teach and prophesy, and the New Testament's legal demands that "women be silent in the churches" and "subordinate to their husbands" (assuming they have husbands). Those who insist on the binding character of these legal demands find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain away the clear promise that the Spirit will indeed rest upon both men and women and lead both men and women to preach/prophesy and teach. Such explaining away of the Spirit's gifting of women for public service in the church is grounded in a hermeneutics of law, that is, it is grounded in an approach to the Bible that treats the Bible as a kind of timeless legal document that sets forth God's rules for all times and places. In this approach, the legal demands of the apostles are preeminent.

By contrast, a hermeneutics of promise rightly distinguishes the legal material in the New Testament from the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ, the promise of forgiveness of sins through him, justification by faith alone, spiritual regeneration (eternal life), and the exhortations to Christian love. A hermeneutics of promise, as exemplified in Philip Melanchthon's Apology to the Augsburg Confession (especially in Articles Four and Twenty-eight), illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and his benefits and subordinates apostolic commands to the ultimate goals of eliciting and strengthening faith in Christ alone, consoling devout consciences, defending Christian freedom, and applying the law of Christian love. In other words, a hermeneutics of promise, in contrast to a hermeneutics of law, is oriented toward the righteousness of faith and Christian freedom.

Such a hermeneutics of promise is particularly opposed to the imposition of intolerable burdens on people's consciences and the demand to obey human traditions (even apostolic ones, such as those about hair length, foods, jewelry, emperors, slaves, and so on) rather than the gospel. "For the apostles themselves did not want to burden consciences with such bondage." We must always pay attention to the chief part of Christian doctrine and acknowledge that "hardly any of the ancient canons are observed according to the letter. Many of their rules fall daily into complete disuse, even among those who observe such ordinances most diligently. Consciences can neither be counseled nor helped unless we keep this moderation in mind: that such ordinances are not to be considered necessary, and even disregarding them does no harm to consciences" (AC 28:16, Kolb/Wengert, 102). 

To paraphrase Melanchthon: Those who are adamantly opposed to the ordination of women to the pastoral office have issued a call to arms. Instead of engaging in patient debate with those they accuse of teaching false doctrine, they issue an edict written in blood, threatening people with expulsion from the church body unless they act in clear opposition to God's promises (such as the one that indicates that in the last days God would pour out his [feminine!] Spirit upon both men and women). But here you ought to see the tears of those women who have been told that they cannot speak for God, that they cannot serve as pastors or professors of God's word, that they cannot possibly administer the sacraments of Christ, that they must suffer in their conscience if they think that somehow God is calling them to the holy ministry. You ought to hear the pitiful complaints of many good people on this issue and count up how many men and women have left the LCMS because of such legalistic restrictions on the leadership and ministry of women in the synod. God undoubtedly sees and hears these people.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Further Comments on the Ordination of Women to the Pastoral Ministry

This week the Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK) or Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany has been holding its synod-wide meeting in Berlin-Spandau. This church has a membership of around 36,000 in approximately 200 congregations. (To learn more about the SELK and its 12th synod-wide assembly, visit As a part of the synod's agenda this week, the delegates have received a report on the question of the ordination of women to the pastoral office. To read this report, see:

The synod also received a report by the SELK's Theological Commission on the principles of biblical interpretation (biblical hermeneutics). To read this document, see:

At present, the SELK restricts the office of pastor to men only. Unlike the Missouri Synod, however, whose current leaders are convinced that this question is a non-issue and a totally settled matter, the SELK, which is a partner church of the LCMS, has continued to allow the matter to be discussed in a variety of settings. If one reads the above reports, it is clear that there continues to be serious disagreement within the SELK on this theological matter. I have been informed that a significant majority of the SELK's theological experts (that is, its seminary professors and others with advanced theological degrees) favors women's ordination but a clear-cut majority of delegates, let alone a large consensus within the SELK, remains elusive.

I suspect that if one polled laity and pastors within the LCMS's urban congregations, especially including those pastors who have studied theology beyond the synod's M.Div. level and those laity who have received a university education, a significant majority would indicate their openness to the practice of women pastors. Certainly among the young LCMS people I encounter here at Valparaiso University, an overwhelming majority favors the ordination of women.

Sadly, the current climate within the synod is such that this issue cannot be discussed openly. Unlike the SELK, which does not threaten with expulsion those seminary and university professors who publicly favor the ordination women, the LCMS has any number of pastors who cannot tolerate within their midst anyone who might question the synod's position on this matter. Consequently, many pastors who might otherwise be open to the discussion of this issue keep quiet. They are rightfully fearful that if they would "come out" in favor of this practice, they could be subject to formal proceedings to remove them from their pastoral office.

Below are some comments that have been shared with yours truly in the wake of my recent post, "Imagine That," and a few others. For the sake of protecting the authors from reprisal, I have kept their names confidential (all have given me permission to quote them here):

From an LCMS-trained university professor (retired from a public university):
"A simply wonderful commentary! Examples of Strongly Held Supposedly Bible Based LCMS Beliefs That Have Changed During My Lifetime:
Women should not participate in Voters Meetings
Women should not serve as chairmen of parish boards that have male members
Social dancing is sinful because it causes lustful thoughts in males (seemingly no concern about the female perspective)
Having insurance is an example of a lack of faith in God's protecting arms
Church workers should not participate in Social Security because it mixes church and state
Racial intermarriage is theologically wrong (the view of a clear majority of LCMS members as late as 1967)
And going back another generation:  CFW Walther once wrote before the Civil War that the Bible would condone slavery in the US"

From a pastor who has served more than 35 years within the LCMS:
"Matt, Just want to let you know that your witness is appreciated and the way in which you carry out your ministry is respected by many.  Hang in there and keep the faith!"

From an LCMS pastor who has served for more than fifty years:
"This was a moving account. Thank you. Contrary to what I was taught in most religion courses at synodical colleges,  the Bible needs to understood in the context of its times. My literalist mind was changed when taking Al Glock's History of Israel at RF."

The same pastor sent me a follow-up note:
"I want to express my support for all that you have written on woman's ordination. As a bi-Lutheran worshiping in both Missouri and ELCA congregations and having had the blessing of being served by a women pastor in ELCA, I can attest to the value which such ministry brings to the church. By leaving women out of the picture, we are depriving ourselves of their many gifts.  It is our loss. In my father's last year, Pastor ----,( a woman!) ministered to him so compassionately that I have become convinced that it is God's will that women should be part of that priesthood."

From a LCMS-trained pastor/professor who is now in the ELCA and who taught church history at one of the premiere private universities in the U.S.:
"This one is your most powerful and passionate and clarifying yet. You will get vehement reactions, and they'll be testimony to the fact that this scores!"

From someone who has served as an LCMS pastor for 50+ years:
"I passed your 'Yesterday's Meeting' on to the daughter who is professor of Biophysical Chemistry at UNC Charlotte.    Her Research Focus:  'Structural information on biomolecular associations using the techniques of small-angle X-ray and neutron scattering, chemical cross-linking with peptide analysis by MS, selected-site mutagenesis and spectroscopy (FTIR, CD, UV-VIS); and visualized through the use of molecular modeling.'   I don't understand what she is doing although she usually puts a sentence or two in her publications for "my Dad."  
I wrote:  'Thought this report might be of interest to you....   maybe you can assign a student to look into how long it took God to make a man out of dust... '
Her reply:  Yikes. The LCMS is on a mission to peter out and die apparently. Poor Mr. Becker, he should reply with I’m not leaving the LCMS because it NEEDS me.  As for student assignments, I usually like to find projects for my students that have some level of hope for success.'"

From a long-time LCMS pastor:
"The group in Synod, reactionary to any change in the human world, continually reminds me of Jesus' comment about the similar group of that period:  'To what can I compare this generation?  They are like children sitting in the market places and calling out to others, 'We played our flutes to you, but you didn't dance.  We sang our dirges, but you didn't join our mourning.'

We're supposed to accept the description of theology created by their world-view, instead of following the Lord of the Dance and receiving His new life. You are in my continuing prayers!"

From a retired LCMS parochial school teacher:
"Wanted you to know this morning that we stand beside you and your family in prayer and encouragement."

From a recently-retired LCMS pastor:
"All I can give to your 'Imagine That' sermon is one word:  Wow!!!"

From a long-time LCMS pastor, who had forwarded my "Imagine That" post to his daughter. She had attended LCMS parochial schools, was raised by her LCMS pastor father and mother, is now an ELCA layperson. This is what she wrote to her dad:

"You just had to make me cry this morning, didn't you? 
Or:  You are the daughter of a LCMS Lutheran pastor and you can't imagine that all that discussion of worthiness can be wrong - worthy of going to the altar, or being behind it, and you listen to the very loud voices of fundamentalism tell you that many are called, but few are chosen, and you decide ahah! that explains everything - if Christianity is true, you simply aren't chosen.  And you don't only walk away from LCMS but from the narrowly interpreted Biblical God who, along with some of the world, seems to deem you, as a woman, worth less, or, worthless.   You find the agnostic world to be far more humble and therefore, more compassionate. 

Thank the true God for the twisted path that 20 years later allowed me to experience and see women valued at least by their professional Lutheran clergy colleagues (lets not kid ourselves about all the members of congregations), as equally valued and accepted at the altar.  How can you receive the wafer on one side of the rail and feel fully accepted into the full communion and grace of God, if you are congenitally not welcome on the other side of that rail?  One bread, one body?   

Perhaps when or as 'thy kingdom comes,' not only Lutherans, and ethnicities & races now at war, but women and men, will reconcile.  Could we get a head start and maybe cease now all the cutting down and whatever that battle of the sexes is supposed to be about, and appreciate each other in diversity and individual giftedness?"

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pericopes for the Week: From Buttonwood's "Faith and the markets"

Back in March, 1999, the Atlantic published an article by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox entitled, "The Market as God." He noted that the financial world is much like the religious world: both operate with arcane language, both have comprehensive myths that seek to reveal the inner meaning of human history, and both have rituals/sacraments. Both have their orthodoxies and heresies, their notions of salvation, and their calls to faith/trust in the words of the business/religious gurus, and, of course, both have their objects of "ultimate concern" (Paul Tillich's phrase, not Cox's). In the case of free-market capitalism, the Market is God.

I thought of Cox's important essay (of more value today than when it first appeared, I would think) when I read Buttonwood's column on page 76 in the May 28th Economist: "Faith and the markets." This week's pericopes will be taken from it:

"...Religion is largely a matter of faith, rather than scientifically testable propositions. But even in the financial markets, where participants worship Mammon rather than God, faith plays a larger role than its hard-headed participants would like to admit.

"...When it comes to assessing the prospects of a company like LinkedIn, a newly floated online business-networking firm, investors rely entirely on the assumption that the company's future growth can justify the stratospheric level of its current valuation... Buying shares in such a company is a leap of faith by any standard...

"...Finance even has its own high priests in the form of the analysts and fund managers who promise their clients heavenly rewards if only they listen to their advice. The preach regular sermons in the form of brokers' notes and quarterly reports, and they house themselves in vast cathedral-like buildings that dominate the skyline. Each day also has its canonical hours as traders pray for profitable opportunities at the European, American, and Asian market openings. Finance has its annual calendar, too, marked by festivals known as result seasons in which the lucky participants receive their temporal (rather than spiritual) dividends.

"And like any self-respecting religion, finance has its doctrinal schisms as well. Active fund managers are a bit like the medieval Catholic church, offering eternal salvation to whose willing to pay the appropriate sum, which are known in modern parlance as performance fees rather than indulgences. The active-investment sect has its elaborate rituals and language, with a liturgy ('information ratios' and 'alpha generation') as baffling to the layman as the Latin mass was to the medieval peasant. Clients are supposed to listen to their presentations in a reverential hush, trusting that all the mumbo-jumbo will deliver superior results.

"The passive fund managers, or index-trackers, are akin to early Lutherans. Investors have no need for priestly intermediaries between them and the market, say the index-trackers. All they require is the full text of those companies that are included in the benchmark.

"Finance also has its equivalent of holy men... [and it] seems to be polytheistic rather than a monotheistic faith..."

For the full column, visit

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Imagine That

Imagine that you are the young daughter of a female slave who lives in Colossae in the year 450. Unlike some other religious traditions that do not allow slaves to be members, the Christian churches accept slaves into their fellowship. You worship Jesus, in part, because he "had taken the form of a slave" and was beaten and crucified, as so many rebellious slaves had also been. You resonate with him and he is your Lord. Your mother is a Christian who serves in the household of a Christian slave-owner who is a man. Legally, you have no father. Your earliest memory is of your mother telling you that you, too, are a slave and that to be a Christian slave means that you are to "obey your earthly master with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ" (Ephesians 6:5). Why "with fear and trembling?" "Because if you disobey your master, you will suffer the consequences of your actions, he will punish you harshly, he will beat you, and he could even kill you. Legally, your master may kill you, since you are his property." Thus you must "obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourself into it, as done for the Lord and not for your master, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:22-24).  "You who are slaves, with respect and reverence you shall be subject to your masters as replicas of God" (Didache 4:11). Your earthly master is a type of the heavenly master.

And then the day comes when your master takes you from your mother and sells you to another master who is not a Christian. Now you can no longer obey your mother, since your master has authority over her as an order of God's creation. And now, in keeping with the apostolic command "to obey your earthly masters in everything," you must obey your new master who wants you to earn money for him through prostitution. While you know that your mother taught you that fornication and adultery are sinful, you know that legally your master may prostitute you. The dominion of your master is cruel, but you have no choice, no freedom. You are bound to obey your master "in everything." In the civil law, you have no recourse. You know that the social custom is for your master to treat you however he wishes. On occasion, he has sex with you as well. He would like you to give birth to additional slaves so as to enlarge his property. Your slave-master owns your sexual labor. As a Christian woman, you wrestle with how you are to obey Christ in this situation. How can you live a chaste life in this situation and still obey your earthly master in all things?

Imagine that you are the young daughter of a female slave who lives in Mississippi in the year 1830. Your mother is a Christian who serves in the household of a Christian master. Your earliest memory is of your mother telling you that you, too, are a slave and that to be a Christian slave means that you are to obey the apostolic commands that are given in Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22ff., Titus 2:9-10; First Peter 2:18-25; and Philemon. Your faith in God and your obedience to the institution of slavery are deeply woven together. If the Bible is right and the divine word of the eternal God, then slavery must be right, too, and in accordance with the will of the eternal God. This God demands that every Christian household have submissive, subordinate wives, children, and enslaved persons, and husbands/masters who are to love and not be overly harsh with the subordinate members of the household. And yet, you too are put in the position of having to obey your earthly master in all things, even when he makes sexual advances toward you (and blames you for being inherently lascivious), even when he encourages you to have sex with another slave so as to breed for your master additional slaves, even when he beats you for nothing at all. Then again, maybe by making yourself as attractive to your master as possible, you might be able to become his concubine and thus improve your lot in life.

Imagine that you are a Roman Catholic priest who lives in Georgia in the year 1866. How do you respond to the pope's statement that year after the end of the war: "Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons… It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged, or given"? You know that many, many Christians owned slaves in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. You know that at least one monk owned slaves. You know that church officials, priests, and bishops, owned slaves.

Imagine that you are a young adult, the Lutheran daughter of a former slave owner who lives in South Carolina in the year 1868. You have experienced from not-too-far-away the war between the states. You have joined your family in cursing the name of Abraham Lincoln. Your faith in the revelation of the Bible and your faith in the institution of slavery have been deeply woven together. You know that the Bible nowhere condemns slaveholding as a sin. It doesn't even enter your mind to think that slaveholding is contrary to the will of God. You believe as you have been told, that God's order of creation includes slaves and masters. Such an institution goes back to the ancient Jews (think of the biblical laws on slavery in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy!), that it was prevalent among the ancient Greeks and Romans, that even Christians owned slaves in the New Testament world, and that later Christians also owned slaves. You have heard your pastor preach on Genesis 9:25 to defend that the Negroes are the descendants of Canaan and that enslaving Africans is in keeping with God's order for creation. Your Lutheran pastor has said that all abolitionists are Bible-deniers, since the Bible nowhere supports the abolition of slavery. "Abolitionists utterly reject what the Bible clearly teaches." While you had witnessed some of the sinful excesses within the institution of slavery, you knew in your heart that slavery was right and God-pleasing since the Bible is right, and the New Testament commands that it contains about slavery are good, right, and true. But now that slavery has been done away with politically and militarily (but not theologically), your faith in the Bible is terribly shaken. For a time you doubt God, since every passage in the Bible that addresses slavery and that gives commands to slaves and masters mocks you and your faith, a faith that is intimately bound up with the orders of God's creation, an order that includes slaves and masters. The biblical teachings that you hold so dear have now been undone. If the institution of slavery is now gone, what other biblical institutions will also fall by the wayside? You don't have to wait too long for feminists to begin challenging the biblical subordination of women to men, just as abolitionists had been agitating against the institution of slavery. You now see that those who questioned the Bible's teaching about slavery have now begun to question its authority upon other social orderings. On what grounds can one reject one set of Bible verses as no longer relevant to society while insisting that other nearby verses still remain valid?

Imagine that you are the high-school-aged daughter of an LCMS pastor in 2011 and you think that God may be calling you to become a pastor...