Thursday, April 27, 2017

A One-Day Workshop on Luther's Approach to Biblical Interpretation


The Christian Church today is divided by differing understandings of Biblical authority and Biblical interpretation. These issues were also at the heart of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s dispute with the established church 500 years ago.

How did Luther understand the authority, the content, and the purpose of Holy Scripture? How did his views change over time? And what, if anything, does this mean for us?

Instructor: The Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker (Ph.D., the University of Chicago), Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind.

One-day Workshop: Thursday, May 18, 9:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

This workshop is also being offered as a live or recorded webinar at the same price as attendance in person. Sign up deadline for the webinar is May 8. An online registration key will be emailed to those signed up for the webinar in advance of the event.


Aquinas Institute of Theology

23 S. Spring Ave.,

St. Louis, Mo. 63108

Tuition (lunch included): $45 by May 4; $50 after May 4

To register for this course, PD 131, click here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pericopes for the Week: Orwell and Arendt

Like thousands of other troubled Americans, I have been re-reading George Orwell and Hannah Arendt. I first read their writings in a required freshman-level humanities course at Concordia College, Portland, Ore. That was in the fall of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

George Orwell

In light of yesterday's delusional tweets (not to mention earlier Alice-in-Wonderland tweets that have now been definitively falsified in the House Intelligence Committee hearing) and the subsequent WH briefing, here are six pericopes for the week, two from Orwell's classic 1984 and four from Arendt's timely 1971 essay, "Lying in Politics," which she composed in the wake of the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

First, Orwell (from chapter one of the book, the forbidden text that Winston secretly reads near the middle of 1984):

Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is the need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The key word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. (George Orwell, 1984 [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949], 175)

...Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies--all this is indispensably necessary (ibid., 177).

Hannah Arendt
And now Arendt, who offers a glimmer of hope:

Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The liar, who may get away with any number of single falsehoods, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle. This is one of the lessons that could be learned from the totalitarian experiments and the totalitarian rulers' frightening confidence in the power of lying--in their ability, for instance, to rewrite history again and again to adapt the past to the 'political line' of the present moment or to eliminate data that did not fit their ideology....   For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.... The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.... That the public had access for years to material that the government vainly tried to keep from it testifies to the integrity and to the power of the press even more forcefully than the way the Times broke the story. What has often been suggested has now been established: so long as the press is free and not corrupt, it has an enormously important function to fulfill and can rightly be called the fourth branch of government. Whether the First Amendment will suffice to protect this most essential political freedom, the right to unmanipulated factual information without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax, is another question. (Hannah Arendt, "Lying in Politics," as quoted in Crises of the Republic [New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972], 7, 31, 36, 45)

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Tour of Stade/Schwidder Churches in Chicago

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Des Plaines
The collaboration between architect Charles Stade and his liturgical designer/artist, Ernst Schwidder, produced some remarkable church buildings and worship environments in the Chicagoland area in the 1960s. Stade, who was also the principal architect and designer for Valpo's Chapel of the Resurrection, designed four suburban churches in the early 1960s that received awards from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. These same churches--St. Paul Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, St. John's Lutheran in Lincolnwood, Good Shepherd United Methodist in Park Ridge and St. Peter Lutheran in Arlington Heights--were selected in 1978 by the AIA and the Chicago Historical Society to become part of the Chicago Architectural Archive.

St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit
According to Stade's obituary in the Chicago Tribune (he died in 1993), one of his teachers had told him once, "If you like people, you will do something that will make them happy; it could just be a good cocktail lounge."

His design preparations included getting close to the people who would use his buildings, "to walk and talk and eat and live with them," and, in the case of church buildings, also to worship with them.

For additional information on Stade, who attended Concordia University, Chicago, and was a life-long Lutheran Christian, go here.

Ernst Schwidder
Schwidder, who was the son of a Lutheran pastor, became the first director of the arts department at Valpo. He began his collaboration with Stade in the early 1960s and left the university to work full-time with Stade in 1963. Even after returning to his native northwest, Schwidder continued to work closely with Stade on several church projects. According to the website devoted to his work, "During this transition, [Schwidder] shifted his methods from those of a painter to those of a sculptor; he worked first with repoussé copper and later with wood carving. He preferred rough-hewn surfaces with chisel marks, textured for touch. On more than one occasion, he humorously called himself a 'chiseler.'”

For additional information on Schwidder, who died in 1998, go here. An exhibit of some of his artistic creations will be on display at this year's Institute for Liturgical Studies, April 24-26, on Valpo's campus. For info on that, go here.

On Sunday, April 23, my colleague Gretchen Buggeln (Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts), Pr. Joel Nickel (emeritus pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church, Stayton, Ore.), and I will be leading a pre-ILS tour of several of these churches: St. Peter Lutheran Church, Arlington Heights (where we will also worship); Immanuel Lutheran Church, Des Plaines; St. Mary Catholic Church, Des Plaines; Korean Bethany Presbyterian Church, Lincolnwood (formerly St. John Lutheran Church); St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit; and Peace Memorial United Church of Christ, Palos Park. We will also drive by a few other Stade church buildings, for example, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Park Ridge, and we will visit his former house there, which also contains some Schwidder art.

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Des Plaines
Dr. Buggeln, who has written extensively about Stade, will examine his distinctive style of church architecture. Pr. Nickel, who is an artist in his own right and an expert on Schwidder, will comment on the latter's liturgical art. I will throw in my occasional two cents regarding the theological significance of these worship environments.

The tour will leave Valpo's Arts and Sciences parking lot at 8:30am on Sunday, April 23, and will return to our campus around 9:30pm. The cost for the tour (including a box lunch) is $65. The group will also eat dinner together at a Chicago area restaurant (for an additional cost).

For more information and/or to register for the tour, please contact me at my Valpo email address: Space is limited.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Christ in the University: Schlink's Vision and the Valpo Tradition

What: A Public Lecture on Schlink's Vision of Christ in the University and the Valpo Tradition
Who: Prof. M. Becker
When: 3:30pm, Thursday, February 16, 2017
Where: Room 205 in the Christopher Center of Valparaiso University
Edmund Schlink

In the wake of the Nazi transformation of Heidelberg University in the 1930s and early '40s, several individuals who were called to Heidelberg after 1945 began to work toward that university’s renewal. Among these professors was Edmund Schlink (1903-1984), one of the most important Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century. His 1947 professorial lecture set forth his understanding of the relationship between Christian theology and all other university disciplines. In this lecture he also called for fruitful dialogue between theology and the other university disciplines as a way of strengthening the university’s overall mission. What was this vision? How does it compare with the Valpo theological tradition that began to take shape in those same post-war years? How might Schlink’s understanding of “Christ in the university” inform our life and work together at Valparaiso University today?

Monday, January 30, 2017

All Are Welcome in This Place!

The following message, "All Are Welcome in This Place," was emailed to our campus community yesterday afternoon (1/29/17) by our university president, Dr. Mark Heckler. He's given me permission to reproduce it here. I fully agree with Dr. Heckler's message and will do everything I can to resist and speak against Friday's executive order by the President of the United States.

All Are Welcome in This Place

“I was a stranger and you invited me in.” — Matthew 25:35
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff:
Valparaiso University is constituted by people of different backgrounds and beliefs in dialogue with one another in the common pursuit of Truth. Those of us who have chosen to link our destinies with this place — whether faculty, students, alumni, staff, or friends — value, respect, invite, and welcome a wide array of opinions, beliefs, and cultural practices. This, we believe, is fundamental to our truth-seeking enterprise. Therefore, we are called to dialogue across our differences — even when those differences may be irreconcilable.   
As an institution of faith and higher learning rooted in the Christian intellectual tradition, we take Jesus’ words from Matthew 25 to heart when he says, “I was a stranger and you invited me in … Truly I tell you, whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters, you do for me.” Similarly, the Quran encourages adherents of Islam to “do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet).” — Q:4:36
Valparaiso University rejects messages and actions rooted in prejudice, racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. Our dear friends and colleagues — the international students, faculty members, staff members, and members of our local communities — are our sisters and our brothers and those neighbors who are near and those neighbors who are strangers. All of these members of our community, and our Muslim students and faculty members in particular, are an integral and necessary part of our truth-seeking journey. They are Valpo. And because they are Valpo, they dedicate their time, leadership, and service for the sake of the world. Whenever any member of this community falls victim to hateful actions and speech it is our moral duty, to speak out against intolerance and injustice and to demand change.
On Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, the President of the United States signed an executive order that suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days. The order blocks entry to the U.S., for at least 90 days, for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It targets Muslim-majority nations. The order also suspends the issuance of visas and other immigration benefits to nationals from these countries. It is unclear whether this list of nations will be expanded in the future or even if the executive order is legal. Over the weekend we saw people, bearing legal documents like green cards and valid visas, barred entry to the U.S. and held for extended periods of questioning even if they had legal documentation with them. To the best of our knowledge, all of Valpo’s current faculty and students from the affected countries are accounted for and safe.  More specific information and advice will be provided to all international students by the Provost’s office, and an information session is being planned for early this week.  
As we navigate these difficult and polarizing times, where truth-seeking and truth-telling becomes ever more precious, I implore you to remember what we are called to do together in this place as members of the Valpo community. I encourage you to be in dialogue with one another with humility, care and respect. I remind you of the life and example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his transformative national movement for peace, justice, and equality through non-violence. Finally, I share with you the statements adopted unanimously by Valparaiso University’s faculty and student senates that repudiate anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiments. May we use this moment in our nation’s history to reaffirm our values as a community committed to freedom, faith, inclusion, and dialogue. And may we continue to cherish our diversity — using our words and actions to model for others what it could look like to live in a community where love abounds and where mutual dialogue and understanding flourish.
Thank you for all you do to make our community a beacon of light and a source of hope in this troubled world.
President Heckler's Signature
Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
Valparaiso University

Friday, January 20, 2017

Pericope for the Week, the Day, and the Coming Quadrennial Period

At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the green herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow weary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life's dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart" (sermon on the text of Matthew 10.16; preached in the summer of 1959)

"O Lord, ...Can wicked rulers be allied with thee, who frame mischief by statute? ...[The Lord] will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out" (Ps. 94.20, 23).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dr. Cornel West at Valpo for MLK Day 2017

Dr. Cornel West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Seminary, New York, was on Valpo's campus today to deliver the keynote address at our Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. And what an amazing, moving, motivating speech/sermon it was. I hope to provide a summary of it (and possibly an online link to a recording of it) in the coming days. It was a speech that needs wide distribution and careful pondering. I told him afterwards, "Your words today touched our souls." What a gracious, compassionate, and prophetic man he is. Thank you, Dr. West!

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Economist on the Influence of Martin Luther

The Jan 7 issue of the Economist contains a brief piece about Martin Luther's influence on German culture, a topic that will likely be the focus of further public reflections during this important anniversary year. (This article is based in part on Christine Eichel's interesting Deutschland, Lutherland [Karl Blessing, 2015]). To read the article, go here.

One hopes that other secular newspapers and magazines, even when reporting about Luther's influence on today's saeculum, will depict his basic theological themes more accurately than is the case in the above feature.

Portrait of Martin Luther (1532) - From the Workshop of Lucas Cranach
"In silence and hope will be your strength"

To be sure, the Economist article rightly notes Luther's influence on German music, the German book industry, German literacy, and German attitudes about money, and it notes Luther's anti-Semitism and the decline of both major streams of Christianity in twentieth-century Germany (especially in the northeast, where Wittenberg is located), which can be (tenuously) linked to unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation. Those connections between old Wittenberg and modern Germany seem straight-forward and noteworthy.

But the article gets some things wrong, actually quite wrong. Start with justification by faith alone, a teaching that became the central issue in the crisis that developed after the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses. The article asserts that the Wittenberg professor "believed that Christians were guaranteed salvation through Jesus but had a duty to live in such a way as to deserve it." Anyone familiar with Luther's basic teachings would see the flaws in the language here. Luther held that no one "deserves" salvation, not even the Christian. All human beings are sinners through and through, who deserve nothing but God's wrath and judgment. Of themselves they can do nothing to change this condition. Salvation rests solely on God's forgiveness and grace, on account of Christ alone. The gift of forgiveness and salvation is received by faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any human action. While Christians are called to thank and praise God, and to serve and obey him, they do these actions in response to God's gift of salvation, not because they could ever "live in such a way as to deserve it."

What about Luther's views toward the visual arts? The article states that for Luther "this was, like everything else, a serious matter.... Ostentation was thus a disgraceful distraction from the asceticism required to examine one’s own conscience...." Thus, according to the article, Luther had a "distaste for visual ornament," in common with other Protestant reformers. Really? I don't think so. While Luther certainly emphasized the ears as the proper organ of faith ("so faith comes from hearing, and what is heard comes from the preaching about Christ" [Rom. 10.17]), he took a neutral attitude when it came to images in the church. Against the iconoclastic incitement and violent actions of his one-time colleague Andreas Bodenstein v. Karlstadt, Luther held that images and statues need not be destroyed, as if they were inherently dangerous to the faith, but should be subordinated to the more effective preaching of the justifying gospel. In any case, such preaching itself gives rise to mental images, as Luther himself acknowledged. "When I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it" ("Against the Heavenly Prophets," LW 40.99-100). Thus, Luther was not troubled by such mental images, as were Karlstadt and some of the Swiss reformers. Luther had a different spirit from Zwingli. The later Luther (post-Karlstadt and after the 1525 "heavenly prophets") took a more positive position with respect to what we today would call the visual arts. While admitting that anything that's imaged can become idolatrous, he held that the incarnation itself legitimates the visual representation of that Word and his deeds. Images can serve the Word. So Luther was never an iconoclast, and, at least after the early 1520s, he cannot be accurately described as a "devout ascetic." For a helpful summary of Luther's views toward images, see John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibility (Crossroad, 1986), 61-66.

Besides, the material culture of Luther's Reformation includes artistic artifacts (prints, woodcuts, medals, paintings, altars) by Luther's mayor, friend, pharmacist, and drinking buddy: the artist Lucas Cranach Sr. He and unnamed artists from his workshop visually represented key emphases from Luther's teaching and preaching, e.g., theology of the cross, infant baptism, distribution of both kinds in the sacrament, the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. And just where did those portraits of the Great Reformer, and of his wife Katherine, originate? (I should add that the depicted visages on those Cranach roundels can hardly be described as "dour.") And what of the woodcuts and engravings of that Luther-inspired Dürer? Not to mention the symbolism of Luther's seal, the Cranach Sr. woodcuts in the various editions of the Luther Bible, and the paintings and altar pieces by Cranach's Lutheran son (including especially the "Law and Gospel" one in Weimar that was begun by the father and finished by the son)?

Lucas Cranach's Portrait of Martin Luther - 1525

Lucas Cranach's Portrait of Katherine v. Bora - 1525

Frankly, I would rather read Luther's actual sermons--and develop a mental image of the five-foot-two-inch preacher delivering them as he knelt in that little wooden pulpit in Wittenberg--than to listen to any finger-wagging, goody-two-shoes moralist from our era. "Humourless"? "Rigid moralism"? These are not the words or images that come to mind when reading the famous Thüringer's homilies or when pondering the many anecdotes and sayings that surfaced in conversations with friends and students over food and drink at his dinner table. Imagine having been a fly on that wall!

Luther's role in the development of modern Germany is crucial, if also quite complicated and ambiguous. (BTW, he probably didn't nail the theses to the Castle Church door but mailed them to his superiors.) However, one stretches the connections beyond the breaking point when one tries to link him to Bauhaus or IKEA. While his words and actions certainly fit with aspects of contemporary German concerns for Ordnung, Autorität, and Grundprinzipien, these seem more the result of eighteenth-century Prussian militarism than anything the sixteenth-century friar and rebel said or did.

In any case, perhaps the growing public attention on Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses will lead some to work their way through a good biography of the reformer or, even better, to begin reading a volume or two of his sermons. Perhaps a few will even do what some of us are doing this year, namely, reading through all of the volumes (old and new) in the American Edition of his works (1955--present).