Sunday, December 31, 2017

After One Year

One year is normally not such a long time in the life of an adult American, but given how quickly the tempo of the national news cycle has increased over the past eleven months and eleven days and how turbulent and perplexing the reported content therein has been, 2017 has seemed more like a decade than a mere annum. There has been just too much to ponder and remember from one day to the next, let alone from one week to the next or from one month to another. The most recent moment of presidential shock and disgust has frequently overshadowed all such previous moments, and stories of disturbing gravitas (e.g., Mr. Trump’s feud with a Gold-Star widow, the Las Vegas massacre, the hurricanes and Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis, the president’s repeated accusations against President Obama, the president’s defense of white nationalists, etc.) have faded. Mr. Trump’s “tornado of news-making has scrambled Americans’ grasp of time and memory, producing a sort of sensory overload that can make even seismic events—of his creation or otherwise—disappear from the collective consciousness and public view” (Matt Blegenheimer, NYT, Dec. 30, 2017, A16).

At some point this past year—I don’t remember exactly when—I gave up on Twitter. It got to be too distracting and disruptive, although I still got bits and pieces of it (what else does one receive?) via mainstream sources, which was more than sufficient. I also stopped the daily visits to Facebook. Weekly peering, or even fortnightly, was enough—and then only to see the latest photos from family and friends. In view of the administration’s attacks against “the media,” I was motivated instead to renew my print and digital subscription to “the failing New York Times” and to take out digital subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. These publications seem to be supervised by adults, have more stable content (which thus helps to form longer-lasting memories), rely on vigorous fact-checking, and correct their errors. So my morning devotions continue to include praying while reading these newspapers. On weekends, when there’s a little more time for such petitioning, the meditation expands to include the Economist, The New Yorker, and Der Spiegel.

Tonight I am grateful for memory, the capacity to learn from the past and to recall lessons from the past, both one’s own past and that of others (i.e., “history”). Santayana’s aphorism still rings mostly true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s cynical response: “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten.... Most kids can't afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.”) As a qualification to the Harvard professor's bon mot and as an outright criticism of Vonnegut’s rejoinder, on this night I want to carry forward Reinhold Niebuhr’s more hopeful, if also realistic view:  God is “a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.” History, I believe, does not repeat itself in endless cycles, one damn thing after another, so to speak. It may echo itself more or less, especially given the evident inevitability of humans to sin and be destructive, the instances of which do indeed share striking resemblances to one another, but it doesn’t form a never-ending circle, thank God, even if people regularly fail to learn from their past mistakes and those of others. Despite human destructiveness, human creativity blossoms, even (especially?) in times of political turmoil and crisis. American political satire and comedy seem to be doing pretty well these days. 

Since, as the Christian believes, God has entered time and space in a very particular way through the enfleshment of God’s Word in Jesus of Nazareth, God has graciously disrupted the flow of history itself. There is thus the summons to hold sober hope for the future, to trust that in the long run God's promise of ultimate justice and peace, of perfect mercy and love, will be fulfilled. God is in Christ reconciling the world to God! And that makes a difference for one’s present and one’s future. “Be reconciled to God!” God does not despise humanity; the divine Word became human for the sake of humankind. That promise makes all the difference in the world--and in the presence of God. “Go, and sin no more….”

There is freedom and responsibility in these gracious imperatives: “Be reconciled to God” “Go, and sin no more.”

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” That is the first line from Timothy Snyder’s important little book On Tyranny, published this past year by Tim Duggan Books. Snyder’s twenty imperatives echo several lessons I have tried to impart in my course on “Christians in Nazi Germany.” Snyder stresses the need to defend institutions (e.g., mainstream press, the justice system, public schools); to watch one’s language (words have implications); to believe in truth; to criticize lies and propaganda; to investigate (“Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you…. Take responsibility for what you communicate with others” [I would add: make regular use of fact-checking by more than one reputable, self-correcting news organization]); to establish and maintain a private life; to support charities and non-governmental organizations; to keep calm in times of national crisis since tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency” (James Madison). 

In my course we also wrestle with the questions: why did so many Christians support and defend Hitler? Why did so few Christians resist him and his policies? Why have evangelical Christians supported tyrants and wanna-be tyrants?

Another important book from 2017 is One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Press), by E. J. Dionne, Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Not only does it provide perceptive insights into “the perils of Trumpism,” but it does summon one to active engagement. Some of the same lessons that Snyder sets forth appear here, too: the need to support mainstream print media (investigative, accountable, self-correcting journalism); to practice and defend moral norms in our civic life (character counts; virtue matters); to criticize authoritarianism and the fascist politics of the far right; to renew democracy; to reform the American marketplace to provide opportunity and justice for all.

And lest you think that tyranny and fascism cannot take root in the US, may I encourage you to read or re-read Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 prophetic novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

Tonight I am also grateful for the capacity to forget. Such an ability is a gift of divine grace. While we may not and should not forget the past, that is, to dis-remember it intentionally or to trivialize it or ignore its terrible aspects or refuse to learn from it, God promises to forgive and forget our sinful past--and this should have consequences for how we treat our past and that of others. God’s own forgiveness of our sins is connected with God’s promise to forget our sins and remember them no more. “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43.25). In the New Testament, too, God promises to be merciful toward sinners’ iniquities. “I will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8.12). That God promises to forgive and forget our past sins should have a bearing on how we treat the past, both our own and that of others. There is a kind of gracious forgetting involved in receiving God's forgiveness. In this way, we do not allow the past to dominate our present. We do now allow the past to overcome us and paralyze us. There is thus something promising about giving up one’s past to God, of letting it go in repentance and faith, of letting the past—all of it—go under, of letting it be buried under God’s grace and mercy, of letting it become forgotten by grace. As dangerous and irresponsible as this notion could be, there is a kind of grace wrapped up in "forgetting" the past. 

Remembering and forgetting are both essential aspects of responsible Christian living.

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Post-WWII Debates over the Roman Catholic Church in Nazi Germany

Earlier this week the NYT reported a story about the sentencing of twenty-nine former officials from Argentina who were convicted of murdering civilians by throwing them from aircraft. These crimes took place during the military dictatorship there from the mid-'70s to the early '80s. Part of the story is the apparent complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the junta’s crimes. According to the Times, while "no member of the clergy was accused in the trial, ...prosecutors alleged that church officials were complicit in hiding detainees from international human rights inspectors." For more on this story, go to:

In the same week, Pope Francis was criticized by human rights officials for not referring by name to the Rohingya people during his visit to Myanmar. It was widely thought that the pope needed to tread carefully regarding what he said about Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority while in that country, at least partly out of concern for his own Catholic flock there. Only yesterday, on the eve of his departure from Bangladesh to Rome, did he publicly state, "The presence of God today is also called Rohingya."

These stories brought to mind a recently published book by Mark Ruff, a professor of history at St. Louis University. His 394-page book, The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany 1945-1980 (Cambridge, 2017), explores the public post-war debates in Germany about the Roman Catholic Church's actions during the Nazi regime. Ruff's well-written and carefully researched study sheds a light on the very acrimonious exchanges in the German media during those years when Roman Church critics and Roman Church defenders waged their struggles against each other. To explain the intensity of these conflicts Ruff reconstructs the political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual networks in which this particular "culture war" occurred. These networks "controlled levers of funding, regulated access to historical documents and served as a gateway to the international media at a time when most documents lay under lock and key and a modern scholarly infrastructure with its ubiquitous conferences and research centers was in its infancy."

Ruff shows that the range of participants in these public arguments crossed national boundaries and German political parties and included professors, public intellectuals, international journalists, Communist propagandists, and leaders from multiple religions (including Vatican officials and also Pope Paul VI). The book opens a window to many of these personalities. In the end, the reader will have a better understanding of the less savory aspects of these public disputes--the involvement of the East German government, the actions of Vatican officials against church critics at Catholic universities and religious institutions, the course of lawsuits (and "the court of public opinion" about them), efforts at press censorship in Germany and other countries. Still, the book also provides a very insightful investigation into intellectual history, with aspects of political, social, and cultural history serving as the larger framework.

I definitely plan to assign portions of the book near the end of my undergraduate course on Christians in Nazi Germany, when we examine how Christians and others in the post-war period sought to come to grips with what Christians had done (and not done) during the Third Reich.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to mention that Mark Ruff is a dear friend. I have known many members of his extended family since 1986, when I lived in the home of one of his great aunts, Dorothy Ruff, who was a member of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Lancaster, Ohio, where I did my year-long pastoral internship (vicarage). Later, for nearly a decade, Mark and I were close colleagues at Concordia University, Portland, where he taught history. (Mark is also an excellent organist. He played the organ at my father's funeral.) My wife played matchmaker for Mark and his future bride, Lynnae. I was best man in their wedding. Mark's father, a retired LCMS pastor, is also a good friend, as are another aunt and uncle. (They recently participated in my Reformation tour to Germany.)

Still, I think I'm a fair judge of quality scholarship when I see it, and Mark's book is certainly of very high quality! I learned a lot from reading it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

All Luther-ed Out

A week ago today my son and I returned from Germany, after having led a group of 108 pilgrims to places connected with Martin Luther and J. S. Bach in observance of the 500th Anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. There were many moving parts during that fortnight set of experiences, none more memorable than the morning worship at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, on Oct 31st, followed by a hymnfest at the Castle Church, Wittenberg, later that afternoon. Both events included Valpo's chorale, which sang one of Bach's Reformation cantatas (BWV 79: "Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild") in the morning and then multiple pieces in the afternoon, including "Into the Light," which was composed this year by Jake Runestad and commissioned by Valparaiso University for the special anniversary. Runestad's work, which ties together distinct ideas from several reformers, and Valpo's chorale were big hits in Germany.

Before the Oct 29 Service at the Erfurt Monastery

On Sunday, Oct 29, our group worshiped with the local Lutheran congregation at the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt. When the local pastor learned that three groups of Americans would be present for worship that morning, she asked me to read the Old Testament lesson in English and another group leader to read the appointed Gospel reading. At the conclusion of her sermon, the pastor then offered a very helpful summary of her homily in English. Following Holy Communion that morning, more than one person told me, "Today is one of the top ten days of my life." That same comment was made by several others a few days later on the actual anniversary date, after the three-hour service at St. Thomas Church and the two-hour concert at the Castle Church. (My son and I found ourselves seated directly beside Luther's grave during that latter service. I couldn't help but give the grave stone a little "pat" at the end of the evening....) Earlier that day in Wittenberg I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Pr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, the current bishop of the SELK. (The group and I noticed that the pastors who preached and presided at the Lutheran services in which we participated in Erfurt and Leipzig were women.)

31 Oct 2017: seated under the pulpit, next to Luther's grave
Photo by Jon Hendricks
I delivered mini-lectures most every morning to the plenary group and then offered color commentary as Jacob and I rotated among our group's three buses. Altogether we visited Berlin (major exhibit on the reformer at the German National Museum), Eisleben (Luther's place of birth and death), Eisenach (where he was a young student and where Bach was baptized), the Wartburg Castle (where Luther was sequestered by Fred the Wise and where he translated the entire NT into the local German dialect), Erfurt (where he attended the university and joined an Augustinian monastery), the Coburg Castle (as far south as he could travel safely to be in close communication with those attending the 1530 Augsburg Diet), Leipzig (where he debated Eck in 1519, and where Bach was director of music for 27 years), Wittenberg (1.5 days' worth of activities and museums), Weimar (where Bach was a court composer and music director),  Buchenwald (which allowed us to ponder "Luther and the Holocaust" and to remember Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and Dresden.

Foci for my mini-lectures included Luther's childhood and education, his theological "breakthrough," Augustinian monasticism then and now, Luther's illnesses and "Anfechtungen," the 95 Theses, Luther and the Jews, Luther and Bach in Eisenach, the Wartburg Castle and German nationalism, Bach's Reformation cantatas, the German Protestant churches today, and the history and architecture of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Given that German Chancellor Angela Merkel (daughter of a Lutheran pastor) and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (son of a Reformed pastor) were both in attendance at the Castle Church, Wittenberg, on Oct 31st (indeed, one in our group shook hands with Frau Merkel and briefly spoke with her), I devoted one lecture to "German Politics Today." Each morning I offered some additional commentary on the cover stories of the local and regional German newspapers (and on that week's issue of "Der Spiegel"). So our discussions were not only about the sixteenth century and Martin Luther.

Jacob and I at the Zwinger Museum in Dresden

Once again, EO Tours put us up in some really nice digs and provided us with very good food at all of our group meals in the evening.

I am now looking forward to July 2020, when my colleague, Gretchen Buggeln, and I will be leading the next Valpo alumni tour. For that two-week tour, we will examine church art and architecture from NW Germany, France, and England. The tour will include a Rhine River cruise, a visit to a French champagne cellar, museums and churches in Aachen, Trier, Paris, Chartres, London, and Oxford, and lectures/commentary by Gretchen and yours truly. More on this tour at a later time.

Needless to say, I'm ready to take a break from all things Luther!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

One "F" von Hofmann

Late last month I received my gratis copy of the Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, edited by Timothy Wengert and published by Baker Academic. This very large reference work (more than 800 pages) contains nearly 600 entries, ten of which are by yours truly: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Werner Elert, Erlangen, Johannes von Hofmann, Theodosius Harnack, J. A. O. Preus, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Jaroslav Pelikan, Edmund Schlink, and Ernst Troeltsch. For information on this important book, go here. It will now likely become the standard one-volume resource on Lutheran theology and church history in English, at least for the next generation or two. (Professor Wengert and most of his associate editors are "talking heads" in the recent PBS documentary, "Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World," which was broadcast locally this past Tuesday. For information on that film, go here.)

Johannes C. K. von Hofmann (1810-77)
Unfortunately, there is an error in the dictionary, actually, a set of errors. Due to a copy editor's mistake at Baker, Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann's name is misspelled in my entry and in every other one that refers to him. Throughout the book his name is spelled "Hoffmann." Thankfully, the overall editor at Baker, who immediately apologized for this mistake, has corrected this set of misspellings in the electronic version of the book. (This is one of the blessings of contemporary publishing, namely, that such errors can be immediately fixed, at least in the e-versions of a product.) The editor at Baker has promised to make sure Hofmann's name is spelled correctly in subsequent editions.

Since I devoted a few years of my life to studying and writing about Hofmann's life and work, the principal fruit of which was my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, I have tried to make clear how his name is to be spelled. Yes, this has been a pet peeve of mine, partly because a few American scholars have misspelled his name over the decades. Having read everything this Bavarian ever published, I can verify that the title pages of all of his books print his name as Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann. One "f." Two "n"s. That's true, too, for all of his numerous journal articles and magazine editorials.

If you have purchased a hard copy of the first edition of the Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, please note the correct spelling of this important nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian. If you know of someone who has purchased this volume, let that person know this, too. Thank you.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Die Vergangenheitsbewältigung

The Germans have a large word for it: Die Vergangenheitsbewältigung; literally, "coming to grips with the past." My Duden dictionary defines it as a "public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history."

As far as I can tell, this term was coined shortly after the Second World War, when Germans had to wrestle with their immediate past: the country's defeat in the First World War; the rise of fascism in the Weimar period; the racist and nationalistic rhetoric of multiple minority parties; the economic and political chaos of the twenties and early thirties; the ineffective parliament; the appointment of Hitler (whom many mainstream politicians considered a "joke" and a "buffoon"); the "emergency measures" that led to the abolishing of all political parties, other than the NSDAP (the Nazi Party); the Nazis' scapegoating and violent actions against communists, democratic-socialists, Jews, and other "undesirables"; the aggression against neighboring countries; the War; the Shoah; the country's total defeat in 1945; the horror of it all--and then the rebirth in the fifties, which was accompanied by tensions and conflicts of a related kind, when so-called "guest workers," who were mostly from Turkey, put down roots and came to see themselves as more than "guests."

After the Second World War, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung included a debate in Germany about what to do with the concentration camps. While the process of that discussion was complicated, far more so than I can summarize here, it basically involved two opposing positions. On the one hand, some argued that the camps should be torn down, demolished, covered over, replaced with something more positive. "Best to forget what happened here, and move on." On the other hand, some argued that the camps should be kept pretty much as they were in 1945, to make them into Gedenkstätte, literally, "places of thought," "places to think about the past," that is, as "memorials." "We must not forget. We must re-member. Let the camps be turned into museums that can remind later generations of what transpired here. Let them be warnings: Never again!" This latter position prevailed, and so today one can visit any number of Gedenkstätte in Germany, Poland, Austria, and other places.

To this day, all German high-school students must visit a concentration camp as a part of their high-school curriculum. They must confront a past that they did not choose, one for which their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents bear more or less responsibility, although many of the students have no familial connection to Germany in the 1930s and 40s, since their families came to Germany after the war. Still, all students must deal with what transpired in their country in the not-too-distant past.

In just a few months, I will be leading 108 Americans to Germany for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the course of that pilgrimage, we will visit Buchenwald, whose camp clock is still set to the time when the Allies liberated that place of horror.

On my last visit to that memorial a few years ago, after viewing the many haunting and disturbing exhibits in the two-story museum (the former depot, which is down the slope from the famous entrance gate), I came upon the place where visitors can leave public comments and reflections. Most of the notes and poems I read that day expressed some form of regret or shock for what had happened or some form of hope that such an evil would never happen again. A few acknowledged, "That was my great-grandparents' generation, not mine. I don't want to be burdened with the guilt that they alone should have borne, but I will do what I can so that such suffering and death never occur again." That afternoon, I must have read seventy-five comments like that one. But there was one hand-written note on that final memorial wall that has stuck with me and haunted my memory. It was a note from one of those millions of German high-school students who must "come to grips" with Hitler and the Holocaust and the terrible past of German history. It was a simple note:

"Die Juden erhielten was sie verdienten." "The Jews got what they deserved."

I had to read the note twice to make sure I had understood it properly. Yes, that's what was written. This unsettling, nauseating note, included among several other high-school notes from just a few weeks earlier, was posted in 2015.

How did that anonymous student come to have such hatred? How could that person visit such a place as Buchenwald, with all of its disturbing artifacts and graphic pictures and the matter-of-fact explanations and descriptions, and still find the energy to write what he or she did? (Was it a Muslim-German student who wrote this? A Christian? A cynical, nihilistic kid from a disillusioned and distraught family? Who?)

I thought about that note this past weekend, as I watched the terrifying images from Charlottesville. The young man who plowed into the crowd of counter-protesters there, killing a young woman and severely injuring so many others, is probably the same age as that anonymous former German high-school student, a mere twenty years old.

Jim Wallis has rightly identified slavery as "America's original sin." How ought we as a country to come to grips with that horrific past, including the war that did and did not end it? A past that is, frankly, still very painfully present today? How should we remember that history? What should our Gedenkstätte be? What "places of thought" should we require our high-school students to visit? Where can we "come to grips" with our troubled past, even if we can't really, fully work our way through it? From where comes the healing?

(As a Christian, I believe there is an ultimate, Spirit-worked, Christ-centered healing for the evil and sins of racism and nationalism and fascism and militarism. That healing comes through repentance. It involves remorse for past sins, including those that we have inherited from our forebears, and the desire to make right what has been wrong. Most crucially, for Christians, that healing is grounded in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit to free people to love unconditionally and to work toward reconciliation, peace, and the renewal of society. But how difficult it is to articulate and convey that "good message" and the promise of Christ and the Spirit, when white supremacists and nationalists appeal to Christian symbols and thereby distort that message and contradict it and undermine it.)

I recently re-read the three-volume "narrative history" of the civil war by Shelby Foote, a native Mississippian. While this work is dated, and although it contains portions that seem to glorify that war and perhaps even suggest a kind of "moral equivalency" between officers and soldiers on both sides of that conflict, it is a monumental work of national memory that should be read by every American. I can think of few better ways to come to grips, if only initially, with that key turning-point in the American past. In that sense, Foote's trilogy is a kind of national Denkmal (memorial) for one part of our troubled yesterday.

Instead of defending "war-hero" monuments and memorials that were erected by southern racists in the time of Jim Crow, read Foote. (Or watch the Ken Burns' documentary, in which Foote is a central commentator.) The still-standing pieces of southern metal and stone from the 1920s and '30s--ostensibly erected to remember Lee and Jackson and other leaders of a lost and wrong cause but whose real intent was motivated by fears and hatreds at the time those memorials were dedicated--do not move our civic memories forward in any positive way. They only serve to project post-WWI hatred and racial bigotry into the present. Read instead the words of Foote, including those near the end (p. 971!) of the "Bibliographical Note" in his second volume (completed in 1963):

... Further afield, but no less applicable, Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Illiad put a Greekless author in close touch with his model. Indeed, to be complete, the list of my debts would have to be practically endless. Proust I believe has taught me more about the organization of material than even Gibbon has done, and Gibbon taught me much; Mark Twain and Faulkner would also have to be included, for they left their sign on all they touched, and in the course of this exploration of the American scene I often found that they had been there before me. In a quite different sense, I am obligated also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen that it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction--deriving, as it does, its scale from the performers--is in miniature.

While we might initially object to Foote's use of "least admirable" here, since those words suggest there was something "more admirable" in those who fought to defend slavery and the confederacy--and we do not like to think there was--still, Foote's criticism of the racism he saw in his own troubled day indicates that people can learn from their nation's past sins, repent of them, "lessen their sectional bias," and work so as not to allow history to terrify in its approximations. With Foote, we can hope that history will not repeat itself. Of late, however, my hope is being sorely tested.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Christ in the University: The Vision of Schlink

Last week the journal of my university, The Cresset, published a revised version of my professorial lecture that I delivered last February. It examines the vision of Christ in a church-related university that was set forth by the Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink (1903-1984) in his own inaugural lecture at Heidelberg University three score and ten years ago.

As I note in the introductory paragraph, Schlink's professorial lecture still speaks meaningfully to the contemporary situation of a church-related university. His vision is worth re-visiting.

If you'd like to read the essay version of my lecture, it is available online here.

Addendum (4/27/18): I recently learned that this essay on Schlink won the 2018 Associated Church Press award of excellence for a theological or scholarly article (all media platforms). You can read about the award here.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Luther and the Holocaust

Nothing is uglier and more disturbing in Martin Luther's writings than his late-in-life, hate-filled polemics against the Jews. In his infamous 60,000-word 1543 booklet, "On the Jews and Their Lies," he urged secular rulers to burn all synagogues and Jewish schools, to raze all Jewish homes and properties, to confiscate Jewish religious writings, to prohibit teaching by Jewish rabbis, to give Jews no safe conduct on the highways, to stop them from money trading, to send their young men into forced labor, and to expel those who refused to be baptized. Two other anti-Jewish writings from the same year, "On the Schem Hamphoras and on the Lineage of Christ" and "On the Last Words of David," also contain extreme language that is consistent with late-medieval anti-Judaic polemics and that seems to have been motivated by rumors about German Jews blaspheming Christ and of Jewish attempts to convert Christians. (For a brief overview of Luther's writings on the Jews, see esp. Gregory Miller, "Luther's Views of the Jews and Turks," in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology, ed. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L'Ubomir Batka [Oxford, 2014], 427-34).

As Martin Marty rightly notes, it doesn't really help to stress that Luther's verbal attacks here seem to have been motivated largely, if not exclusively, by theological concerns, not primarily racial ones: he hoped that the Jews in the "latter days," which he thought was "now," would read their Bible the way he did, Christologically, as pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Christ, and he got bitterly angry when "the rabbis" saw things differently. So "he struck out at them as enemies of the gospel" [Martin Marty, Martin Luther (Viking, 2004), 169].)

Today, living in the shadow of Auschwitz and remembering the murders of the six million Jews at the hands of Nazi perpetrators--many of them German Lutherans who appealed to the Great German Reformer to justify their attitude and actions--Luther's role in "the teaching of contempt" and his actual wrathful words can only be condemned. That his writings are a part of the pre-history of the Holocaust cannot be ignored. Even when some might point to mitigating factors (e.g., "expelling unbaptized Jews is not quite as bad as trying to annihilate them") or stress how here he shows just how much he was a man of his time (e.g., Erasmus and John Eck were other prominent Jew-haters of that era), we cannot exculpate him or explain away his vitriol and vulgarity. (It is shocking to see garbled passages from "On the Jews and Their Lies" being posted on the internet today by neo-Nazis.) Most Lutheran churches (cf. "The Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community") and the Lutheran World Federation have rightly, publicly condemned Luther's antisemitism and all forms of hatred toward the Jews.

As many scholars have noted, Luther should have known better. Eric Gritsch's recent study of Luther's antisemitism (Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism [Eerdmans, 2012]) is subtitled "Against His Better Judgment." After all, Luther had published a widely read explanation to the Fifth Commandment ("You Shall Not Kill"): "We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life's needs" (Kolb/Wengert, 352). He had regularly preached against hatred of others. Luther certainly did not condone the mass murder of men, women, and children. Earlier in his life, in 1523, he had published a rather remarkable essay for its day, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," which, largely free of the hostility he expressed later on, taught that Christians should not mistreat Jews but be guided by "the law of Christian love" in their actions toward them (LW 45.229). Christians and Jews, he insisted against the anti-Judaism of the Roman Church, shared a common ancestry. Unlike his medieval forebears, Luther frequently taught that "we and our great sins and gross misdeeds nailed Jesus, God's true Son, to the cross" (WA 35.576), and thus "you, poor Judas, we dare not blame, nor the band of Jews; ours is the shame" (ibid.; trans. by Denis Janz, The Westminster Handbook to Martin Luther [WJK, 2010], 78 [slightly rev.]). Moreover, Luther could have viewed Jews from the center of his theology, namely, justification by grace alone through faith alone in the universal atoning work of Christ. The principal scholarly biographer of Luther, Martin Brecht, thus concluded that "in advising the use of force, [Luther] advocated means that were essentially incompatible with his faith in Christ" (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols. [Fortress, 1990-93], 3.350-51). Still, we can only contemplate with the Marburg Lutheran theologian, Hans-Martin Barth, about why there is no connection between faith and love in Luther's anti-Jewish writings, when elsewhere he so strongly stresses that connection. Why could Luther never see "the Jew" as his neighbor? "Why did [Luther] not appeal to his Jewish contemporaries by pointing to the justification of the ungodly? Why is his faith not expressed in good works toward Jews as well, as the Reformer otherwise expects and often declares? If there is no answer to these theological questions, how is it that Luther, the lover of Hebrew and the Old Testament, reacted with such prejudice, and indeed hatred, to the living tradents of the Hebrew language and Bible?" (Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment [Fortress, 2013], 30).

Since I am myself a Lutheran Christian and teach at a Lutheran university, I tend to focus on Lutheran theologians in my course on "Christians in Nazi Germany" (e.g., Althaus, Asmussen, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Elert, Hirsch, Niemoeller, Schlink, Tillich). In that course we also examine Luther's anti-Judaic writings and their reception among Germans between the sixteenth century and the early twentieth. One of the questions we address is, "To what extent does Luther bear responsibility for the Shoah, the mass-murder of European Jews during the Nazi regime?" We look at the evidence and arguments put forth by those who blame Luther most of all for what happened to the Jews during the reign of Hitler. For example, we note that Luther's portrait appears prominently in many Holocaust museums, along with descriptions of his anti-Judaic writings. We also look at assertions by the American journalist, William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), the German writer, Thomas Mann, the Anglican priest, R. W. Inge, and his friend, Peter Wiener (Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor [Hutchinson, 1945]), as well as the following statement by Harvard emeritus professor of law, Alan Dershowitz:

Toward the end of his life--and at the height of his influence--Luther articulated a specific program against the Jews which served as bible of anti-Jewish actions over the next four centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. In many ways, Luther can be viewed as the spiritual predecessor of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, virtually all the themes that eventually found their way into Hitler's genocidal writings, rantings, and actions are adumbrated in Martin Luther's infamous essay "Concerning the Jews and Their Lies." ...It is shocking that Luther's ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches. (Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah [Little, Brown, and Company, 1991], 106-7).

To the above, we can now add the statement by Yehiel Poupko and Rabbi David Sandmel that appeared in the May 10th issue of The Christian Century. Poupko and Sandmel were responding to Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson's essay on Luther that had appeared in the March 15th issue of that magazine. One of their concerns arose from having read the following lines by Wilson: "Luther's fame and eloquence, not to mention his being German and therefore charged with guilt by association with the Nazis, causes him to come under fire more often than others. But the truth is worse: the whole church has been anti-Judaic from the get-go" (Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson, "Still Reckoning with Luther," The Christian Century [March 15, 2017]).

In response to this, Poupko and Sandmel write:
While we agree with most of this statement, it does not adequately describe the direct connection between Luther's Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism--it was more than mere "association." Though Luther cannot be labeled a racial anti-Semite in the 19th-century meaning of the word, his anti-Jewish writings provided a roadmap for later Nazi anti-Jewish actions. Luther's hostility was an absolutely necessary but decidedly insufficient cause for the Nazi murder of the Jewish people. (Yehiel Poupko [Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago] and Rabbi David Sandmel [Anti-Defamation League, New York], The Christian Century [May 10, 2017], 60)
Was Luther's hostility toward the Jews an absolutely necessary cause of the Shoah? This question must be taken quite seriously. If I understand the clarification offered by Poupko and Sandmel correctly, it appears that they think the Holocaust could not have happened were it not for the publication of Luther's anti-Judaic writings, that without Luther's hatred of the Jews the Shoah could not have occurred. That judgment, it seems to me, is questionable, at least if one closely examines the history of the effects of Luther's writings on subsequent generations of Germans, the long and sordid history of racial antisemitism in Europe (both before and after Luther's time), and the differing motivations between Luther's theologically oriented writings (which do, in fact, contain antisemitic statements that are in conflict with the center of his theology) and the Nazis' racially-oriented acts of scapegoating and murder.

I cannot here explore the multiplicity of perspectives on the topic "Luther and the Jews." It is, as they say, a complicated issue. Nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to some works by other scholars that my students and I have found helpful for gaining some clarity. In addition to the important final chapter and conclusion in the above work by Gritsch (pp. 97-142), there is the important essay by Johannes Wallmann, "The Reception of Luther's Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century," Lutheran Quarterly 1/1 (Spring 1987): 72-97, which demonstrates that Luther's 1523 writing was far more well known, studied, and appreciated among German Christians in subsequent centuries than his 1543 works, which were largely ignored, unknown among the mainstream laity, and even criticized by fellow Lutherans (e.g., by his own wife, Katie; by the Lutheran Hebraist, Osiander; by other Lutherans, such as Urbanus Rhegius and Johannes Brenz; by Lutheran Pietists who were concerned for missionary work among Jews). "[Luther's] recommendations concerning social policy in regard to the Jews seem to have had little direct impact, even in Saxony, although they continued to provide a theological framework of interpretation and contributed to fierce anti-Judaism among some Lutheran clergy in the century after Luther's death. Only in the late nineteenth century did his severe anti-Jewish writings have renewed widespread influence, albeit shorn of their original theological context and placed in the framework of developing German anti-Semitism" (Miller, "Luther's Views of the Jews and Turks," 431). (In my opinion, Gritsch gives too much weight to a horrific comment Luther is supposed to have made at his dinner table about how he would kill a blaspheming Jew, if he could. Luther's "table talk" comments are notoriously unreliable as sources. How much beer or wine had the one remembering the supposed comment imbibed? What about Luther himself? Most all context is missing.) Another work that offers a solid refutation of the position of Shirer et al., is the important dissertation by Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth (CPH, 1995).

Still another important and most helpful study is the new work by Thomas Kaufmann, Luther's Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (Oxford, 2017). Following the path taken by the late English Luther scholar, Ernst G. Rupp, whose own criticism of the position taken by Wiener et al. is devastating, Kaufmann argues that the appropriate way of dealing with "Luther's Jews" is to see them in historical context, "by locating the reformer in the history of medieval anti-Semitism" (Kaufmann, 151). In this history, according to Rupp (and Kaufmann), Luther is an appalling, disgraceful chapter, but no more than one chapter. Seeing him in historical context "is the only option," one that "creates the right critical distance" (Kaufmann, 156). But that historical context, as Kaufmann stresses, also includes the history of the reception of his writings. The most extreme consequence of that history is how the Nazis claimed Luther's support for their policy of extermination of the Jews.

Certainly, Rupp, Gritsch, Kaufmann, and several other historians reject a simple "causation" between Luther's anti-Judaic writings--which largely reflect the hateful perspective he had received from his medieval teachers, one that was shared by Erasmus and others, and then transmitted in numerous ways to subsequent generations--and Hitler's racist-nationalist-pagan-technological program of Jewish annihilation. Historicizing Luther means both relativizing his work and making it possible "to resist the tendency to read modern ideas into historical figures and subjects" (Kaufmann, 159). In light of the work by Gritsch and Kaufmann, it is difficult to see how Luther's anti-Judaic polemics is an "absolutely necessary, if insufficient cause of the Holocaust." To be sure, Luther's hateful words against the Jews, later used by several Nazis, likely made Hitler's aims easier to execute, but it is quite possible, alas, that the Shoah would have occurred, even if Luther hadn't written those words. More plausible is the thesis of Milton Himmelfarb; "No Hitler, No Holocaust."

In the fall, I will be leading a group of 120 alumni and friends of Valpo University to Germany in order to observe the official anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Valpo's chorale will be singing in the Castle Church on October 31. My group and I will be visiting places connected with Luther and J. S. Bach, including Buchenwald. On the day of our visit there, I will tell my fellow travelers, we cannot avoid addressing the issue of Luther and the Holocaust.

Addendum (6/7/17): My wife, my mother, and a few other Lutherans have told me over the past couple of days how troubled they are to have learned about Luther's antisemitism and his hateful polemics against the Jews. I have responded briefly to them by noting that Luther was a sinner like the rest of us, that he, too, needed God's unmerited forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The heart of Luther's theology thus applied to Luther himself, namely, God's justification of the ungodly.

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).