Thursday, May 7, 2020

Generous Orthodoxies

Here's a new book that I'd like to recommend: Generous Orthodoxies, edited by my friend, Paul S. Peterson, who teaches at Heidelberg University. Paul kindly invited me to write the chapter on Edmund Schlink.

Generous Orthodoxies

For information on the book, go here.


Monday, April 27, 2020

Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year"

Back in March, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an editorial about how the covid-19 pandemic might bring out the worst in people. You can read that piece here. In the editorial, Brooks refers to Daniel Defoe's book, A Journal of the Plague Year, which offers an account of the 1665 London plague, as told by a fictional saddler who had remained in the city while the wealthy fled. That reference led me to revisit this book that I had not read since college. I highly recommend reading it, as Defoe shines a light on human motivations and behavior that we see today in our own health crisis.

The saddler could have left London but chose to stay because he's convinced that God would preserve him "in the midst of all the death and danger that would surround me." "...If I attempted to secure myself by fleeing from my habitation, and acted contrary to these intimations, which I believe to be Divine, it was a kind of flying from God, and that He could cause His justice to overtake me when and where He thought fit." When his brother casts doubt on these convictions, the saddler reads the 91st Psalm, which led him to become more resolute than ever: "[F]rom that moment I resolved that I would stay in the town, and casting myself entirely upon the goodness and protection of the Almighty, would not seek any other shelter whatever; and that, as my times were in His hands, He was as able to keep me in a time of the infection as in a time of health...." Throughout the book the saddler shares his theological views, including his conviction that the plague is God's judgment and that a proper response to it involves spiritual meditation, humility, and repentance for one's sins. (In this respect, A Journal of the Plague Year is similar to Defoe's more well-known work, Robinson Crusoe, which is also quite theological in nature.)

A Journal of the Plague Year offers a masterful, vivid depiction of a diseased city and of the many different types of people living--and barely living--in it. Defoe's saddler plumbs the depths of human depravity, while also recounting numerous acts of kindness, mercy, and self-sacrifice. Still, what stands out in the narration are the lengths to which individuals will go to preserve themselves in the face of incomprehensible suffering and widespread death from disease.

Defoe, who was a mere five years old in 1665, wrote this account in 1721, when the Black Death was again threatening England. He was troubled that so many of his fellow citizens were seemingly indifferent to the danger. He wanted to warn them of the misery that was coming, and to share with them the lessons he thought people had learned from that earlier disaster.

What struck me, as I re-read the book, are the many parallels between scenes in the "journal" and events of today. We read about how the rich and wealthier citizens were able to flee the city with large stores of goods and food, and so escape the sickness, while the poor people were stuck. Business owners and family members are angry that the government has restricted their freedom. Defoe devotes many pages to the delusions of the masses. "The apprehension of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times, in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since." It seems that conspiracy theories were as rampant in 1665 as they are today (and Defoe makes a point of stressing how those who devised these "follies" made some money in the process).

Out of desperation, citizens bought and used quack remedies, some of which caused the user to die. (On the day I was reading about those "remedies," President Trump was talking publicly about encouraging doctors to look into injecting disinfectant into people as a possible cure for covid; he also wanted scientists to investigate how to shine light and heat into sick peoples' bodies to serve as yet another "cure"....) The saddler: "There is no doubt but these quacking sort of fellows raised great gains out of the miserable people, for we daily found the crowds that ran after them were infinitely greater" than those who went to reputable doctors.

While the Saddler is quite religious and even occasionally theological (reflecting a form of Calvinism), he doesn't hesitate to criticize "bad religion." "Neither can I acquit those ministers that in their sermons rather sank than lifted up the hearts of their hearers...."

The saddler generally commends the government for having taken the public measures that it did "for the general safety, and to prevent the spreading of the distemper," although he concludes that shutting people up in their homes and restraining them did little good on the whole. The need for food and supplies ensured that the disease would spread: "...[N]othing was more fatal to the inhabitants of this city than the supine negligence of the people themselves, who, during the long notice or warning they had of the [plague], made no provision for it, by laying in store of provisions, or of other necessaries, by which they might have lived retired, and within their own houses, as I have observed others did, and who were in a great measure preserved by that caution.... [T]his necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted.... However, the poor people could not lay up provisions, and there was a necessity that they must go to market to buy, and others to send servants or their children; and as this was a necessity which renewed itself daily, it brought abundance of unsound people to the markets, and a great many that went thither sound brought death home with them."

Still, the saddler generally supports the government's actions for the sake of the public's overall good. In such a time of crisis, individual freedoms need to be curtailed.

Other parts of the book resonate with today's headlines, too: e.g., the lengthy complaints against the government's orders by business owners, whose businesses suffered and failed during the health crisis; the decision of individuals and families to leave their homes, visit taverns and eating establishments, and who thereby got sick (and got others sick) and died; the rise in theft and fraud; the poor who "went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage"; and so on.

It seems to me that someone could write the story of the covid-19 pandemic by using Defoe's template and even some of his pertinent paragraphs. A constant, common refrain in both books would be, "Lord, have mercy."

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Photos from My Trip to Concordia-Portland

I spent last week in Portland, Oregon, smiling, laughing, and fighting back tears on the campus of my alma mater, Concordia University, which will soon be closing its doors for good. It was a bit of a pastoral visit, too, in order to share in the grief of friends who will be losing their employment at the end of April. Through watery eyes and despite my feeble attempts to offer a word of encouragement, there was also a lot of joy, as I was able to see quite a few friends, former colleagues, and abiding mentors. I also got to sit in on a class taught by one of my former students (the focus of which was Luther's understanding of "vocation"). A current Concordia student, who also happens to be the school's student body president, will be transferring to Valpo in the fall. She'll be continuing her degree in social work. (We shared a few laughs, as I told her about my own experiences in that same office long, long ago.)

Particularly meaningful were the precious minutes I spent contemplating the liturgical artwork that once hung on the chancel wall of Concordia's "Chapel of the Upper Room," a space that was later "secularized" and purposed for other aims. This art, which now hangs in the relatively new (!) library, is by Ernst Schwidder (1931-1998), who graduated from Concordia (high school) in the same class as my dad, the class of '49. Later, Schwidder taught art at Valpo, where he also created many sculptures and other artworks that hang today in church buildings, hospitals, and other venues around the country. So I definitely share "a sense of place" with Schwidder, a fellow Pacific-Northwesterner who was transplanted to the Midwest for a season. (Like the artist, I hope to return to my native country when my vocation here comes to its end.)



While in Oregon I was able to celebrate the 117th birthday of Edmund Schlink, whose 830-page "Ecumenical Dogmatics" will be the second volume in the collected works that I am editing and co-translating. Co-celebrating with me on the eve of that occasion was my co-translator, Hans Spalteholz. I first met him forty years ago, when I was a freshman at Concordia. On that day, we both were late for chapel. A year or two later he introduced me to Schlink, whose writings have now become intimately linked to us both. Here we are four decades later, still working together, still running late, still modeling the NW-plaid style of shirts we both like to wear, still learning from the famous Heidelberger. I’m deeply grateful for Hans'  friendship and mentoring through the years. By God's grace, we will keep on plugging along.

"Happy Birthday, Dr. Schlink!" "R. I. P., Concordia-Portland!"


Taking a Break from Translating Schlink's "Ecumenical Dogmatics"



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Checking a Definition in Cassell's

The "Becker Brick" at Concordia Portland



At Concordia University, Portland, between Luther Hall and the Hagen Center, is a small circle of bricks that memorializes alumni and faculty. Here is a photo of the "Becker Brick" in that memorial courtyard:




One night last week I was tempted to sneak onto campus with a chisel.... But that wouldn’t have been right— and the Portland PD would have easily found their prime suspect.

Still, I told some of my local friends, "Can you keep an eye on those bricks? My family and I would like to get ours back...."


Grandpa Emil - high school class of ‘18 (also on the university faculty in the 1930s)

Uncle Robert - high school class of ‘46

Dad David - high school class of ‘49

Yours truly- university class of ‘84 (also on the university faculty from '94 to '04)

Sister Melissa - university class of ‘91

Wife Detra - university class of ‘97 and ‘00