Thursday, February 24, 2011

Collecting Manna: Lewis on Tolkien

"But why," some ask, "why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?" Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality...The imagined beings have their insides on the outsides; they are visible souls. And man as a whole, man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book Eomer rashly contrasts "the green earth" with "legends." Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is "a matter of mighty legend."

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by "the veil of familiarity." The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story; you might say only then is it real meat. If you are tired of a landscape, look at in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality; we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more dipping them in myth, we see them more clearly. (CS Lewis, "The Dethronement of Power," in Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, 14-15.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"I Don't Like You"

In honor of having spent the past three months listening to the Lord of the Rings on audiobook:

Looks like I should have just read Harry Potter instead...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hope for Hope, or, the Post-Liberal Avoidance of Lutheranism

One of my biggest consternations while at Duke Divinity School was the propensity of nearly every professor to extol the virtues of Lutheran theologians, while appearing resolutely committed to making every effort NOT to reveal that they are in fact Lutherans. While the foundations of what has come to be known as post-liberal theology (exemplified in the chimera of a Duke School) are laid of stone hewn from the quarries of Augsburg and Wittenberg, Lutherans are more readily identified as the architects of Dachau and Auschwitz. And rightly so. When it comes to examining the great fissures in the church's story, we are often accused of, and too often, share responsibility for, such specters as the Kantian epistemology, historical-critical method, Protestant liberalism, two-kingdoms nationalism, synergistic existentialism, the interiorization of the Gospel, and Hauerwas' personal favorite, the vocation of Christian hang-man.

Yet, when the names of such important theologians as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Lindbeck, the early Reinhard Hutter, David Yeago, Carl Braaten, and Robert Jenson are brandished in defense of narrative theology, ecclesial and theological ethics, it would be nice to hear the name of the Reformer given its due. Or perhaps, its fitting, given our tradition's focus on the hiddenness of the divine, and the striving to love without hope of merit or gain, but only for the service of the church, neighbor, and the Gospel. Every movement and every community is built on the backs and labor of its scapegoats, and post-liberalism is no different. Thankfully, Luther himself advocated ferociously against the attribution of the tradition to his own legacy, and perhaps it is a fitting sign of the fruition of the Reformation to burn out brightly, releasing its tired hold on the tribalisms of the past, for the sake of a more ecumenical, and thus more Christian, future.

That being said, in such a climate of Cavellian avoidance, acknowledgement is called for, if only to remind those who scorn the gifts of the Reformation of their inexorable entwinement with its continuing reverberations. All this is by way of an introduction to a stirring passage I ran across from LUTHERAN theologian Robert Jenson's oft-overlooked volume Essays in Theology of Culture. In an essay entitled "Hope, the Gospel, and the Liberal Arts," Jens argues that the freedom-seeking impulse of both Athens and Jerusalem, which led to the alliance of the liberal arts and the Gospel, is constantly under siege by nihilism, which he defines as "the escape of 'choice' (read: freedom) from community...consisting in excuse from responsibility for the other and for the storyline of my life so far, freedom that occurs on a horizon of sheer temporal senquentiality with no plot at all" (188). "Where freedom is abstract and arbitrary," he continues, "and needs no community, neither does it need arts. It is again no accident that where historical relativism rules, the liberal arts die."

Perhaps this lack of responsibility and acknowledgment can be said to extend to the freedom of a post-liberalism which excuses itself from presenting the whole story of Lutheranism for the sake of bolstering its own set of aims - sadly, a move that also too frequently entails an aping of liberal protestantism in its obsession with ethics devoid of the central Gospel message of Christ's redeeming work by which not only the community, but also the individuals, are made new creations by the work of grace alone. I have argued and continue to argue that without the Lutheran gift of the salvific reality of Christ, and the real transformation of individual Christians within community in and through relationship with Christ, then justice and ethics will continue to be merely a hipper and more sexy form of idolatry - albeit one that employs Barth and Hauerwas, rather than Harnack and Tillich. In acknowledging that, in Francesca Murphy's words, that "God is not a story," but is rather the Author of the poem that is the creation, by confessing individual and communal participation in sin, and by receiving the grace of the cross of Christ, the project of post-liberalism can only be enhanced. But I fear without a willingness to name, accept, measure, and engage the specifically Lutheran gifts qua Lutheranism (as well as Lutheranism's long-overdue obligation to return the favor - another story altogether), then the Gospel will never be complete, and therefore, not as faithfully proclaimed. A post-liberalism at peace with the fact that Christ died pro nobis (for me) will be stronger than one that merely sees Christ as the choice of a narrative among many that happens to give coherence to the communal life in which I find myself located. I suspect the current blind-spot regarding mission and evangelism will likewise be healed on both sides.

I leave many statements here unexamined, and much which needs further exploration. But I also wish to sign off with a passage from Jenson's essay, which serves as a fitting prayer for the remembrance, not just of individual members of Christ's body, but also, for the One who is her head, that she might have a hope which is generous, rather than a despair that is uncharitable:

There is hope for hope. The gates of nihilism will not prevail against the one holy catholic and apostolic church - though they may of course prevail against particular parts of the church and have sometimes done so - and therefore the gospel will be heard in the world so long as the world lasts, telling of the good news for whose coming we may hope. And therefore also there will so long as the world lasts be in the world a community in which hope is practiced.

It is of course, not guaranteed that Western civilization will last, or that its teaching and practice of liberal arts will last. Even less is it guaranteed that the Western part f the church will endure to the end, or even very long. But just because nothing along such lines is ever guaranteed, neither can we know that these things will NOT last, or suddenly be reinvigorated...A mighty tree came from that inconsiderable seed; why may it not happen again?

The first step is simply the recovery on both sides of the old alliance, of mere clarity about who we are and what we need. God willing, the Western church might yet remember that it is not an all-purpose volunteer religious society for whatever causes society currently defines as good. We can at any moment take to proclaiming the gospel. And if the church did that, then in the Western context its message would again as in ancient days be a word of hope for freedom, of hope for hope...(Eerdman's, 1995, 189)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Collecting Manna: C.F.W. Walther

While recently zoning out during a class, I came across an interesting online magazine, Gnesio: Online Magazine of Lutheran Theology. To all who think that sounds about as interesting as, say, the history of the formation of the Missouri Synod in the 1840s, I won't be offended. However, for those with Lutheran interests, its actually a pretty helpful site. I came across this quote, from C.F.W. Walther, who was instrumental in founding the LCMS in St. Louis - incidentally, not far from where my own German ancestors migrated, among whom were undoubtedly some of the new denomination's earliest members. While it was given as part of an address in the 1880's, its message is eerily prophetic, not just of the disgrace of German Lutheranism to come in a few decades, but also of the current degeneration in Lutheran preaching today, a century later. My family has since departed the church of our ancestors for more moderate shores, but I am proud these words are a part of my own Lutheran heritage, and pray they will continue to challenge me, and all preachers, not to take our vocation for granted.

The worst fault in modern preaching, my dear friends, is this, that the sermons lack point and purpose; and this fault can be noticed particularly in the sermons of modern preachers who are believers. While unbelieving and fanatical preachers have quite a definite aim, — pity, that it is not the right one! — believing preachers, as a rule, imagine that they have fully discharged their office, provided what they have preached has been the Word of God. That is about as correct a view as when a ranger imagines he has discharged his office by sallying forth with his loaded gun and discharging it into the forest; or as when an artilleryman thinks he has done his duty by taking up his position with his cannon in the line of battle and by discharging his cannon. Just as poor rangers and soldiers as these latter are, just so poor and useless preachers are those who have no plan in mind and take no aim when they are preaching. Granted their sermons contain beautiful thoughts; they do not, for that matter, take effect. They may occasionally make the thunders of the Law roll in their sermons, yet there is no lightning that strikes. Again, they may water the garden assigned to them with the fructifying waters of the Gospel, but they are pouring water on the beds and the paths of the garden indiscriminately, and their labor is lost.

Neither Christ nor the holy apostles preached in that fashion. When they had finished preaching, every hearer knew: He meant me, even when the sermon had contained no personal hints or insinuations. For instance, when our Lord Christ had delivered the powerful, awful parable of the murderous vine-dressers, the high priests and scribes confessed to themselves: He means us. When the holy Apostles Paul, on a certain occasion, had preached before the profligate and unjust Governor Felix concerning righteousness, temperance, and the Judgment to come, Felix perceived immediately that Paul was aiming his remarks ant him. He trembled, but being unwilling to be converted, he said to Paul: “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” But he never did call him. He had heard the sermon suited to his spiritual condition, and Paul’s well-aimed remarks had struck home.

The reason, then, my dear friends, why in the Lutheran congregations of our former home country Germany unbelieving preachers are nearly always in the ascendancy is unquestionably this: the sermons of the Christian preachers are aimless efforts. Unbelievers are increasing in the congregations about as fast as the Christian preachers are increasing, of whom there are considerably more now than when I was young. Why do they accomplish nothing? Oh, would to God that these dear men had the humility to sit down at Luther’s feet and study his postils! They would learn how to preach effectively. For the Word of God, when preached as it should be, never returns void.

May God help you in your future ministry not to become aimless prattles, so that you will have to complain that you accomplished so little, when nobody but yourselves is at fault because you have no definite aim when preparing your sermons and do not reflect: To such and such people I want to drive home a lesson, — not this or that person whom I am going to name, but persons in whose condition I know to be such and such.

However, while it is important that your sermons do not lack a special aim, it is equally important that your aim be the right one. If you do not aim properly, your preaching, after all, will be useless, whether you preach the Law or the Gospel. (from C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, Twelfth Evening Lecture’ (December 12th, 1889))

Friday, February 18, 2011

Collecting Manna: Martin Luther

Though he is generally considered one of the "villains" of 20th-century Lutheranism by many at LTSS, German theologian and Luther-scholar Gerhard Ebeling's certainly knows how to find good quotes from the Reformer. This one comes from his classic, though not-unproblematic, introduction to Luther's thought, and be-speaks the physical, embodied nature of the life of the mind. Encouraging for all of us sitting inside on a gorgeous day like today reading Luther and Ebeling!

To be concerned with words alone, whether as a teacher or writer, a lawyer or preacher, may appear a comfortable activity, while to ride in armour, to suffer heat, frost, dust, thirst and other discomforts, would be real work. It is true that it would be difficult for me to ride in armour. All the same, I would like to see the horesman that could sit still for a whole day looking at a book, even if he did not have to compose, think or read or worry about anything else. Ask a clerk, a preacher or a speaker what kind of work writing and speaking is; ask a schoolmaster what kind of work the teaching and education of boys is. A pen is light, certainly...but at the same time the best part (the head), the noblest member (the tongue), and the loftiest activity (speech) of the human body have to bear the brunt and do the most work, while with others it is the hand, the foot and the back or some similar limb which does all the work, while at the same time they can sing merrily and joke as they please, which a writer cannot do.
Three fingers do everything (so they say of writers), but the whole body and soul take part in that work. (Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970, 43.)