“For All the Saints”

Happy All Saints’ Day!  All Christians are saints–sinners, but also saints–and this is a day to celebrate the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints,  as it extends through time and space, in this moment and in eternity.  This includes your loved ones who died in the Christian faith and who now exult in Heaven.

Sometimes I find that when I sing a hymn, I rush past all of the poetry.  So let’s contemplate the lyrics from this classic hymn by William W. How (1823-1897):

1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6. But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Alleluia! Alleluia!

8. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

via “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest”.

Reforming the Church

Today is Reformation Day, the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences.  Some people have been criticizing Lutherans and others who celebrate this day.  Why should we celebrate the shattering of the universal church?

First of all, the posting of the theses did not shatter the universal church.  Luther was reforming the church, and it needed reforming.  Financial corruption (the sale of church offices, the indulgence and relic trade, profiting from Christians terrified of purgatory), sexual immorality (popes with illegitimate children whom they named bishops, brothels for priests, the notion that fornication is better than marriage for clergy under vows of celibacy), and political power (popes with armies waging war against other countries, popes claiming temporal power over lawful earthly authorities).  Even worse, the gospel of Christ was obscured in favor of an elaborate system of salvation by works.  To be sure, the medieval church taught Christ’s atonement on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, but in practice that was relegated to baptism only.  After baptism, Christians had to atone for their own sins in a complex penitential system, requiring the confession of each sin, works of penance, and even after absolution the punishment of those sins after death in purgatory (unless an indulgence was purchased or rewarded).

That the church needed reforming because of these practices is proven in part by the Council of Trent, which addressed the most blatant financial and moral faults, while keeping the penitential system, though also encouraging personal piety (another fruit of the Reformation over against what had become a mechanistic approach to religion).

The splitting of Christianity came when the Roman church excommunicated Luther for his stance on indulgences, even though it would later grant most of his points.

Reforming the church, though, is something to celebrate and something to keep working on.  I would argue that the same issues that sparked the Reformation are still problems in today’s church, including protestant and Lutheran congregations:  financial corruption (the prosperity gospel, religious scams), sexual immorality (scandals among pastors and church leaders; the pornography plague), political power (the new social gospel of both the right and the left).  And now, as then, we see the Gospel consigned just to first becoming a Christian, so that many people think of Christ’s atonement as applying to conversion, but feeling themselves now as being under the Law.  They have lost the sense of God’s grace and forgiveness as a continuing reality, available through the Word and Sacraments as the constant life force for the Christian life.

So we still need Reformation Day and we still need the message of the Reformation.

Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?

Why Paleo-Evangelicals are leery of Republicans

Thomas Kidd coins a useful new world–paleo evangelicals–and says why this brand of conservative Christians do not identify with the Republican party:

The paleo evangelicals are not liberal in any sense. They come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: some are deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation; some are sympathetic to Roman Catholic social doctrines and traditions (if not all Catholic theology and ecclesiology); some are deeply conscious of the church’s mission outside of America; some gravitate toward outlets such as The American Conservative or the Front Porch Republic, publications and blogs focused on the conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.

These paleo evangelicals keep the Republican party at arm’s length for three main reasons:

First is a deep suspicion of American civil religion. Civil religion seems to be a particularly prominent tenet of evangelical Republicans. But as this summer’s controversy over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies illustrated, there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Last week’s post at the Anxious Bench by Miles Mullin represents yet another example of a young, conservative evangelical who believes that Barton and other Republican activists have conflated American history too closely with evangelical theology and conservative politics.

Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his new Founders’ Bible.

A second reason they are reluctant Republicans is that the paleo evangelicals do not place much hope in any political party doing that much good in this world. Big political promises of hope and change typically come to naught, whatever party is making them. Although some might agree that churches and pastors have the constitutional right to endorse particular candidates, paleos think doing so mistakenly implies that, as a church, we put our trust in that candidate or party to advance the Kingdom of God.

A third reason that paleo evangelicals may only tepidly support the Republicans is because of problems with certain Republican positions. Among those is a reluctance to keep getting involved with new overseas conflicts, such as what happened in Iraq. Paleos may wonder whether a President Romney would draw us into a precipitous war with Iran. War really should be a last resort, the paleos argue. Another problematic issue is immigration. Though these evangelicals undoubtedly support tough border security, they understand that the illegal immigrants among us are largely here to stay, and they should dealt with as charitably as possible. Churches should always be welcoming to the stranger, and the paleos — including some non-Anglo evangelicals among them — hesitate to endorse policies that seem angrily anti-immigrant.

But on some of the most compelling issues, the Republican Party still seems like the best option for many paleos. [Daniel McCarthy writes about similar electoral choices facing traditionalist conservatives, at The American Conservative.] Are Republicans really committed to doing anything about abortion? Maybe not, but at least they’re likely to nominate judges who are open to allowing states to protect unborn children. Likewise with preserving the historic meaning of family and marriage, and honoring religious liberty: many Republicans may just pay these issues lip service, but at least they’re not fundamentally opposed to the traditional evangelical positions on marriage, religious freedom, and the unborn, as some Democrats seem to be.

via Paleo Evangelicals as Reluctant Republicans.

Does this describe you?

“Paleo” means “old,” as opposed to “neo,” which means “new.”  There are “neoconservatives” and “paleoconservatives.”  The word “neoevangelical” is already being used, referring to evangelicals who are trying to be new and up to date.  But there is a semantic space that needs to be filled for evangelicals who are trying to be classical and archaic.  Thus, “paleoevangelicals.”  (Whether those morphemes should be run together or hyphenated or kept as two words, as Dr. Kidd has them, will be sorted out with further usage.)  Can we speak of “neo-Lutherans”–ones that love contemporary worship styles–and “paleo-Lutherans”?  Those who resisted the Prussian state church and immigrated to America, among other countries, and who would later form the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod were called “Old Lutherans,” so “paleo-Lutheran would fit.

So are you paleo or neo?

The "nones" as hyper-Protestants?

More from that Pew study of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion.  It turns out that the 20% of Americans who check “none” when asked their religion are not necessarily complete secularist materialists.  Only 6% of Americans are atheists. Most of the “nones” seem to be simply people who have religious beliefs that are highly privatized.

The beliefs of the unaffiliated aren’t easy to characterize, as the Pew poll shows. The nones are far less likely to attend worship services or to say religion is important in their lives. But 68 percent say they believe in God or a universal spirit, one-fifth say they pray every day and 5 percent report attending weekly services of some kind.

via One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation, study says – The Washington Post.

Many American Christians have little use for church authority and focus instead on “me and Jesus.”  Many American churches do little with collective doctrines or corporate identity, emphasizing their member’s individual religious experience.  Aren’t these “nones” just the next step, going from the individual’s right to interpret the Bible for himself to the individual’s right to believe anything he wants, leaving the Bible out of it?  Though the Pew study says that Protestantism has declined to a mere 48% of the American public, aren’t the “nones” really just hyper-Protestants?

One fifth of Americans have no religion

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has published an important new study of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion.

One-fifth of U.S. adults say they are not part of a traditional religious denomination, new data from the Pew Research Center show, evidence of an unprecedented reshuffling of Americans’ spiritual identities that is shaking up fields from charity to politics.

But despite their nickname, the “nones” are far from godless. Many pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines.

Their numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to the study released Tuesday. About 19.6 percent of Americans say they are “nothing in particular,” agnostic or atheist, up from about 8 percent in 1990. One-third of adults under 30 say the same.  . . .

But the United States is still very traditional when it comes to religion, with 79 percent of Americans identifying with an established faith group. . . .

Members can be found in all educational and income groups, but they skew heavily in one direction politically: 68 percent lean toward the Democratic Party. That makes the “nones,” at 24 percent, the largest Democratic faith constituency, with black Protestants at 16 percent and white mainline Protestants at 14 percent.

By comparison, white evangelicals make up 34 percent of the Republican base.

The study presents a stark map of how political and religious polarization have merged in recent decades. Congregations used to be a blend of political affiliations, but that’s generally not the case anymore. Sociologists have shown that Americans are more likely to pick their place of worship by their politics, not vice versa.

Some said the study and its data on younger generations forecast more polarization.

“We think it’s mostly a reaction to the religious right,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has written at length about the decline in religious affiliation. “The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last 20 years is how they feel about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights.

via One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation, study says – The Washington Post.

I’m struck by the comment that a typical congregations would include people of different political beliefs and how that isn’t the case so much anymore.  (My impression is that churches that don’t mingle politics with the gospel, such as Lutheran congregations, still generally contain both Democrats and Republicans.  That’s evident in the commentary on this blog, which has people who are very conservative theologically representing different political positions.)

I am also struck by the contention that churches getting involved in politics seems to be a major factor in the rise of the “nones.”   I wonder how many pastors who want their churches to be ‘missional” and who make a point of adopting all of the church growth methodologies designed to make their congregation more attractive to the “unchurched” endorsed a candidate on Political Freedom Day, not realizing that this kind of political activism is exactly what is driving people away from churches.

 


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