Cultural engagement requires the Sacrament

Peter Leithhart, a Reformed pastor and theologian, says that what evangelicals need if they are going to respond effectively to our time is to recover Holy Communion:

Evangelicals will be incapable of responding to the specific challenges of our time with any steadiness or effect until the Eucharist becomes the criterion of all Christian cultural thinking and the source from which all genuinely Christian cultural engagement springs.

The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross. . . .

Sharing the Supper forges us into a corporate body that participates in Christ through the Spirit. By the Spirit, we become what we receive: “We are one body because we partake of one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). In practice, Evangelicals don’t partake, and so we aren’t a body. When we do partake, we don’t partake together. We aren’t a body with many members so much as an aggregation of individuals. There’s little point in asking what “message” the “church” needs to proclaim unless we can speak of a church with something resembling a message.

In addition to the ecclesial, the political consequences of our Eucharistic neglect are almost beyond calculation. The great French Catholic Henri de Lubac traced in intricate detail how the sacredness of the table slowly migrated first to consecrate the institutional church and then to sanctify the state. Evangelicals are intensely protective of the “sanctity” of the flag, but many would be puzzled at the classic Eucharistic announcement, “Holy things for holy people.” Lacking a rightly ordered Supper, modern Christians wrap nationalism in a veil of sanctity, with sometimes-horrific results. In the U.S., Christians are frequently urged to give political support to this or that variation of Americanism. There is no genuinely Christian alternative because the church has no defined public shape with the resilience to withstand the political forces that press in on us.

As it is in politics, so is it in economics. Because we don’t take our bearings from the table, the growing debate among Evangelicals about how to constitute a just economy lists awkwardly from hedonism to asceticism and back. The Supper ritualizes a Christian vision of production and distribution as it catches up our economics into the economy of God. By the Spirit, bread and wine, products of human labor, become vehicles for communion with Christ.

As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann pointed out long ago, the Supper discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. Not only this bread, but all bread, all products of human work, can be means of fellowship with God and one another. Further, we receive these products of human labor, with thanks; as a gift of God. Thus the table discloses the mystery of the creature’s participation in the Creator’s creativity, and this participation produces goods that are ours only as gifts received, goods to be shared and enjoyed in communion.

The Supper closes the gap between joy in creation and pious devotion to God. At the table, delight in the taste of bread and the tang of wine is delight in God, though this double delight is not unique to this meal. Every meal and every moment, every encounter and every project burst with the promise of communion with God. This world, Schmemann said, is the matter of God’s kingdom.

Evangelicals move away to Constantinople or Rome at an alarming rate, often because they lose hope of finding even a glimmer of liturgical piety in Evangelical churches. They’re hungry, and they believe they have found where the banquet is happening. Luther and Calvin would be aghast, for in their eyes the Reformation was an effort to restore priestly food to all of God’s priests as well as an effort to recover the gospel of grace.

All the cultural and political challenges that Evangelicals face come back to the Supper. It’s important to do it right, but it’s more important to do it and to do it together. Until we do, most of our cultural chatter will continue to glance harmlessly off our targets. Until we do, Evangelicals will flop and flounder with every cultural wind and wave.

via Do This | First Things.

As a Lutheran, I appreciate this call to recover a spirituality centered in the Sacrament.  (And, I would add, evangelicals looking for this in Rome or Constantinople would do well to first see it closer to home in Wittenberg, where they would find that they wouldn’t have to cease being evangelicals in order to be sacramental.)  I know some Calvinists are being accused in their circle of crypto-Lutheranism.  But is this particular view of the Sacrament, however “high” it seems and for all of its presence talk, all that Lutheran?  Amidst all of the talk of identifying the church and engaging the culture and reforming the economy, where is the “given for you for the remission of all of your sins”?  Or could these other benefits become ancillary effects?

Has Lutheranism caused secularism?

A Danish scholar looks at the influence of Protestantism–specifically, Lutheranism–on modern Scandinavian culture.  Some of her conclusions:

Lutheran Protestants are free from religiosity

For centuries, Lutheran Protestant Christianity in Northern Europe and the US taught our ancestors that there was nothing they could do to make God think better of them. Neither good deeds nor giving money to the church was seen as having importance in the eyes of God.

“For Protestants, life can be good just as it is. Life does not have to be lived in any particular ’religious’ way in order to have a good relationship with God,” says [Matias] Dalsgaard.

Protestants are free from obligations to God. They don’t have to live according to strict rules. Instead they have been charged with a rather nebulous task.

“Protestants are commanded to live an ordinary life together with other people. It is a tough task because Protestants are not told specifically how to do this,” says Dalsgaard.

‘Protestant’ countries have a culture of freedom

Throughout history, Protestant Christians have tried to manage their freedom in the best possible way. Over time, this has permeated the culture in countries that subscribe to the Protestant tradition, even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background.

In Denmark, Sweden, the UK and Germany, this freedom meant that around 500 years ago, citizens started to become what is termed ‘modern’. It occurred after the Reformation in Northern Europe in the first half of the 16th century.

In this context, ‘modern’ has nothing to do with fashion, but means that people feel more free to make their own decisions without causing others to react negatively to those decisions.

“One could go as far as to say that the Protestant tradition squeezes out religion, because it rejects the idea that something holy exists here on Earth,” says the researcher.

Kierkegaard furnishes a good example

The author has analysed a large number of the most significant Christian texts. But the most important writer referred to in his book is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

“Kierkegaard is perhaps the sharpest existential analyst in the Lutheran Protestant tradition. He is the one who best presents the existential challenges, conflicts and opportunities. That is why I use him as a starting point,” he says.

You shall not know yourself

Kierkegaard describes the situation in which modern people find themselves today. In his book ‘Either/Or’, Kierkegaard introduces a person whom he calls ’the aesthete’. This is a man who cannot find a way to ‘choose himself’.

Kierkegaard criticises the aesthete for not choosing himself. Instead, he avoids himself by constantly acting out multiple roles.

But although you should ’choose yourself’, there is no prescription for what to choose, because you cannot find a core that is yourself.

“The Delphic Oracle – which existed in Ancient Greece – said ‘know thyself’. But Kierkegaard says ‘choose yourself’ – it is action-oriented. You should actively be the one you are, where you are – and not think so much about who you are. This is a task given to us by God,” says Dalsgaard.

via Protestantism has left us utterly confused | ScienceNordic.

This scholar, of course, misses the distinction between orthodox Lutheranism and the liberal, culturally-conforming state church.  Kierkegaard’s emphasis on “choosing” would not seem to go well with Luther’s “bondage of the will.” And, of course, there is nothing about Christ, much less the Law (which destroys all complacency–I thought guilt and gloominess were part of the Scandinavian legacy!) and the Gospel.  Or the Cross.  The notion that one can have the influence of Christianity without Christianity–  “even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background”–is  ludicrous on the face of it.

And yet, aren’t there some valid observations here?  Lutherans, even orthodox ones, do seem to have less “religiosity.”  And there is quite a bit of the doctrine of vocation here:  “live an ordinary life with other people”; “you should actively be the one you are, where you are–and not think so much about who you are.”

Oklahoma Democrats

I blogged earlier about the  political beliefs that characterize my beloved natal state of Oklahoma.   On Super Tuesday, Oklahoma also held its Democratic primary.  And Barack Obama only received 57% of the vote.  His main competitor for Oklahoma Democrats?  Anti-abortion militant Randall Terry!

See this, with its rather questionable analysis:   Why Oklahoma is so anti-Obama – The Washington Post.  The article begs the question of why Oklahoma urban areas don’t go for Obama the way other urban areas do.  Why does he lose in Oklahoma City while winning in Salt Lake City?  It isn’t because of race, as the article suggests.  Salt Lake City is 79.2% white, with only 1.9% black.  Oklahoma City is only 58.7% white, with 14.6% black.  The article also admits that Oklahoma is far from the most conservative state in the union, according to a recent study not even being in the top 10.  And lots of Democrats are getting elected to state offices, including a recent governor and a current Congressman.  For some reason, Oklahoma is extremely pro-life, including among Democrats.  But why Oklahoma is this way while other similar states are not remains a mystery.

 

Today politics “is about nearly everything”

Political scientist James Q. Wilson has died.  Among his many contributions was an article on “Broken Windows”–observing that if a broken window in a building doesn’t get fixed, soon all the windows will be broken, an example of how social order must be established in small things so as to create social order in big things–a theory that led to new methods of police work that, famously, caused the crime rate in New York City to drop dramatically.

George Will sums up some of his other insights:

New Deal liberalism, Wilson said, was concerned with who got what, when, where and how; since the 1960s, liberalism has been concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how: “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.” Until the 1960s, “the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do something at all.” But since the “legitimacy barrier” fell, “no program is any longer ‘new’ — it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing.”

The normal dynamic of politics, Wilson warned, is a process of addition, candidates promising to add to government’s menu of benefits. Hence today’s problem of collective choice: Can Washington, acknowledging no limit to its scope and responding to clamorous factions that proliferate because of its hyperactivity, make difficult choices? With government no longer constrained by either the old constitutional understanding of its limits or by the old stigma against deficit spending, hard choices can be deferred, and are.

Try, he wrote, to think “of a human want or difficulty that is not now defined as a ‘public policy problem.’ ” The defining is done by elites to whose ideas the political system has become so open that changes of policy often result not from changes of public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites define problems as amenable to government engineering of new social structures. Conservative elites emphasize the cultural roots of many problems and hence their intractability.

America, Wilson said, increasingly faces “problems that do not seem to respond, or to respond enough, to changes in incentives.” This is because culture is often determinative, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. . . .

Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children, Wilson thought, are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.

via James Q. Wilson: America’s prophet – The Washington Post.

Oklahoma and the “conservative life”

Last Thursday the Washington Post had a big feature article–on the front page, no less–about Washington, Oklahoma, which is just down the road from where my wife’s father and brother live.  The article was focusing on Oklahoma as a Super Tuesday state and as one of the most consistently Republican states in the union, voting for George W. Bush at a rate of 65.6% and for John McCain at the exact same rate of 65.6%.   The little town of Washington, population 600, was targeted, I guess because it has the same name as our nation’s capital, and it was presented as exemplifying “the conservative life,” whatever that is.

The stereotypes and condescension abound, presenting the folks of Washington as an exotic tribe, as in a National Geographic special.  But the reporter, Eli Saslow, has a way with description, and his details made me nostalgic for my own Oklahoma roots growing up:

What you see is Sid’s Easy Shop opening downtown each morning at 6, where Sid will sell you gas, rent you a movie, make you a new set of keys or bring your soda to one of the classic red booths preserved from the 1950s. The post office, its roof painted red and white to reflect the stripes of the American flag, opens for business a few hours later. Next door to that, Casey operates her coffee shop with the help of her husband and five kids, who take turns working the register, Yes Sir and Yes Ma’am, and sell T-shirts imprinted with the phrase “Make God Famous.”

What you see is a parade of several dozen well-wishers lining the street and stretching out their hands to the bus every time one of the varsity high school teams leaves to play a road game, and a few hundred people gathering for community workdays to fix up the Little League field so Washington doesn’t waste money on parks and rec. Almost all of the houses in town are single-story ranchers, and more than 70 percent belong to married couples — few Hispanic, fewer black, none Muslim and none openly gay.

What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.

And yet, the article itself has details that show the folks of Washington are more complicated than he lets on.  The town has no diversity, with few Hispanics and Blacks and no Muslims, the article complains, but it turns out that the rancher being interviewed is Chickasaw, whose ancestors came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  I suspect the same could be said for many of the other Washingtonians.   So Native Americans don’t count in the diversity requirements?

It also turns out that the rancher, described riding his pickup to check on the cattle, went to college, worked in St. Louis, and now telecommutes with a financial company.  The preacher in the story with the alarmingly conservative congregation turns out to be from Chicago.

As for Oklahoma being so Republican, the fact is, just a few decades ago, Oklahoma was purely Democratic.  When I was growing up, there was not even a Republican party organization in the county.   All local elections were decided in the Democratic primary.  I don’t think I ever saw  a Republican, except on TV, until my cousin married one.  (There were some in the family who thought such a mixed marriage would never work, and we were all surprised to learn what a nice guy he was.) Back in the 1960s, Oklahoma was famous for its “Yellow Dog Democrats,” meaning that people would vote for a yellow dog if he was a Democrat.

The people condescended to in this article used to be the base of the Democratic party.  Judging from other liberal rhetoric, I thought “the conservative life” was represented by “the 1%,” the rich, the corporate oligarchs.   The people presented as primitive and retrograde in this article are closer to poor.  I thought liberals championed the poor.  Why are they making fun of them?

The Democratic party would do well to ponder why states that were once solidly in their pocket have gone Republican.  The hints are in the article. The people here are zealously against abortion.  They worry about moral values.  Their families are central to everything they do.  They know about family breakups, their teenagers using crystal meth, and crime problems from bitter experience, and they hate the breakdown in social order that these represent and that have reached even Washington, Oklahoma.  But they are proud to be Americans, volunteer to fight their country’s wars, are fiercely independent, and are ardent in their faith.  There was a time when you could be a Democrat, a liberal even, and hold to all of this.

Why has Washington, Oklahoma, become so strange, so alien, regarded as both scary and comical, to today’s liberal establishment?

via To residents of another Washington, their cherished values are under assault – The Washington Post.

Who are the 1%?

Who are those 1% of the wealthiest Americans who allegedly are oppressing the rest of us? From Robert Samuelson:

In a study, economists Jon Bakija, Bradley Heim and Adam Cole break down the top 1 percent as follows: executives in nonfinancial companies, 30 percent; doctors, 14 percent; professionals in finance (banks, hedge funds, pension funds), 13 percent; lawyers, 8 percent; computer experts and engineers, 4 percent; sales workers, 4 percent; sports, entertainment and media stars, 2 percent. The rest include farmers, management consultants, real estate developers and scientists.

Also, it turns out that the membership in that group keeps changing.  From John Q. Wilson:

The “rich” in America are not a monolithic, unchanging class. A study by Thomas A. Garrett, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found that less than half of people in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still there in 2005. Such mobility is hardly surprising: A business school student, for instance, may have little money and high debts, but nine years later he or she could be earning a big Wall Street salary and bonus.

Mobility is not limited to the top-earning households. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that nearly half of the families in the lowest fifth of income earners in 2001 had moved up within six years. Over the same period, more than a third of those in the highest fifth of income-earners had moved down. Certainly, there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common are people who are rich for short periods.

via Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich. – The Washington Post.

This isn’t to feel sorry for them.  Can we tax these people to end the deficit and fund all kinds of  wonderful things as the president and other Democrats are advocating with the so-called “Buffett tax”?  More from Samuelson (who favors the tax):

In September, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 10-year deficit at $8.5 trillion. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimates that a Buffett Tax might now raise $40 billion annually. Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal group, estimates $50 billion. With economic growth, the 10-year total might optimistically be $600 billion to $700 billion. It would be a tiny help; that’s all.


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