An art critic discovers Luther

Daniel Siedell is a Christian art critic and curator, the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  In a recent post on his Patheos blog Cultivare, he describes how frustrated he became with evangelical and Reformed scholarship on the arts, leading him to turn to Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  But then he discovered Luther and Lutheranism, who were not at all the way he had assumed:

 The outlier in my aesthetic evangelical resourcement was Luther, whom I had simply lumped into the Protestant tradition as a “pre-Calvinist” and a “post-Catholic,” shaped as I was by the biases of Catholic and Reformed interpreters, and art historians like Joseph Leo Koerner, who blamed the Reformer for a privatized, relativized, and disenchanted Protestant faith. But things changed when my family and I became members of a confessional Lutheran Church (LCMS), and I discovered through the weekly practice of the preached Word and Sacrament, that Philip Cary is right: Luther is not quite Protestant. And for the sake of enriching evangelical cultural thought, that is a very good thing, as even Reformed historian Mark Noll observed in his classic essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism.

Although I practiced the Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition for almost eight years, it was not until I encountered Luther, liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated it and non-Lutheran thinkers who had distorted it, and interpreted through sensitive readers like the Hamann scholar Oswald Bayer, Steve Paulson, Gerhard Ebeling, and Gerhard Forde, that he came alive for me, presenting to me a Luther I never knew. And a Luther evangelicalism desperately needs.

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace. In addition, in his revolutionary understanding of vocation and through his emphasis on the sacramental nature of the preached Word, Luther opens up space to think freely and creatively about modern art, without expectations for what art should look like. For Luther, it is not what we see, but what we hear from paintings, when the bullets are flying, when push comes to shove, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationship between God and neighbor.

And so I find Luther a welcome and helpful companion when I go to art museums and art galleries, when I am confronted by work that looks different, that frustrates my expectations, and distracts me by its strangeness. Luther is teaching me to wait in faith, and listen, with love.

via Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art.

The faith of infants

A key Lutheran teaching is that infants can have faith.  This is why Lutherans see no contradiction between infant baptism and justification by faith.  Lutherans see faith not just in terms of intellectual knowledge or conscious volition, but as trust, dependence, and relationship with a Person.  Infants can trust, depend on, and have a relationship with their parents and also with their Heavenly Father.  The faith that begins with baptism then grows and matures, fed by the “milk” of God’s Word, as the child grows into adulthood, and continuing thereafter.  (That faith can also die if it is not nourished, which is why someone can have been baptized as an infant but then reject the faith and become an unbeliever in need of conversion.)

Anyway, a new book explores, from the vantage point of scientific research, the way infants and extremely young children seemed to be wired for religious belief.

Wheaton provost Stanton L. Jones reviews Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by psychologist Justin L. Barrett:

He summarizes creative, sophisticated research establishing that in infancy, babies understand distinctions between mere objects and agents (human and non-human, visible and invisible) which initiate actions that are not predictable and yet are goal-directed or purposeful. Only agents act to bring order out of disorder.

Children over three begin to discern and attribute purpose to much of what happens around them, which they in turn are inclined to attribute to human and superhuman agents. When children are old enough to actually discuss their intuitive concepts of god(s), they seem normatively disposed to believe in a (or many) divine agent(s) possessing “superknowledge, superperception, creative power, and immortality,” as well as to believe in a purposeful design to creation, in some sort of basic universal morality, and in the persistence of human identity after death.

Roughly the first 40 percent of Born Believers summarizes this research, while the remaining portion fleshes out its implications. Barrett’s view of religious development is that “children are naturally drawn to some basic religious ideas and related practices (natural religion), and then the meat of a religious and theological tradition as taught by parents grows on this skeleton.” He discusses trends in the research that might foster effective religious education.

via Born Believers, Part 1 | Books and Culture.

Voting for a Mormon

Christianity Today has a forum in which three different Christian thinkers discuss whether or not a Christian should vote for a Mormon.  I am happy to say that Lutherans are represented this time.  The estimable Mollie Z. Hemingway applies the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms to the issue and does so in a particularly lucid way.  In light of our discussion about the apocryphal “wise Turk” quotation (which she cites as “apocryphal”), she includes another pertinent quotation from Luther that appears to be better attested.  (I’ll try to track down that source.)  She deals with the nonsense that the president is some kind of national pastor and concludes:

Voters should remember that support for any political candidate is support for the exertion of authority in the earthly realm and not leadership in the spiritual realm.

Luther explained that every Christian is a citizen in two kingdoms—a spiritual realm and an earthly realm—but even non-believers are citizens of the earthly kingdom. In one, God’s Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and sins are forgiven. God works through other means, such as natural laws, physical causes, and history, in the earthly realm.

Luther said that while reason cannot fathom the mind of God, it’s a tool given by God for managing civic affairs. “Christians are not needed for secular authority. Thus it is not necessary for the emperor to be a saint. It is not necessary for him to be a Christian to rule. It is sufficient for the emperor to possess reason,” he wrote.

In the spiritual realm, the gospel—the free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus—prevails. By contrast, the earthly kingdom runs on compulsion, law, and force. That contrast between gracious forgiveness and law is the reason that, in Luther’s mind, Christians should not seek to put the church in charge of the temporal government or otherwise work through compulsion.

That’s not to say that the two realms must be or are in conflict. In fact, they should serve each other. The spiritual realm informs and supports the civil realm by preaching the gospel. Secular rulers serve the spiritual realm by preventing chaos.

It is entirely possible that in the next few months, the country will have its first Mormon President. No matter which man wins the office, it’s vitally important that Christians understand that his authority is limited to the secular realm and he should not be viewed as a spiritual leader.

via Is There Anything Wrong With Voting for a Mormon … | Christianity Today.

 

Egopapism

Francis Beckwith discusses the indignation in some circles about catechists in the Roman Catholic Church being required to, you know, agree with the doctrines that they are supposed to be teaching.  In doing so, he employs a useful new word:  egopapism.  I define this as the belief that you yourself are your own infallible religious authority.

 

Mainline liberal Protestants look for a new name

It isn’t just [some] Southern Baptists–or [some] Missouri Synod Lutherans–who are looking for a new name.  So are mainline liberal Protestants.   From Amy Frykholm:

In a recent interview with the Century, historian David Hollinger talks about his preference for the phrase “ecumenical Protestants” to describe non-evangelical mid-20th-century American Protestants, instead of the more frequently used terms “liberal” and “mainline.”

“Ecumenical” refers to a specific, vital and largely defining impulse within the groups I am describing. It also provides a more specific and appropriate contrast to evangelical. The term evangelical comes into currency in the mid-century to refer to a combination of fundamentalists and Holiness, Pentecostals and others; ecumenical refers to the consolidation of the ecumenical point of view in the big conferences of 1942 and 1945.

I appreciated this shift in vocabulary because I have long disliked both the terms “liberal” and “mainline” to refer to whatever-kind-of-Protestant it is that I am.

“Mainline” emerged as a label in the early part of the twentieth-century to distinguish a certain kind of Protestant from a fundamentalist. Some have speculated that the name comes from the Philadelphia Main Line, a suburban rail line that passed by one denominational church after another. But its two parts, “main” and “line” are both utterly unhelpful in describing the people, theology, social commitments or religious identities contained under that category today.

If anything, so-called mainline Protestants are less “main” and less “line” than they’ve ever been.

“Liberal” likewise is useless. At our particular moment, it is primarily a political term. While it can apply to theology and abstractly to philosophy, that isn’t its main rhetorical purpose now, and it lumps people from a broad spectrum under a term that is awkward and uncomfortable for most of them. Many people in this category would not consider themselves “liberal” in theology, but they might in politics. Or they might be liberal in theology, but decidedly not so in politics. Or they might claim neither or both, or have no idea why it matters.

But “ecumenical” has its problems too. For one thing, is ecumenism still the defining impulse of the group of Christians in questions? What’s more, the word may no longer helpfully distinguish us from evangelicals, who are a whole lot more ecumenical than they used to be.

It isn’t that we must have a term that everyone can agree on, one that suits us all perfectly. But it would be nice to have something, as Hollinger says, that “refers to a specific, vital and largely defining impulse.” We know—at least I think we do—who we are talking about. Why can’t we put a name to it or to ourselves? Is it because of an identity crisis? An awkward transition toward a less central cultural role?

Evangelicals are just as “ecumenical” in the sense of accepting different churches as these other guys.  And isn’t defining today’s churches by their attendance at a conference in 1945 rather retrograde?  I’m not sure what’s wrong with “liberal” as a descriptor for those denominations that aren’t constrained by Biblical authority, that think the beliefs of the church should change to conform to the dominant culture, or, rather, the dominant cultural and intellectual elite.  While it’s true that many people who are conservative theologically are liberal politically, I’m not aware of anyone who is liberal theologically who isn’t also liberal politically.  But help these folks out.  What is a good name for them?  What is their “identity” today?

Changes in the Orthodox church

Metropolitan Jonah, the evangelical convert who became the head of the Orthodox Church of America (one of several Eastern Orthodox denominations in the U.S.), has been ousted from his office.  The reason, reportedly, is his aggressive public stands against abortion, homosexuality, and other controversial moral issues.  (Metropolitan Jonah was one of the signatories of LCMS president Matt Harrison’s open letter opposing the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.)

I realize that Eastern Christianity is more quiescent on cultural issues than that of the West.  Metropolitian Jonah is being accused of being political, but I suspect that’s more on the other side, since far more Orthodox are Democrats than Republicans.  But then I read that part of the conflict has to do with a movement within the Orthodox Church, including some bishops, to change the teaching about sexual morality, including accepting same-sex marriage.

Now wait a minute.  One of the major arguments I keep hearing from advocates of swimming the Bosporus is that Orthodoxy never changes.  Has never changed.  Can’t change.  Has an uninterrupted universal doctrinal agreement among its members that goes back to the early church.  Can it be that Orthodox Christians have theological liberals among them just like other traditions?

Some people convert to Catholicism because of the glories of Medieval theology only to find in their local parish feminist nuns, leftist priests, and treacly guitar masses.  Or to Lutheranism only to find that the local congregation has sold out to the worst excesses of the church growth movement.  Such disillusioning experiences do not invalidate the conversion.  Inconsistencies, misbehavior, and doctrinal indifference do not mean that the underlying theology is necessarily wrong.   It does, though, perhaps prove the Lutheran distinction between the visible and the hidden church.  Though attacking that doctrine in favor of the notion that the church must be fully manifested in the visible institution is another major argument of both Catholics and Orthodox.

Covering warfare in a Byzantine maze — literally » GetReligion.


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