Luther the detective: Getting your hands dirty

Luther is the acclaimed British crime drama now available to Americans on BBC America.  Here is the Wikipedia description of John Luther, played by Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba:

He is obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. But Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him.

Sound like any other Luther you know?  Sound like any doctrine you know?  Anyway, as we said yesterday, Jordan Ballor has an article in Cardus arguing that the series is, in fact, Lutheran.  I’ll let him tell you about a story line:

John Luther’s willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones’s mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father’s death has become addicted to drugs and a victim (“actress” seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) “removes” Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his “better” judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, “Go and sin no more,” and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

He ends up risking all three in Jenny’s case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther’s hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny’s transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther’s colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther’s friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther’s suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther’s fidelity. “There’s loyalty, and there’s naivety,” says Gray. Justin responds, “There’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty.” Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn’t hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther’s brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

In this difference between “getting your hands dirty and being dirty,” we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action and Luther’s idea of moral ambiguity. We don’t always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ’s atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

The series is on Netflix–instant play!  So I’ve seen the first couple of episodes.  Just as crime drama–in the genre of police procedural–the show is excellent.   It has everything you might like in Law & Order, NCIS, etc.–action, suspense, intriguing mysteries, ingenious police work–but it’s grittier, more textured, and better written.

I had assumed that the theology Jordan Ballor sees in the series is unintentional, as when an honest work of art  finds truth, which by its nature is going to be consistent with the truth of Scripture.  But the show is full of explicit Christian–yea, Lutheran–language:  talk about evil,  (sinful) human nature, nothingness, Bible quotations (“why do the wicked prosper?”), the devil, guilt, “your calling.”  Then there is the character’s name and business such as nailing his hand to the wall.  The creator of the show knows some theology.

The character of John Luther is complex and compelling.  He’s something of a rogue cop (think the protagonist of The Shield but more sympathetic), brilliant but tormented.  His estranged wife who left him for another man, which tortures Luther, defends his preoccupations with “life and love.”  This is not romantic love or the kind of love that solves all your problems.  This is love that multiplies your problems and makes them worse.  But love is absolutely necessary.  At one point,  Luther identifies who the murderer is because when everyone else yawns, but she doesn’t.  Being able to resist the contagious yawn, he says, means this person has no empathy, the sign of someone who could kill without mercy.  (And  that woman, Alice, what a piece of work!  Though the unwillingness to yawn is not evidence that will stand up in court, he knows she did it, and she knows he knows.  They get together to torment each other and discuss medieval philosophy.  The shows’ villains are as complicated as they are chilling.)  John Luther,  struggles with the conflict between his compassion and his own lawlessness (when a serial killer is hanging on for dear life, he is not above stomping his fingers).  He is simultaneously a saint and a sinner, but he doesn’t understand that yet.  He is Brother Martin before his conversion.  Sherlock Holmes is characterized by logical deductions; Adrian Monk by obsessive compulsive disorder.  John Luther is characterized by Anfechtungen.

 

Luther the detective: Vocation

There is a TV show on BBC called Luther about a British police investigator, a black man played by Idris Elba.  According to Jordan Ballor, Luther is also Lutheran, a dramatic exploration of vocation and what it means to be a little Christ to your neighbor.

I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve got to now.  Ballor’s essay is worth two blog posts.  First, I appreciate his explanation of vocation, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s application.  I’ll post that today.  Tomorrow I’ll post some of what he says about the TV show.

The reformer Martin Luther is justly famous for his doctrine of vocation, or calling, and its implications for the Christian life. Luther understood vocation as a Christian’s place of responsibility before God and for others in the world. One of the critical aspects of Luther’s view of vocation was that we represent God to others in our service to them. He said that Christians act as masks or “coverings” of God (larvae Dei), the visual and physical representations of God’s action on earth. In some real and deep sense, the hands of Christians serving others are the hands of God. Even non-Christians, in their roles in the social order, can be said to represent God’s preserving action in the world.

Luther also understood the ambiguity inherent in any action undertaken in a fallen world. His doctrine of justification made it clear that on no account might humans presume to stand before God with a presumption of innocence or merit based on their own works. No matter how faithfully a Christian might work, or what good things a Christian might seek to do, none of this can justify us before God’s righteous judgment. Our justification in this sense depends solely on the righteousness imputed to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. . . .

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes this Lutheran understanding of vocation and radicalizes it in his doctrine of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung). In Bonoheffer’s view, we act as representatives of God to one another precisely in our ability to take on, in a limited and provisional way, the guilt of others. For Bonhoeffer this action means that we live “for others,” just as Christ lived, died, and was raised “for us.” As Robin Lovin puts it, “Responsible action is a true imitation of Christ, a willingness to be despised and abused for the sake of those who have themselves been despised.” This idea of vicarious representative action, of living for others in a deeply sacrificial way, is what animates the life and work of DCI John Luther.

via Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther | Comment Magazine | Cardus.

Art, Christ, and the agony of Thomas Kinkade

We earlier posted about Daniel Siedell’s contention that the late Thomas Kinkade was a “dangerous” artist because his work purposefully evades the Fall.  But in this followup piece, Siedell, drawing on Luther and Lutheran theologian Oswald Beyer, brings Christ and the freedom of the Gospel  into the picture (so to speak):

Last week I suggested that Kinkade’s quaint and nostalgic images, as pleasant as they seem to be, are dangerous, offering a comfortable world that silences the two words with which God speaks to us (law and gospel). The world isn’t so bad, faith isn’t so hard, grace therefore not so desperately sought. Following Michael Horton, Kinkade’s desire to depict a world before the Fall is Christ-less Christianity in paint.

I would like to go even further and suggest that it was Kinkade’s work that killed him. It was not a weak heart or too much alcohol that caused his sudden death at 54 on Good Friday, but the unrelenting pressure that the production and distribution of these images exerted on a man who spent thirty years trying to live up to their impossible and inhuman standard. His emotional life found no creative release in and through his studio work. As he, like each of us, experienced the ebb and flow of life, the challenges, tragedies, and the struggle with personal demons, he was forced (condemned) to produce the same, innocuously nostalgic pictures again and again, fighting on one hand to preserve a brand as the Painter of Light, while he fought to the death his own demons on the other. These seemingly gentle images came to exert a claustrophobic spiritual pressure on him that rivaled anything that Munch, Picasso, or any other modern artist has produced. It is a pressure that, as Luther observed in his commentary on Jonah, “makes the world too narrow” so narrow that “a sound of a driven leaf shall frighten them” (Lev. 26: 26)–a driven leaf or a Kinkade print. . . .

He became a prisoner of a pre-Fall fantasy world that by refusing him creative space to work through his life’s difficulties, destroyed him, over and over, to which he finally succumbed. . . .

Christ also frees our work, including our art and culture making, liberating it to glorify God and serve our neighbor, rather than means for our salvation or justification, as metaphysical transactional leverage. In captivity, “the world becomes too narrow for us.” Christ opens up the world, the world of experience, action, making. He does so because, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “all things were created through him and for him” and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15; 17). And that includes Kinkade’s work, even if he was unable to reconcile the creative work of his hands to his daily struggle as a Christian. In Living by Faith:  Justification and Sanctification (2003), Oswald Bayer writes,

“Justification comes when God himself enters the deadly dispute of ‘justifications,’ suffers from it, carries it out in himself. He does this through the death of his Son, which is also God’s own death. In this way God takes the dispute into himself and overcomes it on our behalf.”

Kinkade and his work engaged in a deadly dispute over justification, which he lost. But the final word on Thomas Kinkade is not his work’s. Nor is it mine. It is God’s, who offers the final Word of liberation and freedom. The next time I notice a Kinkade print in an office or a home, I will now see it next to the icon of the resurrection, reminding me that Christ is at work reconciling “all things” to himself, and second, I will give thanks that the work of my own hands, which in its own way deceives and distorts, judges and condemns me, narrowing my own world, will receive God’s final Word as well.

via The Final Word on Thomas Kinkade.

Life Full Voice

Some of you may remember Lori Lewis who occasionally has frequented this blog.  At one point she was all involved in radio and contemporary Christian music, but then she became a confessional Lutheran and an outspoken critic of that musical scene.  More recently she has gotten involved with opera, both as a singer and as a popularizer of that artform via radio and writing.  Her latest project, though, is a webzine entitled  Eveyday Opera.  It’s not  about opera; rather, it uses opera as a metaphor for what she describes in the site’s slogan as “Life Full Voice.”  Here is how she described it to me:

A little over 2 years ago I started Everyday Opera out of the need to find a platform for my own art.
I had gone through a down time but out of it grew this idea…Making Classic Art an Everyday Event.
Personality driven, non intimidating, but with the theory that Art lifts us in our everyday experience.  In a culture full of junk food, and I eat plenty of my share, I’m a mini-evangelist for expanding one’s horizon’s.
Opera is the metaphor here for living Live Full Voice. That is how an Opera Singer sings…Full Voice
We encourage the thinking that all of life can be lived Full Voice, whether you are a great singer,
a great chef, wine maker, farmer, mother, teacher, and on and on. (Isn’t it really modeled after
The Spirituality of the Cross? The book that help me be free as a christian to be free as a person.)

Kind words about my book.  She makes an interesting connection between Christian freedom through the Gospel, personal freedom, and vocation.  Anyway,   Eveyday Opera has articles about travel, food, art, literature, wine, music, and other pleasures of life.  It doesn’t get into theology, as such, though I’d say it has a Christian view of the world, though many Christians have arguably hung back from living life “full voice.”  (Why is that, do you think?  Do you agree that Christians are freed to appreciate things like these?)

Anyway, Lori has enlisted me to write for the site occasionally, so I wrote a piece on literary style that I’ll link to in a separate post.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”

Our Scripture reading in church yesterday included this passage from John 20:

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews,[c] Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

via John 20 ESV – The Resurrection – Now on the first day – Bible Gateway.

(1)  We Lutherans believe that this passage teaches that Christ gives the Holy Spirit to the Church, which includes the authority to forgive sins.  This is exercised in vocation–that is, God acting through human beings–when the called pastor gives absolution during individual or corporate confession (the latter of which is part of every worship service).   After the individual or congregation admits their sins, the pastor says that as a called and ordained servant of the Lord, “I forgive you your sins.”

(2)  But that authority is not just given to pastors, but to the whole congregation, which has called the pastor to exercise this gift on its behalf.  But laypeople too can forgive sins and absolve those who confess their sins to them.  Again, it is Christ who forgives, but He applies that forgiveness through individual Christians.  (Isn’t that right?  Perhaps someone can explain the parameters.)

(3)  So when we forgive someone, according to this Scripture, that affects not only our feelings about the person who has wronged us.  Rather, that actually does something to the person that is recognized in Heaven.  (Right, Lutheran pastors?)

(4)  I know this sounds outlandish to you non-Lutherans.  But how else can you account for these verses (especially John 20:23)?  Do you think that only the Disciples were given this power?  Or what?

We’re on Issues, Etc. today

My daughter and I will be on Issues, Etc. radio and web-radio program today to talk about our book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood.  We’ll be taking the book section by section today and for the next fourMondays.  The show runs from 3:00-5:00 p.m. Central Time, but it will also be archived.  Go here to listen live (though our part will be taped).

 

Coming Up on Issues, Etc.


Monday, April 16, 2012
Family Vocation, Part 1
Deaconess Mary Moerbe and Dr. Gene Edward Veith, authors, “Family Vocations”