Martin Luther’s Body

I was browsing through the library, when imagine my surprise when I saw the latest issue of the American Historical Review with a big picture of Luther and Melanchthon on the cover.  The lead article is entitled “Martin Luther’s Body,” focusing on how fat he was (contrasting to the skinniness of the medieval saints) and on how his language, thinking, acting, and theology were all so physical.

The article is alternatively humorous (as when the author discusses and defends Luther’s scatalogical language), absurd (discussing the social construction of the body), and insightful (relating Luther’s physicality to that of Lutheran spirituality, with its insistence–against both Catholicism and other Protestantism–that Christ’s presence in the Sacrament is physical and in physical bread).  She also notes Lutheranism’s embrace of the physical realm, in its relatively positive views of sex, food and drink, the body, and earthly life (what we would call “vocation”).  The thing is, the scholar seems to get Luther and Lutheranism!

Like most scholarly journals, this one is only available online with a subscription, but here is a description from the journal’s press release:

Lyndal Roper takes a fresh look at Martin Luther in the April 2010 issue of the American Historical Review, focusing on the way depictions emphasizing Luther's “monumentality” and his own relationship to his body informed the theology of Lutheranism.

“This was a man whose body was fundamental to his personality,” writes Roper, a fellow and tutor in history at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Unlike saints and other pious figures, whose thinness illustrated their aversion or indifference to the temptations of the flesh, Luther’s stoutness was an unmistakable feature of his iconographic representations, she notes. . . .

In “Martin Luther’s Body: The ‘Stout Doctor’ and His Biographers,” Roper explores the way Luther constantly referred to the body — and specifically his body — in his writings and pronouncements, especially in the famous Table Talk.

Rather than seeing his preoccupation with the body as a character defect or neurosis, she proposes that Luther “offered a religious worldview that did not separate soul and body but incorporated a robust, redoubtable, and often mucky physicality.” Luther’s physicality — “his bulk, his digestion, his anality” — was intrinsic to his theology, including his views of the devil, she writes. Portraits of “the stout doctor” during and shortly after his life helped establish the emerging identity of Lutheranism.

via AHR for April: Luther’s body, suicide in Africa, the state in South Asia: IU News Room: Indiana University.

Not getting vocation

Why is this wrong?

As far as God is concerned, someone is unemployed if the person is not working for Him, said a Latin American mission leader at a global missions conference in Tokyo.

Many people argue that they have a job and have plenty of work, said Obed Alvarez, international director of the New World Mission Association in Peru. However, the landowner (God) is calling those standing idle to work for him, he pointed out as he read from Matthew 20 about the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

“We should understand that all are unemployed if we are not living out God’s plan for us,” said Alvarez at the Tokyo 2010 Global Missions Consultations this week. “It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a senator or the president, you will always be idle as far as He is concerned if you don’t have a part in missions.”

The missiologist and church planter continued, “The president of the republic is just as idle as far as the Lord is concerned, if he is not doing anything to advance the missionary cause. What is his investiture worth if he is still a sinner and his destiny is hell?”

Alvarez – who founded the Latin American School of Missiology, the first school of missions in Latin America – said people can have other jobs but they should have the identity that first and foremost they are a missionary.

via Mission Leader: You’re Unemployed if Not Working for God | Christianpost.com.

The government’s pens

I love pens.  Since pens are the primal tool of my vocation, I treasure a good pen, from a cheap-but-reliable Bic to the classical-and-hefty Cross.  So I appreciated this feature on those government-issue black pens, which are found in post offices, bureaucratic agencies, and the military. Would that the rest of the government were so inexpensive and worked so well!

Blind workers assemble the pens in factories in Wisconsin and North Carolina under the brand name Skilcraft as part of a 72-year-old legislative mandate. The original 16-page specifications for the pen are still in force: It must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero.

It has been used in war zones and gas stations, and was designed to fit undetected into U.S. military uniforms. According to company lore, the pen can stand in for a two-inch fuse and comes in handy during emergency tracheotomies. . . .

The unassuming pen stamped with the words “SKILCRAFT U.S. GOVERNMENT” in white letters has endured despite quantum leaps in communications technology that have rendered lesser tools obsolete. Taking over from the fountain pen, it has withstood the advent of the rubberized “comfort grip” and the freely flowing gel ink, not to mention computers, instant messages and smartphones. The U.S. Postal Service alone orders 700,000 a year. . . .

The original design — brass ink tube, plastic barrel not shorter than 4 5/8 inches, ball of 94 percent tungsten carbide and 6 percent cobalt — has changed little over the decades. It costs less than 60 cents.

The pen’s roots date to the Depression. The 1938 Wagner-O’Day Act required the federal government to buy certain products made by the blind, thereby creating jobs for a then-marginalized population. First came mops and brooms, but the program eventually expanded to include a full line of cleaning and office supplies under the brand name Skilcraft. In fiscal 2009, the program, now known as AbilityOne, raked in a record $658.5 million in sales of products and services.

The pens account for about $5 million in sales each year. About 60 percent of business is from the military, but the Agriculture, Commerce and Justice departments are all reliable customers, according to NIB. The pens are primarily issued through government agencies, though civilians can buy them by request through some retail stores. . . .

Part of the pen’s cult appeal comes from its writing capabilities. Among other things, the original General Services Administration requirements for items FSC 7520 (the ballpoint pen) and FSC 7510 (the refill) dictated that:

– The ink cartridge shall be capable of producing under 125 grams of pressure a line not less than 5,000 feet long.

– Blobs shall not average more than 15 per 1,000 feet of writing, with a maximum of 25 for any 1,000-foot increment.

– Writing shall not be completely removed after two applications of chemical bleach.

The pens have also spawned their own folklore. The length of the pen is said to be equivalent to 150 nautical miles on Navy maps, helping pilots navigate in a pinch. The metal tip has reportedly been cited as the maximum length for a woman’s fingernails in the military.

Chuck Lange, chief executive of Industries for the Blind in Milwaukee, said that the pens can write upside down and that they have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

via Low-tech Skilcraft pens endure in a high-tech world.

What are some other good, basic, but high-quality products like this?

The vocation of a teacher

Congratulations to columnist Kathleen Parker–whom I actually met at a Patrick Henry College journalism event– for winning the Pulitzer Prize.  She credits a teacher for starting her on that road:

I materialized in James Gasque’s class in March of the school year for reasons that will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say, I knew no one and had come from a small high school in central Florida where, for some reason, no one had bothered to teach the diagramming of sentences.

Thus, my fellow students at Dreher High School in Columbia, S.C., were way ahead of me when Mr. Gasque finally called on me to identify some part of a sentence he had written on the blackboard. His back to the class with chalk in hand, he stood poised to write my instructions.

Every living soul knows the feeling of helplessness when a crowd of peers awaits the answer you do not know. Whatever I said was utterly ridiculous, I suppose, because my classmates erupted in peals of laughter.

I have not forgotten that moment, or the next, during all these years. As I was trying to figure out how to hurl myself under my desk, Mr. Gasque tossed me a sugarcoated, tangerine-colored lifesaver from the good ship lollipop.

He whirled. No perfectly executed pirouette can top the spin executed by Mr. Gasque that day. Suddenly facing the class, he flushed crimson and his voice trembled with rage.

“Don’t. You. Ever. Laugh. At her. Again.” he said. “She can out-write every one of you any day of the week.”

It is not possible to describe my gratitude. Time suspended and I dangled languorously from a fluff of cloud while my colleagues drowned in stunned silence. I dangle even now, like those silly participles I eventually got to know. Probably no one but me remembers Mr. Gasque’s act of paternal chivalry, but I basked in those words and in the thought that what he said might be true. I started that day to try to write as well as he said I could. I am still trying.

via Kathleen Parker – A sprig of verbena and the gifts of a great teacher.

Did any of you have a teacher who had a similar impact in your life?

Vocation & Opus Dei

Opus Dei is the Roman Catholic order that has become the bogey-man for paranoid secularists, leftist conspiracy theorists, and Da-Vinci-Code believers. And yet, for all of its alleged conservatism, it seems to be something unknown in medieval Catholicism; namely, an order for lay people. From an article by Carla Hall:

Julia Boles, 46, lives in Arcadia, Calif., with her lawyer husband and their nine children, ages 5 to 20. She also manages to attend Mass daily, set aside time for prayer twice a day and, with her children, pray the rosary.

“People say: “Nine kids? How do you handle that and go to Mass?' I say, 'How could I do this without the Mass?”

Boles is a member of one of the most talked about and least understood Catholic organizations in the world: Opus Dei, which means “work of God” in Latin.

Although the face of Opus Dei in “The Da Vinci Code” is a murderous masochistic monk — a fiction, the group's members say — Boles typifies the group’s American demographic: She’s a woman. Most of the 190 members in Los Angeles are women, as are slightly more than half of the 3,000 members in the United States.

There are no monks. And only 2 percent of nearly 90,000 members worldwide are priests, one of whom, Jose Gomez, is Cardinal Roger Mahony’s newly named successor as archbishop of Los Angeles. Gomez is the only priest to come up through Opus Dei and be made a U.S. bishop.

Setting aside the distortions of “The Da Vinci Code,” critics have pointed to the group’s historic connection to right-leaning governments and its secretiveness. Brian Finnerty, spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States, said the group takes no political positions.

Seton Hall law professor John Coverdale said the organization’s goal is to offer lay Christians a path toward a holier life without becoming a priest or a nun. “People would see their work as a professor or a journalist or mother or whatever they are as something to offer to God and something that they need to try to do well,” said Coverdale, 69, a lay member of Opus Dei.

“The main idea is to help members come closer to God in their everyday activities,” Finnerty said.

Boles agreed. “It's not a bunch of pious things,” said Boles, whose husband and two eldest children — UCLA students John and Ginny — are members, too. “I’m chasing after kids. I’m trying to get meals on the table. . . . All of those things are precious in God’s eyes if they are done with love. If you try to do it as well as you can, for God’s glory, with concern for your neighbor and mine, it’s wonderful.”

I have noticed that many evangelicals and Roman Catholics are embracing Luther’s doctrine of vocation. This sounds like it, doesn’t it?

Then there is this:

Members go to daily Mass, set aside time to pray and sometimes fast or sacrifice a treat or pleasure as a way of honoring Jesus.

There is corporal mortification, though not as portrayed in “The Da Vinci Code,” they say. “It’s not a bloody whipping of oneself,” Coverdale said. “It’s more an annoyance.” He wears a leg chain with dull spikes — called a cilice — around his upper thigh for a couple of hours a day while praying. It’s designed to be uncomfortable but not to draw blood. And once or twice a week, during a prayer, he whips himself on his buttocks with a type of rope referred to as “the disciplines.”

“It doesn’t particularly hurt; maybe it stings a bit,” Coverdale said.
The Rev. Paul Donlan of the Opus Dei center near UCLA follows a similar routine. The idea is to bring oneself closer to Jesus’s suffering as he wore the crown of thorns and carried his cross.

“It’s a gesture,” Donlan said. “The real discipline of getting to bed on time, getting to work on time, saying no to an extra glass of wine, boy, that is far more painful than any of this.”

Most married Opus Dei members do not practice corporal mortification, at least not as literally as single and celibate members. “For me, it’s mortification to get up early and get that prayer in at 6 a.m.,” said Boles, laughing.

The latter I can see, but mortification with scourges and the equivalent of barbed wire around your leg I question. Can there be any value in self-chosen, self-inflicted pain like this? I’m not sure that bringing monasticism, ascetic practices and all, into the “world” is a true affirmation of the lay vocations. Still, what do you think of this?

God’s alien work and His proper work

In our Sunday morning Bible class, we are studying Luther’s Commentary on Genesis. That work is an example of Luther at his best. His expositions of Scripture are stunning in their depth and insight. And here we find explanations of some of his key theological ideas, including the three estates (household, church, and state) and his doctrine of vocation.

Sunday we learned about God’s blessing of Noah after the flood and this distinction: God’s “proper work,” because it best expresses His nature, is to give life, grace, and love. He does indeed punish sin, but this is his “alien” work.

This distinction, related to that between Law and Gospel, is a recurring theme in Luther’s theology. He refers to this text from Isaiah:

For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed–strange is his deed! and to work his work–alien is his work! (Isaiah 28:21)

From The Heidelberg Disputation:

And that it is which Isa. 28:21 calls the »alien work« of God »that he may do his work« (that is, he humbles us thoroughly, making us despair, so that he may exalt us in his mercy, giving us hope).

I think it’s important to realize this about God–something probably only knowable through His revelation in the Incarnate Son–that His deepest nature is life-giving, expressed in the Gospel, and that His wrath, while very real, being a function of His holiness, is somehow alien to His nature, though something He uses to bring us to Himself. I think some people have the opposite idea, that God is intrinsically wrathful, though He makes exceptions to some.


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