On the ‘heartbreaking’ death of a city church

The Godbeat reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel consistently does good work. “After 125 years, Bethlehem Lutheran Church holds last service” is the latest example. It was one of those stories that I came across via a Google alert, expecting it to be a boring depiction of what happened to cause a church to shutter its doors. Usually those stories are only exciting if they involve some type of doctrinal or financial corruption.

But this was an amazingly engaging story in spite of the lack of those elements, one that made me cry and actually got me to pray for the people involved in it.

The news hook was that Bethlehem Lutheran (LCMS) held its final two services last Sunday before closing up shop. The editors at the paper wisely allowed the reporter to write at length about what happened and sent a skilled photographer to take pictures that showed the love the community had for each other and for their building.

The piece struck me right away with its natural emphasis on sacraments and worship. The beginning:

Janet Engel knelt at the Communion rail at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Sunday, tears welling in her eyes.

At 85, she’d built a lifetime of memories in this sacred space. She was confirmed here. She attended its grade school. Every Christmas, every Easter was celebrated in these pews.

And on Sunday, for the last time, Engel knelt to receive the Holy Eucharist here.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Engel, who gathered with hundreds of current and former members for final services at Bethlehem, which closed its doors Sunday after 125 years.

“It’s wonderful to see all of these people again,” she said. “But closing the church — it’s just heartbreaking.”

These humanely told stories are a regular feature of this reporter’s. I still recall some of her writings on Roman Catholic and Muslim communities for how they permit adherents to discuss their religious beliefs.

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Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!

YouTube Preview ImageYou may have read stories about the Vatican announcing that Roman Catholics may earn time off purgatory by following Pope Francis on social media during World Youth Day. Many of the stories had serious problems. The main problem was getting the theology all wrong.

For a sample of how the media messed up this story, let’s look at the Telegraph:

Catholics to seek forgiveness for their sins via social media

Catholics will be able to seek forgiveness for their sins from afar next week when the Pope visits Brazil, simply by following the event on social media, the Vatican has decreed.

You don’t even need to know that much about Catholicism to see where this Rome-based (!) reporter or his headline writer went south. As one reader put it:

Please, please, please, this is not “forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is granted via absolution in the Sacrament of Confession (or, if you prefer, Penance or Reconciliation).  An indulgence,  whether partial or plenary, is remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

There’s actually much more wrong with the story. And practically every story I read on the matter just got the basics wrong. It was so bad that CNN’s Belief Blog had the Rev. James Martin, SJ, write-up a blow-by-blow of the various mistakes. It’s great and I encourage you to read it. Father Martin shows knowledge of newsrooms and church teaching in his account. A snippet from ” Sorry, you can’t get out of hell by retweeting the pope“:

In other words: the original document, the “source” and Archbishop Celli all said the opposite of what the headlines said.

That is, it’s not enough simply to follow the pope on Twitter. It’s not even enough to check his Twitter feed frequently. You need to be (a) contrite, (b) trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live and (c) performing these acts with “due devotion.”

In other words, the Vatican is clearly referring to prayerful participation in these events by men and women who could not otherwise go, through the various “new means of social communication.”

The end was a bit rough but deservedly so:

The worst headline came from the normally careful Slate: Pope Francis is not offering indulgences “in exchange for Twitter followers.” He has plenty of Twitter followers. But he’d probably exchange a few hundred of them for headline writers who actually read the story.

OK. The second disappointment in this media coverage is one that I’m almost reticent to suggest. Let’s just assume that we lived in an alternate universe where a Vatican announcement about indulgences was covered significantly better than what we saw this week. If that were the case, what I’d then like to see in that coverage is some airing of the theological debate about indulgences.

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Here I stand: Martin Luther on film

So while the rest of you are focused on Halloween, we Lutherans are busy celebrating Reformation Day. To be sure, some churches moved their celebrations to earlier in the month or last Sunday, but my congregation is keeping it real with services at 7:00 PM tonight.

You might be surprised how much Lutherans mark the day. Back in my single days, my wonderful Catholic housemate used to let us use her piano while we sang hymns at our annual party. Some mark it in celebration, others in a more solemn fashion. But how is it covered in the media? (I like to tease that the failure of the media to write about liturgical holidays constitutes a “war” on them — a la the “War on Christmas.”)

Well, it’s not a major media occurrence. But I did rather enjoy this Religion News Service piece from a few weeks ago and meant to review it. Today is a better day to do it.

The piece ran in the “Culture” section under “Entertainment and Pop Culture.” Headlined, Searching for the real Martin Luther, the piece begins with some history on Luther’s public life and then goes on to explain how both his critics and theological fans view him — without pulling any punches. Then we get to the real point of the piece — how the English-speaking world has portrayed Luther in film:

The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

The piece goes on to discuss how difficult it is to portray the “real” Luther and why it’s a shame that no movie has yet captured it.

Liturgical holidays are very difficult to cover for the Godbeat. Frequently it can seem like you’re just reporting on the same Christmas Eve or Easter traditions over and over again. The lesser holidays are frequently ignored. But I rather liked this approach — taking a somewhat obscure aspect of the celebrations (and watching these movies is something I can assure you my friends have done and do) and just finding something interesting to say about them.

So it’s just a small point, but one that’s interesting and even interests a general audience that might not be part of the typical celebrations.


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