Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century
Edited by Richard Cimino, William B. Eerdmans, 2003, $20 (This article appeared in September / October 2004 — Volume 20, Number 5)
Consolidation and Quarreling
Reviewer: Susan Wilds McArver
For those rostered leaders and others who have been too busy preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, tending the sick, or teaching the faith to keep up with all the torturous twists and turns of religious politics within U.S. Lutheranism, this book will clarify a great deal.
Reading through the twelve essays of Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century, one is left to marvel that Lutheranism in this country, as least as embodied in the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has survived as long as it has. But in a way, questioning whether or not these churches should survive in their present form is the subtext of much of this book.
It is not often that a work of this nature appears in print in such a timely fashion. Lutherans Today summarizes key issues facing the three major Lutheran bodies in the United States — ELCA, LCMS, and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin Synod—by placing such immediate headlines as the "Word Alone" controversy and the Missouri Synod debacle of the post-September 11th Yankee Stadium Memorial Service into a larger contextual framework.
Several, though not all, of the authors clearly share a belief that Lutheranism has "declined" from an earlier age of Lutheran purity. Any honest examination of the historical record reveals that questions about Lutheran identity have been contested since the beginnings of 17th-century European settlement on the U.S. American continent. This book examines the latest incarnation of that struggle, the "central question of [Lutheran] identity" in a period of growing "cultural and religious pluralism" (ix). The issue is even more acute today, because Lutherans have consolidated themselves from dozens of smaller ethnic churches into two major and one smaller body, bringing wide-ranging ethnic, theological, and polity differences into closer proximity and a sometimes uneasy coexistence.
Mark Noll's initial essay locates Lutherans within the larger story of American religion. As he has written elsewhere, Noll makes the case that Lutheran theology offers a positive counter to many of the prevailing trends within American Protestantism's distinctly Reformed underpinnings.
Noll clearly hopes Lutherans will succeed in influencing the future course of American Christianity, but he remains cautious: "Whether Lutherans are in a position to offer such gifts from their own tradition to Americans more generally would seem to depend on two matters: on how much genuine Lutheranism is left in American Lutheranism, and on whether Lutherans can bring this Lutheranism to bear." Many of the remaining essays in the book address in different ways the question of "how much genuine Lutheranism is left" (21).
In the first half of the book, seven essays outline "Changes and Movements in American Lutheranism," including current controversies in the Missouri Synod, the "Lutheran Left," the Called to Common Mission (CCM) document, the evangelical catholic movement, the rise of "mega-churches," and the influence of Lutheran charismatics.
The second section considers "Trends and Issues in American Lutheranism" including politics and the pastorate, the impact of recent Lutheran migration to this country, the embrace of multiculturalism in the ELCA, the loss of traditional definitions of Lutheran identity at ELCA colleges and universities, and conflicting patterns of commitment among contemporary Lutheran youth.
Most of the authors locate many of the roots of contemporary Lutheran controversies in Lutheranism's history and experience in this country. Editor Richard Cimino notes in the introduction that "each contributor was asked to approach his or her particular field with a measure of disinterest" (xii). Some authors clearly succeed at attaining that "measure of disinterest" better than others.
Readers seeking to learn the background of current political debates will find Mark Grandquist's treatment of the Word Alone controversy, Mary Todd's essay on the current agonizing debates over Lutheran identity in the LCMS, and Cimino's essay on evangelical catholics and the Lutheran Forum of particular interest.
Maria Erling's essay proposes that the old 1960s-style activism and commitments of the "Lutheran Left" have become less an organized movement than an "inchoate sensibility" (46) among many ELCA Lutherans. This ethos, she argues, proved instrumental at the time of the formation of the new church in 1988 and still guides the church's social policies, including its current debate centered around homosexuality.
Alvin Schmidt and Robert Benne respectively, lament the influence of multiculturalism on the church in general and ELCA colleges in particular and propose a return to a more defined "Lutheran center."
Not all of the essays take such a serious approach. Scott Thumma and Jim Petersen's essay on Lutheran mega-churches begins with an amusing set piece that could easily be subtitled "Lost and Lutheran in Las Vegas." And if you think that the Lutheran charismatic movement disappeared with bell-bottom pants at the end of the 1970s, Robert Longman demonstrates just how much of Pentecostalism (if not the charismatic movement proper) has become incorporated into mainstream contemporary Lutheran worship and certain widely accepted Christian education short courses.
A sociological study by Jeff Walz, Steve Montreal. and Dan Hofrenning demonstrates with hard data what might have been intuited by observation — that "staggering differences" in terms of orthodoxy exist between ELCA and LCMS pastors, and that LCMS pastors tend to be strong conservatives while ELCA pastors tend to identify themselves as "some form of liberal" (153, 155). More important, however, the essay demonstrates a continuing and even widening gulf between the theology and politics of ELCA pastors and laity while observing that the politics and theology of LCMS pastors remain closer to the beliefs of lay people.
A second sociological essay by Eugene Roehlkepartain considers the youth of ELCA and LCMS churches and finds that Lutheran youth in most ways replicate their non-Lutheran peers, by both "growing in their faith commitments and, too often, loosening their connections to the faith community" itself. (222)
Noll comments in the first essay: "Both of these conditions — the consolidation and the quarreling — are common to immigrant communities as they move out of strictly separated ethnic enclaves into the main paths of American life" (14). This observation could stand both as the overall theme of the entire book and as a commentary on the contemporary Lutheran scene. Whether one agrees with all of the analyses offered in these essays individually or collectively, Lutherans who care deeply about the future of their church will find much to ponder in these pages.
Susan Wilds McArver is associate professor of Educational Ministry and Church History at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, and director of the Center on Religion in the South, a program at LTSS.
U.S. Lutheranism's State
Reviewer: Peter T. Nash
Richard Cimino has edited a very broad collection of articles that share the authors' reflections on the state of Lutheranism only in the United States. Hence, the very title of this collection reveals prominent flaws. First, the title perpetuates an inaccurate use of "America / American" to indicate only the United States of America. The Americas are two continents with more than 25 Lutheran denominations, but this book speaks only of the ELCA, WELS, and the LCMS. Central and South American Lutherans and even Mexican and Canadian North Americans are ignored.
A related criticism of this collection's world-view is that its contributors and editor seem unaware of the futility of trying to define Lutherans as national groups. While understanding one part of the international Lutheran community can be useful, the worldwide Lutheran communion is what defines Lutheran identity. To think otherwise that we are not in a constant interchange of practices, ideas, and beliefs with partner churches around the world is to deny both the practical realities and theological shared hope of ecclesial union in the body of Christ.
This is not to say that Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century is without merit as a sociohistorical work. It contains twelve articles by fifteen authors and collaborators. Although it seeks to be broad in its portrayal of Lutheranism in the US, it simply cannot reach, hear, or represent us all. For example, no person of Latin American, African or Asian descent is among its authors. The article about the Lutheran left does not mention the Lutheran Human Relations Association that has been a voice of Lutheran conscience for 51 years.
Robert Benne asks if the Lutheran center can hold. The idea of a center, and by implication a periphery, of Lutheran theology has been hotly debated. Benne's brief article focuses on the question of how strongly connected Lutheran colleges and universities are to their roots. He cites Valparaiso University and St. Olaf College as shining examples of church-related schools connected to their roots.
The question that remains is how much Benne believes the religious convictions and traditions of a church-related school should direct the curricular content. One wonders how the author believes Lutheran colleges should make curricular decisions when many believe the late-medieval Lutheran hermeneutic to be at odds with current ideas about critical inquiry (as opposed to advocacy positions). How will students at Lutheran colleges be led into such sensitive debates as intelligent design, chaos theory, abortion, and euthanasia, among other issues?
This is not an easy sweeping generalization about the issues that face church and society. The article by Jeff Walz, Steve Montreal and Dan Hofrenning on the social theology of the LCMS and the ELCA bears this out. Their article is a synthesis of denominational studies about each denomination's approach to social issues as reflected by clergy activities during the 2000 political campaign.
Hot Button Issues
Alvin Schmidt's "Multiculturalism and the Dilution of Lutheran Identity" is an ill-considered attack on several U.S. hot button issues that he carelessly lumps together as multiculturalism. For example, he writes:
All too often people think [multiculturalism] means learning about other cultures. Some Christians think it means bringing the Christian gospel to other societies and ethnic groups who have different cultural customs and practices...
...Quite to the contrary, it is a radical sociopolitical ideology that sees all cultures and their beliefs, values and mores, and institutions, as essentially equal. It ignores the cultural practices of non-Western societies that are truly oppressive and often cruel and inhuman. (189)
The reader may wonder in what world the professor is living. While Mr. Schmidt cites some "cruel and inhuman" practices, female mutilation being one of them, I have never heard anyone committed to multiculturalism defend any form of physical violence against women or men. It would have been very helpful if Schmidt had cited examples of multiculturalists who defend these practices.
Schmidt's lines of reasoning are contradictory. A few pages later he attacks "multiculturalism's pro-feminist thinking" (192). He attacks the dynamic and inclusive translation of Ein Feste Burg as "...And do what they will hate, steal, hurt or kill..." so that it can be sung as robustly and as meaningfully by women and children as it formerly could be sung by men. Schmidt wrongly attacks the translation for removing women and children from the ancient and medieval category of male possessions. He prefers the 1941 translation as a more faithful translation of Luther's original.
He completely misses the point of the 1993 translation, which transfers the responsibility for faithful adoration to the hands of women and children, thus lessening the male burden. This adequately reflects a parallel transition that European and North American cultures have made over the nearly past 500 years. It is disturbing reasoning that allows Mr. Schmidt to lump this kind of distinctly North Atlantic cultural development in with multiculturalism. He places what he believes to be a defect, or perhaps even a sin, outside of our community — and on the shoulders of the sinister "other" of multiculturalism.
The author also believes that the support of same-sex unions or homosexual marriage is an "objective" of "multicultualism" (200). Perhaps he intends to equate multiculturalism with some imagined liberal cabal, but to suggest that the push for same-sex unions or homosexual marriages arises from any point other than Western culture is disingenuous.
Lastly I find it rather striking that he wants to freeze the Lutheran liturgy in the 16th century Gottesdienst (194). It would seem that he believes that the way things have always been done (at least for the past 500 years) is better than anything that may speak to the body of Christ today.
Mark Noll's contribution is redemptive of the flaws. In 18 pages Noll manages to give an evenhanded overview of Lutherans in the U.S. that at least leaves the reader with an idea of the historical complexity of being Lutheran in the northern part of the New World. An indication of Noll's faithful relating of the situations can be found in the statement:
An even larger reason for ambiguity about what Lutheranism means in America [sic] concerns the bearing of the Lutheran past on the Lutheran present. The history of Lutheranism in America [sic] is complex primarily because Lutherans seem to have both easily accommodated to American [sic] ways of life, including religious ways of life, and never accommodated to American [sic] ways. (4)
But even Noll shares a peculiarly saddening lack of imagination in his analysis of the situation. He doesn't mention the "new ethnics" with which Mark Granquist concerns himself in his second contribution to the volume.
For all of our talk about confessional fidelity, it seems that what we are often committed to is our European ethnicity in the guise of confessional fidelity. We believe that there is something essentially European about our belief that God condescended to redeem creation by assuming the form of a Palestinian Jew. We prefer to believe that it is the shared history of our forebears' successive migrations from Europe that marks us as Lutherans rather than our shared belief that this Jew, Jesus, who, as a baby, was carried away to safety in Africa to hide from the political tyrant of his day.
Cimino's introduction to the volume seems to lament that Lutherans in the U.S. today are not as distinct from our Protestant cousins as we were in 1958 (ix). In my days as a youth in the LCMS, I was taught that being a Lutheran had nothing to do with ethnicity, the color of one's skin, or spoken language but by a unique set of theological understandings that grew out of Martin Luther's work. Central among these understandings is the affirmation that God claims us, not that we claim God. This elegant plan of redemption knows no boundaries; and while what we know of it is always expressed in history — or better, histories — it cannot be contained in human history nor bound by it.
Peter T. Nash is visiting professor in religion in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa. He has conducted lectures, workshops, and consultations, in the U.S. and elsewhere. He is the author of Reading Race, Reading the Bible (Fortress Press, 2003) and Abrindo Sulcos: para uma teologia afro-americana e caribenha (2nd Edition Sinoda/CEBI/EST. 2004).