Maybe We’re Not As Great As We Think We Are

In the wee hours of the morning as I was sitting with our newborn Lilly I came across an article written by Dr. Paul Raabe of Concordia Seminary entitled “Do Non-Lutherans Pay Attention to LCMS Theology?” The very title intrigued me because it’s a question that I’ve heard many times before or along similar lines like, “We have this great theology why doesn’t anyone know about us?” or “Why don’t we have a powerhouse writer or theologian on The New York Times Bestseller List?”  I believe these questions, though, reveal the embedded presupposition of many LCMS Lutherans.  I think we begin with the presupposition that our theology is great, that it’s something that the world needs to hear and that if heard they’d love it.  To be fair, Dr. Raabe admitted to his own bias, this was quite apparent when he claimed in thesis 1 that “the theological work in the LCMS is the best kept secret in American Christianity.”  Quite bold.  Nonetheless, he takes some stabs at why he thinks this is the case, however flawed such an assertion may be.  This, he believes, has to do with our insularity, sectarianism and marketing.  All good reasons worthy of consideration.  Again, though, I’ve got to go back to that embedded presupposition and belief that our theology is great to begin with.

These days whenever I read or hear something like what Dr. Raabe wrote or something that a Lutheran pastor says like “We’ve got this great theology, we just need to figure out how to to get it out there” the book “He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys” comes to mind.  Now, to be honest, I’ve never read the book but I’ve read the description.  Many years ago I had a counselor tell me about it during a counseling session in which I shared a situation in which I just wasn’t into a girl who was really into me.  Here’s a description of the book from amazon.com:

“He’s Just Not That Into You—based on a popular episode of Sex and the City—is tough love advice for otherwise smart women on how to tell when a guy just doesn’t like them enough, so they can stop wasting time making excuses for a dead-end relationship. It’s the best relationship advice you’ll ever receive.”

Past personal love-life aside, I think the LCMS, its theologians and pastors, may have something to take away from this.  Who knew Sex and the City could be relevant to the LCMS?  I feel vindicated for all my late night viewing of this show.  Anyways, I would argue that we are like the girl (or guy) who needs to be told that he (American Christianity) is just not into us.  Maybe it’s not that we’ve failed at waking the sleeping giant, rather it’s that we aren’t really that interesting.  Maybe it’s that we aren’t as amazing as we think we are or as we tell ourselves over and over again.  Maybe it’s not that we are the best kept secret or that we’re like “dwarves with a secret treasure pot of gold.”  Maybe it’s that we’re pretty mediocre and kind of boring.  We’re very good at the basics but it seems to me that we don’t go very far from them.  And don’t get me wrong, the basics are a good thing, they provide a solid foundation just as good parents provide a solid foundation for their children.  But the children will eventually grow up and head out on their own.  At times, I think we in the LCMS are like adults in arrested development, having never left home or our small town and experienced what else is out there.

Now, to my point, Dr. Raabe made a list of some of the things that serve to validate his thesis such as the Concordia Commentary Series and first article theology and creation.  But to be sure, his very mentioning of these things almost prove some of the aspects of his second thesis: Non-Lutherans simply don’t know the theological work currently done in the LCMS.  I would argue that this is the case because we are quite unimpressive to begin with, thus disproving thesis 1.  For example, the Concordia Commentary Series is sorely lacking.  I immediately think of Art Just’s commentary on Luke which is quite problematic on exegetical, theological and sociopolitical grounds.  Just never mentions that one of the gospel of Luke’s overarching concerns is economic justice or the preferential option for the poor.  What’s more, he drops the ball in regards to Zechariah’s contrast with Mary and the temptation of Jesus and the subversive aspects of each temptation in light of the political and religious realities of the day.  Instead, Just continually projects Lutheran dogmatic categories onto Luke.  Similar things can be said about the Concordia Commentary on Matthew which, again, leaves much to be desired in the area of cultural context and sociopolitical realities of the day.  One example of this is the way the Sermon on the Mount is handled.  No mention is given to the creativity of Jesus’ third way borne out in his commands to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to not repay evil for evil.  Jesus was giving an otherwise poor and powerless group of people creative alternatives to retain their dignity and push back on those in power while not resorting to violence.  This is well known by many New Testament scholars today.  Walter Wink has done some excellent work on the Sermon on the Mount (to be sure, many LCMS Lutherans would probably write him off immediately for being too liberal).  When it comes to first article theology and creation we are sorely behind other Christian groups, all one need do is look to the Orthodox like Alexander Schmemann or to others like farmer Wendell Berry or to radicals like Ched Myers and the Bartimaeus Cooperative.  The reality is that we’ve got nothing on these guys.  To a stalwart Lutheran Chuck Arand’s work on this may seem great but to an outsider or a Lutheran who has done some serious digging it’s not something that could be classified as gold.  The rest of the list bears similar problems.

The reality is that we LCMS Lutherans are a blip on the radar screen of all of Christendom.  In the United States we account for only 2 million of a population that is 320 million.   That’s lower than 1 percent.  Now I’m sure that there are those who take this as a badge of honor, that it’s a testament to our faithfulness or to our unwillingness to acquiesce to the demands of the world.  Thus, we are the faithful remnant. Unfortunately, I think that’s misguided, just as misguided as the idea that the reason we don’t have more appeal is because we have the pure Gospel which is offensive to many. In reality, I think it’s because we just aren’t as special as we’d like to think we are.  I think it has more to do with the notion that American Christianity is just not into us.  We do have good things to offer, but so do other churches as well.

One of the strengths of conservative Lutheranism is that it provides a very good formation for what Jung called “the first half of life.”  The first half of life is dedicated to forming a foundation, to forming an ego, to forming and establishing the basics and the boundaries (quia subscription?).  Lutherans are great at doing this.  More specifically, Concordia Seminary is excellent at doing this for those learning to be pastors in the LCMS. I sit here writing to you as someone who was given this theological foundation at the said institution.  I have benefited from Concordia Seminary, I can write this because of the foundation that I was given there.  But now what?  Do I just go around in circles and learn from the same professors or do I go outward, beyond LCMS lines?  I have done the latter and my life, my faith, my love for God has been greatly enriched.  I’ve learned that there is some amazing theology out there that does not bear the name Lutheran.  It’s even prompted me to ask, “Where have you been all my life?”

 

 

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