Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Luther Myth


On the Eve of All Saints Day in 1517, a German monk and Professor of Theology walked resolutely to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and affixed his theological manifesto—95 Theses—condemning the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. As he hammered the nail into the ancient wood he was symbolically nailing the coffin shut on a moribund religion. Protestants celebrate October 31 in commemoration of this auspicious occasion. Only it likely never happened.

Martin Luther has been the object of much mythmaking since he inadvertently inaugurated the Reformation nearly five centuries ago. Even in his own lifetime he was alternately depicted in popular images as a saint, complete with nimbus, and the seven-headed monster of the Apocalypse (Rev. 12:3). At times Luther contributed to the myths about himself and five hundred years hasn’t diminished his followers’ desire to portray him as “Rebel. Genius. Liberator.” as a popular Hollywood movie title puts it.

But it’s not just Protestant followers of Luther lining up to sing his praise. Catholic theologians formerly lampooned Luther as the man who had his theological breakthrough on the john, making his so-called “tower experience” into a toilet experience. Although improbable, it’s fitting for a man who often used scatological language (he had a potty mouth). Ecumenism has softened Catholic opinions of Luther. The current pope can’t (or won’t) condemn the Wittenberg reformer as his predecessor Leo X did. The former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (aka the Roman Inquisition), Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book, finds Luther’s sola fide doctrine of justification commendable (at least with the right caveat): “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” (Saint Paul, 82).

Once praised as the first modern man, standing on principle guided by conscience alone, Luther is now understood as a medieval man who believed he lived in a “world with devils filled,” caught between God and Satan on the eve of Armageddon. He was a rabid anti-Semite who believed synagogues should be burned down and that any Jew who mentions the name of God in the presence of a Christian should be pelted with pig poop (On the Jews and Their Lies). Luther’s credibility suffered when his private advice to Landgrave Philipp of Hesse that he should commit bigamy to ease his guilty conscience over his adultery became public. (Then as now bigamy was illegal.) By the end of his life, Luther was largely marginalized and overshadowed by other reformers, not the least of which was Geneva reformer John Calvin, who has had a greater influence on subsequent Protestantism, especially in North America.

Despite the iconography of his day, Luther had no halo. He didn’t have a pitchfork either. There’s hardly a Halloween costume that fits him, whether angel or demon, hero or villain. Luther was Luther. On Reformation Day we should celebrate not the man but the message of radical grace he preached.



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Hide and Seek


I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair. The story takes place on Egret Island off the South Carolina coast where Jessie, a forty-something empty-nester housewife, returns home, having been summoned from her routine life in suburban Atlanta to care for her mentally unstable mother. While on the island she falls in love with a lawyer-turned-monk and learns the secret of her father’s death, which is also a key to her mother’s dementia. As in her Secret Life of Bees, Kidd paints beautiful word pictures and weaves religious themes of sin and forgiveness into a story full of believable and interesting characters, though I didn’t like the way she neatly tied up all the loose ends and put a happy ending on a story of adultery and betrayal.

One gem I discovered in The Mermaid Chair was a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: “Before God and with God we live without God.” It’s a disturbing statement that has the ring of truth. The God who is present is also the God who forsakes (Mark 15:32). In Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, God is both the revealed God and the hidden God—deus revelatus and deus absconditus. Even if He isn’t playing hide-and-seek with us, it certainly feels that way sometimes. And whether we’re ready or not, God is seeking us. The question is, Are we ready to be found?

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Divine Interruptions


Jesus Healing the Blind of Jericho by Nicolas Poussin

There’s something you might not know about me—I’ve spent time in jail. No, I wasn’t convicted of a crime. In the mid 1990s I was the chaplain at an all-male military “brig,” ministering to incarcerated men. One of the things I appreciated most about my time behind bars was the absolute vulnerability of the inmates I worked with. Having been stripped of their pride, they were remarkably transparent and humble. At least it seemed to me that way when I compared them with some churchgoers who hide their pain behind polite smiles, nods, and God-bless-yous.

Because some of my “parishioners” were locked up only a short while, I allowed public testimonies and prayer requests in all services and offered Communion every Sunday. The prisoners seemed to appreciate both. When they testified, they often shared self-revealing information with brutal honesty. It’s risky allowing criminals to speak publicly in worship. As with young children, you never know what they might say. I admire the Quakers, who put up with the awkwardness and uncertainty of the moment, risking human error for a chance to hear the voice of God. Most of the time this kind of unstructured worship is outside my comfort zone.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t like unexpected outbursts any more than I do. They tried to shut up Blind Bartimaeus when he shouted out messianic greetings to Jesus as he passed by (Mark 10:48). It’s like the special needs child or mentally handicapped adult who speaks out in church during the sermon as the family members desperately try to shush her. Like my inmates, Bartimaeus had no shame and would not be silenced. When urged to be quiet, he cried out for Jesus even louder.

It seems odd that Jesus had the blind man summoned rather than simply walking over to him (49). Maybe the crowds were pressing on Jesus so much he couldn’t get to Bartimaeus. Perhaps Jesus wanted to see how quickly and purposefully he would come. I don’t know. Be that as it may, once Jesus stared into his hollow, sightless eyes, he asked him what seems like an obvious question: “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” (51). Bartimaeus asked for the miracle of sight and he got it.

According to Jesus, he received his sight because of his faith. He didn’t say it was because of how much or what kind of faith. Jesus just said, “thy faith hath made thee whole” (52). It seems he gave Bartimaeus credit for his own healing, because he risked embarrassment and rejection to call out to Jesus and ask him for what seemed impossible. We learn from Jesus’ words to the Rich Young Ruler earlier in the same chapter that “with God all things are possible” (27). Fortunately for Bartimaeus, Jesus was in the miracle-working business. Happily for us, he still is.

A blind man asked Jesus for his sight to be restored and got it. What would you say if Jesus asked you, like he asked Bartimaeus, What do you want me to do for you?


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Call me a Liberal

They received the word with all readiness of mind, and search the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Last Saturday I went to a Bible study at a “liberal” Baptist church, the kind I wouldn’t have set foot in a few years ago. I was surprised by what I found. They actually studied the Bible! I mean they really studied it. With commentaries lying open on the tables and hearts open before God, they searched the scriptures, asking hard questions and making life-changing applications. I was impressed that these folks, who don’t believe the Bible fell directly from heaven in its present form, took the text so seriously. In their worship they use the Revised Common Lectionary, read three passages of scripture from the pulpit every Sunday, and base their sermons on one or more of those texts. Theological conservatives could learn much from this purposeful, serious approach to the scriptures, whether or not they feel comfortable with a lectionary.

Liberal is not a term I feel comfortable applying to myself (yet). But if what I saw last Saturday was a liberal approach to the Bible, then, please, call me a liberal.


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Love Actually?

Chick flicks are one of my guilty pleasures. (My wife Amelia, on the other hand, likes action adventure. Go figure.) One of my favorites is the British romantic comedy Love Actually. (Who could forget Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love)” or Rowan Atkinson as a goofy, gift-wrapping jewelry salesman?) Set in the days leading up to Christmas, the film follows multiple storylines about love and romance. One story focuses on a trio: Juliet (Keira Knightley), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln), Peter’s best friend. Mark is both best man and amateur videographer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding. When the professionally made video turns out disappointing, Juliet shows up on Mark’s doorstep unannounced to get a copy of the footage he shot of the nuptials. Much to Juliet’s surprise and Mark’s embarrassment, the video is nothing but close-ups of her, revealing Mark’s secret love for his best friend’s girl. “But you never talk to me. You always talk to Peter,” Juliet protests, “You don’t like me!” How could Juliet have been so close to someone who loved her so much and not even realize it?

I sometimes doubt that God loves me. Do you do that too? Intellectually I know that’s not right, but I do it anyway. I never doubt that God loves my kids or my friends or people in deepest, darkest Africa. But me? Really? You love ME, God? I wonder sometimes. You never talk to me the way you talk to others (at least the way they describe it). Look at all of the stuff you’ve put me through, God. You don’t even like me! At least that’s the way I feel at times. And why should you? My loyalty to you is fickle, my love cold. I’m not the kind of Christian I should be. I’m not very loveable.

Maybe the problem is the word love itself. It’s slippery and hard to define. We use it to describe how we feel about everything from our closest family members (“loved ones”) to sports (“I love the Gators!”) to food and drink (“I love coffee.” Really, I do.) to deity (“I love God.”). I’ve heard all of the sermons about “agape”—unconditional, godlike love. But from reading the Bible, I’d say it appears God does put some conditions on his love. Although he “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” he also damns people to hell. OK, it’s their fault. I get that. But it’s still hard for me to reconcile the idea of “unconditional” love with eternal punishment. It seems to me that either his love is conditional (or unconditional only for a select, arbitrarily chosen few as Calvinists contend) or he shouldn’t damn people to an eternity of outer darkness. Can you love someone unconditionally and still send them to eternity in hell, even if that’s what they deserve? (I realize some of my fundamentalist friends have just written me off as a liberal for even asking the question.)

Karl Barth, one the most famous and sophisticated theologians of the twentieth century, once summed up his theology with these surprisingly simple and familiar words, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” My response: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I wonder if when I get to heaven God’s going to sit me down and show me a video with all close-ups of me.


Filed under devotionals, movies

Me First!

Me first! It’s something you hear on playgrounds every day. Children don’t have to be taught how to be selfish. It comes naturally. But not just for children, for grown-ups too. We live in a Me first! society full of Me first! people. Just look at how folks maneuver and speed up to get ahead on the highways and push past in the grocery lines. It even affects religion. Go into any Christian bookstore. The self-help section is the largest. Me first! The Bible says, “Husbands love your wives” but husbands leave their wives and children to “find themselves.” Me first! Women and men put their careers ahead of family. Me first! We live in a self-promoting, self-absorbed generation.

It was no different in Jesus’ day. James and John came to Jesus and asked him to do them a favor: “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:37). They wanted to be Jesus’ right-hand man. Only they didn’t know what they were asking for.

These sons of Zebedee were seeking the ultimate political appointment, only they got it all wrong. They weren’t asking a man who was about to set up an earthly, Messianic kingdom, as they supposed. They were asking someone hell-bent on getting himself killed. Jesus was a dead man walking. He was a criminal on his way to execution. And to be with him was to be guilty by association. Only they didn’t know that when they asked their question. Like a good Jew, Jesus answered their question with more questions: “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of? And be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Their immediate, unreflective reply was Yes, we can! They sounded like giddy Obama groupies just waiting for their man to take power. Jesus and his disciples were again talking past each other. Not only did James and John have no idea what they were asking of Jesus, they had not a clue as to what he was asking of them.

People often don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve read several memoirs of young men who enlisted in the military in a time of war but didn’t realize what they were signing up for. Especially in World War I most joined for adventure, glory, and patriotism. What they got instead was long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror followed by disillusionment and cynicism. Few found what they set out after.

Jesus was great at turning things upside down, like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables. He turned the Sabbath law on its head: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). He reversed economics. Instead of “get as much as you can,” he said, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). Jesus inverted the impulse of self-preservation: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). He even promised to reverse life and death: “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). In Mark 10, he turns the tables on his two ambitious disciples, telling them, “whosoever of you wants to be the greatest, shall be servant of all” (44). The disciples didn’t get it. We don’t either.

The truly great Christians are not seeking positions of power but follow Jesus on the not-so-well-worn path of self-sacrifice that leads to suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “when Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Discipleship means following Jesus’ teaching and example, not the shallow Me first! preaching we hear from megachurch pulpits or on TV. Robert McElvaine, author of Grand Theft Jesus, calls it “ChristianityLite.” With lots of wry wit and sarcasm he characterizes the Me first! attitude prevalent today: “Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!” (4-5).

If we’re going to get serious about following Jesus, we need to start by repenting of our Me first! approach to life. (Me first.) Self-centeredness is a sin, and sin must be paid for. Jesus “gave his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This transactional theology makes my liberal friends squirm. Christianity is not a civilized, sophisticated religion. It’s primitive. There’s blood and sacrifice. Jesus had to die as a “ransom” to pay the penalty for my sins, and yours.

If we repent of our selfishness and pride, Jesus will show us a better way: “not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45). It’s the way of service to others.Others first! instead of Me first! That’s what Gospel living is all about.

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