Peter Berger, Lutheran sociologist, wrote: Religion scholars use the term “hybrids” for groups that put together their faith and practice by taking bits and pieces from previous religious traditions. If one wants a suggestive picture, think of a child assembling a little house by taking Lego pieces from several boxes. A synonym for “hybridization” is “syncretism,” though that term has a pejorative undertone, as when theologians deplore the pollution of the allegedly pure faith by alien accretions. Hybrids have existed throughout history, but where today religious pluralism coincides with religious freedom all sorts of hybrids emerge.
While Berger may be more interested in more organized forms of religious hybrids, what he describes is happening all around us and without much control or even notice. The advent of the internet and the invention of social media have had profound impact upon the religious beliefs of the folks in the pew. The growing congregationalism (for all denominations) has made it possible for pastors to literally invent their own versions of what it means to be, say, a Lutheran. While this was always true in the past, the present day has seen a flourishing and a new found legitimacy to such unofficial hybrids or, as might be more accurate, syncretism.
We could condemn such things but the real issue is not the tendency for people to infuse their own faith with influences from around them. No, the real issue is ongoing and faithful catechesis. The sad truth is that too many of our folks are so unsure as to what we believe, confess, and teach that they do not know or realize that their version of Lutheranism bears little resemblance to the reality of our Confessions.
Lutheranism in theory is always better and less messy than its practice. That said, it does not justify the lack of a clarion sound to gather the people in an informed and deliberate way to raise them up in the faith of their baptism, confirmation, and church. This is not incidental or trivial but part of the key to maintaining and sustaining the faith from one generation to another.
While I have no great expectation that our members will ever be well schooled in the entire Book of Concord, I do believe that they should have thorough familiarity with the Small Catechism and more than a passing awareness of the Augustana. These are by far the two most pivotal parts of our confessional identity and these ought to be the ongoing concern of pastors and people in every Lutheran parish. I would hope that from this interest in and instruction in some of the other documents of our Confessions would follow. The Concordia version put out recently by CPH provides enough added information, context, and explanation to make the whole Book of Concord accessible for every lay person. We have sold dozens upon dozens in my parish and I do encourage the reading of these documents that give the most profound expression to what we believe, confess, and teach as Lutherans.
This is also the bulwark against the erosion of our faith. The less we know about who we are, the easier it is for popular people and books to distance us from who we are and what we confess. This is no small problem for the average parish pastor and it should be the concern of those who supervise doctrine and practice in our churches as well as those who prepare church workers for service within our churches. The dilution of our identity is a constant threat and there is more to this than mere denominational loyalty. It goes to the integrity of the Gospel and the unity of our faith and life -- both within the parish and across the boundaries of the church body.
Hybrids will always exist but they cannot be allowed to exist without an ongoing catechetical process to challenge and inform the syncretism that threatens to erase the very basis of who we are, what we believe, what is taught among us, and our public confession before the world.