Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Grumpy Old Men
It is an interesting comment now some 50 years old and yet not untrue in our own age and generation. I once believed that it was due to the impetuous nature of youth, its doubts and rebellion, that the Church has gone so far astray. But Sasse's comment has resonated with my own change in thinking. To be sure, I do not believe and I am not sure that Sasse is suggesting that youth blindly follow old men in their fantasy of doubt and fear. It is not that youth gives up its independence and its ownership in order to slavishly follow the whims and whimpering of a past generation. But the starting point of youth is forever being changed by the ending point of those old men.
The nagging doubts and suspicious natures of those old men sure that the Jesus of the Scriptures and the Jesus of the Church's kerygma and the Jesus of history were three very different people with a bit in common but much to distinguish them became the starting point for those who followed them. The uncertainties foisted upon the Biblical text by those sure that there was a hidden and forbidden story underneath the neatly printed and carefully bound books called the Bible became the entry point for those who followed them. In other words, the generations that follow pick up where the generations that came before left off in their doubts and fears about the content of the Scriptures and the reliability of those Scriptures as we know them. They laid down a new starting point for those who followed them so that their flawed conclusions about what the Church has believed and taught and confessed were the beginning point of those whose distance from the core and center of the faith moved slowly and subtly away.
Instead of adding to our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, we are plagued more and more by doubts about the authenticity and reliability of the creedal affirmations. The work of grumpy old men has not helped us unfold the story God has given us but made us increasingly cynical about it. So what we preach on Sunday morning is more and more distant from the work of the scholars upon the texts and stories of those Scriptures. Our children begin where we have left off and we have bequeathed to them more a legacy of our fears and doubts than any certain facts of confident confessions.
The quest for the historical Jesus has left us believing that Jesus is a mystery man about whom we know little for certain. The pursuit of the Biblical text by the higher critics has left us believing that the authors are not who they were claimed to be and the books as we have them were manipulated to the point that nothing about the text can be read with confidence. The focus on diversity of liturgical texts and history has left us blind to the remarkable unity and unanimity throughout the ages -- something that would encourage us on Sunday morning to identity with the saints who have gone before us.
I was never much enamored of Bultmann or Tillich or many of the crop of folks Sasse might name or others might list. But I cannot deny that they have had a profound effect upon me despite my distance from their perspectives and conclusions. They have influenced both the topics and tone of the theological debate for far too long and we still do not know how to silence them as they speak to us still from their graves and their published works.
You can see the same thing when it comes to the worship wars. It seems those most passionate about contemporary worship are boomer age Pastors who are unable to let to of the culture of their youth and who have had the audacity to suggest that the Church's song must sound like what they listened to on the radio. In this respect, the vast majority of contemporary church music is hardly contemporary but remains largely a folk idiom that has more in common with Peter, Paul, and Mary than it does with cutting edge musical sound.
You can also see how this has affected the areas of outreach, evangelism, and mission. The doubts and fears of an older generation, certain that unless the Church changed its methodology, she would die, have guided us to look past our own history as a Church and choose modern business methods of marketing the Gospel. They have built up schools designed to move the Church away from its status in the world to a mere reflection of the world around her -- in the mistaken thought that the Church's salvation lie in being what the world wants or expects or desires us to be. And the strange truth is that the world does not want a church that looks like American Idol with music from their I-pod or pop psychology from the pulpit. They want to hear about the mystery of the Word made flesh, about the cross where the reign of sin is broken, and of the empty tomb that speaks of life that knows no end.
You can see this in the areas of ethics, morality, and the social fabric of our world today. The constant talk of sex, the refusal to reign in desire, and the self-centered approach to marriage and family that was our legacy (especially from the boomers) have left us with little choice but to sanctify that which had been judged sinful, to legitimize that which had been an aberration, and to celebrate that which had been confessed for repentance. Once again we turn to the Scriptures and find nothing that speaks to us today because we are either convinced that the Biblical era did not know the circumstances we face today or because their words were borne of an outmoded and discredited idea of right and wrong. So we make up an idea like the Gospel principle in order to do an end run around clear words of Scripture and allow the Church to tolerate, accept, and even approve behavior the Bible clearly condemns.
We are not free from our past -- the more recent past that reflects the last 200-300 years. We began where the great teachers of doubt and the tutors of suspicion ended. Is it no wonder then that we are in such a state today? Without a clear clarion call to that which the Scriptures teach, the creeds confess, and the liturgy manifests, we are left to the muddling of opinion, feeling, and desire.
It is for this reason that so many of the theological works attractive to me were published in a generation far before my own time. Old school no longer means the orthodox and faithful confession but these scholars of a more recent past whose lasting legacy has been one more of uncertainty than confident faith. It is not that I try to repristinate the ancient past or reinvent us by resurrecting another era judged golden. Every time and every place has been plagued by its own set of problems and challenges. But Sasse is correct in affirming that youth often goes astray because youth begins where the grumpy old men of the past have ended -- with their doubts, fears, uncertainties, suspicions, and bitterness. The end result is that we must not only deal with their conclusions but with their starting points and this has been the call to Biblical, confessional, and liturgical renewal among Lutherans -- not to reinvent who we are but to reconnect with who we were so that where future generations begin is not with our faults and failings but with what we have always believed, taught, and confessed as that which is the one, true, catholic, and apostolic faith and Church.