Monday, March 21, 2016
The mysterious, wandering definition of what is culture. . .
I certainly do not have the time or the inclination (and you do not have the attention span) to rehearse the full story of those worship wars right down to the present day. However, it is noteworthy that the evangelical style of Luecke was not only an appeal to adiaphora (a distinctly Lutheran word for things neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture and therefore which cannot be used to bind the conscience). It was also the official introduction to our circles of the idea long floating around Rome and other theological centers that a great amount of what we think and do as Christians is born less of faith than it is culture. Indeed, Luecke and others complained that Missouri was not just too rooted in one time but also too German. Hidden in a discussion of village and camp, evangelism and marketing, style and substance, was a judgment that we were too bound by cultural things and that these cultural adiaphora were preventing us from exploding on the Christian scene with the good substance (theology) that Lutherans had. In other words, we were being held prisoner by our culture (and the adiaphora forms and rituals of worship to which we were too attached).
Most the arguments against Luecke were based on his reading of the Lutheran Confessions -- his misunderstanding of what adiaphora actually means and his misapplication of that term to things which are non-negotiable with culture. Others complained that he was merely substituting one culture for another and one that was distinctly less Lutheran than what it was replacing. Others wondered if maybe we were too German, too liturgical (like that had ever really been a problem in modern day Missouri), or, perhaps, even too Lutheran.
No less than Peter Berger has suggested that for Lutheranism, ethnicity is no longer a real distinguishing factor in America. Berger writes a brief history of Lutheranism's journey to America, its growth in America, and the resulting drop of the Umlaut (the little dots above some vowels in German). The dropping of the Umlaut is Berger's expression for the stripping away of much of the once defining culture of German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, etc... Lutherans and their resulting separate Lutherans jurisdictions in the new found homeland. For Berger, Lutherans of all stripes have pretty much cast off nearly every restraint of culture and ethnicity.
While we in Missouri might be on the end of the wave, his words are worth pondering. Have we too quickly demurred to our German-ness to blame for things that have nothing whatsoever to do with culture and ethnicity? Have we been labeling as German things which are not at all representative of our German (or any other) culture and ethnicity? In his comparison to the often strident and rigid divisions of culture and ethnicity among the Orthodox in America, Lutherans come out pretty well (if viewing your cultural and ethnic heritage as legacy more than identity is good). In fact the truth is that even Rome sees the old divisions fading -- both by the organized effort at consolidating parishes and by the overall loss of ethnicity as a central component to individual and family identity.
Where I live, in the new South on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, minutes from Nashville, the place were culture continues to dominate is Sunday morning and the great divide between predominantly white and Black churches. When I moved here a couple of decades ago I was told bluntly by a prominent Black pastor that if any Black folks came to my church, I should send them to him. He was not speaking as one who advocated a racial divide -- far from it -- but as one intent upon preserving the Black culture -- of which church was a very significant component. I do not believe that too much has changed in this city on that point.
To finally bring this to an end, what I am saying is that it is a quick and easy thing to lay blame on things that have prevented churches from growing and flourishing. It was too quick and too easy to lump together real cultural and ethnic barriers with such things as liturgy and hymnody. It was a too quick and easy presumption that if we could just cast off our German-ness, trust one another to experiment carefully, and allow the boundaries of our identity to be enlarged, we would harness the secret of evangelical style and Lutheran substance and take America by storm. We were confusing ourselves. Style is substance in many ways and substance is nothing without the resulting practices (style) that manifest what is believed in the life of the people gathered to worship, pray, witness, and serve.
We were too hard on ourselves. We Lutherans in the Missouri Synod long ago stopped being German -- long before Anheuser-Busch gave up its German ghost and American ownership. There is no going back. Sure, we can sing a stanza or two of Silent Night in German if we want but the culture and ethnicity that once defined us has become a memory. This is not a battle against an ethnicity or a culture but with what it means to be Lutheran. The answer will not come in finding peace with American culture (like the ELCA has done) or hiding from it (like WELS) but engaging it with the steadfast and unchanging voice of Scripture, the clear confessional witness of Lutheranism, and the vibrant sacramental and liturgical worship that practices both of the above. I am always hopeful this is what Missouri wants to do and to be but that is a battle every generation wages -- at least until Christ comes again in His glory to render all of this moot.