Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A wearisome caution. . .

It is a symptom of Lutheran angst that we seem intent upon cautioning against excess for just about everything.  From good works to ceremonies in the Divine Service to joy, we cannot experience the fullness of God's gifts and blessings and respond to them without some Lutheran warning us against too much.  It has been the bane of my Lutheran life that every aspect of pastoral life has come with the incessant warning against too much beauty, too much liturgy, too much ceremony, too much devotion, too much joy, too many adiaphora, too many vestments, too much piety, too many good works, too much of any of the good things I thought we were supposed to love and desire and appreciate!

One of the visiting pastors who made his way into our Divine Service last summer complimented the extras while at the same time lamenting that his people would never go for all that and his brother pastors would castigate him for being too Roman or something.  But he yearned for something more than minimalism as a theological, liturgical, and musical motif.  He was not the first nor the last to speak in this way.  How sad of us!  We Lutherans seem to appreciate food and drink well enough.  Why do we think that the best supper in God's House is austere and plain?  It is not like we as a Lutheran Church are in any immanent danger of abandoning truth for style.  The average liturgical parish in the LCMS is still what could be called low church in ceremony and music.  Our golden age of Bach and Brahms and Pachelbel and Walther have been replaced with worship absent of choir or cantor, mostly spoken liturgy, and a common body of hymns we share more with Methodists than with our Lutheran forbearers.  So why must we always warn against excess when a congregation or pastor begins to put forward something other than a minimum in the Divine Service?

Even when we do laud and honor the gift of art and music and our own heritage of artists, artisans, and musicians, we do so with a caveat.  Yes, these are all well and good, mind you, but you don't need them and they are extraneous -- not essential.  It is like the strange way we approach the rite of ordination -- it is, after all, only apostolic custom -- God forbid that apostolic custom should count for much!  This strange preoccupation with simplicity was not essentially Lutheran -- at least the early Lutherans were all in for art and music -- from the Cranachs to Luther the composer himself!  But at some point in time, we must have met a Calvinist who convinced us to be embarrassed by our Lutheran identity and in our shame we repented of good music, good liturgy, and good art.  Can you explain it to me?  Even in the comment threads of this blog, there are also those voices of concern cautioning me against any normative Lutheran tradition when it comes to an appreciation for art, music, vestments, ceremony, and the like.  This caution about art, music, liturgy, and ceremony is about as logical to our Lutheran identity as those who order a diet drink with their extra size fries and triple patty Whopper.  

Before someone from a less is more congregation decides to argue with me, I refuse to listen.  Your caution has been like a pain in my, well, side, for most of my ministry and I am simply tired of hearing your warnings.  The LCMS is in danger of abandoning truth for show about as much as America is in danger of forgetting the pandemic.  It ain't gonna happen anytime soon.  So I am announcing that from now on I will not listen or read or give place to those who voice caution when instrumentalists are added to worship or art is added to the sanctuary or musicians are paid what they are worth or time is spent doing things right or a bow, genuflection, bell, or elevation draws attention to the holy things of God that are supposed to be our joy and delight.  Instead, I caution you against a false humility which is really hubris as you delight in being a Lutheran version of spiritual but not religious -- simple Lutheran Christians who are Amish in liturgy and satisfied with what is plain and unadorned on Sunday morning.  In your faux piety and superiority you look down on congregations and pastors who want and do something more and you thank God you are not like those.  God has not called you to be the conscience of His people -- you have put yourselves into that place.  

And you pastors trying to offer more and do more, God bless you.  God bless your efforts.  God bless the fruits of those labors.  Your works are not in vain.  The day will come when people will awaken to the gifts of God in arts and music and ceremony and then, Deo volente, God's people will not be content to settle for the false dream that less is more.

Gosh, I feel better.  I hope you do as well.


4 comments:

knauffs said...

Bravo!

Steve said...

“Can you explain it to me?”

Certainly. The normative tradition for Lutheran worship was neither excessive nor radically plain, even in Luther’s day. Witness this statement from the Smalcald Articles:

“If the bishops would be true bishops [would rightly discharge their office], and would devote themselves to the Church and the Gospel, it might be granted to them for the sake of love and unity, but not from necessity, to ordain and confirm us and our preachers; omitting, however, all comedies and spectacular display [deceptions, absurdities, and appearances] of unchristian [heathenish] parade and pomp.”

1. Love and unity causes Christians to submit to traditions, not necessity.
2. All comedies, spectacle, parade, and pomp are to be avoided.
3. Luther was definitely not Amish.

May, then, Lutherans seek an increase in parade and pomp in worship? Of course, but this comes at the expense of the normative Lutheran liturgical tradition. That tradition was shaped by our view of salvation.

For Roman Catholics, salvation is in the future. The Church and her traditions plus human efforts are the instruments of salvation.
For Lutherans, salvation is in the present; every believer is at every moment a forgiven sinner while remaining a worthless sinner, and forever benefits from God’s unconditional love manifested in Christ.
For the Reformed, salvation is in the past. A man’s life is not a matter of obtaining salvation, but of witnessing to God and worshipping Him in this world.

Janis Williams said...

I could wish I felt better, but as a graduate of college with an art degree, I “feel your pain.” Growing up Southern Baptist, the best I could hope for as a career in art would have been illustrating children’s Sunday School literature. As I made my journey (long and sometimes hellish) to the Lutheran church, I was awakened to how art had served the church. It is a sad history that the great artists and artworks served the Church, but basically no longer. Art has made its own journey into a hell of ugliness and perfidy. I would postulate that faithlessness leaves blood on the hands of people and churches of which Pastor Peters speaks.

This is not to say there are not wonderful Christian artists who produce churchly art. It does however indict a Church who refuses to appreciate and support musicians and physical artists (and craftsmen). Being accused of excess is a risk churches cannot take.

We face, it seems, a judgment which will begin with the house of the Lord. Piety, Truth, Beauty, and the Liturgy (especially the Supper) will cost us far more than money and criticism.

Debra-Lynn Swearingen said...


I am an artist and I spent most of my christian walk relegated to painting fruit trees and fluffy sheep for the nurseries in Mod-Ev churches. It was only when the Lord planted me in the beautiful vineyard, Risen Savior Lutheran Church, that I was properly taught why the Lord still gifts people with artistic talent. It is of course, as with all gifts, to serve neighbor and the church! As an art teacher it is my goal to teach young visual artists (and yes, there are many!) to go and do likewise. Find them, employ them (for peanuts- if you must), and encourage them to hone their gifts for God's glory!