Archive for October, 2010

Martin Luther and the Great Pumpkin

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Yes, it is that time of year that many evangelical Christians dread, Halloween!  And to make matters worse, this year Halloween falls on Sunday.  What to do?  Multiple options have been offered in past years:  ignore Halloween and focus instead on the fall harvest, scarecrows and hay rides; create Christian versions of a haunted house where you show people what hell will be like if they don’t repent and quick; dress your kids up as Bible characters instead of Superman, Spiderman, Tinkerbell, Firemen, Policemen, Handy Mandy, Scooby Doo and Elmo (I always thought that this was lame.  What kid wants to dress like Abraham instead of Spiderman?); have “trunk or treat” gatherings in the parking lots of local churches; and the tried and true method of lock your doors, turn off your lights and ignore the doorbell.

I have a suggestion.  Since Halloween falls on Sunday this year, build your morning worship service around the fact that it is Reformation Day.  You know, the day that the German reformer Martin Luther tacked the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany to protest the sale of papal indulgences.  That significant event occured on October 31, 1517 and some theologians and historians would argue that it was the first shot fired in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. 

Not only is this an opportunity for your pastor to preach on justification by faith out of Romans chapter one, but the whole congregation can get fired up by singing all four verses of Ein Fest Burg ist Unser Gott, (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).  This is without a doubt one of the coolest hymns ever.  How many hymns do you know that use the word bulwark?

Then, that night for Halloween, you can dress the family up like German peasants or choose among the vast assortment of medieval monks:  Augustinians (Luther’s choice), Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Cluniacs, Benedictines, Carthusians or Premonstratensians.  Suggestion, before leaving the house gather the fam to watch that old classic, It’s the Great Pumkin Charlie Brown.  My favorite part is where Sally wants to slug that blockhead Linus because she missed tricks or treats in order to stay up all night in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear.  Life is like that sometimes.

If you’re  still not convinced that Reformation Day and Halloween are connected, take into account how much Martin Luther favors the Great Pumpkin in his older years.


Finding a Voice: Women in the 19th Century

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

America has always been a nation of insiders and outsiders.  By definition, insiders get to shape the culture and provide the moral vision for shaping the nation’s future while outsiders struggle to find a place in the culture where their voice can be heard.  Outsiders know too well the cultural doors that are closed to them.  Most often they are the doors that offer traditional access to power and influence:  politics, business, and education; however, the genius of outsiders is how adept they become at locating and utilizing non-traditional and counter-intuitive access points.

Though this is admittedly too broad a statement, the cultural insiders of the 19th century were Protestant males.  This is not an indictment of Protestants or men, it’s just a historical fact that must be taken into account.  Protestant males controlled the traditional accesses to power and influence but they were also responsible for unintentionally putting into motion forces that would significantly change the cultural landscape. 

They were responsible for advocating and promoting radical doctrines like popular sovereignty, individual religious freedom and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ( See my blog Preachers and Politicians).  In effect, during the 19th century the court of public opinion in America became a significant source of power and influence for individuals possessing charismatic personalities, inspiring vision and leadership ability. 

You see, the problem is, if you advocate and promote such doctrines, don’t be surprised if people take you seriously and begin rallying public opinion to their views.  Don’t be surprised if some of these same people begin redefining their social roles as a result of these radically liberating and socially leveling doctrines.  Don’t be shocked if they use their individual freedoms to gain public support for their cause and become civic leaders.  

The role of women in the 19th century was to be the moral gatekeepers of the American home.  In the privacy of their homes they were to raise their children to be God fearing, morally upright models of civic and religious virtue.  This concern for the moral and civic welfare of their children eventually expanded to larger concerns for the moral and civic issues affecting American culture that in turn affected family life:  abolition, temperance, poverty, the mentally ill and worker’s rights.

During the 19th century women expanded their role as moral gatekeepers in the home to the role of social reformers in the public square.  Though the traditional doors of politics, business and higher education were closed to most women, the role of social reformer was wide open.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a Southern slave owner.  As young adults they moved north to join the fight against slavery.  Both sisters became well known and effective public speakers and influential writers for the abolitionist cause.

Francis E. Willard was a devout Methodist influenced by Charles Finney’spreaching.  As leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she became the spokesperson for the largest women’s movement of that era and was responsible for leading the WCTU to join forces with the social causes of labor unions and women’s right to vote.

Dorthea Dix was a school teacher who dedicated her life to improving conditions for the mentally ill.  She hounded the Massachusetts State legislature to pass laws that would improve and expand the Worcester Hospital for the Insane.  Her concern for the plight of the mentally ill ultimately became a national crusade.

As advocates for social reform women found their public voice in the culture.  The court of public opinion provided women with the kind of non-traditional power and influence that would allow them to effectively challenge their traditional roles as moral gatekeepers and eventually demand their rights as full citizens of the nation.  Once empowered by the cause of social reform it was a short step to Seneca Falls, New York where in 1848 women and men joined together to formally demand that women be given the right to vote.

Those women, let them be reformers and they’ll want to vote.

Graham Crackers, Silverware and Rocking Chairs

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

In the nineteenth Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch did some interesting work on the social and economic characteristics found within Christianity.  They focused particularly on the differences between established churches and sects.  One of their more interesting conclusions about sects was that social and economic pressures will, over time, force radically independent sects to choose one of three options:  become an official church or denomination, reinvent themselves in some manner or cease to exist.  It would seem that America provided the laboratory to observe all three of these options. 

The Shakers, a spin off of the Quakers, were founded around 1776 by Sister Ann Lee.  They were a communitarian group:  biblical in focus, revivalist in spirit with millennial concerns.  They were also segregated.  Men and women lived apart as they dedicated themselves to achieving moral and spiritual perfection.  They were also spiritualist who communicated with the dead but were best known for their lively dances conducted as part of worship.  After a brief period of growth, the Shakers stagnated and declined.  Segregation of the sexes was a fine doctrine with this one major drawback.  Many of the Shakers were fine craftsmen who helped to sustain their community by designing and building furniture.   When faced with the social and economic pressures of the culture, the Shakers ceased to be a practicing religious group but you can still buy their furniture.

Around 1851, John Humphrey Noyes established a utopian community in upstate New York.  John was a product of the revivalist fires that burned pretty regularly through that part of the state and he held a firm belief in Christian perfectionism.  He taught that perfect love would be best realized through free love and complex marriages where  men and women shared their wives and husbands.  (I am not sure how close this community was to the site of the Woodstock Concert but they would have felt right at home.)  Moral pressures and outrage from the surrounding culture eventually spelled the doom of this community, but by this time they had become known for their craftsmanship working with silverware.  So, in 1879 they reorganized themselves as the Oneida Joint Stock Company.  That’s right, you can’t be a part of that community’s free love focus but you can buy Oneida Silverware.

Finally, the Millerites were a millennial  group in the early nineteenth century.  They followed the teachings  of William Miller, a Jeffersonian Deist who became a Calvinist Baptist preacher convinced that he had figured out the exact time for Jesus’ second coming.  When Jesus failed to appear on the day of his first prediction, March 21, 1843, Miller  recalculated and decided he had made a mistake.  The actual day was October 22, 1844.  Let’s just say it didn’t happen then either leading to what became known as the “Great Disappointment”. 

The  movement did not die because Ellen White reinvented the movement by teaching that the second coming did occur, it just happened in a spiritual sense.  She refocused the group on following biblical teachings regarding true worship on Saturday, not Sunday, and following many of the biblical dietary laws.  For this emphasis she enlisted the support of two key individuals:  John Kellogg (Tony the Tiger) and Sylvester Graham (that cracker you choked on in kindergarten because you didn’t have enough milk to wash it down).

Now, I am not saying that Weber’s and Troeltsch’s principles are still true today, but they were back then.

An American Paradox

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Paradox is defined as “a person, situation or action exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects”.  G. K. Chesterton referred to paradox as a man standing on his head waving his legs in the air.  However you define it, a paradox is something that is immediate and evident but its presence is disconcerting and troubling.  History is full of paradoxes and in many cases these paradoxes become a source of cultural or personal crises.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Americans were eagerly embracing their new found political and religious freedoms.  The American Revolution had created a new nation with a new, bright, and hopeful future.  Americans were also experimenting with their new found religious liberty as they took the Bible and began reshaping the Gospels to suit their own personal spiritual needs and preferences.  Revivalist preachers took the democratic and republican sentiments present within the nation’s political rhetoric and used it to shape a powerful religious rhetoric that combined popular sovereignty with spiritual conversion.

The Declaration of Independence provided new democratic language for political, social and religious change…for some Americans, but not for all, and that is  the American paradox.  By 1810 America was home to over one million slaves.  By 1860  that total was closer to three million.  The form of insitutional  slavery created in America was different than earlier forms introduced in the Caribbean and South America.  Earlier forms recognized slaves as people who had certain rights under the law.  American slavery defined slaves as property, not people; therefore, they were offered no protection under the law.  The Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves. 

Slavery existed side by side with the radically equalizing vocabulary of individual and natural rights, and the democratic language of revivalism.  As slaves began to embrace the Christian faith in large numbers the gospel story offered them a renewed sense of  value and worth as people; they were given a new identity as God’s people and a powerful force of egalitarianism began to emerge among the slave population.   How long can a whole section of the population be denied basic human rights before someone speaks up and says, “you know, what we have here is a serious paradox!”

Perhaps the Black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass best expressed this paradox in a speech he gave on July 4, 1852 to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim…You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen…You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country…The existence  of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”

Eight years later the new nation shaped out of democratic and republican sentiments about freedom, liberty and justice was fighting a civil war to address a paradox that could not be ignored.  What is the current American paradox that demands our attention?