Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5

Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

Fat and the Reformation


In an earlier post, I mused on the coincidence of the divisions of the European Reformation and the breakdown of Indo-European language families. While listening to an episode of Andreas Viestad and Pia Skevik’s brilliant podcast Radiomat, I became aware of another coincidence. Viestad points out that the Reformation lines also mirror the division between butter and olive oil as primary cooking fat. Northern European countries, where olive trees cannot grow, relied on butter as their primary cooking fat. As Viestad tells it, Roman fast days outlawed butter, but not olive oil, causing resentment on the Northern European side.

To add a note of caution, his division only accounts for majority of the Protestant/Roman split. It doesn’t explain the Calvinist/Lutheran split, or why Poland (a land bereft of olive trees) remained staunchly Roman Catholic. That said, it adds another layer to the varied forces of religion, culture, and environment that laid the groundwork for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.


Maps, Languages, and the Reformation


I like to look at maps. I also like to pretend that I’m a polyglot. And so, some time ago, I found myself looking at a map of the different language families in Europe. In the midst of examining said map, I formulated a linguistic-religious hypothesis. Now, with the firm knowledge that correlation does not imply causation in mind, I realized that in many respects, the breakdown of Christianity in Europe reflects linguistic realities:

-The Eastern Orthodox Church (the most disparate of the churches in ethnic membership) numbers among its adherents the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.), some Semitic languages (Syriac), Coptic, Armenian, and Greek (a language with a long antipathy to Latin).

-The Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation had its deepest stronghold in countries which spoke the Romance/Italic languages, languages closely allied to Latin: Spanish, Portugese, Italian, and French.

-The Lutheran Church took strongest root in countries with strong Germanic languages: German, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

-Likewise, the Reformed Churches blossomed in the Germanic speaking Low Countries.

-Even the Anglican Church, like the English language presents difficulties. English is a Germanic language, but through its history (especially its Norman period), it has absorbed heavy elements of Latin and French. Fittingly then, the Anglican Church became Protestant, but maintained a strongly Roman tinge.

Some immediate exceptions are:

-The Slovaks, who speak a Slavic language, but are Lutheran.

– The Romanians, who speak a Romance language, but are Orthodox.

– The Poles, who speak a Slavic language, but are Catholic.

-The Irish, who speak English and a Celtic language, but are Catholic.

-The Swiss who spoke French or Italian, but became Protestant.

500 years post-Reformation, with Europe at a religious nadir, this breakdown is mostly just academically interesting, and probably not worth further research. But if I had to hazard at a guess as to how the linguistic differences influenced the religious changes, I would say something like this: As English speakers, with such a large portion of our vocabulary drawn from the Romance languages, Latin seems strange to us, but not entirely alien. However, my experience working with the early liturgies in the Danish language, highlighted for me a different reality. For the peoples of northern Europe who spoke a Germanic tongue, the Latin language isolated them from the church. The cognates which we English speakers recognize, do not occur in much of Danish or Norwegian or German, and especially not in the more primitive forms of the language. Thus, for the vernacular reforms of Reformation worship produced a much greater effect in Germanic countries than Romantic ones. For a church whose major emphasis was on the spoken, proclaimed Word (not the written, as is sometimes asserted), such a change may have been the tipping point for breaking away from Rome. Now, again, this is all merely speculation, but an interesting angle to consider as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation inches closer.