An Open Letter to All Who Took Garrison Keillor’s Op-Ed Seriously

Some of you may have read Garrison Keillor’s recent Washington Post Op-Ed on his search for a new religion in the aftermath of the election. If not, you can find it here.  The Op-Ed is meant humorously, hence his arrival at “Confusionism” as his religion of choice, but that said, it touches on a sentiment that many have expressed post election and that I feels need to be addressed.

To Whom it May Concern,

Let it be said that I actually like Garrison Keillor. Over the years, I’ve found his humor to be a) funny and b) sensitive to the absurdity of being a Scandinavian-American. But, in his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Times, he propped up a view of the Christian church that though a) constantly recurring and b) typically American, needs to be addressed.

Just about 1500 years ago, in North Africa, Christians did bad things. Cowardly things. Under pressure from the Roman government, they did not stand up for themselves or others, instead handing over their Bibles and hoping that the government would be nice to them. Among these Christians were even bishops and priests. In righteous indignation, a man named Donatus ascended to the office of bishop and declared that confessions, baptisms, and communion administered by those traitorous priests were invalid. For his trouble, Donatus got a heresy named after him. He was opposed, you see, by another bishop from the town of Hippo, a man by the name of Augustine. Augustine’s position, was simply this: the sacraments are an act of God, not the people who perform them. In the end, Augustine won out, and Donatus got Donatism named after him.

Despite the acceptance of Augustine’s position as orthodoxy, Donatism has not gone away. In fact, I would argure that it’s the most prevalent heresy in the modern United States; it’s just changed its outward garb. Within the Catholic-sacramental system in North Africa in the 4th century, the issue was whether unholy priests could administer holy sacraments. In the Arminian-moralist system in the United States in the 21st century, the issue is whether unholy people can make up a holy church.

In the United States, we are obsessed with good people and likewise we are horrified when the people who sit in our church pews don’t act in the way that we consider upright and holy. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, we are shocked to learn that not only are congregations full of sinners, but they generally have pastors for sinners, too. And yet, despite the fact that this should be plainly clear to us, whenever congregations show off their sinfulness, we run out looking for a new church or even a new religion.

But Augustine’s point remains the same and remains just as valid today as 1600 years ago. The preaching and the sacraments that constitute the Christian church are an act of God, and they do not require holy people to perform them. In fact, if they required holy people, there would be no church. It was this conviction that caused the framers of the Augsburg Confession to declare in Article 7 that the church is found wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. To put it in another way, the people who come into a church on Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday) do not constitute the church. God’s action through the preached Word and Jesus Christ’s promise to be present in the bread and the wine constitute the church.

And this is important because even when Christians seem to be behaving, even when Christians are voting for the right candidate and being nice to each other, congregations are still full of sinners and they still have sinners for pastors. Sometimes the ways in which we sin are more obvious than others, but they are never absent. Christian churches are not the place where good people get together to do good things for others. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to save the lost, and so until he comes again in glory, churches will be full of nothing but wretched sinners. Selfish sinners, angry sinners, confused sinners, nothing but sinners. For goodness sake, Peter, the rock on whom Christ would be build his church, the rock against whom the gates of Hell would not prevail, that same Peter was a bumbling fool who cut off a man’s ear with a sword, made shameful excuses for not eating with people, and denied his Lord three times. Dearly beloved, if Peter himself was a sinner and a fool, you and I have no chance.

And so, if you walk into church on Sunday, and you suddenly realize that your church is full of loathsome sinners, don’t start shopping for a new one. Remember, he was called Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, not friend of nice people. And though I probably don’t know you (and if I do know you, I can say this with absolute confidence), I know you’re in the right place. Because you, too, are a sinner. And so, you go to church, not to rub shoulders with other good people, but to be convicted of sin, to hear words of forgiveness, and to be fed with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a nonsensical deal, I know, but we’d all be lost without it.

Sincerely,

Kristofer Coffman

Remembering Jaroslav Pelikan and his Books

The United States of America is really sort of a backwater in terms of Lutherans. There aren’t very many of us, and, quite frankly, the credentials of all of the “Lutheran” churches look a little dubious, depending on the lighting. Because of that, the famous Lutherans have generally been European. This is the second in a series of posts highlighting both important and improbable characters from the American side of the things.

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Not the right kind of Pelikan.

Bear with me for a short time on this one. On Wednesday, September 28th, the Roman church observes the feast day of St. Wenceslas. For those of you who don’t know, in addition to going out on the feast of St. Stephen, Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any famous Czech-American Lutherans. However, thinking about the Czechs made me remember that they formerly shared the country of Czechoslovakia with the Slovaks. And I do know of a Slovak-American Lutheran that you all should know about: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan.

And while there’s a lot to know about Dr. Pelikan, I’d like to focus on one thing: his voluminous literary output. He wrote a lot of books, both popular and academic, and I’d like to focus on his books because they represent a facet of Dr. Pelikan’s life and work that the Lutherans in America often sorely miss.

Jaroslav Pelikan represents a Lutheran theology grounded in history and not afraid to do serious academic digging. He knew over a dozen languages and had an interest in subjects as diverse as the music of Bach and the literature of Dostoevsky. And so, in honor of St. Wenceslas, Dr. Pelikan, and my own convoluted chain of thought, here are three books by Jaroslav Pelikan that every pastor ought to read (and every layman could benefit from):

  1. Fools for Christ – In this book, Pelikan weaves together the story of six towering figures in the history of Christian theology: the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In weaving them together, he highlights the three chief temptations of Christian theology, namely the identification of the Holy with the good or the true or the beautiful. In each instance, he redirects the theology back to its true object: Jesus Christ.
  2. Whose Bible is It? A Short History of the Scriptures – In Whose Bible is It?, Pelikan turns his historical interest to the formation of the Bible. Written for a popular audience, this book provides clear answers to common questions about how the Bible came to be.
  3. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine – This last recommendation is actually a five volume set. To put it simply, in these five books, Pelikan does the reading for you. While not light reading by any measure, Pelikan presents an accessible guide to the development of Christian doctrine, all the way from the early church up to the present day. As both a history and a reference, it ought to be in every pastor’s office.

Fat and the Reformation

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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.

 

Pastor, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

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Pastors have a weird job in a lot of ways. The weirdest part is that people are always expecting a pastor to “pastor and something else.” And this is not a new thing.

In Italy, in the 1400s, bishops rode around playing knights in armor instead of doing bishops work. In Norway, in the 1600s, the government expected pastors to collect taxes and teach parishioners how to plant potatoes. In England, in the 1800s, the hip thing was to be a pastor and a naturalist. the pastor was expected to spend their time observing and cataloging the rhythms of the natural world. In fact, a young man named Charles Darwin loved the naturalist part so much that he gave up the pastoring part.

Today, nothing has changed. People may not expect pastors to be knights, potato farmers, or naturalists, but they do expect pastors to juggle multiple hats. They expect pastors to be policemen, investigating people’s moral failings and judging them. Or, they expect pastors to be corporate geniuses, building an empire and farming out franchises. Or, most common in my own denomination, they expect pastors to be activists, changing America’s government to reflect God’s purposes.

The problem is, so often, these expectations swallow up a pastor’s actual job. The pastor gets so busy investigating parishioners or changing America that they don’t have time to proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments. And in this situation, everybody loses. Everything gets done poorly. So, think about it for a moment. And the next time you see your pastor, thank them for being just a pastor. Or, challenge them to throw all their other hats away, and just wear the pastoring hat. It may seem reductionist, but in the long run, I think it will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Remembering Rasmus Jensen

The United States of America is really sort of a backwater in terms of Lutherans. There aren’t very many of us, and, quite frankly, the credentials of all of the “Lutheran” churches look a little dubious, depending on the lighting. Because of that, the famous Lutherans have generally been European. This is the first in a series of posts highlighting both important and improbable characters from the American side of the things.

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Every year, when it gets cold here in Minnesota, I think it’s good to think about Rasmus Jensen. Rasmus was a Dane, a Lutheran pastor, a missionary, and most notably, the first Lutheran pastor in North America. We know very little about his early life; we don’t know where he was born, or anything about his childhood. We know that he survived to adulthood and that his parents were well off enough to send him to the University of Copenhagen. At the university, he caught the missionary spirit and volunteered to spread the Gospel in India. In 1619, King Christian of Denmark granted Jensen his wish and assigned him the “Ship Pastor to the East Indies,” on an expedition led by the explorer Jens Munk. At that point, Jensen’s luck went south. Actually, if it had gone south, it would have been better for all parties involved. Instead, Jensen’s luck went west. Munk’s expedition intended to get to India by sailing through the Canadian Arctic.

Munk’s expedition did not find the Northwest passage, and instead of sailing back to Denmark, they decided to overwinter on the Hudson Bay. During this time, Rasmus Jensen became the first Lutheran pastor to preach, administer the sacraments, and lead worship services in North America. The crew made it through Christmas with no trouble, even gifting Jensen fox skins to show their gratitude for his work.

The Canadian winter soon took its toll on the expedition. On January 23rd, Jensen delivered his last sermon to the crew; due to lack of food and illness, he preached it from his bed. A month later, on February 20th, 1620, Rasmus Jensen died. The crew buried him in an unmarked grave.

In the late 1990’s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada resurrected Jensen in rodent form, as Rasmouse, to valiantly lead the ELCIC into the age of the internet. Judging by the state of the ELCIC website, the expedition seems to have gone as well as the original.

Rodent tributes aside, Jensen had neither the accomplishments nor the accolades of pastors that followed him. But he was first, and for that, he deserves to be remembered.

Biographical Information on Rasmus Jensen was taken from: Granquist, Mark. Lutherans in America: A New History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015, 33-34.

Information on Rasmouse can be found at https://notes.elcic.ca/rasmus/index.html

 

Aldo Leopold, Self-Evidence, and the Iowa Caucus

As referenced below, this post original was published before the Iowa Caucus. However, I think that the outcome of the election has rendered the contents moot.

Let me begin with two caveats. One, this actually has very little to do with the Iowa Caucus that happened last night. I just thought I’d jump on the trending hashtag. Two, I’m a big fan of Aldo Leopold. In fact, I was once quoted as saying A Sand County Almanac is my favorite book in a seminary admission’s brochure.

Aldo Leopold begins the foreword to A Sand County Almanac with these words: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” In making this statement, Leopold takes the humble step of admitting that his deeply held values are not self-evident. He realizes that not all people love the wild places in the world like he does. Now, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think those people shouldn’t love and protect those wild places. In fact, in his book, Leopold maintains that people, wilderness lovers and city-slickers alike, need to change their views of the world. But, he realizes that it will not come easily or without careful exposition, and in the opening to his book, he acknowledges that perhaps, some people will never get it.

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Christians in the United States, on both sides of the political spectrum, need to learn this lesson. On both sides of the aisle, the assumption is that the Christian message is self-evident. Whether a message of morality or social justice, the assumption is that people who don’t get on board are ignorant, malicious, etc. As the oft-bandied saying goes “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” The prevailing wisdom is that the message ought to make sense to everyone, that it’s logical and obvious. The problem, with Christians who don’t march for racial justice or who destroy family values is that they don’t understand.

And, I’m here to say that’s backward. In fact, the Christian message is not self-evident in the least. Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “Use your common sense,” he said “To you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables, so that they may look and look, but never perceive; listen and listen, but never understand; to avoid changing their ways and being healed” (Mark 4:11-12). The key is not cognitive understanding or emotional relationship. Rather, the secret of the kingdom of God is faith. Faith unlocks the Christian life, not the other way around. “Christian” politics that appeal to general understanding, to natural law, or to common decency are only masquerading as Christian. “Christian” politics that assemble a coalition of support based upon similar philosophies of living are not Christian either. They are simply human attempts to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out.

The irony of Jesus’ promise that he will give the disciples wisdom that the world cannot refute is that the wisdom of God is foolishness in human eyes. As Paul writes, God chose what is foolish in the world to confound worldly wisdom. We do not preach self-evident logic. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the righteous and foolishness to the wise.

Maps, Languages, and the Reformation

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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.