Friday, April 13, 2012

Specifics, Bob

This is a scene from the movie, "Phenomenon," starring John Travolta, where Travolta's character, George Malley, is forced by the CIA to undergo a psychological interview:

"Specifics, Bob."

I understand Malley's frustration in the above scene. It is akin to the frustration many of us feel whenever we hear someone issue warnings about the dangers associated with the so-called "high church movement" in the LCMS. We are told that these dangers exist, but rarely, if ever, provided with any specifics. 

To add to the frustration, whenever these warnings are issued, many people are eager to chime in and "high five" those issuing the warnings with more non-specific comments. We hear about these "two extremes" that supposedly exist in our synod and are to be avoided like the plague. We hear that both the so-called "high church" crowd and the "abandon the liturgy altogether" crowd are guilty of the same "I did it my way" sin. But, again, no specifics.

"Specifics, Bob."

After another round of warnings were issued about the so-called "high church movement" last month (see, for example, "The High Church Danger to the Lutheran Church," "Every Sunday Pro-Choice Sunday?," "When the 'I Did It My Way' Approach . . ."), I wrote a response on my blog. Others chimed in, too (see, for example, posts by Pr. Beane, Pr. Esget, Pr. Biesel, and a whole host of other posts found in that time frame over at Gottesdienst Online).  Shortly after I posted my response on my blog, I was invited to post something further on BJS in defense of the so-called "high church movement," stressing how relatively small any "high church errorists" are. I began writing the post you are now reading back then, but didn't finish it until now. Parish duties, gearing up for Holy Week, and other factors, kept me from finishing it. But, there is also this: I really cannot offer a full and complete response to this issue any more than George Malley could answer Dr. Bob's non-specific questions in the scene from "Phenomenon" above. I mean, how do I respond to the dangers of the so-called "high church movement" without a definition of what exactly it is? How do I stress how relatively small any "high church errorists" are when I don't know what is meant by "high church errorists"? What constitutes "high church"? Is making the sign of the cross "high church"? Is chanting, elevating, and genuflecting "high church"? Is there a certain posture of the Celebrant that is deemed to be "high church"? Is using the word "Celebrant" "high church"? Is wearing a chasuble "high church"? Is the use of the word "Mass," or pastors being addressed as "Father," considered "high church"? Is preferring the use of a crucifix, instead of an empty cross, "high church"? Is using incense "high church"? Something else? What is "high church"? Who are "high church errorists"?

"Specifics, Bob."

What adds to the confusion and inability to respond appropriately to the supposed dangers of the so-called "high church movement" is the fact that some who are wont to issue warnings 'round the interwebs also make it clear that they have no problem with most, if not all, of the things I just mentioned. The problem with that, of course, is that when most people hear "high church," they have exactly these sorts of things in mind. So, unless they are prone to follow these fellas around the blogosphere to hear all that they have to say on this subject, they're left to believe that these are indeed the sorts of things we are being warned against. I wonder how many commenters on posts where these warnings are issued would take their "high fives" back if they knew that those issuing the warnings had no problem with most, if not, all of the things they normally associate with "high church."

So, if those things that most people associate with "high church" are not the problem, what is the problem? We are told by those issuing the warnings that the problem is that there are "extremists" among us who "demand" that some or all of these things normally associated with "high church" must be done or else there does not exist "genuine Lutheranism." The problem here is the same problem mentioned above - no specifics. We are just to assume that such "extremists" exist, that they demand these things, and that they are a danger to our synodical unity. These "extremists" have been referred to in many ways in the past: "Liturgical Pietists," "Liturgical Nazis," "Purists," "Romanizers," "The Gottesdienst Crowd," "hyper-Euros," "Sacerdotalists," and a new one I just heard for the fist time recently, "Liturgians," which is my new personal favorite. I apologize if I'm leaving any derogatory tittles out; I'm sure there are more (I can hear John Bender saying, in a scene from another movie, "You forgot ugly, lazy, stupid, and disrespectful!"). But, who are they? Where are they? And, what exactly are they doing that makes them "extremists"? Where have they demanded that certain ceremonies must be done for genuine Lutheranism to exist? 

"Specifics, Bob."

Unless and until those issuing warnings against the so-called "high church movement," which, as it turns out, are really warnings against so-called "extremists," can introduce me to specific examples of real, live "extremists," showing me the things they're doing or saying that makes them "extremists," I'm afraid I simply cannot take them seriously. Sorry.

Furthermore, given the fact that those issuing the warnings have no problem with the various ceremonies most people would probably consider to be the very things they mean by "high church," as mentioned above, I am left with no other choice than to conclude that there are not actual "dangers" in view, but that these warnings are really nothing more than the grinding of personal axes. This conclusion seems all the more probable when those issuing the warnings refuse to clarify what exactly they mean, will not respond to direct questions asked of them, and hold up some pastors as examples to emulate, while denigrating other pastors, even though both sets of pastors employ virtually the same exact ceremonies in their conduct of the Divine Service. Something is fishy indeed about this, and I know from discussions in which I have been involved around the blogosphere that my nose is not the only one picking up on the smell. 

But, what about the fact that some LCMS pastors have left for Rome or gone East? This always gets brought up in these discussions. Doesn't the fact that most of the pastors who have gone swimming employed ceremonies that many would associate with being "high church" prove that there is a danger here? No. It is not the liturgy's fault, nor the fault of any aspect of ceremonial conduct, that they left. They left because they no longer believed what Lutherans believe, and could no longer confess what Lutherans confess. I commend them for having the integrity to admit that, and for the courage to leave, rather than stick around, live out a lie, and spread that lie to others, which is exactly what many LCMS pastors on the other side of the hill do. Tell me, when is the last time you heard about an LCMS pastor leaving because he had the integrity to admit that he was no longer Lutheran, but Pentecostal, or Baptist, or "Evangelical"? I'm sure there have had to be some along the way, but I can honestly say that I cannot recall hearing about a single one.

None of this is to say that it is impossible for a pastor to turn the liturgy or the ceremonial conduct of the liturgy into an idol. Sure, that possibility exists. We sinners can turn virtually anything into an idol to worship. So, I am not against general warnings in this regard. Our Lutheran Confessions themselves provide them. What I am against are warnings laden with implications and accusations that this or that group of pastors is guilty of doing this, without any specific evidence to back up such claims. Such warnings are issued from afar by those who judge motives and use assumption and gossip as their justification to warn the synod against this supposed dangerous brood, which is not only tacky, but, well, quite un-Christian.

"Specifics, Bob."

Anecdotal evidence supplied by subjective persons do not specifics provide. There are two sides to every story, and we should reserve judgment about someone/something until we hear both sides. Thus, when so-and-so contacts you and says, "Pastor so-and-so is teaching us that incense is the smell of Jesus, and that we have to use incense in the Mass or else it is not a proper Mass, and that any Lutheran pastor or congregation that doesn't use incense is not fully Lutheran," your sanctified reason should alert you to something being afoul here. You should encourage so-and-so to talk with Pastor so-and-so about his/her concerns, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it is possible that he/she misunderstood the Pastor. And, if you really want to understand Pastor so-and-so yourself, well, then, you should contact him and find out exactly what's up. What you should not do is take what so-and-so said and blather about it all over the interwebs, as if what you have heard is Gospel.

Now, I realize that this is an absurd example, but it is exactly the sort of thing people do time and time again, and it is something that I have heard those issuing warnings against the dangers of the so-called "high church movement" doing often. They will say things like, "I have been contacted by several pastors and laypeople around the synod about several pastors out there trying to force their 'Romanizing' practices down the throats of good Lutherans." Really? Did you happen to suggest that these several pastors and laypeople ought to take up their concerns with these "Romanizing" pastors? Did you take the time yourself to contact them to hear their side of the story? No? You mean, you just took what these several pastors and laypeople told you as fact and felt the need to blog to the world about it and warn everyone about these supposed scoundrels? Well, aren't you special.

Don't get me wrong here. What I am saying here does not apply to those things put out for public consumption by pastors and congregations. It is perfectly appropriate to offer public comment and/or criticism regarding things posted to the web for the world to see. That is quite a different thing than spreading gossip, for now you are dealing with something specific and public. Some would argue that we still should not comment upon, or criticize and discuss, even those things put out for public witness and consumption before contacting the pastor and/or congregation putting them out, but I wholeheartedly disagree. What is put out publicly is fair game for public scrutiny. But, what is shared in private via gossip is not. There is a world of difference between the two, which some individuals do not seem able to grasp. 

"Specifics, Bob."

Not only does anecdotal, subjective, one-sided evidence fail to provide objective specifics about which to converse and discuss, but so, too, does the oft-tried practice of providing a snippet from the writings of past Lutheran theologians in the attempt to make them allies of the self-appointed guardians, who feel some strange sense of duty to warn people about the supposed danger of the supposed "high church movement" in our synod today. I mean, I'll see your Luther, Walther, Sasse, etc. quote and raise you another quote from the same. Do we really want to play that game?

This is in no way to suggest that we should not listen to our fathers in the faith. I'm all for that. What I'm not for is the attempt to manipulate their words to such an extent that one applies them to someone/thing those words never meant to address. For example, this quote from Dr. Luther has been used recently in posts warning people about the supposed dangers of the supposed "high church movement":
As far as possible we should observe the same rites and ceremonies, just as all Christians have the same baptism and the same sacrament [of the altar] and no one has received a special one of his own from God (LW, Vol. 53, p. 61).
Great quote from the Blessed Reformer. Love it! But, to use this quote as some sort of proof-text against the so-called "high church movement" in our synod is, to put it quite bluntly, lunacy. Why? Because, first of all, those who use this and similar quotes have failed to define for us what the so-called "high church movement" is, as mentioned above. Secondly, using quotes like this without providing any specifics regarding the dangers being addressed leads people to assume that so-called "high churchers" are guilty of observing their own rites and ceremonies, as if they have received some special revelation from God to do so, which could not be further from the truth. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, to use this quote as a warning against the so-called "high church movement" reveals that those who do so do not know Dr. Luther very well at all. I've read a ton of Luther in my day - still read him all the time - and I am quite confident that he had a pretty "high" view of the Divine Service and the ceremonial conduct that should accompany the dishing out of our Lord's Divine Gifts.

We Lutherans are not minimalist proof-texters. We leave that to the Baptists and others. We're into context, so that we can arrive at specific meaning. We don't come up with a position on something and then go looking for snippets from Scripture or the writings of our fathers in the faith to bolster our position. Again, that's what others do.

To show the insanity of this game-playing, I could pull out several quotes of Luther where he speaks highly (and sometimes even seems quite demanding) of the practice of genuflecting during the Creed and make the claim that those who do not do this are "dangerous low-churchers," since, well, they obviously don't revere the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ as they should. I could do the same with a variety of other aspects of ceremonial conduct that some today may consider "high church." Here's the rub in all of this (the dirty, little secret that the self-ordained "guardians" against "high-churchism" among us today want to keep well hidden): Dr. Luther, the Blessed Reformer, would feel far more at home in those congregations among us where "higher" aspects of ceremonial conduct are practiced. Sorry. He just would. Even so, Dr. Luther and our other Lutheran forefathers rightly recognized that ceremonies do not have to be the same everywhere, and so, while it is tempting to play the "I'm more Lutheran than you are" game, it is not a game we should be playing. What we should be doing is analyzing and testing specific practices to see whether or not they uphold our Lutheran confession of the faith, for practice is nothing more than doing our confession. The chief purpose of ceremonies is to teach the faithful what they need to know about our Lord Jesus Christ. Do our ceremonies do this? If so, well and good. If not, which ones don't? Be specific.

"Specifics, Bob." 

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