Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ethnographic Research, Christian Faith, and World of Warcraft

The dissertation I'm working on is premised on the wager that the formative practices of massively multiplayer on-line role-playing games (MMORPGs) can, in conversation with the formative practices currently under re-consideration in the Christian church (such as the ancient catechumenate) lead to generative insights into how to do Christian formation in a trans-media culture. MMORPGs require a level of involvement even beyond the more widely popular social networks like Facebook, and Twitter, and they intrigue me for those reasons. Here is my official "thesis":

Thesis: In our new trans-media era, innovative cross-adaptation of the ancient catechumenate and the inculturation practices of MMORPG guilds, nested within the ambient intimacy inherent in converging participatory social media, can birth a theologically nuanced and fruitful model for Christian faith formation “after the book."

The main difference between traditional social networks and the more intensive MMORPGs is that the latter require you to enter a more layered world. You have to learn how to navigate an avatar in-game, experience a digital environment, and socialize in via new media. In this sense, they are slightly different from social networks that simply add ambient intimacy to other face-to-face social networks. They are themselves a "virtual" world. While in world, you can chat, send messages, update your profile, do voice chat, all the things available on Facebook or Google+, but you do them in the context of a richly detailed virtual world.


This line of research has taken me in some unexpected directions, however, especially in seeing how ethnography is theology and vice versa, and to explore the relationship between the two. This is a rather new line of thinking in the theological world, illustrated by some recent books published on the subject, including the recent Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics. Why does ethnography matter for theology?

It is necessary to observe people in everyday life and see how cultural meanings are brought by them to bear on their actual, practical concerns.

And this is where ethnographic research gets a little tricky. I could just read books about how on-line games contribute to learning, but this would, in the end, result in a dissertation written by a poser. Who, for example, would give a lot of credit to an author like myself who wrote a book about Ghana without visiting Ghana? Similarly, if I am going to compare the catechumenate to participation in these worlds, I need to inhabit these worlds. I have already lived my whole life in an environment (the church) that makes use of the various mystagogical modes of forming people in faith (community, bible study, prayer, baptism, communion, worship, service, etc.) I need to inhabit a virtual world and experience it in order for my arguments to have any kind of validity or authenticity. I don't have to go whole hog and become a fan, or log the hours some game-masters do, but I ought to, as a theologian who cares about ethnography, live in the world, travel in it, learn some of the resistance you meet getting acclimated to the game, meet others who play the game and interview them, and engage in other methods that gather qualitative data.

I am fully aware that there are Christians and researchers who have spent way more time "in world" than I have. I have a pastor friend who has been playing such games since 1999. Another friend, a professor of New Testament, has written extensively on the topic and for a long time participated in a guild in World of Warcraft. The goal is not to become an expert, but to simply inhabit for a while, watching and listening intently. 

I actually have more first-hand experience of gaming than my more recent life and work would indicate. I was a very early gamer, and played many role-playing games in the early 80s when they were still single player games (like, for example, Bard's Tale). In college, I logged many hours on a MUD (multi-user dimension), and one of my best friends from high school met his (now) wife first in that environment. That MUD was all text, no graphics. 

The technologies have changed between now and then, and remarkably. It took me 36 hours to download World of Warcraft, but that was 10 GB of data sent over the Internet and wi-fi, and the fact that you can download such a game, for free, and play a detailed environment of that sort is simply mind-boggling to those of us who remember Apple IIes. On the other hand, game-play is pretty much the same as it was back in the day of text only MUDs. Develop a character, go on quests and slay creatures for experience points, meet other players to share tips, tools, spells, etc. In fact, in some ways the old MUDs were more challenging and more rich, because much was left to the imagination, you had to draw maps, explore without an on-board GPS, and intuit or research much more thoroughly.

That being said, the technologies overall increase playability, and have created a situation where millions of players are on-line all at the same time. The biggest innovation that comes of all of this is the opportunity for guilds of as large as 25 or more players to all go on raids together. The level of cooperative game-play in these contexts is incredible.


I have been using Facebook to elicit responses to my new participation in an MMORPG, and it is intriguing how people respond. Responses kind of fall into these camps:

a) "Awesome, let me know if you need help, I have been playing for a few years and would love to play with you."
b) "I'm already "doing" ministry there. Here's how."
c) "Watch out it is addictive, I've heard of grown men wearing Depends so they don't have to leave the game, it is dangerous."
d) Don't waste money on it, it is problematic for a variety of reasons.
e) What is that game? Why are you doing that? What is an MMORPG?
f) Also, each time I mention that I play, I am contacted by parishioners who I've never spent a lot of time talking to previously, but they have a passion for this. I love this.

The trick with these virtual worlds is that, unlike Facebook or Twitter, both of which strive to seem more value neutral than games, on-line gaming elicits all kinds of value judgments, especially among non-gamers. Perhaps this is because they "trick" users (by way of the interface and plain technology) into thinking they don't have an avatar, whereas games are transparent about the avatar-essential nature of on-line social nets. Everyone who has created a profile on a social network has an "avatar," by which I mean a representation of yourself in a virtual world. Games raise a variety of ethical concerns (is it okay to play a character that casts magic spells, kills creatures, etc.), and alerts us to the complex place of play in our culture (are we allowed to play, is it a waste of time to play games; I'm always intrigued by this one specifically because very few people ask the same question about watching television or movies, going to concerts or viewing art, all of which I would drop, finally, into the same category as "media engagement"--but that's another post). 

Finally, I alert readers and myself to some aspects of gaming and faith formation that I will come back to later as I move forward with the dissertation.

a) WoW costs money (to play you have to buy the game and pay $15 per month) so as a community it is like a gated community, unlike Second Life and some other venues which offer basic continuing services for free. 

b) Those who are skeptical of the value of gaming and virtual worlds really need to take some time with Jane McGonigal's It's not the definitive say on the matter, but it will open your mind to whole new ways of thinking about the new gaming generation and what it means for us.

c) Two other books I'm reading right now on gaming as learning environments are What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames For those not interested in doing direct ethnographic research, these are good options.

d) Here are sample responses from my World of Warcraft status updates. 

First post: I just logged one hour of game play in World of Warcraft. I've named my Dranei Paladin "Eschaton," and am now at level four. Most legit players of the game level up to level 85 before they consider themselves to be really playing the game. I've quested but have not yet done raids or joined a guild. I also haven't paid yet. Those are the stats. 

Reply #1: Be careful, I hear it's addicting. A coworker today took me for a "gamer type" & couldn't believe I'd never played. I heard tell of grown men using medical urinals or wearing adult diapers and such nonsense because they just can't stop. 

Reply #2: So far I have 5 level 85s between two worlds. Working on 4 more atm. Been playing for awhile (obviously). Five years now I think. LOL, sorry. I have been playing online interactive games on knghthood since 1999 (my first call). I started with The Realm and then moved on to Asheron's Call before settling on World of Warcraft five years ago. When you log into world of warcraft you are given different choices for "worlds" which are essentially different servers. You can have up to 9 (I think ) characters (= cartoons = toons) in each of about 4 or 5 worlds / servers. So many people play WoW but never have contact because they are in different servers. I am in 4 servers. But one I set up for a friend and she does not play anymore. So the servers I play in are: Terokkar, Silvermoon and Fenris. I set up several characters (toons) in Fenris for my church youth group to play on "game nights." at our home. (They don't have my access / password info but play only during game nights at my house.) So if you are not in any of those servers either you would have to create a character in one of them OR I could create a character in the one in which you are playing. The disadvantage of that is that my character would also be level 1 and not particularly good at watching your back. So better for you to create a level 1 in one of the worlds I play and I would come and find you. Make sense?

Second post: Night two of World of Warcraft, realizing that solo questing doesn't cut it, I need to find a guild to play with, but I think you can only do that stuff if you pony up and subscribe. Oh, the whoas of massively multiplayer online community. 

Reply #1: Eeek! Don't do it. Too many people get sucked into it at the expense of their families. Put the money in a little vacation or savings fund instead. :) 

Reply #2: Years ago- I played a lot of games online- now I can't imagine having the time. Are you doing this for experiment or for fun? 

Reply #3: If you want to try a guild I have friends who play and might be willing to help you!

e) Some great work out there is trenchantly concerned about these games and social networks. One of the best recent works is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

f) If this blog has made you curious enough about World of Warcraft or Second Life to explore a bit further, but you'd rather read than play, then I've hyperlinked the two games' names to introductory articles about the games.

g) I'd like to learn from gamers, especially your experience of the formative practices that indoctrinated you into the game and the community that exists there. Send me a note if you'd like. For nerdy reasons alone, I'm especially interested from anyone playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Haiku

Certain colors of
leaves are like your eyes both are
eating red candy

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let's Bury Reformation Sunday

Observing Reformation Sunday as a special day in the church year is spiritually dangerous. It probably always has been. It used to be, although seldom is today, an opportunity to remonstrate Roman Catholicism for all its many failings, then congratulate ourselves for being of the line and lineage of that holy and blessed man, Martin Luther. More recently, it seems to be an opportunity to romantically re-enact past glories, much like a renaissance fair and other festive finery. It is an exercise in nostalgia. And a chance to wear red, though this too is confusing, for red is the liturgical color for the Holy Spirit, and it's hard to fathom how locking the Reformation in as the other day other than Pentecost to celebrate the Spirit is wise and good.

Reformation Sunday need not be an exercise in nostalgia, but its particular focus on just one moment in the long history of Christianity makes it suspect. If we celebrated an entire year, fifty-two Sundays, with each Sunday celebrating a development in the history of the Christian faith, with the Reformation situated within that larger context, it might work. As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop.

I'm reminded of the three months I spent in Germany some years ago on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland. I had gone to study German and interview pastors and professors, asking this question, "What is your impression of the impact of the Reformation on the practice of the German church today?" The most frequent response I received went something like this, "I'm not sure we really think about this anymore. So much has happened since then. I am more influenced by Schleiermacher, or Barth, or the pietist movement, or..." 

Somehow in the North American Lutheran church context we have elevated this Reformation Sunday thing above all reason. My organist, Bob Mueller, recently pointed out to me that, where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote dozens of pieces for Pentecost and other festival days, he only ever got around to writing one piece of music for Reformation Sunday. Yes, it was observed during his time. But Bach, one of our great Lutheran theologians (and the fifth evangelist) did not think it warranted much attention. Neither should we.

In fact, I think Reformation Sunday warrants none of our attention at all, and should be removed from the church liturgical calendar, especially in this moment when we are so at risk of ghettoizing ourselves as Lutherans and falling back on past glories. After all, our slogan is not "designate one Sunday every year as Reformation Sunday," but rather ecclesia semper reformanda est. But Luther didn't say that. The Dutch did. 

[First published on October 26th, 2011]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is the Significance of My Neighbor’s Religion for My Own? Deepening Faith and Learning from Others in a Context of Religious Diversity

You are cordially invited to a public lecture with Dr. Emily A. Holmes, professor of religion and philosophy at Christian Brothers University, Memphis, Tennessee.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, AR
Tuesday, November 29th
Alton Center Lecture, 6-7 p.m.; reception to follow
What is the Significance of My Neighbor’s Religion for My Own?
Deepening Faith and Learning from Others in a Context of Religious Diversity

Theology Table Small group discussion, 8-9:30 p.m.
“You who will never be me nor mine”: Toward a Feminist Apophatic Theology of Religious Difference

Dr. Holmes specializes in the study of comparative theology, an innovative discipline that has been responding creatively to the increasing religious diversity of the 21st century world. She was a fellow in the American Academy of Religion/Luce Foundation summer seminars in theologies of religious pluralism and comparative theology and is co-editing a forthcoming volume on comparative theology.

Dr. Holmes joined the Religion and Philosophy faculty at CBU in 2008. She holds degrees from Emory University (Ph.D. 2008), Harvard University (M.T.S. 1999), University of Cambridge (M.Phil. 1998), and Tulane University (B.A. 1996). Prior to teaching at CBU, she taught part-time at Rhodes College.

Dr. Holmes’ research interests include the theology of the incarnation, medieval women's mysticism, comparative theology, and feminist and womanist theologies. She is the co-editor, with Wendy Farley, of Women, Writing, Theology: Transforming a Tradition of Exclusion (Baylor University Press, November 2011), and she has published essays in Magistra: A Journal of Women’s Spirituality in History, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and in the collection Luce Irigaray: Teaching, edited by Luce Irigaray and Mary Green (Continuum, 2009). She is the recipient of grants from the Louisville Institute, the CBU Faculty-Staff Development fund, and the Lindsay Young Fellowship at the University of Tennessee, and was a fellow in the AAR/Luce Summer Seminars in Theologies of Religious Pluralism and Comparative Theology (2009-2010). Dr. Holmes served as co-chair of the Women and Religion section of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) from 2007-2010. She is currently working on a revision of her dissertation, tentatively titled Writing the Body of Christ: A Theology of the Incarnation through Women's Mystical Writings, along with a collection (co-edited with Lenart Skof), Breathing with Luce Irigaray.

At Christian Brothers, Dr. Holmes is pleased to teach courses in World Religions, Christian Spirituality, Classical Christian Thought, Catholicism and Other Faith Traditions, and Understanding Religion. She has developed new courses in Women and Christianity and in the Spirituality and Ethics of Eating. Her religion courses are interdisciplinary in approach, drawing on Dr. Holmes’ strengths in theology, philosophy, literature, and aesthetics, as well as her personal and professional interests in religious diversity, mysticism, and spiritual practices. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Burying the lead

Let's bury Reformation Sunday. New post (with an awesome photo) at 

Augsburg Confession Article VII

A group of high schoolers in our congregation are discussing the articles of the Augsburg Confession, week by week, one article at a time. This week we are on article VII, on the church, which reads:

Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by humans, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6

Here are the questions discussion leaders for this week developed:

1. Are having different denominations against this article or is that what it means by it's not necessary to be alike?

2. Is it necessary to go to church or can one have their own beliefs; would having your own beliefs go against the church?

3. Does it mean the church will remain forever because all a church really is is a gathering of believers where the gospel is taught and sacraments are made? 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jesus is God and your neighbor

-or- Jesus collapses the two greatest commandments into one

-or- Jesus teaches us how to read the Scriptures

Whatever the title, the audio of the sermon for this past Sunday is here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue

by Cardinal Walter Kasper

A review

If you work in the church, or care about the church, and if you have a special passion for the unity of the church and ecumenical dialogues, you have in all likelihood attended to the progress that has been made over the last forty years in bilateral dialogues between our churches. Some of the most sustained and sustaining conversations have been conducted by the Roman Catholics. In this book, Walter Kasper examines forty years worth of dialogues between a) Anglicans and Catholics, b) Lutherans and Catholics, c) Methodists and Catholics, and d) the Reformed and Catholics.

Of course there are many other dialogues going on of various sorts, but we cannot fault Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Roman Catholic church for focusing his analysis of ecumenical conversations on the most significant ones currently involving his own communion.

Kasper takes a very plain spoken and analytical approach. This is of great benefit. It means anyone reading this book will get an accurate sense of the documents produced by the ecumenical dialogues. He has read them all so we don't have to. Thank you, Walter.

His basic questions: Where are we? What has been achieved and what still has to be done? where can we and where should we go forward? To what extent have the dialogues resolved the core issues over which Christians separated in the sixteenth century? And what are the unresolved questions that still need to be taken up in the next decade?

Chapter one examines the fundamentals of Christian faith, Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. Here Kasper finds fundamental consensus about the Trinity and Jesus Christ. "What we share in faith is therefore much more than what divides us."

Chapter two addresses the central issue that first sparked division--salvation, justification, and sanctification. Here Kasper observes that Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists have reached substantive agreement on what was once the central ecumenical problem, with consequences for every aspect of Christian faith and life (45).

Chapter three on "the Church" far outstrips all the other chapters in length. This is where ecumenical dialogues have "hung," especially on the ministry and ordination and the episcopacy. The chapter is far too detailed to summarize here, but it is worth noting that all four dialogues emphasize that Jesus Christ founded the church and on this Jesus Christ the church is founded. Furthermore, because Jesus Christ is present in the church, the dialogues witness to a growing ease with speaking of the church in a sacramental way. The church is a foretaste of the kingdom, while also remaining a pilgrim church.

Chapter four is the chapter on the sacraments, especially baptism and eucharist. Here Kasper finds fundamental agreement on baptism (not surprising), and renewed mutual understanding around Eucharist (especially with regards to the Eucharist as an anamneusis and as epicletic), with still some issues around full table fellowship and the "real"-ness of the Eucharist.

Kasper's (and the Roman Catholic Church's) passion for ecumenism arises out of principles for ecumenism established at Vatican II. "[That] Council sees in the ecumenical movement an impulse of the Holy Spirit at work, who awakened in divided Christians remorse over their divisions and has bestowed upon them longing for unity" (5). Kasper believes we can take as our starting point today not the things that divide us, but the things that unite us, especially our common confession of the Triune God and Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. By definition, in his view, "this present document takes as its starting point the acknowledgment that through common Baptism a real but incomplete communion exists between the Catholic Church and the dialogue partners." He sees the bilateral dialogues not just as exchange of ideas, but as an exchange of gifts (I think this idea originated with Hans K√ľng). It is not an ecumenical winter. We are instead in an ecumenical fall, harvesting the fruits and planning for the next season.

Kasper concludes with a list of the "exchange of gifts that has or is currently occuring. I list them here:

1) Our shared apostolic faith.
2) A fresh and renewed understanding of the relation between Scripture and Tradition.
3) Basic agreement on the doctrine of justification.
4) Deepened understanding of the nature of the Church.
5) New approaches to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
6) Rediscovery of the liturgy, and especially around the Eucharist, as source and summit of the Church (communio-ecclesiology, ala Zizioulas, although he does not use that term or reference Zizioulas).

Kasper also lists continuing questions or topics he believes should be central to the continuing ecumenical dialogues:

1) A need for a new Symbolic Theology, a theology based on the binding creeds and confessions.
2) Addressing fundamental hermeneutical questions.
3) A focus on anthropology.
4) The sacramental nature of the church.
5) Eucharist as the sacrament of unity.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Be a part of the Book of Faith network

Are you interested in joining a growing network in conversation around the Book of Faith Initiative as it moves forward into its next phase? If so, join the Facebook Book of Faith group,

A Network strengthening the Book of Faith Initiative as it influences all kinds of bible readers and interpretive communities. Families rehearsing lifelong faith formation. Pastors preaching better and biblically. Leaders of bible studies, small groups, cell groups, dyads, triads, and trains. Theologians locked away in the library stacks with ancient tomes. Adult education directors who implement scripture studies. Youth directors reading the bible with young people. Intercultural and liminal groups. Individuals integrating Book of faith insights into their personal time in Scripture. Worship leaders integrating Scripture more deeply into liturgy. Babies who eat the bible. Children who spill soda on them. Adults who accidentally launder them. And so on.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reading the Bible... Theologically

I love to create bibliographies, but have never assembled one specifically on methods for reading Scripture. So here is one list, admittedly peculiar to my own reading habits and interests, but I think a solid list. I happen to think that sometimes it is better to read theology as a way of reading Scripture rather than reading Scripture directly. I know that is a radical and contestable claim, but I can testify, at least for myself, that I have come to some of my best knowledge of Scripture while reading theology.

I have excluded commentaries from this list, even though I have benefited from various commentaries. I have also excluded books authored by folks from my own tradition, assuming that many readers of this blog will already be familiar with some of the people I might otherwise mention, like Mark Allan Powell, David Lose, Terence Fretheim, and others).

Finally, I should mention that I list favorite books by these authors, but all of these authors are of such value that other books published by them (especially Richard Hays, Ellen Davis, N.T. Wright) all come highly recommended.

1. How to Read the Bible: James Kugel

Hands down the most important book I've ever read on Scripture. Compares the ancient and historical-critical methods while walking all the way through the Scriptures case by case.

2. Canon and Creed: Robert Jenson

On the mutually forming relationship between the biblical canon and the creeds of the church.

3. Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation: AKM Adam, Kevin VanHoozer, et al.

Four biblical theologians in conversation toward a hermeneutic for theological interpretation. Beneficial also as a model for dialogue between theologians.

4. Eat This Book: Eugene Peterson

A theologically informed exploration of the devotional mode of reading Scripture.

5. Reading the Bible with the Damned: Bob Ekblad

Insights into reading Scripture when done with immigrants and those in prison.

6. Scripture and Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today: N.T. Wright

Perhaps our foremost biblical interpreter of this generation discussing his approach.

7. The Art of Reading Scripture: Ellen Davis and Richard Hays

Boy do I love these essays. And it provides a great bibliography for further reading.

8. De Doctrina: Augustine

One of the earliest books on biblical interpretation.

9. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of Scripture: Ellen Davis

Wendell Berry in conversation with Scripture, from an OT theologian. Outstanding.

10. Hermeneutics: An Introduction: Anthony Thisleton

Thisleton is our greatest "scientist" of hermeneutics, and it is worth taking time with at least one book by him.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Should Lutheran Confessions change?

As I come into my 10th year of blogging here at Lutheran confessions, I'm increasingly aware that by calling it "Lutheran confessions," it is contributing to the ghettoization of our tradition. So I'm considering transitioning to a new blog, with a new title, that is open to a wider ecumenical conversation. Any readers have opinions on this?

Friday, October 14, 2011

What Needs to Happen for the Book of Faith Initiative to Move Forward?

1. A concentrated, intense focus on clergy and their preaching: It really is about our preaching, because the churches understand (and hear) Scripture primarily through the proclaimed word in weekly worship

2. Start with the babies, start with the babies, start with the babies: the book of faith can be focused on equipping families to read Scripture together

3. We need to develop lots of Spanish language resources: inter-cultural resources

4. Taking the bible as Book of Faith where people live (social networks, homes, newspapers, magazines, video games, schools, streets, workplace, etc.): meet people where they are

5. Greater clarity about a Lutheran hermeneutic (and intentional deep theological and philosophical inquiry into the same)

6. Greater inclusion of the theological voices from the whole Christian tradition and not just the Reformation-era

7. A snazzy marketing slogan

8. Resources for engaging the bible with limited literacy, and resources for exploring the scriptures in a trans-media culture

9. Funding and structures: lots of what we want to do can help best if we have money for it

Notes from Book of Faith Consultation: Where Have We Been?

What is the impact and importance of being a Book of Faith church? It has signaled for us that we do have a different hermeneutic (and if we are bold, we might also assert, a more faithful or orthodox one) from the wider culture, but we are not yet sure how to define or articulate that clearly. One of our best definitions is that the Lutheran hermeneutic is "what shows forth Christ," although even this itself can become rigid, and isn't fully comprehensive of a Lutheran hermeneutic.

For the time-being, I'm going to start calling the Lutheran hermeneutic "earthy Christocentrism." So we care about the historical context of a text, and the literal literary words on the page, and we care about our confessional heritage and what it teaches us concerning how to read Scripture, and we care what God is saying to us directly through this text (the devotional read). And we care about all of this because we believe Scripture leads us to care about the real history in which the text was formed, and the very words on the page that has been given to us, and the very interpretive community in which we are situated, and so on.

Book of Faith also signals a renewed focus. In some ways it is renewing what has also been a mark of Lutheranism, a continuing return to Scripture. The original turn in Lutheranism, Luther's reading of Romans and re-reading righteousness as the righteousness of God rather than his own righteousness, was just one in a long line of revitalizations in the faith of the church that was centered in a new reading (which is just the old reading) of Scripture.

In other words, the Book of Faith Initiative is us realizing we read Scripture differently than the majority Christian culture, but we're not sure exactly how we read it differently, or how to articulate it, and this is just us wrestling with this.

It is more about us becoming fluent than proudly displaying our literacy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue

by Cardinal Walter Kasper

A review

It's not everyone's cup of tea spending time reading ecumenical agreements between the churches of the world. So if for no other reason alone, Cardinal Walter Kasper's book is a God-send in that it gathers the ecumenical work between Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists together in one even-handed and spirited volume.

I cannot recommend this volume highly enough. It establishes that this season, which some have characterized as an ecumenical winter, is actually an ecumenical autumn, full of fruits ripe for harvesting. We have come a long way, and we have come this far because of the careful work of such theologians like Kasper who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, seek out our points of agreement rather than our reasons for difference. Ecumenicity is the exchange of gifts. Each communion brings its own gifts to the table. We are on a pilgrimmage together towards unity.

The book is structured as it should. After an initial chapter on fundamentals, Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity, in which Kasper illustrates the points of our greatest agreement, he then jumps to the stickiest subject of the Reformation era and afterwards, the doctrine of justification. In this chapter on salvation, justification, and sanctification, he illustrates how all our communions have come to a fundamental agreement on the very doctrine that first divided us. That is progress!

Then he shifts to a very long chapter on the church. Here is the big issue for ecumenism today--topics like episcopacy, magisterium, relationship between tradition and Scripture, and so on. In another great summary document on ecumenism, the justly famous Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, it was the ministry that took up the most space and indicated the greatest struggle for unity. Kasper's book illustrates this as well, but does so winsomely, teasing out the theological points each of the bilateral dialogues as made on their pilgrimmage together.

A final chapter on the sacraments rounds out the book, and then some concluding preliminary conclusion. Kasper notes:

1. That we have a rich harvest in these ecumenical fields. There is much to learn, and much to celebrate, about who we are together.
2. We have a shared apostolic faith, especially in the creeds.
3. Together we are discerning a fresh and renewed understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.
4. We have fundamental agreement on the doctrine of justification.
5. We have a deepened understanding of the nature of the Church, and at least openness to looking at old conversations in a new light.
6. New approaches to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
7. A rediscovery of the centrality of liturgy.

Additionally, we have some continuing questions about:

1. Fundamental hermeneutical problems. We interpret scripture in different ways.
2. Our symbolics sometimes gets in the way.
3. We continue to discuss the sacramentality (or not) of the church.
4. Although the Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, we do not yet share it fully in common.

This is a profoundly hopeful and irenic book. I hope it is read widely.

Monday, October 10, 2011

History of Lutheranism

One of my parishioners asked me this week if I knew of a short history explaining the development of Lutheranism in the American context, especially helping explain how we've gotten to where we are today with multiple Lutheran denominations. I started compiling a bibliography, and here is what I have come up with so far. I would love further suggestions:

First, I don't know if there is a comprehensive and universal history about the development of Lutheran churches in the U.S. specifically. There are some big picture American Church History books, the best of which is:

Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People 

There are some specific chapters in there on Lutheranism he can read, and it helps to read them in the larger context of the development of American Christianity.

If specifically interested in the time period where the LCMS shifted away from the ELCA, there's a new book out:

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Church History

I have this book on my Kindle and have been reading it, slowly. It's interesting, but very detailed specifically on that topic, and as an outsider to the LCMS I still don't know what to think of it exactly.

A really good book on the global history of Lutheranism is:

Eric Gritsch's A History of Lutheranism: Second Edition

This is worth reading because it places Lutheranism in global context, as a global movement, which it is. Lots of North Americans think that Lutheranism is primarily a German, Scandinavian, and American phenomenon, which is far from true.

And a book I haven't read but seems to be as close to what he is looking for as I can find:

The Lutherans: Denominations in America (DeAne Lagerquist) 

Of course, perhaps my favorite book on this topic is a more specialized two-volume set, now out of print but available used:

The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans by E. Clifford Nelson 

In the case of Lutheran history, ethnic specificity is beneficial, gives clearer and more energetic and robust stories out of which to work, and pays attention to the immigrant context of that people group.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Oppose Punitive State Immigration Laws

I am deeply concerned by the recent passage of Alabama's punitive immigration law, which takes Arizona's SB 1070 one step further and even targets school-age children and their families.

Together with other supporters of the ministry of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, I took a few minutes to take action supporting vulnerable migrants by speaking out against punitive state immigration laws, and encourage you to do the same! Our voices are integral for urging elected officials to support fair and humane policies for newcomers.

Thanks in advance for joining your voice for welcome!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Justification Syllogism

Illustrating a syllogism and the Lutheran doctrine of justification simultaneously.

Major premise: Only that which gives the conscience peace justifies.
Minor premise: Only forgiveness through faith alone gives peace.

Therefore: Faith alone justifies.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Astrophysics is great poetry

Today they announced the Nobel Prize, and it was split between a cancer researcher who, tragically, died just hours before the decision was made, and three astronomers who have helped explain (through research on a supernova) why the universe continues to accelerate in its expansion.

Their answer: dark matter.

You can read about it here.

However, I just want to pull one sentence from the newspaper article that has incredible theological import:

“The discovery that the universe is dominated by the energy of empty space has changed everything in cosmology. Nothing could, literally, not be more exciting, because now we know nothing is almost everything!”

The reason this fascinates me is because, for all of its reality as a scientific claim (and I am aware that the rationality and grammar of science is different from the humanities in substantive ways) nevertheless, it sounds like great poetry. Great poets look closely at the world and see it again as if for the first time. These astronomers have looked at the vast empty space of the universe and seen, not nothing, but everything.

Of course, theology has also traditionally had a concept like this, the doctrinal assertion that God created everything ex nihilo, "out of nothing." This scientific theory of the astronomers, though not precisely a theology of ex nihilo, certainly should give all theologians and preachers something to chew on and mull over. It's the kind of thing that should be in sermons next Sunday. It's cool, and it's real.