Christian snobbery

I heard my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, described as “The Taliban of American Christianity” the other day. That’s pretty unfair, but I understand it. The problem isn’t LCMS. The problem is six out of the denomination’s 9,000 pastors. Unfortunately, it only takes one.
And LCMS isn’t exactly known for the “pray only with people with the same beliefs as you” philosophy. The smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is much more notorious for that. Unfortunately, some of that attitude seeped into LCMS, which historically has taken a more liberal reasonable view.

Christian elitism. My good, cool-headed friend Dan Bowman asked me a question yesterday. I didn’t completely understand the context, but he loved my answer–calling part of it “one of the best paragraphs you’ve ever written,” and far be it from me to waste content. So, like a good journalist, I’m gonna find a way to use it again.

Dan asked me if there are spiritual “levels.” Maybe a Level 1 Christian goes to church, and maybe Billy Graham is a Level 51, or something like that. I’ve read speculation about that before, most of it backed by scripture, and yes, there does seem to be such a thing, and maybe it’s even definable. At the very least, there are visible signs of spiritual maturity–things like contentment, humility, charity, lack of fear of death. But quantifying that is like trying to quantify the qualities of a good baseball player. No matter how many statistics you gather, they never tell the whole story.

And that’s part of the problem. But it gets worse. Those visible attributes can be faked, and weaknesses can be hidden. I got caught up in a group that made a really big deal about those attributes, and I was even told by the girl I was dating at the time that she and I weren’t on the same level. (Of course, she was higher up than me. Out of my league, in a way I’d never thought of.) The thing was, I was close to the guys she was comparing me to. We all had weaknesses, and we did a decent job of hiding them from all but the people closest to us. And I caught myself looking around sometimes, wondering who might be faking it.

That’s what happens when compare ourselves to anyone but Christ. And the fact is, Jesus did more good in a typical minute of his life than most of us accomplish in our whole lives.

So what do we do about it? Admit we fall short. Work on it. Talk to God about it. Surround ourselves with people, as best we can, who bring out the best in us, who challenge and support us. What God wants more than anything else is for us to be humble (which means being realistic about where we stand, not having low self-esteem) and teachable. When He’s got that, He can make anything at all out of us.

I know that from experience. I’ve met several people like that over the course of the past 18 months. And even though they’d be the last to tell you, they’re the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

Back again….

That new job. I started my transition on Tuesday. Tuesday was my best single day at work in more than four years. For the record, I started my professional career in March 1997–so I haven’t been working much more than four years.
I picked up the laptop I’ll be using for my new job yesterday. It’s a Micron Transport LT, a short-lived lightweight. It was a good machine, but when Micron sold off its PC division, it got axed. Its replacement, the Micron Transport XT (a name that still makes me chuckle; old-timers will know why), is bigger and heavier. It has a bigger screen, which is worth the extra weight, but I like the small size of the LT. It’s a 700 MHz machine, so even though it’s about six months old, it’s no slouch.

I installed Windows 2000 and Debian 2.2 on it. Of course I quickly made Debian into a hybrid because I wanted to run packages like Galeon that aren’t available for 2.2. Yeah, so it hasn’t been deemed stable yet. The most bleeding-edge Linux distros I’ve ever seen are more stable than anything Microsoft’s ever slapped its name on, with the possible exception of MS-DOS 5.0. Even Debian-Unstable is more conservative than Mandrake, so having bits of Debian-Unstable on my PC doesn’t bother me in the least.

I got to dabble in my new position yesterday, even though I was officially doing my old job. There was a server to deploy, and I was reasonably idle, so naturally I worked on the server.

They should be ashamed of themselves. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the president of my church body, Dr. Jerry Kieschnick, and the president of the Atlantic district, Dr. David Benke, committed the unpardonable sin of praying with people who are members of church bodies other than the LCMS. They now face expulsion from the church body.

This account from a St. Louis television station is a fair summary of the events.

What that account doesn’t tell you is that the First Vice President of the LCMS, who would take office if the presidency were vacated, was widely considered a political enemy of Dr. Kieschnick before the two of them took office early this fall. Dr. Kieschnick is considered a progressive, while his would-be successor is a hard-line conservative. I don’t know anything about Oberdieck, but I do know that Lebanon, Mo. isn’t exactly a hotbed of progressivism.

KSDK oversimplified Oberdieck’s reasoning slightly. Oberdieck believes that Drs. Kieschnick and Benke’s actions imply that all religions are equal, and he objects to that implication. However, if you talk to Dr. Kieschnick, the last thing he’ll tell you is that all religions are equal. He’ll agree wholeheartedly with Oberdieck’s statement that there’s only one way to God–that’s Jesus Christ, in case you’re wondering what I’m talking about–and that it should be followed strictly. The motivation behind the two mens’ actions in NYC in September was to extend a hand, to tell people that the LCMS cares about what happens to them and wants to help them.

The overwhelming majority of Lutherans in this country know and understand that.

This is a political play, pure and simple. It’s just like what the Republicans tried to do to Clinton with Whitewater and what the Democrats tried to do with Gingrich after he became speaker.

And it may undermine the current president’s credibility. What it certainly will do is leave a bad taste in people’s mouth. In a month or two months or five years, people won’t remember these specifics anymore. What they will remember is having a bad taste in their mouth about the LCMS, or worse yet, about Christianity as a whole. The immortal Someone Else will have to work hard to overcome those feelings. Sometimes Someone Else will succeed. Inevitably, sometimes Someone Else will fail, and the hurt will continue. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s Someone Else’s problem, not theirs.

I hope Oberdieck and his allies are happy.

On politics…

I’ve learned a lot about politics this week. And about myself as well. I figured I’d share.
This is church politics, but I see little difference between it and governmental politics, academic politics, or corporate politics, other than this time I actually believe in the result enough to be willing to hear out the other perspective, put myself in that position, and be that other person for a minute, look around, and see what he (it’s almost always a he) is thinking and seeing.

And I guess that’s what I’ve learned about myself. I can get into the Mac/PC debates and I can argue them as passionately as anyone, but in the end, if someone decides to shoot himself in the foot by paying way too much for an overdesigned single-threaded computer that crashes all the time, well, that’s his business–unless the overly chatty AppleTalk network protocol is going to disrupt everyone else’s work by sucking up all the available bandwidth, or the lack of administrative security is going to allow the user to install software that’ll disrupt other users. But if a guy’s only going to hurt himself by making the wrong decision about a computer, fine. I don’t care. If he’s gonna put up a stink, I’ll let him sink.

Every time I’ve believed in a company, I’ve been betrayed. So I don’t give a rip about corporate politics. And government? Government’s mission is to perpetuate itself. It’s going to do the right thing to perpetuate itself, regardless of whether that’s the right thing for you and me. So when I feel myself starting to get riled up about government, I change the subject.

Church politics? I’ll hear you out. I even went to The not-in-the-least-Rev. Fred Phelps’ web site and read his reasoning on why the LCMS needed to have a “God Hates Fags” protest in front of its doors. Let’s just say it’s very unfortunate that he believes this, because it would be really, really funny. Remember the witch scene in Monty Pyton’s Holy Grail? The one where they said someone was a witch, because she looked like one, because they dressed her up like one? Same logic. Picket a church, provoke it, when it retaliates, sue the retaliator in small claims court, then say the courts say your sign was true. But I’m not going to acknowledge him with a link.

So. I am Lutheran. I didn’t come to that conclusion easily. There are a lot of scumbags who are Lutherans, so for a long time I believed that all Lutherans were scumbags because I’d met so many of them. Then I learned that all churches had scumbags, and on top of that, some of them had really, really poor doctrine. Doctrine, in case that word has you scratching your head, is a fancy word for a set of beliefs, hopefully derived from reading the books of the Bible in context.

So, I got sick of watching people beat each other up with poor doctrine, and worse yet, beating me up with poor doctrine, so I sat down and did something a lot of people never do. I read that book. Yeah, the whole thing–884 pages in one of my translations. It took me three months to do it. It’s shorter than a James Michener novel that I could probably read in a month, but Michener is much lighter reading, and, yes, I’ll say it, usually Michener does a better job of holding your attention.

Reading the whole thing did a lot for me. For one, I saw a much bigger picture. The verses those guys were taking out of context suddenly made sense. It didn’t just “feel” wrong anymore–I could tell you if they were taking it out of context. There’s another common mistake in Bible study that you don’t see so often in other literary studies, or for that matter, other disciplines. In any other discipline, you take the simple stuff first. In programming, you learn loops before recursion. In riding a bike, you learn pedaling before you learn balance. The idea is that you learn the simple things before the complicated things, so that the complicated things don’t make the simple things hard.

I’ll give you an example. When talking to the Pharisees (a religious sect) once, Jesus exclaimed, “You brood of vipers!” Greek scholars tell me what he actually said bordered on profanity. The obvious conclusion: Jesus hated the Pharisees. But that’s wrong. Let’s go back to the most basic Bible verse there is: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” Who’d God love? The world. What’s the world? Everybody. Who is Jesus? God. (That’s another verse or 47.) OK. So Jesus loved everyone. Even Pharisees. So why’d Jesus call them a brood of vipers? Because he was disappointed in them. He knew they were capable of better but didn’t want any better.

So I read the whole blasted thing, got the answers to my tough questions, and came to the conclusion that the Lutherans had it right the overwhelming majority of the time. Certainly more than 90 percent. Probably closer to 98 percent. Baptists and Methodists and Evangelicals and Catholics and other denominations were right most of the time too. But usually they appeared to be wrong about at least one of the tough questions.

So, since I agreed with about 98 percent of what the Lutherans (and, specifically, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) were saying, I came to the conclusion that I’m LCMS.

Now, if you ask most LCMS Christians why they’re Lutheran, they’ll probably tell you because their parents were Lutheran. A lot of them don’t even think about it. Ask a lot of them what it means to be Lutheran, and they’ll use words like “page 5,” “page 15,” “organ music,” “liturgy,” and other things. It’s highly structured, highly organized, and, well, to the outsider, it’s just plain weird. It’s designed to be reverent, and yes it is. But it’s not what it means to be Lutheran. There are Lutheran churches in the inner city in New Orleans. I guarantee you they aren’t using a pipe organ and German music dating back to the 15th century. But they’re as Lutheran as can be.

The theology is what’s important to me. The form of worship isn’t so much. And when I see the high liturgy done poorly, it irks me. It’s a whole lot easier for a group of people with meager skills to put together a contemporary-style service that looks good. And contemporary worship scales nicely as skill increases.

The other thing I like about contemporary worship is the freedom. If you follow the liturgy, on any given Sunday the sermon will probably be about one of three things. (Each service has an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.) A lot of people dread sermons, especially those types. In contemporary worship, the pastor has more freedom. The pastor can look at what the needs of the congregation are and preach on that. It might be a one-off message or it might be a long series. For churches that do that, the sermon is usually the main attraction. Frequently they’ll make tapes and outlines available so you can listen to it again and study it further. And people do.

In LCMS circles, those sentiments make me a flaming liberal. It doesn’t matter that my doctrine is, if anything, right of center (again, in LCMS circles). The true liberals in LCMS left in 1974. The disagreements that remain in LCMS today are over, frankly, petty issues. I’ll get rid of the guitars and go back to pipe organs if I have to. Or if the order comes down from on high that the only instrument suitable for use in church worship is the kazoo, I’ll deal with it. God hasn’t changed, and the core beliefs haven’t changed.

But the LCMS camp is bitterly divided. Bitterly. On the right, you’ve got the so-called Confessional Lutherans. That’s a meaningless term. It refers to a collection of documents called the Lutheran Confessions, which are statements of doctrine. Interpretation of the Bible. Period. Every LCMS Lutheran will probably agree with 95-99% of the statements in those documents. Confessional Lutherans hold on tightly to their liturgy.

On the left, you’ve got a variety of movements that Confessional Lutherans like to paint with names like “Echoes of Seminex.” Seminex was a liberal movement that LCMS expelled beginning in 1974, and that movement was founded on theology. Seminex is mostly a memory now, absorbed by other church bodies, but the label is a scarlet letter. The “liberal” movements of today have little to do with Seminex, as far as I can tell.

For example, a movement that calls itself “Jesus First” is most frequently brought up with a Seminex label, because Jesus First is sympathetic to the plight of women. I’ve seen accusations that Jesus First would go so far as to ordain women–an issue that Seminex would have brought up, yes. But when I read the Jesus First documents, that’s not what I see. Jesus First is mad that in many LCMS circles, women are treated as second- or third-class citizens. At the top you’ve got adult males, who know all. Below them, you’ve got clueless, rebellious teenage males, who haven’t learned how to know any better. Below them, you’ve got adult women, who never will know any better.

And that’s clearly unbiblical. Jesus never talked down to women. If Jesus First advocates the ordination of women (something that seems to be prohibited in 1 Timothy 2 but that almost certainly doesn’t limit women to silence the way extreme-right Lutherans read that chapter), I’ve never found a paper on it. In some regards, Jesus First is doctrinally more conservative than the Confessional Lutherans. But Jesus First advocates contemporary worship and is very outspoken in its manner of doing so.

Many Confessionals believe that all in the Jesus First movement are going to hell, and a good number of them aren’t shy at all about expressing that opinion.

Now, when it comes to general position (other than who’s going to heaven or hell–if the use of a pipe organ is required to get to heaven, then Jesus is in hell because it didn’t exist yet in His day, and that logic is almost as messed up as Fred Phelps’ logic) I can see where the Confessionals are coming from. I respect their position, and I admire their desire to revere God. And doctrinally, I agree with more than 95 percent of the things they say. However, I do believe some of them treat women atrociously, and using Biblical misinterpretations to justify it is just another slap in the face.

And I’m not going to say I agree with everything Jesus First says. I haven’t read everything Jesus First says. What I have read, I find myself understanding very well and at the very least sympathizing with. They have a large number of very good and well-considered points.

I think I know where I stand. But I don’t know for sure, because I don’t know how far the various “leftist” groups go. While the left celebrates the election of a president most expect will be sympathetic towards their cause, the right continues name-calling. Then the extreme right gloats that its most conservative candidate won first vice president. Meanwhile, the name-calling continues. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell from their disseminations what anyone truly stands for. Maybe if I were still in grade school, I’d understand, but as I recall, I had a difficult time sorting through the name-calling then too.

And I read a quote yesterday on one of the right-wing sites, quoting the late Dr. A.L. Barry, Synod president from 1992-2001, known for his conservatism. He was running for president in 1992, and someone asked him the question, “What if you lose?” And Barry was quoted as saying, “Then we’ll all know what to do.”

I have no idea if that quote is true or in context. But I sure don’t like the implication. It’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not Biblical.

I don’t know if the left wing is correct more often than the right wing. But what I do know is that the left wing displays a whole lot more maturity.

And the left and the right are a whole lot more alike than they are different. But the bitterness of differences seems to increase as the size decreases.