The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Monday, December 26, 2005

Great Customer Service!

KUDOS to The Gramcord Institute's Mark Banks who took my order this St. Stephen's day--from his home, I might add!--and helped me get my son up and running with the Hammoreh Hebrew grammar tutorial. It is truly a pleasure to be able to receive such good service.

I'll get back to you with a review of this tutorial, after we've had a chance to use it for a while. It runs in a DOS window, (it was written in pre-GUI times.) but Noah grew up with DOS and ANSI graphics, so he can handle it.

The Gramcord Institute is a fine old name in original language tools for the study of Holy Scripture.

Resolution and Scope (a work in progress)

from the depth of the pacific
to the height of everest
and still the world is smoother
than a shiny ball-bearing
so i take a few steps back
and put on a wider lens
and it changes your skin,
your sex, and what you're wearing
distance shows your silhouette
to be a lot like mine
like a sphere is a sphere
and all of us here
have been here all the time

Ani DiFranco, "Everest"

This lovely ballad is about bridge-building, about reaching out across cultural barriers. On another level, it's about something that's been on my mind for a while: call it "resolution." With the growing popularity of digital photography, I think that's a word that many people will be able to get. I'm particularly interested in how it applies to epistemology, and to theology, although lately it's found its way into public policy debates.


See for example a recent WORLD magazine column by a man I highly respect, Dr. Gene Edward Veith, of the Cranach Institute. Or the fuss raised by a Navy Chaplain, Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who charges that Navy superiors have directed him to not use the name of Jesus in his prayers offered as part of his job.

There is some concern whether Lt. K is being completely honest in his charges. A commenter to Dr. Veith's blog post about this reports that she heard a caller to a talk show identify himself as Lt. K's commanding officer, who "categorically denied that there was any order given not to pray in Jesus' name."

Dr. Veith's blog entry was on the question, "Does this constitute establishment of a religion?" In a comment, I opined that it does. But a follow-up comment from another commenter, who identifies himself as "A Navy Chaplain," argued for sensitivity and discrimination as to setting. His comment is very interesting, so I quote it here:
There is no regulation banning Chaplains from praying in Jesus' name. That being said, all Chaplains regardless of background are encouraged to be sensitive to those listening to their prayers. When praying at a Command function or during an evening prayer to the whole ship, sensitivity to the religious backgrounds of all who hear the prayer is advised, but not mandated. Whether I end a prayer with "in your Holy name", or "in the name of our Lord", or just end with "Amen" I know to whom and through whom I am praying. By showing respect for people of other faiths, I have often had a chance to discuss with them matters of faith in other settings.
As to establishment, if I pray in Jesus name or in allah's name at a mandatory Command event where everyone bows with me in prayer, then I believe there may be an issue with establishment. By purposely using more inclusive language in prayers to groups representing many faiths, there seems to be little problem with establishment. Also we are not talking about establishing a religion, since a Change of Command or Retirement Ceremony is not a worship service. On Sunday morning, or Friday night, Chaplains all worship in accordance to their own faith tradition.

I don't understand what a Command event is, but his sentence "if I pray in Jesus name or in allah's name at a mandatory Command event where everyone bows with me in prayer, then I believe there may be an issue with establishment" is thought-provoking. It opens up the whole can of worms of whether, and why, to have religious leaders lead a prayer at a civic event. Dave Adams has done good work on this subject, but I need to go back and re-study that.

But back to resolution. Scope and specificity in religious language. The trend today is to build bridges by following Ms. DiFranco's idea of "take a few steps back, put on a wider lens." To seek a sort of verbal least-common-denominator that will be "more inclusive." You turn down the resolution in prayers, or creeds (e.g. the Roman Catholic/Lutheran "Joint Declaration On The Doctrine Of Justification" by becoming more vague, more general, by adopting language that all parties can "live with."

In the visual arts, you have a range of expression from Realism to Impressionism to Abstract. It's a matter of resolution. Impressionist art requires you to fill in what's missing: lower resolution leads to more viewer involvement. McLuhan would say it was "cooler." (Or was that "hotter"? I always get those confused.)

A statement, or a visual depiction, doesn't have to be exhaustive to be true. A simple map to the mall doesn't have to show all the stop signs, or the peach tree on the corner three blocks before you get there. It is true if it accurately depicts the relationship and connections of here and there and the route between.

However, it should specify origin and destination. If it is titled "How To Get To The Mall," it is pretty much useless, except to its maker and to the person who asked for the information.

If it is offered as a universal map, useful for anyone to get to any mall, it is no longer truth. It is a lie. Actually, the map may be true, but the claim about it is false.

I'm not quibbling about the mechanical use of the words "In Jesus' Name, Amen" at the end of the prayer. Many prayers are offered this way that Jesus would not endorse, I'm sure. My question is, how do we cut through the straw men in this kind of debate, and address the basic philosophical/theological issues that lie behind it? If there is really only one mall, and all roads lead to it, then there's no problem with the map. But then, who needs the map at all?

If there is only one God, and He/She/It is willing to listen to all forms of address, then turning down the resolution is fine. This has never been the Christian position, however. The Bible says that Jesus is the only Way to the Father. A case may be made for saying that prayer not made in the name of Jesus is in fact offered to an idol, not to the true God.

It's a don't-ask-don't-tell world we live in. A world looking for peace through ignoring the hard questions, the questions that result in winners and losers, in A's and F's. Perhaps our calling as Christians, and certainly as confessional Lutherans (I know no other kind worthy of the name!), is to resist the loss of resolution, to keep asking "what do you mean, and what do you not mean?", to fight against the slide through Impressionism to an Abstractist kind of theology that just paints blobs of color and calls it spirituality.

On the other hand, we do want to build bridges, and we do want to be loving as we ask the hard questions. We have to be clear in ourselves that we do it because it is the loving thing to do, and not in some kind of evil glee at pinning down the wriggling purveyors of vagueness. And we have to be ever mindful of God's warning not to get bogged down in useless questions that are quite specific, but divisive. (I need the verse here).


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Incarnation, Islam, and Moralism

C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to the Arthurian poetry of his Inklings friend Charles Williams, titled Williams and the Arthuriad. It appears in one volume with Williams' two poetry collections; you can find it on It was published by Wm B. Eerdmans in 1974.

Here is an extended quote in which Lewis comments on the figure of Palomides, a Saracen knight who comes to Logres to find out the Christian secret. In a surprisingly effective way, he manages to hit many topics of interest today: Islam, moralism vs. Christianity, and the resurgent-Gnostic "spirituality" that deprecates the material aspects of God's world.


Since this quote is extended, I will only use blockquote tagging where Lewis uses it (to quote Williams). Enjoy! --Joe

Palomides the Saracen Knight, the unsuccessful lover of Iseult, comes out of Mohammedan Spain ‘through the green-pennon-skirted Pyrenees’ and the ‘cross-littered land of Gaul’ to Cornwall and the house of King Mark. The anachronism whereby Islam is made contemporary with Arthur is deliberate: Islam was for Williams the symbol (as it is certainly the greatest historical expression) of something which is eternally the opposite of Sarras and Carbonek. Islam denies the Incarnation. It will not allow that God has descended into flesh or that Manhood has been exalted into Deity. It is

the sharp curved line of the Prophet’s blade
that cuts the Obedience from the Obeyed.

It stands for all religions that are afraid of matter and afraid of mystery, for all misplaced reverences and misplaced purities that repudiate the body and shrink back from the glowing materialism of the Grail. It stands for what Williams called ‘heavy morality’—the ethics of sheer duty and obedience as against the shy yet (in the long run) shameless acceptance of heaven’s courtesies flowing form the ‘homely and courteous lord’. It is strong, noble, venerable; yet radically mistaken. It had nibbled at Christianity almost form the beginning in the swarm of heresies which denied the full doctrine of Incarnation. That is the point of the Prelude to The Region of the Summer Stars. St. Paul preached ‘the golden Ambiguity’—the irony beyond all ironies which the manger in the Bethlehem stable presents, the ‘physiological glory’. But the ‘ancient intellect’ shrank back from the new doctrine,

The converted doctors turned to their former confessions,
the limitary heresiarchs feared the indiscretions of matter…
Professing only a moral union they fled
from the new-spread bounty.

The Prelude to Taliessin Through Logres is also concerned with this conflict between the ‘ambiguity’ of Incarnation and the heavy lucidity of mere Monotheism. On the historical level it is a fact that ‘the Moslem stormed Byzantium’. On the spiritual level huge areas of the world fell back from the subtler and more ‘scandalous’ Faith—and fall back daily in the sub-Christian doctrines of Christ’s person which are dear to the modern world. This is not the defeat of truth by simple error or of good by simple evil: it is the loss of living, paradoxical truths (for mere Monotheism blinds and stifles the mind like noonday sun in the Arabian deserts till we may well ‘call on the hills to hide us’). It is the defeat of fine and tender and even frolic delicacies of goodness by iron legalism, the ‘fallacy of rational virtue’. Islam is true so far as it affirms: we must rejoice that it conquered the old Dualism of Persia. But it affirms unity in such a way that ‘union is breached’; and then, however truly and with whatever grandeur the muezzin cried ‘Good is God’,

Lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia,
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial being.

-p. 308f

Friday, December 16, 2005

Great Reading On Vocation

About a year ago, Dr. Gene Edward "Ed" Veith of the Cranach Institute (and culture editor of World Magazine) got me thinking about the Christian concept of vocation. I've been mulling it over at my usual glacial pace, about how it really draws together the notions I've had all my life about Christian witnessing (in faithful daily living, versus "evangelism" as a "separate" and intentional activity). Anyway, Dr. Veith's blog provoked me to read some excellent articles blogged by Kelly Klages, which I thoroughly enjoyed, on vocation in the Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The links are hard to see in Veith's blog, so I have pasted them here:
Lord of Vocations, Part I
Lord of Vocations, Part II
Lord of Vocations, Part III
Lord of Vocations, Part IV
Lord of Vocations, Part IVb
Lord of Vocations, Part V

Well done, Kelly! Happy reading, all!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

God Help Us

There it is, in the latest Demotivators® catalog from Despair, Inc. A nugget of truth just begging to be used in a sermon, or a blog, or something. It's not one of their refreshing little poster sayings. Those ought to be left alone, in my opinion; better yet, given as Christmas gifts to a very, very, select few who have the heightened sense of irony to appreciate that kind of humor. No, my nugget of truth for today is in the explanatory material, the rationale for why they do it:
when desperation has disposable income, market opportunities abound.


Sadly, I am afraid that describes much of the Christian Publishing Industry, which has become pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of the Self-Help Publishing Industry. As a Lutheran, I find this funny, because it is the Law and our sinfulness which makes us desparate, or enlightens us to how desparate our situation is. But God's proper work, what He's really after, is to comfort the desperate, not to heighten their desperation.

The whole notion of self-help, as a way of addressing our needs, is really contrary to the call of God to repent and believe the good news that Jesus has taken care of our needs completely. Repent means to give up on trying to achieve happiness, or power, or whatever part of the good life you're aiming at, and to turn to God with open hands, ready to receive His gifts in His way.

There is really only one message to publish: Christ crucified. God-help trumps self-help every time!