Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Shield, not the Ark

Entertainment dollars can be scarce to come by and should be used wisely.  Last weekend, I had a choice to make.  My son and I were going to have a "boys afternoon" and we were going to see a movie.  Our choices were "Noah" or "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."  I opted to take him to see Cap without a second's hesitation.

It wasn't out of hand because of the debate swirling around "Noah."  Sure, I was more than aware of it (you can read posts for and against the film here, here, here, and here).  I don't expect a Hollywood movie to ever capture a Biblical story in such away that theologians, pastors, priests, bishops, ministers, deacons, elders, and laity all and everywhere would put their stamp of approval on. Talk about your impossible tasks(!), especially since we haven't even gotten beyond the "Christian" section of the audience demographic to include people of other faiths (Noah, after all, appears not just in the Christian Bible, but also plays a part in the Jewish and Islamic faiths as well), let alone non-religious persons who just might want to go see a Hollywood blockbuster starring Russell Crowe!  Furthermore, in approaching such a film there is sure to be some "artistic license" taken, since the Bible isn't exactly a day-by-day diary of Noah's journey (before, during, or after his time on the ark).  For the faithful to expect it to be both "faithful" and "accurate" is almost an impossibility, even if (spoiler alert) there weren't giant rock monsters involved!

All that's fine and well.  Maybe there is an argument to be made to seeing "Noah."  Maybe the artistic decisions and theological discussions are worth having.  Maybe it is enough to get a big name director and stars to talk about faith at all in an age of secularism.  But those aren't the kinds of debates and discussions I wanted to have with my little man.  He's to young to grasp fully all those ends and outs on the level (especially the theological) they deserve. 

But he isn't to young to understand good and evil.  He isn't to young to understand that people make choices that have consequences.  He isn't to young to understand that ideals matter.  He isn't to young to understand that standing up for what you believe in might require pain and suffering on your part (and might be painful--both mentally and physically, as well as cost you people you thought were your friends).  Nor is he to young to believe in heroes.  And for all those reasons, not to mention that I've been a Captain America fan since I was about his age, we went to see "Captain America 2."

Now, did all those messages sink into my little man's head?  I don't know.  But we did have a good time together, and maybe that matters even more.  We did have a good discussion about some of the issues raised, and how they were different than the cartoon version of events he knew (the unfortunately cancelled Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes)....indeed, someday, we might even talk about the "artistic license" that was employed blending several comic book story lines into one movie.  But that, perhaps like "Noah," can wait for another day.  For me, what we had last weekend as father and son (not to mention that "Captain America 2" was just an awesome movie!) more than justified my entertainment money.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Lutheran Response

Full disclosure:  At least part of my father's family has Lutheran roots.  The operative word there is "roots."  I did not grow up Lutheran (nor did my dad for that matter, my grandmother had left the Lutheran church she attended as a child before she married my grandfather), and the only times I've been to a Lutheran service has been for weddings, funerals, or for professional reasons.  And it is for professional reasons that Lutherans are on my mind today.

Next month will mark two years since the publication of The Mainline.  While for me, that will be an important enough milestone, it is nice to know, professionally, that the book is still being read and being reviewed.  In the latest issue of Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2014, pages 457-458), the Reverend Dwight Zscheile of Luther Seminary was kind enough to offer up a review of my book.  I was pleased to first hear about the review several months ago, and happy as well to read it.  Not only does the Rev. Zscheile provide a very nice summary of the book's contents, but also offers up a sound critique (as a professor who often assigns his students review assignments, it is the kind of review I'd like to see them write).

Part of that critique hints at something I'm planning to address in a later blog post, religious pessimism.  In the past year  or so, I've seen it crop in a host of articles, mostly centering around the notion that organized religion is in decline (whether liberal or conservative in theology), that the youth (read Millennials) have abandoned the Church, and that assumptions that say the Religious Right held firm to throughout the twentieth century no longer hold true in the twenty-first, not to mention the "evangelical crack-up" that has been reported of late.  Indeed, the Rev. Zscheile end's his review with the question "is the concept of a 'majority faith' relevant in twenty-first-century America?"

As I said, that question is one I hope to take up in the weeks ahead (quick answers:  the decline might not be as bad or as real as some commentators believe; no, not all Millennials have left the Church; no, the Religious Right isn't dead; the evangelical crack-up is kind of the norm within American evangelicalism; and yes notions of "majority faith" do indeed matter).  Instead today, I'll leave you with another line from the Rev. Zscheile's review:   "While in some circles, the very premise of Christianity being 'mainline' in any form in twenty-first-century America is hotly contested, Lantzer wants to retain and redefine the term."  On that note, he get's it exactly right!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Perfect Discipline

My life changed forever in an undergraduate U.S. History class.

My professor, the late Irving Katz, had interrupted his lecture to address the issue of a late student arrival.  My classmate had come in about 10 minutes late, due to her work at the Indiana Daily Student (the IU-Bloomington campus newspaper).  Her arrival had disrupted the class because the only seat available in the small 40 or so seat room was her usual one, about 3 chairs into a row.  Prof. Katz asked her why she was late, and she told him that she had lost track of time while working on the next edition.  He stopped her and asked a follow up, why was she wasting her time seeking a journalism degree when History was the perfect discipline.  Not only, he said, does it inform us of the past, make sense of our present, and shape our future, but it also is the only thing a person can ever study that is the foundation for every other discipline.  Because, he noted, everything and everyone has a history -- and no other academic area, from Accounting to Zoology could make such a claim.  It was, at that moment, that I decided I didn't want to go to law school anymore.  I wanted to go to graduate school and become a professional historian.

I share that story or some variation, with every new class that I teach.  And I believe it today just as strongly as I did when Prof. Katz first said it.  I was thinking about that today, not because we are at the start of a semester (thankfully, Spring Break -- if not spring itself-- is nearly upon us), but rather because as events have unfolded this week, both near and far, I hope my students have taken that very lesson as their own.

Like Prof. Katz, I am an Americanist by training.  But, because I'm an Americanist, I also know a few things about European History as well (from Colonization to the Present, you really can't understand American History if you also don't understand at least the basics about what is going on in Europe).  And maybe that's why I was not shocked to read this morning that Russia is essentially carving out the Crimea (at the very least) from the Ukraine.  If anyone is shocked by this, then they simply are ignorant of History (and if they happen to be policymakers, so much the worse for us all).  Any pretense that Russia, is a functioning democracy (and that Democratic State Theory -- which was once all the rage amongst Political Scientists, and that states that democracies don't make war on other democracies) should have been banished long ago.  No, Russia is an empire.  And it is behaving just like an empire (indeed, just like the Soviet Union was an empire, and Tsarist Russia was an empire).  Perhaps our problem is that we don't know how to deal with empires anymore.  And if that is the case, it is because those who lead have neglected the lessons of History.

I hold out hope that this won't be the case forever, or at least not with my students (and I hope others at other institutions are learning this lesson as well).  Earlier this week, Laura Bush came to the campus of Butler University and spoke as part of a lecture series.  Part of her remarks, which were filled with humor and family stories, was geared towards one of her passions:  promoting literacy.  As the Butler Collegian noted, and as my email inbox can attest, part of her remarks centered on Uncle Tom's Cabin and how one book helped change the course of American History.  As someone who teaches an entire course dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe's book and the coming of the Civil War (complete with discussion of if Stowe "got it right" via the reading of slave narratives -- something that is quite "cool" right now thanks to the Oscar nominated "12 Years a Slave"), it was nice to hear another voice reminding students of the power that can be found in both words and in the past.  It was equally gratifying to read those emails from students, who talked about how awesome it was to the former First Lady talk so passionately about a topic they knew something about because they had studied it.

As George Santayana noted, in words that were on the wall of my high school history teacher, "those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."  If we don't study the past, there is little hope for us moving forward.  If we reject the perfect discipline, then when evil empires rise, whether to conquer or enslave, we'll be powerless to stop them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Finnish With Style

Like many of you, I've spent the past few weeks watching the Winter Olympics.  Although I don't get quite as much into the Winter games as I do the Summer games, I appreciate not only what the athletes are able to do in the snow and ice (and this year, perhaps my indifference has more to do with how much snow and ice we've had here in Indiana) but also the fact the winter games never seem to drag like the summer ones do (perhaps because there aren't nearly as many events).  That being said, and though I do miss, when it comes to ice skating, the old national judging system, it has been great to see such outstanding competition (even if the USA didn't always win).

This year's Winter Games are being held in Sochi, Russia. And like anytime the games aren't in the US (or at least so it seems) the media has paying a good deal of attention to the host country.  Some of that attention has been favorable, some of it has been perhaps overblown (it is not as if Sochi was the first games were there were cost overruns, the politicians in power gave contracts to their friends, and not everything was finished when people started arriving), and some of that attention has not been all that it should have been (glossing over the atrocities of the Soviet era for example).

While much of the attention before the games was on the Putin government's policies to gays and lesbians, in the last week, the world has been reminded that Putin has also been working towards recreating the lost Soviet Union (or at the old Russian Empire).  And to a degree that has gotten me thinking about matters of faith.  Oh sure, there are from time to time mentions of God or religion in reports from the games themselves (either from the athletes or from American reporters discovering the Orthodox Church), but for me the image of faith and the games comes not from Sochi, but rather from the Ukraine:

The image above, and others like, made the rounds on the Web this week, as priests from the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine stood between protestors and security forces (who backed the now deposed Russian supported prime minister).  For a few moments at least, the fighting stopped.  Perhaps we will one day look back and see it as the moment the opposition needed, the moment the government's forces began to question what it was they were doing.  Perhaps. Much is likely yet to play out over Ukraine's future, and who knows what might happen once the world's attention is drawn away from Eastern Europe.

But that image also got me thinking about conditions in the US.  We have entered, in the past year or so, a great debate over religious liberty in America, as well as a related one on the proper demarcation line between Church and State.  Readers of this blog (as well as of The Mainline) know that it is an issue I've touched on before.  And it is one that was raised last month, when a friend from Finland posted an article on Church and State in his country.  My friend and I corresponded a bit more on the topic, with his thought below:

"Paradoxically, Christianity plays a lot larger role in US politics compared to over here, state church or not. Presidential candidates are asked maybe once an election cycle about their views on religion, and a round-edged answer of maybe appreciating everyone minding their own spiritual business and Christmas church being a nice tradition is the correct and proper one. A politician openly demanding policy based on Bible or even Christian morals (as opposed to just, you know, what's moral) is considered to be fringe and eyes are rolled. I'd say the separation of C'n'S is more ingrained in the individual citizen, if you will, around here."

While American priests, ministers, and pastors are quite active in battling over social issues (where their is much disagreement between both Americans in and out of the pews on a host of topics ranging from abortion to gay marriage), one wonders if any of them would be willing to stand between warring factions and literally remind people on both sides that it was time to stop killing.  One wonders if people on either side would listen.  Are we different than Finland in that respect?  Are we different than the Ukraine?  Let us pray that we need not ever have to find out. 

Religious liberty is not something to be taken lightly, nor are infringements upon it trivial (even if they don't amount to persecution).  But part of this discussion over the proper role of Church and State is also about religious symbolism, and how politicians employ it.  Perhaps it would be a good thing, if like in the Ukraine, the Church in America invoked its own symbols (and talked openly about doctrine) as much as those seeking votes from people in the pews.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Word (or Two) from Our Top Two Presidents

Today in the United States, we officially celebrated George Washington's birthday.  Of course, as many posts today have pointed out, it isn't actually Washington's birthday, nor is it really "President's Day" (which is largely a marketing ploy, or sloppiness amongst officials, depending on how you look at it).  Indeed, the holiday wasn't designed to honor all of our presidents, or even all the presidents born in February, it was to be Washington's Day.  But with a birthday that changed with a revamped calendar, coupled with the desire to give federal employees three day weekends, Washington is now coupled another February-born president, Abraham Lincoln, to give some of us a day off from work and school, and historians an opportunity to bring out fun facts or plum the depths of their presidential souls to give us some new insight on the American experience (among the best I read today was from Thomas Kidd, about the faith of both men).

But the two men, so often ranked as our two best presidents (I can't fathom the justification for not putting them in those slots) are worth reading in their own words.  So, tonight, I give you some quotes that are worth pondering. The first, is from George Washington:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

I love that last part:  "...forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."  As I sketch out future book ideas (one, in particular, about American Christianity and culture) that line strikes quite the chord.  Washington of course, as he often was, was thinking of the future, but he was also crafting these lines in the midst of the French Revolution--when totalitarianism, perhaps for the first time, seemed on the verge of overwhelming liberty.  It would not be the last time, but it is still striking how timely Washington's words remain.  Coming from a man who had rejected empire for revolution, rejected his farm and home for his national duty, who had not just fought a war to gain independence, but also helped craft a government to keep the republic free, perhaps we'd do well to ponder what he has to say on more things.

And now, for a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."  

 Context of course is always important.  Lincoln wrote these words not as the Civil War approached, but rather in 1838.  In some respects, it looks prophetic, knowing what we know would soon happen.  But they are words worth pondering today as well.  Having come through my college years at a time when there was (and to degree, there still is) raging academic debate over American exceptionalism, I think you are hard pressed not to conclude that Lincoln thought it was a pretty special place.  A nation that had, as it's national father, George Washington, a nation that was worth preserving, worth making better, worth fighting for (both in political rhetoric and then eventually--sadly--on the battlefield).

When we think of presidents, there is every reason to think of these two men.  And though they lived and died long ago, to use them to measure all the rest who have followed (and aspire to do so) them to the office of president.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Using Bishop Alexander's Prayer Book

Full disclosure at the outset, I'm not an Episcopalian.  But I have spent a good chunk of my professional life (starting way back with my Master's thesis) studying them and their church, and doing so has surely shaped my own faith in a variety of ways.

As a result of all that work, I've got in my home library several different versions of the Book of Common Prayer.  My favorite one, is a "pocket size" copy of the 1928 version (which in my mind remains the best version ever to come from the United States), printed in 1953, that once belonged to George M. Alexander, the Bishop of Upper South Carolina.  Since I bought it at a used bookstore in Indiana, I really have no idea how it made its way up north.  But here it now resides, and every now and I again, I pull it down and read a Morning Prayer or the appropriate Daily Office.  It does my largely pietistic soul good to mix with a bit of the more liturgical aspects of the faith.

Tonight though, I got it out because we learned earlier today that a good friend of ours, who had been battling cancer had died.  Looking for a little comfort, I turned to Bishop Alexander's Prayer Book, and eventually found my way to this passage:

"Most merciful Father, who hast been pleased to take unto thyself the soul of this thy servant; Grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that having served thee with constancy on earth, we may be joined hereafter with they blessed saints in glory everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

Perhaps those words and indeed, the news this morning of our friend's passing, was made all the more real because of a conversation I had with my son last night.  We had a "boys dinner out" and during the course of our meal (bread sticks and pizza), I looked over at him and said that that moment was the best part of my day.  He looked back, agreed, and then (as only a little boy can do) said that one day when he was a daddy, he was going to bring his son to Pizza Hut too.

His words made me smile (it was a "treasured up these things in your heart" kind of moment), but tonight they make me contemplative.  My son is still to young perhaps to realize that we aren't promised tomorrow.  We can hope for the future, but what lies ahead remains unknown to us.  All we can do enjoy the time we have with each other now, and cherish the memories we have of the departed when their pilgrimage has come to an end.  And pray that others will cherish our memory when it is our time to depart from this mortal life.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On State Churches: Finnish Style

Yesterday afternoon, while putting off doing some revision to a manuscript I'm working on, I happened upon an article about a potential Christian revival in Eastern Europe (you can read it here).  While the article focused chiefly on Hungary and Croatia, and the comments were interesting for their back and forth, I mostly just filed it away as an interesting tidbit, and eventually got to the work at hand.

And then, this morning I got up to do a little shoveling in what might be described as near arctic conditions (blowing and drifting snow, wind chill of -30 F) I came back inside and warmed up by checking my Facebook news feed, and came upon this article posted by an old friend from Finland.  For those of you who don't read Finnish or don't have time to run the article through Google Translate (which is what I did), allow me to summarize:  Finland, like virtually every European country, has an official state church.  In this case, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.  There is currently a movement in Finland to seek disestablishment of the state church, on the grounds that having one creates an environment hostile to other religions and people who profess no faith at all.


I noted when I read it the translated version that the author of the piece didn't include anyone supporting retaining the state church (one can chalk this up either to indifference on the part of the author, or perhaps more likely, simply reporting on the petition for disestablishment, which has largely just begun).  So, I messaged Joel (the friend who originally posted the article) and he quickly wrote back, saying that "the proponents of the status quo will probably have many persuasive arguments.  Grab the popcorn!"

But this reminded me of a discussion I had in Boston in 2012.  I was at the Congregational Library talking about The Mainline, and one of the people at the talk raised the issue of state churches in Europe and if something similar (in terms of dwindling membership and importance) might happen in the United States.  It is an interesting comparative question.  Many conservative or orthodox Christians worry this might be the case, and many secular humanists surely hope it will happen.  The problem, in the end, is that the situation (when it comes not just to the old Mainline decline of the Seven Sisters, but possible denominational decline) in the United States is just similar enough to entertain such thoughts, but so different as to defeat much useful comparison.  Denominations, even large culturally significant ones with large memberships are simply not the same thing as state sponsored churches.  Treating them as such creates serious issues not so much about Church/State division, but perhaps more obviously on religious liberty.

Still, it is a question I hope to come back to at some point in more depth.  And that brings us back to Finland.  According to the official statistics, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland boasts a membership of 4.4 million, with 2100 pastors.  That number is quite robust, since according to most sources, Finland has a population of roughly 5.4 million people.  Let those numbers sink in for a second.  What they mean, if true, is that nearly 80 percent of the population belongs to the state church.  But, if you've read  The Mainline or follow such things, you know that there is something wrong with that membership figure (and probably not the population number), and that is one of the problems with state churches:  They count everyone as being a member whether they are or not.  And most likely, they are not (one report from a few years ago found that less than 2% of Finns go to church each Sunday).  The numbers might feel good, but reporting such figures is likely not doing anyone any real good at all.

My friend described the state church in Finland as "our church being a reformed-many-times-over, fairly non-brimstoney church."  It has, in other words, been something that is always there and rarely controversial.  Part, to put it another way, of the established order of things.  One of the issues with doing away with state churches then is that you inevitably are changing the way things "always" have been done.  As an American, I have few problems with disestablishment--chiefly because I think competition amongst denominations has tended to keep the Christian faith vital and relevant here in the United States.  As of yet, we don't take it for granted.  Perhaps disestablishment in Finland could produce similar results, maybe even (and here I'm being influenced by another article I read this morning on the anniversary of the birth of one of the leaders of the Welsh Great Awakening) it could move people to actually fill those church pews.  Watching what unfolds from afar, while keeping an eye on developments closer to home, is worthy of having some popcorn on hand to be sure!