Captain Thin

A word of thanks to those continuing the conversation about my recent First Things article “Are Lutherans Catholic?”. Gene Veith has some great conversation on the topic going on over at his blog Cranach, and Rev. Larry Peters is writing something similar over at Pastoral Meanderings (with reference to my “Too Damn Catholic” post from over on A Christian Thing). Nathan Rinne has also been contributing to the topic over at the Just & Sinner website.

It’s well worth checking out the conversation going on in these places, and I commend them all to your reading.

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hands-of-mercy-web

The topic of assisted suicide and euthanasia is currently under fierce discussion in courts and newspapers across the country. The proposition is that the option of suicide in the face of uncontrollable suffering (whether physical, mental, or emotional) should be a fundamental right of all Canadians, and should be included in conscientious palliative care. Related is the idea of euthanasia, which is when the decision to bring about intentional death is made by a third party because the person believed to be suffering is unable to communicate a decision.

On the surface, this all sounds very compassionate. But couched in this compassionate-sounding language is a very harsh belief: that some lives are more worth prolonging than others, and that some people should choose to die.

So writes L. Block in a recent article for The Canadian Lutheran. I have read no more careful and compassionate article on this topic, and recommend it to your reading—especially in light of the fact that Quebec recently legalized euthanasia. Rather than write lots about Block’s article here, I’m just going to quote it at length.

Although presented as a choice, this “right to die” has the potential to become a “duty to die,” which would affect the most vulnerable people in our society. People who don’t want to die may choose suicide rather than become a burden to their families, or may be convinced to choose suicide for someone else’s perceived good, opening the door to widespread elder abuse.

And how would such a change affect our existing palliative care system? It isn’t hard to see that helping people end their lives is much less expensive than offering high quality palliative care for an extended period of time. There is also a very real possibility that the “right to die” could be extended beyond those with terminal illnesses to include people with disabilities, or even mental illness. In Belgium, where the option of assisted suicide exists for those deemed to be suffering psychological anguish, this has already happened. What kind of a message will that send? “Your life is hard, because you can’t see/hear/think/move like other people. You can die if you want to.”

hands-of-mercy-candleHow does that impart hope to those despairing in the grip of depression, or offer encouragement to those striving to succeed despite physical or mental handicap? And how would it affect the kind of resources available? It is clearly much less expensive to usher someone out of life quietly than find a high quality group home for them. Or pay for the wheel-chair-friendly renovations on their house now that they have a spinal cord injury. And what about those who are completely dependent on others for all their care, or who can’t communicate a desire to live?

If our attitude as a society shifts to embrace the notion that some people are worth less than other people, our willingness to care for them will shift as well. Expressed in offhand comments, facial expressions, or tone of voice, this negative perception would do untold damage to our most vulnerable.

And the Christian response:

All of this runs entirely counter to Christ’s model for the Church. Jesus Christ also preached compassion. He offered relief of suffering to the lepers, not by ending their lives, but by loving them. He reached out with physical and spiritual healing for the disabled. He opened His arms to the children, all the children, including the child afflicted by an evil spirit. Given for “the least of these,” this is real compassion. This is His model for us, too. We are not to be seduced by the idea of this world, that young people with perfect bodies and minds are somehow better and more deserving of life than those who are old, or ill, or dying, or disabled. We must speak up for those who cannot….

Euthanasia must not be used as a balm to ease the suffering of those who are witnessing the death, or the disability, or the pain. We cannot use it to ease our own consciences, to say, “We did the right thing.” No, as is often the case, the right thing is definitely not the easy thing. We cannot show compassion by being the hands of death; we must instead be the hands of Christ.

Go read it all at The Canadian Lutheran.

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confessio-augustana-web

On June 25, 1530 at the Diet of Augsburg, the Evangelical German princes presented The Augsburg Confession to theHoly Roman Emperor Charles V. This document, crafted by Philip Melanchthon, stands to this day as the principal explanation of what it means to be a Lutheran.

And what does it mean to be a Lutheran? Nothing more than that we are truly catholic Christians. We teach in accord with the Scriptures and with the Church’s faithful re-presentation of the Scriptures.

Wait… we’re catholic? What does that mean?

Find an answer in my new post over at First Things: Are Lutherans Catholic?”

A small sampling:

Are confessional Lutherans catholic? Yes. And we always will be, so long as we hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles, written in the Scriptures and faithfully passed down to us by the Church. Consequently, I cannot help thinking that those seeking out a “Protestant Future” should in fact be looking to the Protestant Past. Looking for a church which faithfully receives the catholic tradition while clearly proclaiming the authority of Scripture? Looking for a church which is both sacramental and devoted to salvation by grace through faith alone? Looking, in other words, for an Evangelical Catholic Church? It already exists. It’s called Lutheranism.

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It’s become almost commonplace to note that Canada is not the nation it once was. We have quickly become a post-Christian society—a nation which counts Christian faith as part of its history but not its future. Last year, Statistics Canada announced that the number of Canadians identifying as Christian has dropped dramatically: from 77% in 2001 to 67% in 2011. And a new study confirms that fewer and fewer Canadians—even self-professed Christians—recognize the Bible as God’s Word. The fact is, most Canadian Christians never read the Bible at all.

So begins my most recent column for The Canadian Lutheran. It considers the increasingly secular culture in which Canadian Christians find themselves, and notes a rising intolerance towards Christians in our country. To be sure, this intolerance is not persecution in the strict sense of the term, I note; we do not face martyrdom the way some people—Mariam Ibrahim of Sudan, for example—do for professing faith in Christ. “Nevertheless,” I argue, Christians in Canada are also learning, if only a little, what it means to suffer for Christ.

That our nation is becoming increasingly secular is obvious; but how Christians should respond is less so. As the article goes on, I explore what it means to stand firm in the faith in our changing context (and how, when you think about it, there’s never really been a ‘golden age’ to be a Christian anyway).

Read it all in “Standing on Guard.”

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Gene-Veith-Imagination-web-banner

Why is the imaginative life important for Christians?

I ask that question, among others, to Dr. Gene Veith in a recent interview for The Canadian Lutheran. In the course of the discussion, we delved into such topics as Christian subcultures, imaginative apologetics, C.S. Lewis, and how the Church can foster a healthy imaginative life.

A couple of snippets to whet your appetite:

Many of the obstacles against the Christian faith in people’s minds are really imaginative creations: they think of God as an old man with a beard up in the sky looking down on this suffering world, and they can’t believe that. No one should believe that. God is much bigger than that…

And another:

C.S. Lewis wonders why he didn’t see how mind-blowing and wonderful Christianity is when he was first taught it as a child. Part of the problem, he says, is that it wasn’t taught in a way that addressed the imagination. He marvels how it is possible to make the story of God-becoming-flesh and dying for sinful man so boring. But that’s how it was presented to him as a youth.

Gene Veith, Provost and Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, was keynote speaker for the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith’s third annual conference March 21-22, 2014 at Concordia University College of Alberta in Edmonton. His topic was “The Arts, the Imagination, and the Christian Life.”

Dr. Veith is the author of numerous books, including The Spirituality of the Cross and God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. He is also co-author of a forthcoming title on the Christian imagination.

Read the full interview at The Canadian Lutheran. You may also want to check out Gene’s site Cranach, where he is using the interview as the starting point for additional online discussion.

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IFRANKENSTEIN-good-immortal-evil

On a recent trip to Germany, I took the opportunity to reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a fascinating book to be sure—remind me sometime to talk about the critique of Calvinism present in the story). On the way home from said trip, I noticed that one of the movies available to watch on the plane was I, Frankenstein. I’d never heard of the film but I thought it an appropriate choice, even if the description was somewhat ludicrous: “Adam [ie, Frankenstein's monster] finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between gargoyles and demons that are battling to discover the secret to his immortality.

…. Right.

Still, I turned on the film. And the plot is basically that described above. There is a secret “sacred order of gargoyles” instituted by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from a secret battalion of demons still lose on earth. When an angel kills a demon, the demon is “descended” to hell (yes, they use “descended” as a transitive verb). Contrariwise, a gargoyle killed by a demon is “ascended.” The demons want to reanimate thousands of dead corpses—using the secret of Frankenstein’s science—so that they call up their “descended” brethren to possess the bodies (because, according to this movie, demons cannot possess the living, only reanimated corpses, and these only if they have a silly star cut into their foreheads. Apparently reanimated corpses—like Adam—don’t have souls to crowd the demons or something.]

The film is, of course, silly at best. The plot is bizarre, the CGI is nothing special, and the dialogue goes from dumb to dumber (a far cry from Shelley’s work). Still, the film illustrates an interesting trend in supernaturally-themed movies: namely, the use of angelic and demonic beings, but first stripping them of their religious significance.

To be sure, I, Frankenstein doesn’t strip all religious reference. We hear Adam told (and I paraphrase) that he is the only living thing “not created by God,” that he consequently has “no soul,” and that “God will surely damn him.” But the God invoked is a mysterious being, referenced tangentially, and then forgotten. Even the gargoyles who fight for God seem to have no direct connection with Him: it seems that only their queen has access to higher spiritual powers—the archangels—and she never bothers to give them a call during the film.

gargoyle-crossOther religious elements are similarly stripped of their significance. For example, we are told that only “sacramental” objects can “descend” a demon. But any object can be “sacramental,” we learn, so long as it has the symbol of the gargoyle order carved into it. That symbol? It’s a cross of sorts, but a cross with two additional horizontal lines added to it (below the normal horizontal line). And these secondary lines are so long as to disguise that it’s a cross at all. In fact, it’s first introduced sideways on screen, so it took me a while to realize it even was a cross! Jesus isn’t in this film, even if His symbol is co-opted and adapted.

It’s a common enough feature in contemporary cinema: a generic God stripped of any specific identifying characteristics. And this use of generic religion has consequences, in that it consistently feeds into a Law-based depiction of religion. The Adam of this movie differs from his biblical namesake. Unlike the progenitor of humankind who was created “in the image of God” and thus endowed with a soul, our film protagonist is not. The solution to this problem? Earn a soul by doing good deeds of course. Fulfill your part in generic-God’s mysterious destiny and you too will be rewarded!

Frankenstein is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction, and well worth the read. But I, Frankenstein, like many Hollywood films, is missing the key element in a supernatural drama: namely, a divinity (and religion) that makes sense.

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indiana-jones

About a month ago, a new book came out claiming that the Holy Grail had been discovered…again. What is it about the cup Christ used at a Passover meal 2,000 years ago that so fascinates us? Why are people still searching for it today. And are we missing the real miracle of the Last Supper? That and more in an article I wrote last week for First Things: “What if we find the Holy Grail? Miracles and man.”

Lutherans like myself should not, therefore, simply deny the possibility that this or that physical object—or relic, if you will—might be used by God to convey miraculous power. He’s done it before; he can do it again if he so chooses. But there is a danger in putting too much stock in such relics, even if they are what they purport to be. One can easily slip from faith in the God who wrought wonders through an object to an idolatrous faith in the power of the object itself. This is precisely what occurred in the case of the bronze snake mentioned earlier. We read that in Hezekiah’s time it became necessary to destroy the snake, for the Israelites had begun to honor as if it had power itself—as if it were, in fact, a god (2 Kings 18:4)…

Even if a relic could be proved to be the Holy Grail to the exclusion of all other claimants, Christians would be wise to heed the words of Charles Williams. In his novel War in Heaven, the Grail is discovered in small rural church in England. The Archdeacon of Fardles finds in the Grail peace and joy. And while the vessel is presented in the novel as supernaturally powerful, the Archdeacon confesses, as we all ought to confess in such a moment, “Neither is this Thou.” Whatever worth the relic has, it is still not God. Seeking it for its own sake, apart from God, is to enter into idolatry.

For more on relics, supernatural power, and the true miracle of the Last Supper, read the full article.

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