Captain Thin

Back in May, the Canadian Church Press and the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada held a joint conference together in Winnipeg. Among other things, the conference featured a number of workshops. One of these was a panel discussion on “The Francis Effect,” at which I was one of the panelists, bringing a Protestant perspective. Joining me were Joe Sinasac, Publishing Director of Novalis Publishing, and Marlena Loughheed, Public Relations and Communications Director of the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Toronto. Laura Kalmar, editor of The Mennonite Herald, served as moderator.

While much of the discussion was spontaneous—answering questions posed from the audience—each of us was also asked to prepare a few minutes of introduction, attempting to answer what made Francis such a media darling. What follows is a draft of my opening remarks. Why should Protestants care how Pope Francis is viewed in the media? See my take below:

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Shortly following Pope Francis’ election, Christianity Today published an interview with Luis Palau, an Evangelical leader from Argentina. Among other things, Paula praised Francis as “warm and gentle and spiritual.” “He likes to mingle with people,” he continued. “He’s gentle in his conversation.”

“Warm, gentle, spiritual.” These are words that have come to define Pope Francis’ public interactions. And it is this mixture of gentleness and faith that has garnered him such public admiration, I think. In other words, it is his pastoral tone that has brought him praise. He genuinely seems to care for people, for all people—and it’s hard not to like someone you suspect likes you first.

That’s what Evangelicals in Argentina came to understand, as Palau explains. And they weren’t the only ones. News of Francis’ election brought praise from both branches of Lutheranism in Argentina: the church associated with the more theologically conservative International Lutheran Council and the church associated with the more theologically progressive Lutheran World Federation. Both hailed his elevation. This is a man that all people seem to respect.

The same things which brought him respect in Argentina have brought him respect in wider Christendom—including among Canadian Christians. Along with the rest of the world, we have come to appreciate the Pope’s humility, his care for the forgotten, his—as I’ve said before—pastoral tone. Francis suggests that one cannot merely pontificate, if I may use the word, on moral issues; instead, he says, we need to make the Gospel central. Morality is important, yes, but it is not the central tenet of the Christian faith. Mercy is.

Some Canadian Christians have found in Francis’ manner of addressing the world a template for their own reinvention. Christians in the West are used to enjoying a position of respect in society: we’re used to having a platform to speak authoritatively into the lives of others. But that position has been eroding for a long time. Now when we try to speak authoritatively on moral issues, we find ourselves coming up against a wall.

It is in this context that Francis’ words in an interview published by America in September 2013 become clear. He warns that the Church must first focus on mercy, and not diminish Christianity to mere moralism. That’s not to say that he thinks morality is unimportant; it is. But you deal with first things first. In caring for the wounded, he says, you deal with the wounds first; and you leave the issue of high cholesterol till the patient has stabilized.

This way of approaching the world—pastorally, rather than by issuing moral decrees—is necessary in a society where Christianity has lost its traditional place of authority. Before we can tell people how to live, we must first earn their trust—we must first prove to them that we care about them, and that we have their best interests at heart. This way of communicating with the outside world is something Canadian Christians will, I hope, continue to learn from Pope Francis.

* But Francis isn’t just a model for emulation. He also serves as the de facto face of Christianity in the world, including, I think, Canada. There is name-recognition when it comes to the Pope in a way that there isn’t for the leaders of other denominations. People know who he is. It matters therefore vitally what the secular world thinks of him. If people have a positive impression of him, then it makes Christians’ work in sharing the Gospel all the easier—regardless of denomination. But if the secular world dislikes the Pope, people become more resistant to the Christian message in general—whether it’s being shared by Orthodox, Protestants, or Catholics.

If the secular world dislikes the Pope, people become more resistant to the Christian message in general—whether it’s being shared by Orthodox, Protestants, or Catholics.

As it happens, Pope Francis is still enjoying remarkable popularity. And while studies from Pew Forum and others haven’t seen an increase in church attendance due to the Francis Effect, there is a measurable increase in people who hold positive opinions of the pontiff. That leaves them open to what he might say.

But that’s the question: what might he say? Francis engages the media in a very different way than his predecessors did; he’s spontaneous. Unscripted. And while that has given a sense of genuineness to his pastoral tone, it’s also left him open to misunderstanding. Those expressions that have garnered some of the most media coverage—“Who am I to judge?,” being the classic example—have divided Canadian Christians of other traditions. Progressives have embraced this as evidence that Francis is going to make changes to Catholic teaching on issues like human sexuality, contraception, female ordination, and the like. Some conservative Christians have expressed concern that maybe he is withdrawing from traditional Catholic stances on these subjects. But I think it’s more correct to say that Francis has been misunderstood in these areas. He’s certainly relegated some hot-button issues to a less prominent place; but he hasn’t abandoned Catholic teaching on them.

I think the fact that the Pope can’t be put in these narrow political boxes of “conservative” or “liberal” are part of his appeal at current, both to the secular realm and to Christians of other traditions. But I’m not certain how long this popular approval can last. I suspect as people become more aware that Francis is, as he says, a loyal son of the church, his approval ratings will drop. Canadian Christians need to be aware therefore that this mini-renaissance of public approval for the church probably isn’t going to last.

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* Of course, Pope Francis’ impact on other Christian traditions is not merely as a good example of how to better engage the unchurched around us. He is also a strong ecumenical voice. We have a real sense that he cares for Christians of other traditions. His history in Argentina speaks to this of course, but we’ve also seen it in his work as pope so far. We’ve seen it in official acts, of course: his meeting with Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic church, visits with members of the Lutheran World Federation, and his [then] upcoming trip to Jerusalem to strengthen ties with the Orthodox. But we have also seen his concern for ecumenism in unscripted acts as well: his video message to an American charismatic conference, for example, where he lamented the separation between Christians: “Who is to blame for this separation?” he asks, before humbly suggesting, “We all share the blame. We have all sinned.”

His words in a December 2013 interview were truly inspiring. When asked whether ecumenism was important to him, he was clear: “Yes,” he said, “for me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for.” Those are words that most Christians, Protestant or otherwise, can appreciate and respect.

That final message—the idea that, to those outside the Church, we are all simply “Christians,” is an important one. It’s true of course to those who are literal enemies of the Church—those who wish to kill Christians. But it’s also true of those who are merely in the secular realm: to these people, unaffiliated with the faith, Christians are all simply Christians. And for many of these people, the Pope is the de facto face of Christianity.

(Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Attribution: presidencia.gov.ar, via WikiCommons).

My friend Karl recently challenged me on Facebook to name ten books that have changed my life. Or, more accurately, I was to “write down ten books that have affected your life in some way and tag ten friends including me so I can see your choices as well.” Ignoring the fact that the word “affected” is “abominably vague” (as Karl also noted), here’s my list. It’s eclectic, to be sure, with fiction, poetry, theology, and more.

The books follow in no particular order.

narnia1. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

This series served, in many ways, as my gateway to both fantasy and theology. As a child, it was my favourite series of books, and I still reread them all every few years. The Christian symbolism is not something I become aware of until some years later, when my pastor explained it to me. At first I rebelled at the knowledge, but eventually the secret of it (Another story beneath! Deeper magic!) led me to read more of C.S. Lewis, including…

MereChristianity2. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

This. This was my first introduction to serious Christian thought. My first introduction, as it were, to theology. More detailed study into the various focuses of Christian theology came later, as did wide reading in the writings of Christians from across the centuries. But Mere Christianity was, for me, where it all began. And for that, I am truly grateful to C.S. Lewis.

man-who-was-thursday3. The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

This book was my first introduction to Chesterton, and thus an introduction to numerous other important books in my life (like Heretics, Orthodoxy, Napoleon of Notting Hill, etc). The ability to make the ordinary strange is a particular gift of Chesterton’s and a prevailing theme in much of his other writing; but nowhere is the concept so well enfleshed as it is in The Man Who Was Thursday. This book is my favourite novel, bar none—even if (or perhaps because?) it so often confounds me.

The-Augsburg-Confession4. The Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana) – Philip Melanchthon

The primary Lutheran confession of faith, important not only for articulating Lutheran theology over/against contemporary abuses, but also for stressing the theological continuity of Lutheranism with the faith of the ancient Church. “The churches among us,” Melanchthon writes, “do not dissent from the Catholic Church in any article of faith.” Indeed.

freedom-of-a-christian5. The Freedom of a Christian – Martin Luther

Too many people (including too many Lutherans) seem to think that salvation by grace through faith alone means works are excluded from the Christian’s life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Luther explains the proper relationship between faith and works. While only the former justifies before God, he writes, both are nevertheless necessary in the Christian’s life. This little work, too seldom read, also introduces a number of other important Lutheran ideas, as I’ve summarized elsewhere: “Here Luther touches on the simultaneous sinner/saint state of Christians; explains Law and Gospel; argues justification by faith alone; defends the necessity of works as a fruit of faith; discusses what makes works ‘good’; expounds on the priesthood of all believers (both what it does and doesn’t mean); and delves into his theology of vocation, as well as hinting at the doctrine of the ‘two kingdoms.’”

spirituality-of-the-cross6. The Spirituality of the Cross – Gene Edward Veith

This is the quintessential introduction to Lutheranism for those wanting to know more about “the way of first evangelicals.” Veith provides a winsome case for the Evangelical Catholic (aka Lutheran) tradition, taking readers on a tour through the major points of Lutheran theology in clear and eminently readable prose. And it never descends into mere academic musings; this is a theology that is forever relevant and applicable to Christians today. Looking for a sacramental evangelicalism? A protestantism that is, at its core, nevertheless catholic? Veith explains why Lutheranism is the church you’re seeking.

poems-john-donne-16337. Poems (1633) – John Donne

Where do I begin? Donne’s poetry, whether focused on the earthly or the divine—and really, Donne would say (and I would agree), everything in creation counts under the category of “divine”—is deeply profound and deeply moving. Meaning is packed tightly into each line, each phrase, like a compressed spring waiting to be released. The Holy Sonnets have especially been important to me in my own spiritual journeys. While what I’m writing here applies to any edition of Donne’s English poetry, there’s something particularly pleasing about holding my reproduction copy of the 1633 edition, as I reflect on Donne’s Holy Sonnets. It provides a tactile experience, a weight in my hands to mirror the weight in my heart—a heart that Donne (and God) batter, for my good.

Pilgrim's_Progress_first_edition_16788. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I know what you’re thinking: “That old book? That long-on-words and short-on-plot book? That thinly-veiled not-at-all-veiled allegory? Why that book?” I know this book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been important to me for a number of reasons, not least of all because Bunyan’s thoughts have helped me formulate my understanding of what literature is for. I also acknowledge this book for Bunyan’s theology of despair, a condition in which I have an interest both personally and academically. Christian’s encounter with Giant Despair is, for those interested, made all the more illuminating when reading it alongside Bunyan’s own spiritual battle with despair (as described in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

Gospel-of-John9. The Gospel of John

While the Bible in its totality has had an obviously massive impact on my life, the Gospel of John is particularly dear to me. St. John’s surprisingly simple vocabulary make accessible complex theological ideas—mirroring, in a way, the enfleshing of the Divine Word in the Man Jesus. God humbles Himself that we may be brought up—He discloses Himself that we might to know Him Who made us.

odyssey10. The Odyssey – Homer

I am a lover of classical mythology and culture, and for me there is no greater story from the era than Homer’s Odyssey. This text led to my wider interest in the literature and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome—studies which have significantly impacted how I view all other literature and philosophies.

I can’t help but feel I’ve cut too many books that should also be on this list, just in order to keep it to ten. An expanded list must needs include some classic science fiction (such as the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), children’s adventure stories (Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain), philosophy (Plato), drama (Shakespeare) fantasy (JRR Tolkien), and more from the Inklings (especially Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion and War in Heaven). I should also mention the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, as the description of Ransom learning alien language is what first kindled my interest (and subsequent degree) in Linguistics.

But there is one other book I just must mention, and that is C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Now what is so important about this book you ask? Well, it’s responsible (at least in part) for my marrying Leah. Some years ago, not long after Leah and I had first met, we fell into conversation at a large-group dinner event. We began by chance to speak of Lewis, zeroing in on The Great Divorce. I made some remark about the characterization of George MacDonald in the text. But Leah promptly corrected me, telling me in no uncertain terms I was wrong. Surprised, I actually went home that night and reread the book. Leah was right: I was wrong. About that time I began to realize just how attractive Leah was….

I count it a great blessing that Leah and I can talk so easily together about big ideas, and that each of us can learn from (and correct) each other. But it’s never lost on me that The Great Divorce led, in our case, to a rather Great Marriage.

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Edit (August 27): I have no idea how I forgot to put The Screwtape Letters on this list. Major oversight.

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We continue to speak [the words of the Nicean Creed] because they continue to be true. What the First Council in Nicea confessed on the basis of Scripture, Christians today continue to confess: Jesus is God. He was not created. He has always existed. And because He is God, He has power to save sinners like you and me. It might be ancient history, but the confessions made at Nicea are forever relevant to our faith today.

Of course, the council in Nicea in 325 was not the first council in history. In fact, Christians had long been in the habit of gathering together to discuss issues of concern, to pray, and to make plans for the future. Even the Apostles hashed out issues in this way, discussing whether Gentile believers needed to follow the same rules (on circumcision and dietary laws) that the Jews did (see the story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15).

In some ways, this might sound a little mundane. Surely God could guide the Church in a more dramatic fashion. Couldn’t we hold face to face discussions with Him like Moses did? Couldn’t He send signs and wonders to confirm what direction we should take? No doubt God could act in such a way, but the fact is He frequently chooses simpler ways to communicate with His people. He gives us a book—common paper, common ink—and yet infuses His own Word into it. He speaks over common water, pours it over our heads, and somehow claims us as His children. He takes bread and wine, mixes it with His words of forgiveness, and uses it to give us His own body and blood. He gives us normal run-of-the-mill pastors to speak God’s very own words of mercy to us on a regular basis.

The above is a selection from my recent column “Why we gather: A lesson from Nicea.” Check it out over at The Canadian Lutheran.

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“The Lamb hath alone died for us, the Lamb only hath shed his blood for us: the Lamb only hath redeemed us; these things hath he done alone; now, if these be sufficient, then hath he alone made satisfaction, and is alone worthy to be our Redeemer and Justifier.” – Only Faith Justifieth Before God (Robert Barnes, English martyr)

On this day, we remember the Rev. Dr. Robert Barnes, martyred for the faith July 30, 1540. Barnes, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Cambridge, preached a Christmas Eve sermon in 1526 which expressed criticism of ecclesiastical abuses. This sermon is often credited as the beginning in earnest of the English Reformation. Not coincidentally, Barnes is also considered one of England’s first Lutherans. He was a member of the group which met at the White Horse Inn.

Barnes was not executed alone. Reflecting the politically-charged nature of the Reformation in England, he was executed along with five others: two of them Evangelicals (ie, Protestants) and three of them conservatives (ie, Roman Catholics). All were executed without the benefit of a trial. Shortly before the execution, the three Protestants (Barnes, William Jerome, and Thomas Garrett) had been invited to preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The three Catholics (Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherston, and Edward Powell) had all supported Queen Catherine when Henry VIII sought to have the marriage annulled. The Protestants were executed for heresy; the Catholics for treason.

While we thank God for the faithful witness of Robert Barnes, we also pray for the day when Christian division would cease, according to the prayer of Jesus. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 20-23).

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Regular readers of this blog will remember me plugging The Christian Humanist Podcast (CHP) from time to time. If you’re at all interested in theology, philosophy, literature, “and other things that human beings do well,” as the tagline goes, then it’s well-worth listening to.

TertullianCHP just took on one of Tertullian‘s works recently, and the resulting episode is very enjoyable. Go listen to it, but before you do be sure to read the piece by Tertullian. It’s called “On Idolatry” and you can find it online here.

I had a few comments after listening which I’m sharing with the show on its website, but thought I’d post them here as well. [In case you're interested, I've previously discussed one of their episodes on Luther's Freedom of a Christian over at First Things in a post entitled"Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes Good Works 'Good'?".] Now, my unpolished thoughts on the Tertullian episode:

Hi all,

Just listened to the Tertullian podcast and thought it great. The episodes where you take on a particular text are always among my favourites.

Michial’s comments about how doing theology in general can become a form of idolatry were thought-provoking. They were balanced nicely by David’s comments about the need (and difficulty) of submitting our theological reflection to the greater authority of revelation. Otherwise we are very much in danger of re-creating God in our own image.

I can’t help but think of Helmut Thielicke’s classic A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Despite the rather patronizing-sounding title (the German original is not so offensive), the book is useful reminder to those who study theology that their “superior” learning does not give them leave to ignore the thoughts (and occasional rebukes) of “simpler” Christians. One important note Thielicke makes is that the theologian must not presume to think he can simply study theology at arm’s length. “We must also take seriously the fact that the ‘subject’ of theology, Jesus Christ, can only be regarded rightly,” he writes, “if we are ready to meet Him on the plane where He is active, that is, within the Christian church. Only the Son knows who the Father is; only the servant knows who the Lord is.” In other words, our examination of the things of faith must be mediated by the revelation of Christ—in His Word (Scripture) and His body (the Church).

This is, incidentally, why Lutherans have a bit of trouble with Calvinist approaches to theology. From our perspective, the Calvinist has too strong an urge to try make logical sense of everything, whereas Lutherans instead warn about the danger of peering into the “hidden things of God.” The prime example is the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. It certainly makes good logical sense of the doctrine of election, but nevertheless distorts (to my mind at least) the clear Scriptural teaching that God desires all to be saved. (I’ve broached this subject at First Things before in an article entitled “Why Lutheran Predestination isn’t Calvinist Predestination.”)

I’d also like to thank Michial for his pastoral reflections on idolatry and our own guiltiness and need for grace. While Tertullian might imply we can somehow avoid sinning, Michial comes in with a much more realistic (and biblical) take: that we are all guilty, both of sin ourselves and culpability in supporting the sin of others. As St. John puts it so well, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That being the case, claiming like Tertullian that we can fully avoid idolatry actually results in falling into another form of idolatry—one in which God declares us righteous on the basis of our sinlessness. Expecting God to say we’re doing just fine? That’s the Pharisee’s god. But it’s the Publican who gets things right, coming in repentance to a God who is just but nevertheless merciful.  Otherwise you have a Christianity that doesn’t need Christ. And if that’s not idolatry, I don’t know what is.

Thanks for a great show, as usual.

Mathew

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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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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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