A New Reformation

Today (October 28) we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Almost 500 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther and a host of other dedicated believers fought against incredible odds to return the Church to the essential teaching in Scripture. This work, this reformation, did not come easily. Many endured hardship and/or death in their quest to re-form the Church.

These scholars were true "Renaissance men," with powerful skills in Scripture, rhetoric, theology, languages, history, and philosophy.

How would they be received today?

I would argue, "not too well." Like certain episodes of "Star Trek," their powerful intellectual weapons ("logical phasers?") are useless against the force field of the enemy--the apathy, mass culture, and relativism that envelops our society. They'd have a hard time finding people to argue against, as we're all too busy and preoccupied with the emotions, trinkets, and shiny gadgets, of our age.

In fact, Luther's introduction to the Small Catechism seems to ring pretty true even today:

The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

...and I hate to reproduce the next part, but let's accept the blame where it is due:

O ye bishops! [to whom this charge has been committed by God,] what will ye ever answer to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office? [You are the persons to whom alone this ruin of the Christian religion is due. You have permitted men to err so shamefully; yours is the guilt; for you have ever done anything rather than what your office required you to do.] May all misfortune flee you! [I do not wish at this place to invoke evil on your heads.] You command the Sacrament in one form [but is not this the highest ungodliness coupled with the greatest impudence that you are insisting on the administration of the Sacrament in one form only, and on your traditions] and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care in the least [while you are utterly without scruple and concern] whether the people know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God. Woe, woe, unto you forever!

As we approach the 500th anniversary (2017) of the posting of Luther's 95 thesis, there will be a lot of people writing about a "New Reformation," a chance to renew the church. My belief is that a rehash of the original arguments misses the point, that the real enemy this time isn't the pope or Zwingli, but a destructive mass culture.

What would a Reformation look like in our modern society? What needs to be re-formed?

Let's remember:

1. We need to depend on the God working through the Holy Spirit to create faith. The Holy Spirit accomplishes its work through the Means of Grace--the Word and Sacraments. Not through doctrinally vague worship music, emotions piqued through sound, brochures, lighting, or advertising.

2. There's a movement afoot to address the senses and emotions, but also to neglect the life-giving Word and Sacraments. People have limited contact with the church--say, an hour a week. Every minute spent on generic or erroneous teaching should be considered a "missed opportunity." The emotional high of a great concert or praise service will vanish, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

3. Let's admit that our current culture is fundamentally anti-intellectual. We rely on the senses (through screens and speakers) to convey meaning. Our entertainment is vapid (e.g., athletics, shallow movies and music), and our ability to think critically is being eroded by overscheduling, television, internet, various stressors, sound bites, etc. Oprah Winfrey's crew asking us "how do you feel?" has replaced the rigorous disciplines of education--we, Americans in the 21st century, are now (still!) the "dumb brutes and irrational hogs."

4. Lutherans have, hands down, the strongest Musical tradition in Christianity. The mere mention of J. S. Bach (let alone any of the great number of other worthy composers in our tradition) ought to be enough to blow away the CCM like dry leaves in a windstorm. At one time, Bach was known as the "fifth evangelist," because of his beautiful and tireless work to expound upon Theological truths in his Music. We've erred in rejecting this tradition and allowing McMusic to displace it.

With these points in mind, I urge you to pray for, encourage, and support, your Pastors. Ask them to consider a return to the sound teachings of Scripture and our Faith. Ask them to help us (in Bible study and in sermons) to search the Scriptures, study Luther's Catechism, read the Book of Concord, and rediscover a Theology that's been blunted and marginalized by the bulldozer of mass culture.

As musicians, let us parallel this effort. Let's get out of our "comfort zone," and rediscover the doctrinally sound truths (and the sublime way in which they were delivered) our musical forefathers worked so hard to convey. Let's admit to the vacuuous nature of our four-chord tunes, and rediscover the unrivaled value of our Lutheran Musical tradition. See if your pastoral staff will allow you to spend a Sunday or two (or more), educating our congregants on the value of our musical heritage. Start blogging. Start performing free concerts.

I close with an excerpt from Luther's introduction to the Catechism:

Christ Himself will be our reward if we labor faithfully. To this end may the Father of all grace help us, to whom be praise and thanks forever through Christ, our Lord! Amen.
Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
Sola fide ("by faith alone")
Sola gratia ("by grace alone")
Solus Christus("through Christ alone")
Soli Deo gloria ("Glory to God alone")