Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

Fundamental Breivik truths

As journalists began digging into the who, what, when, where, why and how of Anders Behring Breivik, the deputy police chief of Oslo faced a media scrum and served up the day's hottest sound bite. "What we know is that he is right wing and he is a Christian fundamentalist," he said, the morning after the hellish attack on Norway's Labor Party and on the children that were its future.

That was the English version of the quote that jumped into American news reports and wire service stories around the globe.

Breivik was officially a "Christian fundamentalist." He was also a "Christian extremist" in a New York Times headline, a "religious conservative" on an ABC newscast and a "Christian terrorist" in an Associated Press report.

However, the pivotal "fundamentalist" phrase sounded a bit different in the context of the televised Norwegian press conference that ignited this media storm, said the Rev. Arne H. Fjeldstad, a minister in the Church of Norway and a former senior editor at the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. He is also one of my colleagues in the project to study the mainstream media's coverage of religion news.

Translating from the Norwegian, Fjeldstad said the police claimed that Breivik was part of a "Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway." The key was his violent opposition to the political policies known as "multiculturalism."

"I am not sure this police official knew what he was saying when he used the word 'fundamentalist,' " said Fjeldstad. "I think he was trying to say that this was a crazy, lunatic, radical guy on the political fringe and he is calling himself a Christian."

It's crucial to know, he added, that "fundamentalist" has literally been pulled into the Norwegian language from English -- even if there is very little history of Protestant fundamentalism in Norway.

During debates inside the Church of Norway, said Fjeldstad, the term is primarily used by liberals to describe conservatives who stress the Bible's authority as the "inspired word of God" and who defend traditional Christian doctrines on moral issues. While there are Christian groups in America who identify themselves as "fundamentalists," this is not the case in Norway.

As media around the world quickly reported, Breivik did identify himself as a Christian -- period -- on his Facebook page. He also added other details about his religious and cultural beliefs in his 1,500-page online manifesto, "2083 -- A European Declaration of Independence."

At the age of 15, Breivik apparently chose to be baptized and confirmed into the state church. However, the writings left behind by the 32-year-old radical also stress that he does not hold traditional Christian beliefs or practice the faith. Instead, he carefully identifies himself as a "Christian agnostic" or a "Christian atheist (cultural Christian)." In his manifesto, Breivik emphasizes his identity as a Free Mason, his interest in Odinist Norse traditions and his role as a "Justiciar Knight" in a new crusade against Islam.

"If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian," he wrote, in a passage that found its way into a few media reports. "Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian."

Breivik explicitly separates himself from conservative forms of Christianity, at one point noting: "It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a 'Christian fundamentalist theocracy' (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).

"So, no, you don't need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist."

In other words, noted Fjeldstad, for Breivik the "Christian" label is cultural or political -- but not a statement of personal faith in his case.

"If you are going to use the word 'fundamentalist' it must be used to describe someone who is a very conservative Christian when he is talking about the Bible and the practice of the faith," he said. Thus, a fundamentalist Christian "would always place a heavy emphasis on having a personal faith in Jesus Christ. ...

"So whatever Anders Breivik is, the last thing you can call him is a 'fundamentalist' Christian."

Quiet Lutheran worship wars

If members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have heard it once, they've heard their national leaders repeat this mantra a thousand times: "This is not your grandfather's church." That's certainly what musician Phillip Magness experienced when he took a sabbatical at Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and began a research tour after the 2006 release of the Lutheran Service Book. Since he led the committee charged with promoting the new hymnal, Magness wanted to see what was happening in the conservative denomination's sanctuaries.

"What I found out is that we're a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates," he said. "It says Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on the sign, but when you go inside you have no idea what you're going to get. ... Some of our churches are playing with the structure of the liturgy and some are playing with the content and our whole synod is trying to find out how to draw some boundaries."

One pastor wanted to offer five worship services in five musical formats to meet the needs of what he perceived as five separate audiences in his church.

The "TLH" service was for members still attached to the 1941 volume called "The Lutheran Hymnal." Then there was the "Valpo" audience, which yearned for the "smells and bells" approach to high-church worship popular at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Then there were fans of the pop "CCM" music found in the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry. The "Gen X" crowd wanted its own post-baby boomer music.

The fifth service? It would feature country music.

These struggles are particularly poignant for Missouri Synod Lutherans, who are part of a 2.3 million-member denomination that occupies a tense niche between the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the evangelical megachurch marketplace.

It's crucial, said Magness, to understand that the churches linked to Martin Luther are part of the Protestant Reformation, but it's hard to pin a simple "Protestant" label on their approach to piety. Missouri Synod Lutherans, for example, have much in common with evangelicals, especially in terms of biblical authority and conservative morality. However, some parish leaders are not sure they want to make radical changes to modernize their worship services.

Magness, for example, is one of about 30 Missouri Synod musicians known as "cantors," an honorary title once held by Johann Sebastian Bach and many others in Lutheran history. Magness has created "Liturgy Solutions," a company that helps churches of all sizes maintain Lutheran traditions, while mixing old and new music.

"We know that culture is not static," he said. "We want to find the way to proclaim the church's message in ways that remain reverent and appropriate, yet sound fresh today. Otherwise, we'd be singing chants in Latin every Sunday."

The problem is that many pastors resort to forming separate congregations that worship under the same roof -- variations on a "traditional" vs. "contemporary" split. What is "traditional" worship? That's whatever older church leaders were doing before new leaders decided to change what Magness called the "soundtrack" for worship.

Sadly, these worship wars often drive off some faithful members, losses that negate whatever growth followed the changes that were adopted to attract newcomers.

Magness believes that church leaders should attempt to work with all their members to create services that are faithful to the past, but not stuck in the past. A common warning sign that trouble is ahead, he added, is when pastors begin altering the words of crucial prayers and liturgical texts -- even the ancient creeds.

The bottom line, he said, is that dividing a church into separate, even competing, worship services rarely produces growth. At least, that isn't what is happening in the Lutheran congregations he has studied.

"Maybe the saints prefer a place where the real practice of the church -- preaching the Gospel in its truth and purity and administering the sacraments rightly and reverently -- are much, much more important than whether Jack's son gets to play his trap set in church or whether the patriarchal families get to pick all the hymns because they don't want to sing any new songs," said Magness, at a national worship conference.

"I do know this: the congregation that works out these issues the old-fashioned way provides a better confession of 'one Lord, one faith and one baptism' than the congregation that doesn't share the Lord's Supper together."

Twin rocking chairs for ELCA gays

There was no way for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to affirm the ministries of clergy living in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" without attracting attention. After all, debates about the Bible and sexuality had rocked America's largest Lutheran flock since it was born in 1988 through the merger of three older Lutheran denominations. Similar fights have caused bitter divisions among Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and other oldline Protestants.

While the decision in the recent ELCA national assembly was a triumph for proponents of same-sex marriage, this media storm also focused attention on a question that often causes debates among liberal theologians and ethicists: What does the word "monogamous" mean?

The detailed social statement approved by the denomination does not specifically define the term, but states that clergy in same-sex unions should be held to the same standards as those in heterosexual marriages.

"This church teaches that degrees of physical intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment. This also suggests a way to understand why this church teaches that the greatest sexual intimacies, such as coitus, should be matched with and sheltered both by the highest level of binding commitment and by social and legal protection, such as found in marriage," argues the document, which is entitled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust."

Thus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church continues to oppose "non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. ... Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy."

It's hard to define "monogamy" without discussing what it means for one person in a relationship to be sexually "faithful" to another, said the Rev. Kaari Reierson of the national ELCA staff. She was part of the task force that produced the "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" document.

"When we talk about a 'monogamous' relationship," she explained, "we mean that someone is supposed to be having physical, sexual contact with only one person."

For some activists, however, "monogamy" is a fighting word.

As the national debates about same-sex marriage began to gain momentum a decade ago, the influential gay newspaper The Advocate stated this issue in a blunt headline: "Monogamy: Is it for us?"

This is not a new issue. As a gay United Methodist pastor explained to me in the early years of the AIDS crisis, few gay Christians embrace a "twin rocking chairs forever" definition of monogamy. Instead, they believe that it's possible to be "faithful" to one's life partner, while having sexual experiences with others.

The Episcopal Church's first openly gay male priest went much further, questioning the relevancy of monogamy altogether during an address about what he called "sex-positive" theology soon after his ordination in 1989.

"My position on sexual exclusivity ... is that it is NOT in fact a requirement for a valid Christian marriage," stated Father Robert Williams, whose controversial views led to his departure from the Episcopal Church. He died of complications of AIDS in 1992.

A strict form of monogamous sexual fidelity, he noted, is "an option some couples choose. Others do not, and yet have lifelong, grace-filled, covenant relationships."

The gay journalist Andrew Sullivan -- a liberal Catholic -- was equally blunt in his 1995 book "Virtually Normal," arguing that, "There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. .... The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness."

And in the ELCA? Several church representatives stressed that their leaders are still preparing the revised guidelines for clergy conduct, which may not be made public until the end of the year. However, Reierson said she believes they will strive to apply terms such as "monogamous" and "faithful" to the covenant relationships of both gays and straights.

Meanwhile, the current policy that "single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life" will remain in the guidelines, she said. This means no sex before marriage for all single clergy.

"I think what we have said is pretty clear," she said. "I don't see room in there for physical, sexual relations with another person outside of the covenant of a lifelong, committed relationship."

Lutherans in non-Roman Lent

Eric Phillips really likes soup at lunch.

One of his favorites is baked-potato soup, a filling option that, at first glance, appears to be meat-free. That's important because Phillips isn't eating meat during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter. Alas, baked-potato soup almost always contains chicken fat, as do many vegetable or pasta soups.

"I gave up meat for Lent last year, which was a pain in the neck," said Phillips, who has a Catholic University of America doctorate in Patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers' writings.

"I decided that I didn't want to go through all of that this year, but then I realized this was actually a pretty good reason to try to do it again. ... The whole reason we fast is to do something that gets our attention, something that reminds us that we're sinners in need of redemption."

While all this Lent talk may sound Catholic, Phillips is a convert into the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church. He grew up "low church" evangelical and is still adapting to a denomination that includes both modern multimedia megachurches and congregations that embrace old hymns, "high church" liturgy and some ancient traditions.

Phillips attends Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., a small church near Washington, D.C., that includes many who are striving to embrace fasting, almsgiving, Vespers services and other Lenten disciplines. Some are avoiding meat, while others are surrendering one cherished pleasure -- such as desserts, soft drinks, pizza or candy. Phillips said a friend is "trying to give up sarcasm for Lent."

But Lutherans are Lutherans and these believers are not following a specific set of Lenten rules. They are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who, to one degree or another, follow ancient traditions that ask them to fast from meat or even from meat and all dairy products.

For traditional Lutherans the words of Augsburg Confession, article XXVI, are clear: "In former times men taught, preached, and wrote that distinctions among foods and similar traditions which had been instituted by men serve to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin. For this reason new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders, and the like were invented daily, and were ardently and urgently promoted, as if these were a necessary service of God by means of which grace would be earned if they were observed and a great sin committed if they were omitted."

The writings of Martin Luther make it clear that he was rebelling against practices common in the medieval Catholic churches and monasteries of his day, said Immanuel Pastor C.S. Esget.

Thus, it's easy to conclude that Luther rejected fasting and similar disciplines altogether, when what he rejected were mandatory rules. Instead, the Protestant reformer embraced voluntary fasting and almsgiving and argued that these disciplines were like weight lifting and running -- part of a spiritual exercise regime.

"The key is that anything that smacks of legalism will raise all kinds of red flags for Lutherans," stressed Esget, who has promoted Lenten disciplines in his own kitchen as well as his pulpit. "We want to be able to say that fasting, for example, is a good thing. But the minute it becomes a requirement, then there's going to be trouble."

For centuries, Lutherans in Europe chose to follow many fasting traditions found in Catholicism and other Western churches, such as the Church of England. But this gradually evolved into a minimalist tradition that Esget said he has never been able to find in Luther or any other church traditions -- the popular modern practice of giving up "one thing" during Lent.

"What has happened over the centuries is that many Lutherans -- especially after the move to America -- have tried to blend in with all of the Protestants that surround us in this culture," he said. "So most of our traditions have faded over time into a kind of vague idea that it's Lent, but we're not really sure what that is supposed to mean."

The pastor paused, struggling to define the safe middle ground between laziness and legalism, between apathy and dead ritualism.

"I wouldn't want to see my people doing all of these things during Lent just because I laid down the law," said Esget. "Yet, I have to admit that really wish they would do them. Does that make sense?"