Your Grandfather, the LC-MS and a Teenaged Girl
by Todd Wilken
We Lutherans have believed what Garrison Keillor has been saying about us.
Garrison Keillor is the creator and host of the long-running radio program A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor, a one-time Lutheran himself, writes:
“We make fun of Lutherans for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese…. Lutherans believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud. Lutherans like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas. Lutherans usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their way of suffering for their sins. Lutherans feel that applauding for their children's choirs would make the kids too proud and conceited. Lutherans think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace. And finally, you know when you're a Lutheran when: You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can!”
(Garrison Keillor, “Singing with Lutherans.”)
Does it surprise you that Ben Witherington recently posted the very same piece on his blog, attributed to Keillor, but with the word “Methodist” substituted for “Lutheran”? You can also find versions of it on the Internet with the word “Episcopalian” substituted for “Lutheran.” It seems that self-effacing Lutheran humor works equally well regardless of your denomination.
Keillor even wrote and performed a song called “I’m a Lutheran”:
We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They're not invited back again.
If you come to church, don't expect to be hugged,
Don't expect your hand to be shook.
If we need to know who you are,
We can look in the visitors book.
I was raised to keep a lid on it,
Guard what you say or do.
A Mighty Fortress is our God
So he must be Lutheran too.
(Garrison Keillor, “I’m a Lutheran,” A Prairie Home Companion, Saturday, October 2, 1999.)
As a Lutheran, I DO believe that God is one too. I wouldn’t be a Lutheran if I weren’t convinced that God is a Lutheran.
Finally, Robert Fulford wrote in Canada’s National Post that for Garrison Keillor, Lutherans “are the people for whom the word ‘repressed’ was invented. Their life goals are modest. A sign outside a Lutheran church announces the topic of that week's sermon: ‘It could be worse.’" (Robert Fulford, “Can Garrison Keillor Make Lutherans Funny?” The National Post, February 5, 2002.)
The problem isn’t that Keillor has been saying these things about us. I happen to think that Keillor is a hoot. The problem isn’t that Keillor has been saying these things about us; the problem is that we have believed them.
We have accepted this humorous caricature as the truth about ourselves. Some of us have even taken the caricature of Lutherans as boring and repressed to be the essence of Lutheranism. These people have spent a lot of time trying to convince the rest of the world that we Lutherans aren’t what the jokes say we are. “We’re not boring and repressed! We’re fun! We’re hip!”
To convince others that they aren’t what the jokes say, some Lutherans have decided to act like Evangelicals. Not the high-minded serious evangelicals like Mark Noll or Os Guinness, but evangelicals of the most base sort. I call them pop-American evangelicals.
In some cases the Lutheran impulse to imitate evangelicals is well intended. After all, can’t we learn something from the Evangelicals about evangelism?
As I said, this impulse is well intended, but misguided. You see, today, Evangelicals (the real cutting edge kind) just aren’t that interested in evangelism anymore.
Now, they have been growing a lot of big churches, but growing a big church isn’t the same thing as doing evangelism, is it? If we define “doing evangelism” as preaching the Gospel, the latest trends in evangelical outreach call for doing as little evangelism as possible.
Listen to Brian McLaren of the Emergent (or Emerging) Church movement (I can never tell those two apart). McLaren is author of several books, including A Generous Orthodoxy, and is currently touring the country doing seminars (endorsed by Bill Hybels) under the theme “Everything Must Change.” McLaren has said:
“I’m raising the question of whether the salvation of individual souls to go to heaven after they die is the point of the Gospel… I don’t think the Bible thinks that way.”
“I actually have become convinced that the primary purpose of Jesus coming was not primarily about getting people into heaven versus hell. I think He was actually coming to proclaim the kingdom of God, which is God’s will being done on earth.”
(Brian McLaren, from a radio interview with Shane Rosenthal for The White Horse Inn and from The Associated Press Radio)
According to McLaren, everything must change, including the Gospel itself. You see, cutting edge evangelicals just aren’t that interested in evangelism anymore. Evangelism might have been the order of the day during Billy Graham era evangelicalism, but Billy’s out; Brian McLaren is in.
So the LC-MS’s desire to ape Evangelicalism’s enthusiasm for evangelism is really out of date and anachronistic.
In 1988 Oldsmobile introduced a new advertising campaign with the tag line, “This is not your father's Oldsmobile.” Oldsmobile’s goal was to appeal to a new generation by distancing itself from everything the company had stood for before. Rob Walker of Slate magazine observes:
“The problems with this, of course, were: a) It said what Olds wasn't, but not what it was, and b) it more or less informed a generation of Olds loyalists that their choice was now considered an embarrassment.”
(Rob Walker, “Oldsmobile: Victim of Its Own Brand” Slate Magazine, December 13 2000.)
The ad campaign didn’t only fail; it backfired. Walker writes: “This had the net effect not of reinventing the Olds brand identity but of carving it in stone.”
Nevertheless, the LC-MS couldn’t resist. Never ones to shy away from a failed idea, they borrowed the phrase and added a generation. I think it was a Great Commission Convocation in the early 90s that carried the theme, “This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Church.”
“This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Church.” Like Oldsmobile, this is an obvious attempt to distance the Church of today from the Church of the past. I think it’s just funny. Funnier still is the fact that many of those saying, “This isn’t your grandfather’s church” were (and are) grandparents.
Do we really want to tell a generation of Christians that they and their Church are an embarrassment to us today?
“This isn’t your grandfather’s church.” Does the LC-MS really want to send this message in an age of the perpetual adolescent? Diana West has just written a book, “The Death of the Grown-Up.” In it she shows how our society’s obsession with youth and hip-ness, has resulted in our arrested development. Just watch any sit-com. I know that the writers are full-grown adults. But the scripts could just as well have been written by a group of 14 –year old boys. West also shows how our society’s obsession with youth and hip-ness has rendered us unable to grapple with adult problems and challenges. Does the LC-MS want to follow society in that direction?
Several years ago, I had a shocking realization about the LC-MS. I realized that there were no grown-ups in charge.
Do you remember when you were a kid? When the kids were left on their own and things started getting out of hand, it was always comforting to know that sooner or later, an adult —a grown-up— would walk in, notice what was going on, put their foot down and straighten everything out. Several years ago I realized that in the LC-MS, there were no grow-ups in the next room, no adults to put their foot down. We are it, unless some of us grow up.
I look at my Dad. He’s 72. He’s a Grandfather too. But when he was growing up in the mid-1950s, he was cool. He had the dungarees, the T-shirt, and the hot rod (that’s how he snagged my mother). He was Jack Kerouac, James Dean and Fonzie all rolled into one. Alas! All that is past. For now he is a Grandfather.
I ask, what’s wrong with Grandfather? And what’s wrong with Grandfather’s Church? Nothing.
Granted, Grandfather is old. He has those thick glasses. He wears his pants too high. His dentures are loose and he smells like Old Spice. Yes, Grandfather was full of wisdom that only comes with years, but poor old Grandpa, he just wasn’t hip.
From Grandfathers to teenaged girls…
Is the LC-MS like a teenaged girl who wants so badly to be one of the popular kids? She tries so hard to be what they tell her she should be, that she forgets who she is.
I marvel at C.F.W. Walther’s ability, in his time, to anticipate the troubles of our time. In 1879, at the first meeting of the Iowa District, Walther spoke out against his own synod. He said,
“This is something the Missouri Synod needs to remember! It should prefer to go out of business rather than to let the Church suffer harm by its continued existence. Those who want to see the synod continue under all circumstances, regardless of whether that would harm the kingdom of Christ, are not to being led by the Spirit of Christ, but by the spirit of selfishness.”
(C.F.W. Walther, “The Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” The First Meeting of the Iowa District, August 20, 1879, in Essays for the Church, vol. 2, p. 62.)
The word that Walther used for “go out of business” is untergehen. It means to go down, sink, perish, founder or be destroyed. Dr. Noland told me that this word was commonly used to describe the burial of a dead body. Walther anticipates a circumstance when a denomination —his denomination— might need to go out of business. If our beloved synod’s continued existence undermines the Gospel, if push comes to shove between the LC-MS and the Gospel, then the Gospel must win and the LC-MS must go out of business. Do you think that this idea would win any support with the synodocrats of our denomination? Could a man with these kinds of ideas (not to mention his wild hair and toothless grin) be elected synodical president today? Not a chance.
The open secret is that the LC-MS is going out of business, but for the wrong reason. Synod Incorporated is in financial crisis —serious financial crisis. If the LC-MS goes out of business because we run out of money, that will be a tragedy. However, if the LC-MS goes out of business because we are hindering the Gospel, I will stand and cheer. And I think I will have Walther joining me.
We pray that we will never have to choose between the LC-MS and Gospel. May God forbid it! But as Walther said, if we do have to choose, we must choose the Gospel.
Think again about that teenaged girl staring longingly at the kids sitting at the popular kids table. She sees them. They’re hip, they’re attractive, and everyone wants into their circle. Our teenaged girl is trying so hard to be what they tell her she should be, that she has forgotten who she is.
Such girls seldom end well. They often end up desperate, sad, even promiscuous —with no idea of who they are or who they are supposed to be.
She needs to spend more time with her parents, don’t you think? That way she can learn who she is and where she comes from.
If the LC-MS is that teenaged girl, staring longingly at the evangelicals, then what? We see them. They’re hip, they’re attractive, and everyone wants into their circle. Are we going to let them tell us who we are supposed to be and forget who we are?
Such churches seldom end well. They end up desperate, sad, even promiscuous —with no idea of who they are or who they are supposed to be.
If the LC-MS is that teenaged girl, she needs to spend more time with her parents —maybe even with her Grandfather— don’t you think? That way she will learn again who she is and where she comes from.