PLTS Faculty on Lutheran Identity
Norwegian immigrants and border Hispanics: how might novels about these two groups teach us something about being a Lutheran in the 21st century?
Ole Rølvaag’s classic, Giants in the Earth, tells the story of a Norwegian immigrant family who settled on the South Dakota prairie during the last quarter of the 19th century. Rølvaag’s work portrays the courage, strength, vision, and the painful psychology of the immigrant in “America.” Themes of selfhood, quest, and pilgrimage run both through this novel and through our history as Lutherans in this country.
These same themes run, even rush, through Arturo Islas’ Migrant Souls. Migrant Souls is the second installment of a trilogy about the lives, internal conflicts, and deaths that take place over three generations of the Angel family. This family is “bi-national,” some born on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. This border constitutes and creates the contradictions of their everyday lives. As one family member claims, “We are on the border between a land that has forgotten us and another land that doesn’t understand us.”
Over the years, many of my students have wondered how a novel about border Hispanics living between two cultures fits in a course on American Lutheran history. Reading Giants in the Earth sort of makes sense—a least these folk were Lutherans. But by pairing and juxtaposing these novels, powerful questions are raised, which are the questions of those who are Christian, Lutheran, and “American” in the early 21st century: Where have we come from? What are our roots? Does this matter? How has the church changed? What should we do? What can we do?
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In addition to being the Assistant Professor of Practical Theology: Youth and Family Ministries, I have the privilege of directing Life Together, PLTS’s program of theological education for high school youth. Each summer, Lutheran high school youth from the San Francisco Bay Area participate in a 10 day retreat on our campus to engage in theological study, worship, and service projects. Three years ago, participants at the summer retreat decided that they wanted to meet some Lutheran high school youth from another country. At that retreat, we laid the plans for forming a partnership of study and service with Lutheran high school youth from Venda, South Africa.
This partnership has taken on real shape and depth. In the summer of 2002, six South African high school youth from Venda and their pastor (a PLTS alum) came to Berkeley as participants in the Life Together summer retreat. During that retreat, youth from both continents learned a lot from one another about what it means to be a Lutheran young person in America and in Venda. Participants taught one another about life in families, life at school, life in the church, and political and economic life in their respective countries.
We studied the parables of Jesus and the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer together. We cleaned up the San Francisco Bay together and built our own labyrinth on the PLTS campus. We visited a Great America theme park and worshiped each evening using the South African Moravian devotional book. In Summer 2004, eight American high school youth and two adult sponsors will visit Venda to deepen the connections between these two groups of young people.
Among other things, what our participants have discovered through this ongoing partnership experience is the deep pluralism as well as the deep connection that can exist between Lutherans in the Western United States and Lutherans in Venda. We have had our own experience of religious pluralism, even though we are all Lutherans! We have learned that central Lutheran theological themes like “justification by grace through faith” and “the priesthood of all believers”; as well as Lutheran patterns of worship and practices of discipleship are understood and embodied very differently in our two parts of the world. And, to our delight, we have learned to think of this pluralism in understanding and practice as a blessing from God, not a problem to be fixed. We have learned together that one way of being Lutheran is not “right”, while another way of being Lutheran is “wrong.” We have each come to understand our own deep connections to the heart of Lutheranism, centered on the grace and love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. And, we have enjoyed finding out about the wonderful elasticity and diversity of theological perspectives and practices already present in Lutheranism’s global context.
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What the Lutheran tradition has to offer the wider world that is so precious is its fundamental theological insight, namely, that God is gracious. In a pluralistic world where many do not believe in God at all, the message that there is a God and that this God is gracious in character should come as welcome news. In a pluralistic world where rival religious claims depict the divine as requiring obedience or spiritual discipline or conformity, the message that God takes initiative out of love for us should come as welcome news. No one is more centered and focused on this dimension of the divine reality than the Lutheran tradition within Christianity. Even though our ethnic histories are important, Lutheran identity in the future should be tied to this one message: God is gracious.
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The gift of God’s sheer love in Jesus Christ is central to our Lutheran identity. And yet we often fail to understand how Lutherans theologically understand God’s gift-giving to work.
It is not unusual, as part of a sermon in one of my preaching classes, for the preacher to say something like, “And God’s gift of love and forgiveness is right there for you. All you have to do is accept and believe it.” In the class discussion following such a sermon, I sometimes find it helpful to demonstrate a Lutheran theological understanding of gift-giving through the use of an illustration:
I place a “gift” (a wrapped box with a bow on it) in the preacher’s hands. I then say, “You have a gift in your hands. Right? ”
The preacher says, “Yes.”
I ask, “What can you do to get the gift?”
The preacher often says, “I’ve already got it.”
I say, “Yes, so what can you do to get it?”
Typical responses include: “Accept it.” “Receive it.” or “Take it.”
I say, “But you already have it. What can you do to get it?”
Eventually (sometimes after quite a while), the person realizes the correct answer is “Nothing.”
I then say, “Can you reject the gift?”
The person agrees that this is possible. I have them demonstrate it by setting the gift down.
This is a simple yet profound demonstration of a Lutheran understanding of how the gospel works. We have free will. We can reject the gift God gives us, but we can do nothing to “accept” it, as student preachers sometimes put it.
Through the hearing of the Word and through the sacraments, God places the gift of the gospel in our hands. The task of preaching the gospel is to announce what God has done and is doing—the focus is not on what we need to do. The language used in preaching is crucial here. Sentences that speak of what “you” or “we” need to do fail to acknowledge that God and God alone is the initiator in establishing a relationship with us. Proclaiming the gospel demands using sentences with God as the subject followed by active verbs: “God said…,” “God made…,” “God so loved….” That’s Lutheran preaching! That’s Lutheran identity!
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As a seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, PLTS is committed to sustaining and enlivening Lutheran identity both for the future leaders who study here and for the wider church. We understand Lutheranism to be an ongoing movement for the Gospel within a church that is always in the process of reform (semper reformanda), i.e., allowing itself to be conformed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A student at PLTS finds herself reading Luther across the curriculum: in courses on ethics, liturgy, and biblical studies, as well as in courses on history and confessions. We hope that a critical appreciation of Luther’s key theological and pastoral insights will continue to be in lively conversation with today’s church.
The invitation to be in conversation with this colorful Reformer involves historical study. Classes are devoted to immersing students in the history of the Reformation. Students explore the origins of the Lutheran movement as well as the other faith communities whose challenges sharpened Lutheran self-understanding. We read through the whole of The Book of Concord, the collection of confessional documents that became the charter statements of Lutheran teaching and practice. Concentrating on historical context, we help students appreciate why particular issues became central to Lutheran identity and why the movement developed a distinctive Lutheran vocabulary: sola fide (by faith alone), justification and sanctification, law and Gospel, real presence. Other courses track the development of the Lutheran confessional tradition through the intervening centuries, across Europe, the Americas, and around the globe.
But Lutheran identity is not a matter of historical knowledge alone. PLTS is always in the middle of an ongoing discussion of what being Lutheran can mean today. Informed by the experience and witness of our forebears, we are called to make our own confession in the here and now. There has never been just one way of being Lutheran. Tending to Lutheran identity involves exploring the many and various growing edges of the faith community today. It requires us to take seriously the reality of Lutheranism as a worldwide movement. There are many more voices that need to be included in the conversation. We must have ears to hear the witness of people both in this country and internationally who represent other faces of the Lutheran tradition.
Lutheran identity is about discovering over and over again God’s love and power to create faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to empower discipleship. It invites us to hone our skills in proclaiming this love and power in the communities in which we live. If we can’t communicate who we are, if we can’t effectively invite others to taste and see that the Lord is good, then we have an identity crisis!
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