Saturday, January 6, 2007

McLaren and The Lost Luther

Soon after being excommunicated from my Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) congregation in Milwaukee, I found myself standing in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, gazing on Luther's tomb. I wondered, were he alive today, what he would think of me and my petty struggle with ecclesiastical authority. I wondered more generally what he would think of the modern Lutheran church, with all its obvious flaws. Would he recognize his theology in it? What would he think of the Christian church at large, fractured into the thousands of denominations that grew from the seeds of protest he planted? Finally, what would he think of the new emerging church movement, kingdom theology, church growth, and the host of other modern and postmodern contributions to church history?

What would Luther think? WWLT? Is this a slogan that would sell armbands? Not likely. And perhaps rightfully so. Luther himself said “People try to make me a fixed star. But I’m not. I’m a wandering planet. No one should look to me for guidance.” Modern Christianity, it would seem, agrees. Luther is a rogue planet. And few there are that look to him or his theology for guidance.

Much of what Luther considered important and essential seems to have fallen out of favor. His beliefs are not so much refuted or thought false as they are simply ignored, deemphasized or overshadowed by the seemingly more reasonable, more relevant, and more rewarding theologies of modern Christianity. Luther, in other words, seems to have fallen off the theological map.

Brian McLaren, a leader in the emergent church movement, exemplifies the Rodney Dangerfield-like attention given the heirs of Luther. You need only read the subtitle of his book A Generous Orthodoxy to get the picture:

Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

As cutely inclusive as McLaren wants to be, he apparently found no need to be Lutheran.

What are we to make of this? Is Luther’s theology considered so odd and out-of-date that it does not merit mention in a book with orthodoxy in its title and generosity as its theme? Or did McLaren simply find nothing positive to say about Lutheranism and therefore kept silent. (If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.) Or did he, like so many others, lump Luther with Calvin and treat them as essentially of the same ilk, with Calvin as the more substantive? Or a fourth possibility. Modern Lutheranism might have appeared to him such a hodgepodge of legalism and liberalism that he didn't quite know what to make of it. Finally, perhaps he simply didn’t know anything about Lutheranism. It was not on his radar screen. Lutheranism, in its shy, Garrison Keillor-like self-consciousness - not wanting to draw attention to itself - may have left the building before McLaren arrived.

McLaren’s motives don't really matter. I will forgive him his affront to Luther for now and return to some of his more interesting ideas later, because he is helpful in understanding how Luther’s thought might relate to the postmodern mind. In the meantime, McLaren provides us with a useful illustration of the seeming disappearance of Luther’s essential theology. I can’t fault McLaren for not appreciating Luther's legacy when I myself, a lifelong Lutheran, lost sight of much of it myself. For that matter, maybe I never really saw it.

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