July 28, 2013

Liturgical Art Cruncher

At the suggestion of one of my friends from college, I decided to make a "cruncher" for liturgical art. My friend and her husband had showed me the Praise Song Cruncher some time back, and she thought it would be a great idea to do a similar one for the visual arts. I agreed, and made it my project for the day.

You can read or download the document here: Liturgical Art Cruncher.

This worksheet is designed to aid Christian laymen in critiquing art that is made for worship. A critique should generally not be conducted in a mechanical, input/output fashion, but this might serve as an objective starting point for dialogue concerning a work of ecclesiastical art.

Because works of visual art communicate in a less objective way than language, critique will always be somewhat subjective. The results of the cruncher may not be as straight-forward as you expect. The key is intended to help you weigh and interpret the results.

July 25, 2013

Grace Logo and Explanation

Grace is most commonly defined as “undeserved love.” Mankind is corrupt through and through, because of the sin we inherited from Adam, and because of our willful acts of disobedience every day. But God showed his undeserved love toward us in Christ, when he punished him on the cross in our stead, and raised him to life on the third day. At the center of the logo, you will think you see a cross. In fact, it is the absence of a cross, reminding us that Jesus died for us and now lives for us. God’s grace was further shown when, despite our lost condition, he created faith in our hearts to believe in Jesus Christ.
The Christian Church professes that God imparts this faith to us without human works. It is truly undeserved and unearned. The Bible teaches that grace comes to us through various tools, known as the “means of grace.” The three means of grace are the Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. These are the only places where God promises to be present with his Holy Spirit to create faith in our hearts. The logo takes the shape of a chalice, which represents the Lord’s Supper. The cross divides the chalice into four quadrants: the upper two form a book, which represents the Word of God (that is, the Bible). The red portion of the chalice represents the wine received in the Lord’s Supper, and the blue portion represents the water received at the font in Holy Baptism. The means of grace all center on Christ and his redemptive work on the cross.
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church holds Jesus to be the only means of salvation. We hold the Bible to be the true and inerrant Word of God, and the only way we can know about Jesus’ saving work. We hold the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be effecatious for the forgiveness of sins, and for both creating and strengthening faith. Through these means of grace, he makes us heirs of eternal life in heaven. This is what we believe, teach, and confess.

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS) Seward, NE

July 21, 2013

Lessons from a 1-year-old

As we were getting ready to leave for church this morning, I was holding my 20-month-old son in my arms, and took a moment to point out the crucifix that is hanging near our door. "See, Gabriel?" I said. "That's Jesus. We're going to worship Jesus." Gabriel knows quite a few words, including "cross" and "Jesus." But today, he pointed to Jesus' navel and said, "Button!" I laughed and responded, "Yes, that's Jesus' belly button. Good job."

Sometimes we need the eyes of a child to see things that are so mundane that they are invisible to us. Reflecting on my son's observation, I marveled at the fact that God's Son had a belly button. Think of it! He was not just made into the likeness of a man. The eternal "I AM" became flesh, was tethered to a human mother by an umbilical cord, and then squeezed through a birth canal, just like you and me. I was thankful that God gave me this little teaching moment, and that it came from my infant son.

I've said it before, but this little anecdote makes it fresh again: we need images of Jesus in our churches. I think it is especially tragic that the crucifix has fallen out of use in so many Lutheran churches. The crucifix is not just a symbol, and it is certainly not for decoration. It is a tool for teaching, for both children and adults. I am becoming convinced that nurturing an abstract aesthetic in our churches (typically broken only by a few banners and an empty cross) is contributing to an abstract—and ultimately unbiblical—notion of God in young minds. There are many attractive alternative ideas of god in our pluralistic, postmodern society. Many believe that god is a transcendent, benevolent being. He/she/it is everywhere, loves unconditionally, and is the source of all good. While this is partially true, what makes the God of the Bible different from the abstract Sunday school god is that he became part of his creation. He stepped into human history, making himself incarnate, and allowed himself to be killed on an implement of cruel torture. He suffered the torments of hell in my stead, for my sin, because he could not bear to see me perish.

This is our God. This is the gospel. Are we ashamed to preach it?

And just as importantly... are we ashamed to show it?

July 10, 2013

The Importance of Being Vested

Photo: Travis Dove for The Boston Globe
This past Sunday, after a visit to the local Episcopal church, I made an observation. The pastor there was a woman, and true to Episcopal form, she was garbed in a black pant-suit and clerical collar. (The fact that there was a female pastor says volumes about their views on gender and Scripture, but since the case from 1 Timothy 2 is clear-cut, I do not wish to spend time on that here.) The thought that occurred to me—and maybe I am not the first to notice this—is that I have never seen a female priest, pastor, chaplain, or bishop that wasn't dressed in full liturgical vesture during the divine service. It doesn't seem to make a difference how liberal the theology or how far removed the worship practices are from tradition; you will still see women clad in albs, stoles, chasubles, and miters. To test whether my observation was too limited to make any broad statements about female clergy in general, I entered some half-dozen Google image searches for "female priest," "female bishop," "woman pastor," etc. I scanned perhaps thousands of images, and noticed only a very few that didn't follow this formula. While this isn't a substitute for empirical data, it at least lends more than anecdotal evidence to my observation.

So, speaking as a human being, I can't help but notice patterns. And I also can't help but ask why this particular pattern exists. In church bodies that place little value on tradition, and even less on Scripture, why is it that so many still adhere to the tradition of liturgical vesture? I think there is an easy answer to this. For starters, liturgical vesture is not just an empty tradition. It is one that has assumed a great deal of symbolism over the roughly 1,800 years that it has been in use. The various parts as a whole symbolize the special calling, responsibility, and authority that God has given to ordained preachers of the Word. It means, "I am acting by God's command and on his behalf." Even many liberal denominations recognize this, and female (so-called) clergy have donned liturgical vesture to give them the semblance of legitimacy and authority, when God has not granted it.

Pastor Ski at St. Peter, Freedom WI
My second question is that if pretend pastors can see the value in liturgical vesture, why are legitimate pastors having such a hard time seeing it? Something is not counterfeited unless it has practical value. While it seems that female clergy are almost universally vested, it is becoming more and more common in confessional Lutheran circles for male pastors to go unvested. And I'm not just talking about the black Geneva gown made popular by the Reformed tradition. I'm talking about people like this clown (left). Pastors Ski and Glende, who co-founded The CORE in Appleton, Wisconsin, explain that they "work to be students of the culture." The church's motto is "Real, relevant, and relational," which apparently means dressing like Larry the Cable Guy to deliver God's Word. Why would a pastor dress like this? I looked for answers in the visitor section of the church's website. In the section about what to wear to church, they seem to equate wearing nice clothes with pretending to be perfect.

As a matter of theological interest, you are perfect, in one sense, because of what Christ has done. And this is why pastors and priests have traditionally worn a white alb. Understood correctly, dressing up for church should not be equated with snobbery or self-righteousness. I gather that many Christians see it as an act of love for the God who has clothed them in his own righteous robe. And even though the goal of this post is not to discuss what laymen should wear to church, it seems that the pastors at The CORE and other pseudo-Lutheran churches see liturgical vesture as an extension of "dressing up." They unabashedly equate traditions with legalism and snobbery.1 And since they consider anything regarding worship an external matter and therefore an adiaphoron, they give themselves license to discard whatever they dislike.

Now, for the time being, I will grant that it is an adiaphoron, although many Christians have a gross misconception about what exactly that means. But even though God did not command his New Testament messengers to wear liturgical vesture, there are still at least three very good reasons to do so:

  1. It makes a lot of sense. Judges wear uniforms. Soldiers wear uniforms. Policemen wear uniforms.  Even though policemen regularly interact with ordinary citizens, they don't dress like regular blokes unless they are undercover. (I've never heard of an undercover pastor.) Every special office has its own uniform or dress code to distinguish its members from people of other offices, and to signify the special authority it wields. Pastors have a very special authority. A pastor is not just some schmuck off the street who feels especially spiritual. In confessional Lutheran circles, pastors go through 8 years of training; Greek and Hebrew, theology, hermeneutics, exegesis, etc. They have the very solemn responsibility of caring for souls and administering the Word and Sacraments. And they bring the prayers of their congregations before God. It makes every kind of sense that they distinguish themselves visually from the laymen of the congregation, especially during the divine service. The vesture that a priest, pastor, or bishop wears symbolizes his ordination, his special, God-given authority, and his submission to God's Word. But this new breed of Lutheran pastors is the polar opposite of the counterfeit female pastors; they want to exercise their pastoral duties and authority, but without any outward semblance of legitimacy or ordination. It's like a plainclothes cop wanting to arrest people without ever having to show his badge.

  2. There is ample biblical precedent. Even though the Old Testament regulations do not apply to  the New Testament church, no detail recorded in Scripture was recorded in vain. Why did God command that the priests be so elaborately garbed in ceremonial clothing? I think that reason #1 above would certainly have been as valid then as now. It also reinforced the idea that the priests were coming before a holy God. They dared not "come as they are," because God cannot tolerate sin. Today, we have largely lost the idea that we are in the presence of God during worship. We don't call on God to come our party—He calls us to his house on his terms. That idea has not changed in NT worship. In fact, Jesus reinforced it (Mt 18:20). When the Jews expelled the early Christians from the synagogues and the Christians were forced to find their own places of worship, it was in keeping with both OT precedent and with doing all things in good order (1 Cor 14:40) for them to eventually adopt their own ecclesiastical garments.

  3. God works through Christian traditions. Concerning traditions, Luther wrote, "We should not discard or alter what cannot be discarded or altered on clear Scriptural authority. God is wonderful in his works. What he does not will, he clearly witnesses to in Scripture. What is not so witnessed to there, we can accept as his work. We are guiltless and he will not mislead us."2 No pastor who promises to uphold the Lutheran Confessions at his ordination or installation should dispose of liturgical vesture and other church traditions unless their observance becomes sinful in itself. The reason being is that the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XV, upholds the use of traditions as good and useful for teaching the Christian faith and for contributing "to tranquility and good order." So long as they are not "required as necessary," they ought to be kept. To my knowledge, no Christian has ever claimed that observing proper liturgical vesture merited him the forgiveness of sins. But the Apology to the AC goes even further, citing traditions as a unifying force in Christendom: "In this very assembly we have sufficiently shown that, for the sake of love, we will reluctantly observe adiaphora with others, even if such things should prove to be somewhat burdensome. We judge that the greatest possible public concord ought to be preferred to all other interests."
I am sure that further arguments could be made, but I believe these points are sufficient to make a solid case for preserving the practice of wearing liturgical vesture. While there is no biblical law commanding its use, neither is there any good reason for throwing it off. And there are many good reasons for retaining its use in our churches.


1 That is not an assumption; it came straight from Pastor Glende's mouth.
2 Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979), 55.