August 13, 2015

Alphabet Soup: WELS-LCMS Relations

An acquaintance of mine recently described me as the most pro-Missouri-Synod WELS person he knows. He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one. I have deep family ties to the LCMS. There's been a Lutheran pastor in every generation of my family since before C.F.W. Walther. Ernst Brauer, the twin of a maternal great-great-grandfather, taught at St. Louis seminary with Walther, and helped to found the synod. My great-grandfather, Emmanuel Mayer, was president of the LCMS Michigan district. My grandfather, Herman Mayer, who was very dear to me, and my dad's brother Richard, were both LCMS pastors. My younger brother went to the ELS seminary just to break with tradition. (Just kidding. He has many and good reasons.)

My point is not to brag about family history. I didn't know most of this stuff until very recently. And I don't regret that my parents left the Missouri Synod when I was barely old enough to remember. They left for good reasons, and I've chosen to stay in the WELS for good reasons. But I've known enough good Missouri Synod Lutherans to know that the bad things that were said about the Missouri Synod when I was growing up in WELS Lutheran schools are not all true. (Diagram that sentence!)

Disputatious Theologians, by Albert Bothe. Courtesy GHDI
We were told things like, "A lot of Missouri Synod Lutherans are going to hell," and "Even the conservatives tolerate false doctrine—otherwise they would leave," and my personal favorite, "If you say a meal prayer with Missouri Synod Lutherans, you are yoking yourself to unbelievers." WELS pastors and teachers like to give the impression that the LCMS is just ELCA without the LGBT sympathies. In other words, many of our pastors and teachers make generalizations, but seem to have no real contact with the Missouri Synod to either inform or discredit these opinions. There is no excuse for a blanket dismissal of our brothers in the LCMS as "false teachers." We should know that the devil is hard at work wherever the gospel is preached. That's as true in the Missouri Synod as it is in Wisconsin.

When a WELS family approaches a Confessional, Christ-professing, Book-of-Concord-wielding, Catechism-touting LCMS school and expresses reservations about the false doctrine their children are inevitably going to be taught (true story), they reveal their ignorance about the differences between our synods. The WELS does a good job of promoting a unified image (thank you, WELS Connection!), but fortunately, is not synonymous with the Invisible Church. The "they think they're the only ones in heaven" joke is probably told in every denomination, but I suspect it must have been written originally of the WELS. Because the thing about Missouri Synod Lutherans is that they seem to possess an acute awareness of the divisions within their synod. No one thinks that you can go to any LCMS church and find orthodox doctrine being preached from the pulpit, as seems to be the case for many in the WELS.

I don't want to sound like I'm promoting unionism here, but IMHO, part of the solution is that we have to get together more often. Although ELS, WELS, and LCMS theologians have been having informal discussions at the Emmaus Conferences, I wonder what other opportunities exist for laymen to have similar discussions and, dare I say, "fellowship" opportunities? How about Higher Things? CCLE? Our synodical worship conferences? Or at the very least, listen to Issues, Etc., and join some Confessional Lutheran Facebook groups. Listen to and read the issues that come up, and see how they are dealt with by Lutherans from all three synods. Follow Matt Harrison and the WMLT (Witness, Mercy, Life Together) blog. In short, inform yourself! If doctrinal matters separate two church bodies, so be it. I'm the last person who would suggest that we set doctrinal differences aside, join hands, and sing Kumbaya. But don't let ignorance add to the barrier between Wisconsin and Missouri.

Pr. Hans Fiene (of Lutheran Satire fame) remarked on Facebook that interracial marriage might be part of the solution to race relations in America. Might I suggest inter-synodical marriage could play a part in restoring synod relations? (I only say this in passing, but word has it there's a bevy of beautiful, unattached LCMS women attending Bethany Lutheran College [ELS]. *wink*) No bias on my part, there.

That is all. TTYL.

August 11, 2015

Art Ed Done Right

I've publicly lamented the lack of good art instruction in our Lutheran schools, especially for younger children, and until recently, I knew of no admirable programs to hold up as examples. A few weeks ago I attended the 15th Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education (CCLE) conference, in Keller, TX. As a faculty member of Wittenberg Academy, I was invited to this fantastic event that I otherwise would never have heard of. The conference was an all-around enjoyable and enriching experience, but the art program at Messiah Lutheran Classical Academy was unbelievably good.

Marcia Huebel, the art teacher at Messiah Lutheran, gave the workshop on teaching art, which I attended. I don't know what I was expecting—I suppose a better-than-average art program, if only because classical schools have a reputation for setting high standards. But I don't think I could have imagined what they're accomplishing in that school, if I hadn't seen the results firsthand and spoken with the teacher who made it all happen. This was categorically, fundamentally different from any art program I've seen or even heard of.

Photo courtesy Pr. Paul Nus

In K-1st grade, the students begin learning the basic elements of art—line, color, shape, value—things that every work of art are made from. They have art projects that utilize these elements, but of course, in the early years, a big part of what they are learning is the ability to listen to directions and develop hand-eye coordination. Maybe the expectations are not high, but it's a far cry from "craft time" with no real objectives and no learning value.

Every art project at MLCS is carefully structured to cover the state-recommended learning standards for each age group. So the projects aren't chosen arbitrarily, but in order to reinforce key concepts, skills, or vocabulary. (I wasn't aware that state standards existed for fine arts at the elementary level—if they do exist in other states, surely most schools are simply ignoring it?)

Artsonia, by Gracie3419, Grade 7
Surprising to me was that already in 2nd grade, MLCS students start learning art history along side the art theory. (Second grade! I didn't learn a lick of art history until college!) They study a range of artists and stylistic periods during each year, slowly progressing through art history. They study paleolithic art and make cave drawings, Egyptian art and make paintings on papyrus, Greek art and make black figure vases out of paper maché, Impressionism and paint their own "Starry Night," etc. Third graders make still lifes using color schemes. Fifth grade, Huebel says, seems to be the earliest age at which students can handle 2-point perspective drawing. Naturally, this corresponds to a study of the Renaissance.

As fascinating as some of the projects are, and as beautiful the results, I wouldn't describe any of the projects we could see as overly challenging. The criteria were simple enough, and the projects creative enough, that the children seemed to take up the challenges and really flourish in them. Huebel uploads the children's work to Artsonia, an online kids' gallery where students are assigned an anonymous number so that their family and friends can see their work, but their information isn't shared. To see some of the 8,700 some works produced by MLCA students since 2008, see their Artsonia gallery.

Artsonia, by Keaten16, Grade 3

If your jaw is not on the floor right now, you maybe haven't had any experience with "art" in a typical Lutheran school. Even though I worked really hard at art class, I learned little more than the kids who still struggled with scissors and glue. Sitting through this presentation, though, I thought to myself, This must be what art classes are like in heaven. (Except that in heaven, Jesus would be your instructor, art class would take the entire day—minus a one-hour lunch break, and go for five days a week, for 1,000 years.) But seriously, look at this classroom. You immediately become a better artist just by walking into the room.

Photo courtesy Marcia Huebel

So in conclusion, if you don't think the state of art education in the WELS is all that bad, here's an objective point of comparison. If most of our WELS schools had art programs half this good, I would have nothing to complain about. So if you think your school's art program could do better, I think the program at MLCS is an excellent example to emulate. Bravo, Mrs. Huebel! Keep up the good work.

August 5, 2015

On Form vs. Content: Musical Style and the Overemphasis on Texts

I've been to a couple of WELS Worship Conferences, and one School of Worship Enrichment. One theme that has consistently bothered me has been the (over)emphasis of texts, to the possible exclusion of music. Now, they don't say it like that, nor will they probably admit that this is happening, but in the context of our synod as a whole, I've seen even the conservatives quickly change the subject when the issue of musical style is raised.

The oft-repeated WELS worship principle is this: The texts must dominate, the music is subordinate, and we should set standards of excellence.

In principle, I have nothing against this. But it only addresses half of the issue. When we refuse to address matters of style, it leaves a hole in our worship principles large enough to drive a tour bus through. We typically call this hole "Christian freedom," but I'm not convinced that's the case.

In little more than a decade, Koiné has become a household name in the WELS, and their music is a good case study in regard to the WELS worship principles. One of my favorite hymns is Jesu meine Freude, and it is also one of my favorite Koiné arrangements. It takes the text, tune, and even the traditional harmonies of the Johann Franck hymn and gives them an upbeat tempo and contemporary instrumentation. The result is a fresh look at a centuries-old Lutheran hymn. The reason Koiné is an ideal case study here is because they allow us to isolate a single, key variable—style. The text, melody, and harmonies are undeniably excellent and therefore fit the WELS worship principles. But there is a palpable difference between the Koiné recording and a Bach setting of the hymn, and it's a difference of style.

The common wisdom WELS offers in regard to style is, "If it offends someone, don't do it." In my opinion, this is too simplistic to be of any use, and easily ignored or misapplied. For instance, it seems to imply that congregational (or worse, individual) tastes should set our worship standards. So the question needs to be asked: In worship, can we make judgments on matters of style without restricting our sacred Christian freedom? I think we can, and we must.

Aesthetics in Art and Music

Credit for this revelation goes to Dr. Gene. E. Veith, who gave a series of lectures at CCLE XV that I was privileged to attend a few weeks ago. His lectures centered on the matter of aesthetics, and after having read State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mappelthorpe and heard his lectures, I would guess that there are probably few Lutherans alive who have as much insight into aesthetics as Dr. Veith.

One of the major premises of his lecture was that in a great work of art, content and form relate to, and compliment, one another. He used a negative example of a beaming smiley-face emoji with the word "Awesome" written underneath it. The cartoon smiley is so antithetical to the actual meaning of the word (i.e., inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear) as to be ridiculous. Another example Veith cited was "praise" music. How often do they talk about how "awesome" and "holy" God is, but with banal, repetitive, trite music? The form doesn't reflect the content, so the work of art is a failure. Contrast with "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty" by Reginald Heber and its tune by John Dykes, which builds a sense of awe as the notes "ascend" to God. The aesthetic form of a work has as much to do with its success or failure as does the message or content.

Note: Just to clarify, I am not fully equating style with aesthetics, even if I seem to use them interchangeably. Style is one part of the whole aesthetic experience. Sometimes there is an almost total overlap, and sometimes the stylistic impact is minimal. For instance, a contemporary praise song's melodic and harmonic patterns are determined in large part by the style of the genre. Whereas, in the Koiné arrangement of Jesus, Priceless Treasure, the new stylistic contribution is relatively small and related mostly to instrumentation; whereas its meaning, poetry, melody, and harmonies were still retained in spite of the stylistic facelift.

The point is that it isn't totally honest to separate the text (content) from the music itself (form) and evaluate each separately. The style and performance of music is where much of the art exists. It can make the difference between a holy and reverent hymn, and an ironic one.

Flickr: by TinkerTailor
Let's pull this discussion into the realm of the visual arts to look at it from a different angle. An artist could render a crucifixion using a fractured cubist style that relates in no way to the content. Few Christians of any stripe would be convinced to hang it above their altar simply because the subject matter (content) is ostensibly Christian. And if they did consider hanging it, it would probably be because they personally like the style (form) and think it will make a statement about how non-traditional their church is. But a bad work of art isn't redeemed by good intentions or even a good message. The success of a work of art rests on the harmonious interaction of content and form.

We regularly make major qualitative judgments based on aesthetics. As we should. Why then, does our synod refuse to enter into discussions of aesthetics and style when it comes to worship?

Concerns About Christian Freedom

2014 Ntl. Youth Rally, courtesy WELS Facebook page.
The short answer, I suspect, is that we are oversensitive towards legalism. I readily grant that this is a legitimate concern, given that WELS still struggles to overcome its pietist roots, and because progressives use the label as a weapon against their conservative brothers. But if we're too afraid of the right ditch, we've over-corrected and landed in the left. We've watched our National Youth Rallies become increasingly like rock concerts, so we can only suppose that the synod must be endorsing it. Even the WELS Worship Conference last summer, which was mostly wonderful and awe-inspiring, featured a scene straight from "Sister Act." The result was that raucous and offensive worship was offered up beside excellent and reverent worship as acceptable alternatives for WELS congregations.

On some level, we've convinced ourselves that this is okay. If the texts are good (which isn't always the case), and if there is some liturgical structure, and as long as everything is of excellent quality, it still fits those guidelines, right? The style can be tossed in with Christian freedom. The biggest pitfall before us is that this cafeteria approach to worship ("As long as the texts are good, choose whichever style you feel comfortable with") will inevitably lead to a cafeteria approach to doctrine. You don't have to take my word for it; ask our brothers in the LC-MS trenches. They've been fighting this battle longer than we have.

To be fair, WELS hasn't been completely silent on the topic of style. Jonathan Hein's plenary address at the 2014 WELS Worship Conference, Compelling Worship, at least addressed that music can have "stylistic baggage." But I think he worded his argument poorly when he said that we have the Christian freedom to "set the Nunc Dimittis to 'gangsta' rap or the Kyrie to heavy metal," only that it's unwise to do so (p. 17). But if it is unwise (read: unloving), do we really have freedom to do it? St. Paul says, "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13).

Hopefully I'm incorrectly characterizing the synod leadership's views. This is one of the many cases where I would be happy to be proved wrong. There is absolutely a place for Christian freedom in worship. But an uncritical stance toward musical style has allowed a steady migration of unworthy music into our worship. Excellence is a worthy enough goal, but it makes no explicit comment on style. What aspects must be excellent? Do they mean only excellence of craftsmanship, or of performance value, or of artistic merit? Who defines excellence? Judged by its own standards, surely a rock song can be excellent. So can an abstract painting or a minimalist sculpture. It's good to say that we want to achieve excellence in all things, but then we have to follow through. We have to be willing to define our terms, and then make judgments accordingly; "This is good and excellent; this needs improvement; this is deplorable."

In the case of Koiné, I preface my analysis by saying that I like their music. More than a matter of taste, it's excellent, because a talented group of Lutherans taking good Lutheran hymns and giving them a modern arrangement could result in nothing less. Even their original music is quite good. But I have to qualify that by saying that these are excellent for a certain purpose, and that purpose is not the divine service. I would like to believe that there's nothing inherently inappropriate about guitars and amps in worship. However, they've consistently pushed the limits of what is fitting for corporate worship, until their worship events look and sound no different from their concerts, and that should cause concern. The cubist crucifixion may be a perfectly valid art form and a deeply felt expression of someone's faith, but the aesthetic distorts the content and subverts the order and beauty of the liturgy—and worse, clouds the clear proclamation of the gospel. It thus may be fine in a public arts venue or in your home, but the things we use for worship in God's house are different, holy, and set apart.

As difficult and sometimes painful as discussions of aesthetics and style can be, I think it's good medicine. We need a more nuanced and responsible approach to worship than, "Just worry about the texts," or "If it offends someone, don't do it." We need an approach that addresses Christian freedom, but is also true to the historical Christian faith and the rule of love. The Book of Concord describes such an approach, and I encourage everyone to become familiar with it.

August 1, 2015

CCLE Logo Explanation

I recently completed a logo design for the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education (, and was pleased to be able to help them unveil and explain the new design at the CCLE XV conference in Keller, Texas. What follows is the explanation I provided with the completed logo.

The Shield: The lower half of the logo incorporates a shield. The shield is a defensive device used in battle since ancient times. Since medieval times, the shield has been a method for displaying a soldier’s identifying mark (called a coat of arms) in battle. The shield reminds us that we are the Church militant, and that while we are yet on earth we are not at peace. The devil, the world, and our flesh make war on us day and night, and therefore we are instructed to “take up the shield of faith” (Eph. 6:16).

The Luther Seal: Emblazoned on the shield is the rose used by Luther to represent the evangelical church. At its center is a heart containing a cross, to show that we are saved alone by faith in Christ crucified. This faith creates peace, joy, and life, which are represented by the white rose. The rose rests on a blue field, foreshadowing our future joy in heaven. The Luther rose is incorporated into many coats of arms, especially in Germany and Austria.

The Acorn: The outer shape of the logo takes the form of an acorn. The oak tree is a specimen known not for its beauty, but for its strength and longevity. The Lutheran church is 500 years old, and the Christian Church goes back 2,000 years. The classical model of education is centuries older even than that. The CCLE is not concerned with the latest educational fads. Rather, the consortium stands on centuries of spiritual wisdom and educational experience.

The acorn represents our youths. They are descendants of an age-old oak, endowed with a rich heritage, and entrusted into our care. If they are planted in good soil, and fed and watered with the Word of God so that it yields understanding, we have Christ’s promise that they will grow and yield “thirty, sixty, or one hundred times what was planted” (Mt. 13:23).

The Word: At the top of the logo is a depiction of a Bible, which is the Word of God. The Bible is lying open because it is meant to be read and learned. Although much can be said about the value and effectiveness of a classical education, such an education would have no lasting value if the Word of God was not the most important text being studied, and if the cross of Christ was not at the center. As we learn from St. Paul, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). A classical education finds its completion in Christ and his Word.

Red stands for the blood of Christ, which surrounds and covers us because of his all-sufficient death on the cross.

White represents holiness, truth, and purity, which the Holy Spirit imparts to us through baptism.

Blue signifies steadfast faithfulness to the Word of God and to the apostolic Church.

The Seal: The seal bears many of the same elements as the logo, but with some differences. Instead of a single acorn, the seal bears a wreath of oak branches, bearing acorns. The shield and Luther’s seal are dominant, and the Latin word “VIVIT” (meaning, “He lives”) is inscribed in the leaves of the rose. Above the banner that contains the consortium’s initials, a torch proclaims Christ as the light of the world and the source of all truth and knowledge.