The Native Tourist
reformed/biblical observations on Christianity and culture

Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Read It & Weep IV
More cultural pessimism from the gnostic reformed...

This time from a speech by D.G. Hart:

Calvinists and Lutherans both stand in the Augustinian tradition but the latter generally receive credit for better preserving the Christian notion of human life as one lived in exile. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, whose book on Christ and Culture continues remarkably to define American Protestant debates about culture, Lutherans conceive of Christ and culture in a paradoxical relationship while Calvinists believe in a cultural model of Christ transforming culture. Although Niebuhr has surprisingly little to say about eschatology, clearly, the Anglo-Protestants who tried to create heaven on earth exhibit the transformationist ideal. Conversely, the Lutheran outlook, which is closer to the Augustinian understanding, has been less attractive to American Protestants who, whether through the Social Gospel or faith-based initiatives, have been trying to Christianize American society. As Niebuhr put it, “Both Paul and Luther have been characterized as cultural conservatives,” by which he means that they “were deeply concerned to bring change into only one of the great cultural institutions and sets of habits of their times -- the religious.” Niebuhr does give Luther credit for understanding well “the actual struggles of the Christian who ‘lives between the times.’” Still the over all effect of the dualism inherent in Lutheran theology is the idea “that in all temporal work in culture men are dealing only with the transitory and the dying. Hence, however important cultural duties are for Christians their life is not in them. . . .”

Finding examples of this Lutheran ambivalence about culture is not difficult. Martin Luther’s most popular song, “A Mighty Fortress,” the one sung on Reformation Sunday by those Protestants who still sing hymns, has a final verse that supports Niebuhr’s contention that the Augustinian understanding of Christ and culture is insufficiently reform-minded:

That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Of course, the line about letting goods, kindred and mortal life go is not exactly a blueprint for cultural renewal or preservation. In fact, that line has all the connotations of otherworldliness typically associated with fundamentalism. But not to be missed in the concluding stanza of “A Mighty Fortress” is the fairly explicit assertion of the two-kingdom theology for which Lutheranism is legendary. The “earthly powers” in the first line contrast sharply with God’s kingdom. The former is temporal, the latter is “forever.” Even more important for my purposes is the eschatology implicit in this contrast. The word of God, like his kingdom, transcends “earthly powers.” In fact, even without the help of those earthly powers, the divine purpose endures.

It gets worse. Hart quotes Luther's commentary on Hebrews 11:13:

we must not seek to build for ourselves eternal life here in this world and pursue it and cleave to it as if it were our greatest treasure and heavenly kingdom, and as if we wished to exploit the Lord Christ and the Gospel and achieve wealth and power through Him. No, but because we have to live on earth, and so long as it is God’s will, we should eat, drink, woo, plant, build, and have house and home and what God grants, and use them as guests and strangers in a strange land, who know they must leave all such things behind and take our staff out of this strange land and evil, unsafe inn, homeward bound for our true fatherland where there is nothing but security, peace, rest, and joy for evermore.

Ick. If we have to get our hands dirty with all this cultural business, we might as well make the most of it...