Monthly Archives: October 2012

P. J. Spener on How to Conduct Ourselves in Arguments

In the late 17th century, a movement emerged within German Lutheranism that was a reaction to the established church. The goal of Pietism was to rouse the faithful from the torpidity and complacence of cold orthodoxy, to a vital, practical religion, expressed daily in the study of Scripture, the fruit of the Spirit, and a transformed life.

In 1675 Pietism’s founder, Philip Jakob Spener [SHPAY-ner], published a sort of manifesto entitled Pia desideria [Pious Wishes], in which he describes how the church could best be revived. One of his chief concerns was that Lutherans conducted themselves with scathing rhetoric in bitter disputes with unbelievers and heretics. His timeless wisdom on this topic is helpful in our religiously divisive age.

“We must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics. We must first take pains to strengthen and confirm ourselves, our friends, and other fellow believers in the known truth and to protect them with great care from every kind of seduction. Then we must remind ourselves of our duty toward the erring.

“We owe it to the erring, first of all, to pray earnestly that the good God may enlighten them with the same light with which he blessed us, may lead them to the truth, [or] may prepare their hearts for it…

“In the second place, we must give them a good example and take the greatest pains not to offend them in any way, for this would give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult.

“In the third place, if God has given us the gifts which are needful for it and we find the opportunity to hope to win the erring, we should be glad to do what we can to point out, with a modest but firm presentation of the truth we profess, how this is based on the simplicity of Christ’s teaching. At the same time we should indicate decently but forcefully how their errors conflict with the Word of God and what dangers they carry in their wake. All of this should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love toward them, without carnal and unseemly feelings, and that if we ever indulge in excessive vehemence this occurs out of pure zeal for the glory of God. Especially should we beware of invectives and personal insinuations, which at once tear down all the good we have in mind to build. …

“To this should be added, in the fourth place, a practice of heartfelt love toward all unbelievers and heretics. While we should indicate to them that we take no pleasure in their unbelief or false belief or the practice and propagation of these, but rather are vigorously opposed to them, yet in other things which pertain to human life we should demonstrate that we consider these people to be our neighbors… To insult or wrong an unbeliever or heretic on account of his religion would be not only a carnal zeal but also a zeal that is calculated to hinder his conversion. …

“In the fifth place, if there is any prospect of a union of most of the confessions among Christians, the primary way of achieving it, and the one that God would bless most, would perhaps be this, that we do not stake everything on argumentation… [For] I adhere to the splendidly demonstrated assertion…, ‘Purity of Doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books but also by true repentance and holiness of life”…

“From all this it becomes apparent that disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary.”

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On Diarrhea of the Pulpit

One thing to which it’s been hard to adjust in our move South is the length of sermons down here. Oh my goodness! Perhaps it is the same mindset that brought us slavery, but Dixie preachers don’t just preach; they seem to feel they have the right to hold you hostage. Don’t get me wrong. The preaching is generally of high quality. But—and maybe it’s a cultural thing—apparently, quality is not enough; there must be quantity, and lots of it, like a host who regales his guests with a very fine meal, but then just keeps bringing out more and more dishes until the poor souls are ready to burst like ticks, or food addicts at a shopping mall.

Even for the best preachers, twenty minutes is an optimal length for a sermon, given the modern attention span and bladder. At thirty minutes, you feel as though you’ve gotten the point, thank you, and you would like to leave. At forty, you feel a creeping resentment, as though you were being forced to look through your grandmother’s scrapbook or a home video of your neighbors’ Disney cruise. A palpable hostility fills the room. You start scoping out the nearest exit, wondering if the Catholics didn’t have it better after all with all that standing, sitting and kneeling. Quakerism looks more and more alluring. After fifty minutes, you begin to give up hope, like survivors on a life raft who watch the last plane fly out of sight. After sitting so long, you start thinking about blood clots, and even if you are not inclined by nature to be violent, you might fantasize about head-butting the elderly person in front of you, just to see what would happen—anything to stop this homiletical juggernaut. At the sixty-minute mark you wonder if you really like God all that much (or vice versa) and you resolve to explore secular humanism. But still preachers press on against all reason, against all humanity, even as congregants are arriving for the next service and pounding on the doors like Huns at the gates of Rome.

Here’s a helpful rule to follow: Less is more. A good sermon should leave you wanting more, not less. If you can’t say it in twenty minutes, preachers, you’re either endlessly repeating yourself or you don’t really know what your point is after all. I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve sat through over the past year that I thought were truly amazing after twenty minutes, but they cloyed after thirty, irritated after forty, infuriated after fifty, with the unfortunate result that you leave church feeling angry and agitated, or wishing you hadn’t gone to church at all. So I’ve begun to fight back, simply in self-defense, by just getting up and leaving when I feel I’ve had enough, usually at the point when the preacher has begun to repeat himself with still another remarkable illustration.

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Heffalumps and Woosles in the Living Room

I despair of my country. I really do. If you watched the presidential debates Wednesday night, perhaps you noticed some glaring omissions. I’m not referring to Mr. Lehrers’ utter inability to rein in the candidates (someone give the poor guy a buzzer, will ya? Or, better yet, a gong). Certainly, both candidates were present in their respective blue and red ties (just in case we forgot which team they were on). Rather, conspicuous by their absence were most of the urgent and substantive issues of our time. The targeted assassination of American citizens. The continuing detention, rendition and torture of terrorism suspects. The abrogation of our Constitution and Bill of Rights by a security state and an imperial presidency careening out of control. The skyrocketing cost in lives and dollars of an unending and ever-expanding war. Corporate power run amok, hijacking our democratic processes, along with every branch of government. A failed war on drugs and the racial targeting of Muslims, immigrants, and other people of color. New and unending assaults on voting rights. Exploding poverty rates. Obscene economic injustice and class warfare (no, I don’t mean rich “job-creators” getting picked on by mean poor people. I’m talking about the crushing of the poor and middleclass by the rich). Spiraling gun violence. The abandonment of our veterans (the government calls them “heroes,” except when they need something). Insufficient regulation of big banks, Big Oil and Big Ag. Drought, a looming food crisis, and polar ice caps melting at an alarming rate. An arrogant Israeli PM trying to dictate the outcome of this election and force us into another potentially catastrophic war. And a peculiarly American brand of terrorism called “drone warfare.” Those are some pretty pudgy pachyderms in the living room. Why is it the only things we seem to see are heffalumps and woosles?

Perhaps nothing at all was said about these issues since both candidates are essentially in agreement on most of them. I kept thinking, why are they debating at all? Why don’t they just let bygones be bygones and merge their respective parties and super pacs to form one colossal über-partei. No, that wouldn’t work. Of course. That would dispel the myth of the two-party system in this country, and the illusion that we actually have a choice over who governs us. (I recently tried to explain to a French friend how our two-party system results in minimal change no matter who is in power, since both parties are effectively controlled by the same corporations.)

And where are the American people? If they are engaged at all in this political monologue, they are probably distracted with some form of conspiracy theory (like the President’s Kenyan birth certificate), a futile culture war (such as the so-called “war on Christmas”), or the alleged plot on the part of Muslims, immigrants, or socialists (insert other people group here) to take over America. (Listen, I’ve studied socialism in great detail. I did my undergraduate thesis on socialist dialectic in the works of G.B. Shaw.  And I can say without equivocation, that it is an insult to every socialist who has ever drawn breath to claim the current President is one of their number. Eugene V. Debs is probably spinning in his grave so fast, he could air cool half of Terre Haute.)

How can people be so out of touch? Seriously, astronauts on an orbiting space station are better informed. But you see, as with bread and circuses, distraction is a form of control. The fear-mongering corporate media have done a stunning job of disseminating faux news, everything from half-truths to audacious propaganda, sometime working for the government, sometimes against it—all this designed to take the heat off the real scandal. Like a one-eyed pig invited to a luau, distracted by all the hula, poi, and torch dancing, we don’t seem to notice that the real conspiracy, the corporate coup against our republic, is moving in for the kill.

Who are we as a people, and why do we seem so unconcerned about the real issues around us? Why do we care so little about the power our leaders unleash against distant peoples, as though we were Olympian deities and had the right to dispatch mortals at will? Why do we seem so eager to make enemies of the weakest members of our society, while prostrating ourselves before wealth and cheering the bloated Brahmins of big business? I’ve never seen a nation so easily bamboozled into acting against its own self-interest, nor one so deaf to the cries of those who suffer so cruelly from its crusades, nor one so insanely deceived by its own image—like a circus fat lady who, looking in the funhouse mirror, sees only a ravishing beauty. And all this in a so-called “Christian” nation. Well, I hope we can dispel that myth at least.

Christians often wonder how their German counterparts could have thrown their support behind a certain candidate in 1933. How is such a thing possible? Easy. He used fear, distraction, and plenty of flag waving, accompanied by bales of propaganda. German Christians had two major fears back then: communism and the moral declensions that accompanied modernism. Hitler promised to save them from both: a rabid enemy of Marxism, he also stood for good, old-fashioned German values, like motherhood and mom’s apple strudel. And so they were willing to shut their eyes to his more grotesque projects, like the elimination of all political opposition and his war against European Jewry. The latter was a crude yet highly effective masterstroke of propaganda, uniting the country against a scapegoat who were not Teutonic and who could not defend themselves. And all that in a so-called “Christian” nation.

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