Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Will Kobo Kill the Book?

Being on holidays, I was recently in the nearest metropolis for a couple of days where I spent a bit of time in Borders. As most of you will know Borders actually provide comfy chairs for customers to sit in while they read their books, and there’s an in-house coffee shop as well - what a change from 20 years ago when I remember being chastised by a book shop owner for spending too much time at the shelves reading! Anyway, while at Borders I checked out their Kobo e-reader - there were none to buy as they had sold out (and I didn’t have the funds anyway), but there were two display models you could play with. Now, I’m fully aware this will be old hat to most of my overseas readers, but you have to realise that a) this new technology always reaches Australia late because we’re a small market on the wrong side of the planet, and b) your glossator still favours a Parker fountain pen and a mechanical watch, which is to say that he is not exactly on the cutting edge of the latest technological advances. Ball point…what’s that? Seriously, I’m not quite a Luddite but I am innately conservative when it comes to change. Call me perverse, but I still prefer analogue to digital even when the advantages of the latter are explained to me.

Maybe it’s a generational thing? When I started primary school we wrote on slates, and I graduated from high school before computers entered the classroom. Yes, that’s right, when I started primary school in the late 1960s we still used slates (just like the one pictured) and chalk to do our maths rather than paper - it was an economy measure I suppose, but for all intents and purposes we were educated in a 19th century classroom. The desks were hardwood in a wrought-iron frame and still had holes for ink pots!
When I think of it, the Kobo reminds me of a slate.

The educational setting I experienced was probably not much different from 100 or probably even 500 years prior, which was why we valued books so highly, I suppose. Books were precious, not just because they were comparatively uncommon and expensive objects, but because the written word was our window into the wider world of knowledge and learning. Even the oral instruction of our teachers directed us to texts, which is where the real learning took place as our minds engaged with the thoughts of the great and good (the remnants of classical education were still in place, although rapidly being displaced by Deweyan modernism). Anyway, enough of the personal, you get the picture!

So, will the Kobo and its ilk do away with the book, in the same way that video killed the radio star? Perhaps. I think Google Books might very well kill the second-hand book shop. Classic texts that I searched high and low for in second-hand bookshops just a decade ago are now available freely on the ’net, and if those texts are ever converted fully to the electronic format it might convince even me to buy a Kobo. E-tunes are already killing CD retailers, just as the advent of CDs put an end to vinyl a generation ago...and faux leather bound sets of encyclopaedias, for that matter. Of course, vinyl never quite disappeared altogether, because some perverse people preferred the crackle and hiss to sterile digital perfection (and I suppose because live DJs ‘invented’ that creative manipulation of records on a turntable that my parents used to scold me for doing), and so I imagine that there will always be people who crave the feel and smell of a leather-bound book. But books, I think, will become very much a niche market rather than a mass market product (if they aren't already), particularly as my generation takes up e-readers. And it is my generation, people in their 30s and 40s, that e-readers will appeal to, particularly as we grow older and our eyes become weaker and the advantages of a back-lit text become apparent, not to mention the advantages of carrying a whole library around in your briefcase or handbag (and I suppose an e-reader that actually reads the book to you is not that far away). But I can’t see many teenagers walking around with Kobos in their knapsacks. Not because the technology doesn’t appeal, but because the very idea of reading a text for enrichment of the imagination or growth in knowledge is becoming so antiquated.

It is indeed a thing to ponder that I and millions like me could be educated in a manner that was almost unchanged from medieval times, and yet we acquired an education which equipped us for life-long learning through reading, whereas children today live in a world of technological advancement that only existed in the imaginations of science fiction writers when I was a child, and yet they seem so apparently uninterested in knowledge for its own sake. It's as though the modern preference for learning through video has altered the very structure of children's brains by the time they become youths, not to say impoverished their imaginations. Parents, teach your children to love books, not just as objects but as windows into the wider world of learning and thought!

It is not Kobo that will kill the book, but our benighted popular culture and the acquiescence of educators and parents to its exaltation of entertainment over knowledge.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Renovating the Old Manse

Regular readers may have noticed some renovations to the 'old manse' which I have gone about whilst on holidays presently - no, that's not my old manse in the pic (more's the pity!), it's the fabled 'Old Manse' in Concord, Massachusetts where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the collection of Gothic short stories which appeared in 1846 as Mosses From An Old Manse, which volume partly inspired my blog title (what a "fixer-upper", eh?). Anyway, there's a new look and some new features here. Unfortunately, when I installed the new template I lost my blogroll links, which I have been steadily re-building since; however, I have deleted 'The Country Parson', the 'Lutheran Beggar' and the 'Letters From Obscure Men' blogs as they appear to be inactive - should the esteemed owners of those blogs re-activate them I'll be more than happy to re-list them. If you have a blog that you would like listed, please drop me a line - I basically link to anyone I correspond with.

I have three new features in the side-bar - a list of favourite essays available on-line, a list of links to classic books freely available on-line, and a list of free resources that Lutheran pastors may find helpful. If you know of any free resources you find helpful, please drop me a line at the old manse so I can list them. I hope these features will make this site more useful to its readers, and not just an indulgence on my part!

In the future I'm also thinking of using this site to post my own exegetical notes and extended series of glosses on particular books that might serve as reader's guides of a sort. Again, the idea is to make this site as useful as possible to others. I'm not claiming to be a great exegete or interpreter, I simply offer these resources for what they're worth. We'll see...everything needs time.

I've been asked several times to post my own sermons here; I'm reluctant to do so as my sermons are very much addressed to the congregations I serve rather than being general 'preachments'. They are also oral rather than written 'documents', so posting them here would necessitate putting them in a more literary form, which is extra work. But I do enjoy reading sermons myself, so we shall see.

These changes and proposals are the result of my own self-examination about blogging - yes I enjoy it, but is it a productive use of my spare time? how can I justify it? how can I make the blog more of service to others? Comments welcome.

Friday, 25 June 2010

God’s Love Shining Through A Prism: Calvinism (Part 1)

God’s love shines through a prism,
I’m so confused by Calvinism
From the song Room Despair by Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, which appeared on their EP Audible Sigh (Compass, 2000).

In a recent post I reflected on the dangers of an overly systematic theological method and the Lutheran preference for a more modest form of dogmatics organised around loci informed by the classical sedes doctrinae, the scriptural passages or ‘seats of doctrine’ which authoritatively provide the subject matter for theological reflection. Theology exists in a dialectical relationship (yes, I have misgivings about the term ‘dialectical’ because of its philosophical overtones, but until a better term suggests itself, it stands) with the Gospel: preaching invites theological reflection which in turn informs preaching, and so on. So it is that bad theology will most likely result in bad preaching, where the Gospel message of the love of God for humankind in Christ is distorted or even corrupted; never let it be said that theology has no consequences in the life of the church! (Of course, it may be that by the grace of God and through some ‘felicitous inconsistency’, a preacher who holds to a system of doctrine which distorts or even corrupts the Gospel may avoid the errors of that theology in the pulpit.)

It is my contention that Roman Catholic systematics, which derives its system or pattern of doctrine from the authoritative pronouncements of the Council of Trent, fundamentally corrupts the pure Gospel by making the free human response to God’s grace decisive for salvation. See, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church [para 1993] which, following Trent, speaks of ‘man’s part’ in conversion being the ‘assent of faith‘. Roman Catholic theologians and preachers can set forth this positive view of man's contribution to his salvation because of the adulterated doctrine of original sin they hold, which retains some spiritual abiity on the part of fallen man. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church elsewhere speaks of our ‘collaboration’ with God in justification (and sanctification) and of our ‘growth in justification’. What is this, I ask, but a version of the “decision theology” one can hear proclaimed in any number of Baptist, Holiness or Pentecostal church bodies, albeit in more sophisticated theological garb and with a more tasteful liturgy?

In the Calvinistic system, on the other hand, God’s pure love for sinners in Christ is refracted through the prism of human reason in such a way as to seriously distort the Gospel message even to the point of unrecognisability, just as pure white light waves refracted through a prism are changed in direction and colour, or more commonly in our every-day experience, as an object refracted through pools of water is distorted - hence the title pic of the Golden Gate Bridge above. To be sure, Calvinism holds to original sin and man's spiritual inability apart from the regenerating grace of God, but it limits the grace of God to the elect, changing the Gospel message into 'bad news', or at least bad news for some (who are the elect?, am I among them?), rather than unqualified good news that the sinner can trust absolutely.

For example, here is an extract from an essay by the Dutch-American Reformed Biblical scholar Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), who has been the fountainhead of a modern revival of Biblical Theology in conservative, confessional Reformed circles (which has come to ultimate fruition in the ESV Study Bible), in which he struggles with the Biblical emphasis on the universality of divine love, but cannot bring himself to the point of affirming it:

"There is, however, still a third sense, in which Jesus leads us to ascribe universality to the divine love. This is done not so much in explicit form as by the implications of His attitude toward sinful men in general. We must never forget that our Lord was the divine love incarnate, and that consequently what He did, no less than what He taught, is a true revelation adapted to shed light on our problem. If the Son of God was filled with tender compassion for every lost human soul, and grieved even over those whose confirmed unbelief precluded all further hope of salvation, it is plain that there must be in God something corresponding to this. In the parable of the prodigal son the father is represented as continuing to cherish a true affection for his child during the period of the latter’s estrangement. It would be hardly in accord with our Lord’s intention to press the point that the prodigal was destined to come to repentance, and that, therefore, the father’s attitude toward him portrays the attitude of God toward the elect only, and not toward every sinner as such. We certainly have a right to say that the love which God originally bears toward man as created in His image survives in the form of compassion under the reign of sin. This being so, when the sinner comes in contact with the gospel of grace, it is natural for God to desire that he should accept its offer and be saved. We must even assume that over against the sin of rejection of the gospel this love continues to assert itself, in that it evokes from the divine heart sincere sorrow over man’s unbelief. But this universal love should be always so conceived as to leave room for the fact that God, for sovereign reasons, has not chosen to bestow upon its objects that higher love which not merely desires, but purposes and works out the salvation of some. It may be difficult to realize from any analogy in our own consciousness how the former can exist without giving rise to the latter; yet we are clearly led to believe that such is the case in God. A logical impossibility certainly is not involved, and our utter ignorance regarding the motives which determine the election of grace should restrain us from forming the rash judgment that, psychologically speaking, the existence of such a love in God for the sinner and the decree of preterition with reference to that same sinner are mutually exclusive. For, let it be remembered, we are confronted with the undeniable fact that this universal love of God, however defined, does not induce Him to send the gospel of salvation to all who are its objects."

Geerhardus Vos, The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980; 2001), 443–444. The article originally appeared in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 13 (1902): 1–37, and is also available on-line; italics mine.

I'll give my readers time to digest what Vos says here before analysing it further in part 2 of this post, which will follow early next week, d.v. (I'm presently on holdays and trying to catch up on some reading and other things!).

-- + --

I also take this opportunity to thank God for the author and presenters of the Augsburg Confession, presented before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg on this day, 25th June, in 1530.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

What Do You Get When You Put A Pastor and an Artist Together?

Q. What Do You Get When You Put A Pastor and an Artist Together?

A. A very creative union producing good things pro bono ecclesiae, including a little Q & A booklet on Holy Baptism and a free Lutheran-themed picture font you can download and use in church bulletins, etc.

As a pastor on a tight budget I'm always on the lookout for good, free resources (see the 'Free Resources' category The Filing Cabinet in the right-hand column), so I'm grateful for Pr Alex Klages's tip on his wife Kelly's booklet. It's available for download, along with the font, at their site 'By the Font' (click on the post title to visit).

Alex is a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Canada, a body with which the LCA has cultivated a close relationship, and his blog is 'A Beggar at the Table' (link provided in my blogroll).

Kelly is an artist specialising in sacred art whose work is informed by her deep commitment to the Lutheran Faith. You can view some of Kelly's work here:

Every blessing upon Alex & Kelly's continued union!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Lutheran Books for the Seeker

What Lutheran books would I as a pastor recommend for a seeker or inquirer into the faith of the Lutheran Church?

Pr William Weedon recently had an interesting post on the books he would give to a seeker inquiring into the Lutheran Church (click on the post title to read it.).

Here’s Pr Weedon’s list:
* Lutheran Service Book - everyone needs a hymnal.
* Treasury of Daily Prayer - find out about Lutherans by praying God's Word with us!
* Grace upon Grace (Kleinig) - get a handle on receptive spirituality!
* Lutheran Study Bible - generally good all around resource (not infallible, of course; the notes are NOT part of the inspired text).
* Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions - unlike so many churches, you can find what Lutherans believe in this single handy volume with a lot of helpful notes and even pictures!
* Walther's Law and Gospel - I've not seen the actual new release, but the promo material looked superb.

Now here’s mine, although I have included options to tailor it to individual contexts:

* Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (the LC-MS edition, either the old (blue) or new (sangria) one). As I hand it to my confirmands I assure them this is a resource for life, and the same goes for adult inquirers; we never outgrow the catechism (Sasse: "I am a simple Lutheran who prays the Catechism daily"). The invaluable explanation which makes up the bulk of the book leads one back into the main text and vice versa. An excellent resource which also equips laypeople to witness to their faith by answering the questions of others confidently.)

* Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, A Reader’s Edition (people love this book, especially the pictures!)

* The Lutheran Hymnal with Supplement (the LCA’s hymnal, substitute the equivalent denominational hymnal for those overseas). I would encourage the use of Morning and Evening Prayer from the hymnal as a daily devotion.

* The Lutheran Study Bible (by CPH, not Augsburg-Fortress; as per Pr Weedon, the study notes are not inspired, but are only meant to serve as a helpful aid to understanding the sacred text.)

No surprises there, I guess. The above represents the basic Lutheran library for the layperson as far as I’m concerned, books that should ideally be in every Lutheran home and which would enable a seeker to get a handle on practicing the Christian faith the Lutheran way. This assumes, of course, that the seeker is worshipping regularly with a Lutheran congregation.

Now the optional extras:

* Here I Stand by Roland Bainton (excellent accessible biography of Luther recently re-published in a handsome format. Of course, this book would come with the standard disclaimer that we do not worship the man!)

* Grace Upon Grace by John Kleinig (for a Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican inquirer. I was privileged to hear the content of this book directly from the author's mouth as a student in his Christian Spirituality class at Luther Seminary; I can't value this teaching too highly)
or Why I Am A Lutheran - Jesus at the Centre by Daniel Preus (for a lapsed Lutheran returning to the faith and/or a Presbyterian or Pentecostal)
or The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Veith (for an Evangelical)

*Treasury of Daily Prayer,
or Starck’s Prayer Book,
or Day by Day with Luther, or some other prayer/devotional book suitable for the inquirer. (I would really direct the seeker/catechumen to the Bible and the Hymnal as the source of their devotional life, but if extras are needed, these are they!)

*Walther’s Law & Gospel (the new edition),
or Handling the Word of Truth by John Pless
or God’s No and God’s Yes, the condensed version of Walther).
(These suggestions assume a lively interest in theology; failing that I would cover law and gospel myself).

*Lift High This Cross, The Theology of Martin Luther by Eugene Klug,
or A Summary of Christian Doctrine by W. A. Koehler (the 3rd, revised edition updated by Pr Kuhlmann),
or Mueller’s Dogmatics
or for the really adventurous and intellectually gifted, Pieper's Dogmatics or Hoenecke's; the latter is probably more accessible than Pieper. (We desperately need an up-to-date Lutheran dogmatics text which engages with contemporary theology from a confessional position.)
Once again these suggestions assume a lively interest in theology, which many seekers do have, and for such a person these are good places to start wading in to Lutheran doctrine. The books are listed in order of difficulty. Mueller’s Dogmatics was very helpful to me when I was a seeker myself, but then I had already read things like Ott’s RC Systematics and Berkhof’s Reformed Systematics and Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology too, along with others (yes, I really was a seeker!), so Mueller answered a lot of questions for me; but someone not familiar with polemics in theology might not take to it. It’s a question of tailoring a book to suit the individual. There are other options as well. Reading these texts would be a directed course of study under the pastor's oversight - and reception into the church would not be conditioned on completing this! :0))

I have used most of the above books successfully with inquirers and Lutherans seeking a deeper knowledge of their faith (fides quae). Of course, all this suggests a highy literate inquirer; what to do with one who is not into reading? Well, the Bible, Hymnal and Catechism would suffice in that case. With a group of non-literate inquirers (a situation becoming more common), one could explore using audio and video clips, 'connecting' the Gospel message to where these folk are at in life.

Then also this list really assumes a seeker who has a background in another confession/denomination;, what to do for someone new to the Christian faith?
Well, I would simply opt for reading through a Gospel with them and answering their questions, and then perhaps moving on to Acts and Romans. Catechisation would take place as we went. Then the 'neophyte' could be presented with a Catechism, a Study Bible or a Hymnal (or all three!) upon Baptism. The same method could be used for a class of inquirers, with tailored literature handed out to each individual as the class progressed.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Systematics or Dogmatics?

Systematics or Dogmatics? That is the subject of this reflection.

I was surprised to read in a recent post of erstwhile Lutheran pastor David Schutz, over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia, the complaint that Lutheran theology was ‘a system’ that did not admit of answers to questions if they are deemed not to fit into ‘the Lutheran system‘. Reference was made to what was taught at Luther Seminary, Adelaide in the 1980s in the subject known as ‘Systematics’.

That surprised me because I have always understood Lutheran theology to be concerned with Dogmatics rather than Systematics, the latter being more the concern of the Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians. Systematics has been defined as the endeavour to set down an orderly, rational and coherent system of Christian theology, usually grouped around a core organising principle, such as the sovereignty of God in some Reformed systematic theologies. Dogmatics, on the other hand, is the study of the dogmas of the Christian faith (or more broadly Christian doctrine) as they are drawn from the sedes doctrinae (‘seats of doctrine’) found in the various scripture passages (loci) which teach God’s counsel on particular subjects directly and authoritatively. In Dogmatics the prevalent concern is to group together for study all that Holy Scripture says on a dogma such as the Trinity or Original Sin. There is a place for human reason in Dogmatics, to be sure, but in a ministerial (servant) role, always subject to Holy Scripture which is the magister (master), because it is God's Word.

Thus, works of Lutheran theology have traditionally been modestly organised according to the ‘loci’ or 'common-places' suggested by scripture itself, after the method of the prototypical dogmatics of Melanchthon, who followed the outline of the apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans. Even when Lutheran theology becomes more complex, as in Gerhard (presently being translated and published in English by Concordia Publishing House), it still basically follows this method. [pic: An edition of Melanchthon's influential Loci communes (Commonplaces), opened to the loci De Deo, On God, with marginal glosses].

In Reformed theology, in contrast, we see much more of an attempt to cast dogmatics in an architectonic manner. This tendency is already present in Calvin’s Institutes (the development of which through its various editions makes for a fascinating study in the early development of the systematic method), and becomes dominant following the example of Turretin who influenced Charles Hodge and the Princeton school (Turretin's Institutes was used at Princeton for c. 150 years until Hodge's own Systematic Theology replaced it in the mid-19th C.) and Herman Bavinck in the Dutch ‘neo-Reformed’ school.

In medieval Catholic theology we also witness the impulse to systematisation stemming from the need to synthesise the variegated teachings of the church fathers of the first millenium and from the adoption of Aristotelianism by Thomas Aquinas in pursuit of this endeavour. However necessary - for apologetic reasons - Thomas's utilisation of the newly re-discovered Aristotle may have been at the time, Roman Catholicism has made a fundamental error in officially tying theology to the Aristotelian-Thomistic method (cf. the papal encyclical Doctoris Angelici, 1914). There can be no 'perennial philosophy' as far as the Christian faith is concerned; only the Word of God is eternal!

As impressive as the systematic theologies of these scholars are as achievements of the human intellect reflecting upon divine revelation, the Lutheran is likely to feel distinctly uneasy with the emphasis (over-emphasis!) on rationality, order and coherence in their theologies. Not that Lutheran theology is irrational, disorderly or incoherent! But the Lutheran theologian is concerned not to force the 'data' of scripture into a shape that seems to be neat and tidy to the human mind, lest violence is done to the actual teaching of Holy Scripture.
Perhaps the best example of this is the question of why some are saved and not others (cur allii, alii non?). Lutherans have maintained the doctrines of ‘salvation by grace alone’ and ‘universal grace’ alongside each other without attempting to reconcile the two in a way that satisfies human curiosity, lest one end up in the ditch of double predestination on one side of the road (Calvinism), denying universal grace (1 Tim 2:4), or ‘free will-ism’ (Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, ‘decision theology‘) on the other, asserting that people are saved because of some favourable quality or response in themselves, denying original sin (Romans 3:22-24). By the way, the main reason why Roman Catholicism's doctrine of salvation is so probematic is that it has attempted to maintain both grace alone and 'free will-ism' by positing that grace is a 'substance' that inheres within the human subject and enables a 'free' response to God (but that is really a subject for another post).

All that is not to say that there have not been Lutheran theologians who have attempted a systematic presentation of theology (one might think of the possibilities justification offers as the core organising principle in such a case), but I maintain that it is not the historic, distinctly Lutheran way of doing theology. So it was that when Werner Elert offered the theological world his ‘Morphologie des Luthertums’ (E.T. ‘The Structure of Lutheranism’), Hermann Sasse retorted that "there is no "structure" of Lutheranism!" If ever a Lutheran did successfully set forth a systematic theology, there would have to be ‘missing-links’ in the system, since God in his wisdom has not answered all questions to our 'satisfaction', although he has provided us with all we need in order to be saved (the sufficiency of scripture).

But back to the comments by David Schutz which prompted this reflection. There are surely some questions that Lutheranism cannot answer definitively, not because they do not fit within its 'system', but because they are not addressed by the Word of God either directly or by logical inference. And then perhaps there are some questions the Lutheran answer to which someone swimming the Tiber is, alas, too far away from Wittenberg to hear!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Australia's World Cup: What Went Wrong?

What went wrong? That's the question being asked by Australian soccer fans after a dismal, embarrasing display early this morning Australian time against Germany in the World Cup. It may be premature to write Australia off already, but frankly it would require a minor miracle for us to now match our 2006 performance by advancing to the second round. So, what went wrong?

To begin with, Germany played brilliantly and thoroughly outclassed us, making us look like an average second division team playing against a crack premier league side. Every time they had possession they looked as though they might score, their mistakes were few and every player put in an above-average peformance, as befits playing on such an occasion. The only part of their game I remain distinctly unimpressed by is their theatrics, which seem so...well, un-Teutonic! It's hard to see many teams being able to beat Germany if they continue to play like that, perhaps only the crazy-brilliant Brazil could unnerve them.

Secondly, that was undoubtedly the worst, most uninspiring perfomance I can ever remember from an Australian team - and I have followed them for 37 years now, ever since the 1974 World Cup campaign. An impromptu meeting with childhood hero Johnny Warren in an Adelaide bookstore a couple of years before his untimely death was a highlight in the life of someone who as a kid spent most Saturday afternoons on the soccer pitch in an era when soccer was the distinctly unfashionable game of English and southern European migrants. Our team, an unlikely mix of Anglos from the suburbs and Italian and Spanish kids from the inner-city, progressed up a division every year for six years until there was nowhere higher for us to go. That doesn't mean I'm qualified to be a pundit, it's just background, and what I say here stands or falls on its merits. And I say unequivocably that the pre-match talk of Australia drawing or even upsetting a complacent Germany has now been revealed for the hubris it was.

So, what went wrong? In my mind, it all started to go pear-shaped long before we even stepped onto the pitch this morning. We have selected a team of players past their prime with too many individuals apparently chosen on the strength of their past achievements rather than on current form. But that is not the players' fault; the blame for that would normally be laid at the feet of the coach/manager. But before we do so let's consider Pim Verbeek's position. The brief given him by the Football Federation of Australia was to follow up Gus Hiddink's achievement in 2006 by getting us to South Africa in 2010. There is little doubt that if we did not make the World Cup in 2010 the future of soccer in this country would be in jeopardy. Well, Verbeek has done it, and made personal sacrifices along the way by deciding to be resident in Australia whilst his family remained in Holland, and for that he deserves our gratitude as well as his hefty pay packet.

The safest, most assured way for Verbeek to get us to South Africa this year was to rely on the players who had performed so well under Hiddink, even though most of them were going to be in their 30s before 2010 came around. Verbeek's brief was clear, and it did not include transitioning the Australian national team to a new generation of players. Thus he has had to make the safest selection he can with slow, cumbersome ageing backs and injury-prone forwards. The only other option was to choose national league neophytes unblooded at the international level. What would you have done in his place?

But in the cold, hard light of this morning, we can say with hind-sight that Verbeek made some mistakes in this match. Cahill was wasted in his lone striker role, which may account for the frustration which saw him yellow-carded in the second half, and which has possibly put paid to his tournament, although that result would be unjust. But why wasn't Kewell brought on? We can only assume he is not really match-fit. And why wasn't Kennedy played? His height may have been one of the few things in our armoury that would have troubled the Germans in the penalty box. It would have been worth the risk, but we know now he would not have received much ball in any case. Forwards can only shine when the mid-field engine room is doing its job, which it wasn't on this occasion. But playing more than one striker up front might have brought an early opportunistic goal which could have affected the momentum of both teams. Or is that wishful thinking?

In truth, one suspects there is nothing Verbeek could have done to stop the German juggernaut on this occasion. One thing he must do in the future games, though, is compel Neill and his backs to play the off-side rule to our favour. And I certainly don't think Moore should be played again in the tournament; he has been a stalwart for Australia in the past but he is now out of his league. And let's hope (against hope?) that Kewell and Bresciano are fit for the next match.

It's not over yet, and Australia has two opportunities to redeem itself when it faces Ghana and Serbia. Beyond that, the next manager faces the task of re-building the national team with younger players. In the meantime there is consolation to be found in remembering that it's only a game after all, and in rejoicing that in the game where, following William Webb Ellis, you pick the ball up, Australia's Rugby team beat arch rival England 27-17 on Friday!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Church Attendance Good For Your Mental Health

Church attendance may be good for your mental health, helping to ward off depression and the loss of cognitive function in old age, even decreasing the risk of Alzheimers. Such is the conclusion of a number of independent scientific reports summarised below in an article which recently appeared in The Church of England Newspaper:

There is no scientific evidence that Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented or its onset slowed down, an independent panel of scientists convened by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) has determined. However, an active church life and keeping physically and mentally fit were consistent with a decreased risk of the disease, the report found.

The study released by the NIH’s Office of Medical Applications of Research (OMAR) state-of-the-science conference program found that exercise, social interaction, brain puzzles, fish oil, nutritional supplements, or medications did not prevent the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s report, Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures, 2010, there are over 5 million Americans living with the disease today.

The Alzheimer’s Research Trust Dementia 2010 reported that in Britain there were 822,000 people living with the disease. This number is expected to pass the one million mark by 2025 the report found. “People who reach the age of 65 have a one in three chance of having dementia before they die,” said the report’s author, Professor Alastair Gray of Oxford University’s Health Economic Research Centre in February.

The US panel reviewed 25 systematic reviews and 250 primary research studies, lead researcher Dr Martha Daviglus of Northwestern University said, and found that most studies could only show links, and did not prove cause and effect between a factor and disease prevention.

“We wish we could tell people that taking a pill or doing a puzzle every day would prevent this terrible disease, but current evidence doesn’t support this,” said Dr. Daviglus.

The panel examined scientific studies that took into account “nutrition, medical conditions, prescription and non-prescription medications, social/economic/behavioral factors, toxic environmental factors, and genetics.”

Only a few factors showed a “consistent link” with Alzheimer’s disease: diabetes, genetic predisposition, smoking, and depression.

Factors showing a “fairly consistent association” with decreased risk of the disease and a cognitive decline were: cognitive engagement and physical activities. However the “modification to risk” was “small to moderate” for Alzheimer’s and “small” for cognitive decline.

The current state of scientific evidence was not “enough to enable a confident assessment of links with [Alzheimer’s] or cognitive decline,” the report said, and “further research that addresses the limitations of existing studies is needed prior to be able to make recommendations on interventions.”

However, one of the studies reviewed found that regular church attendance was associated with less cognitive decline. A 2003 paper published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences entitled “Religion and cognitive dysfunction in an elderly cohort,” cited in the US NIH study concluded that “religious attendance may offer mental stimulation that helps to maintain cognitive functioning in later life, particularly among older depressed women.”

The paper concluded that doctors should prescribe church attendance in certain situations.

“Given the possible benefits religious attendance may have on cognitive functioning, it may be appropriate in certain instances for clinicians to recommend that clients reengage in religious activities they may have given up as a result of their depression,” the 2003 paper concluded.

Various explanations could be put forward for such an observable phenomona on a purely reductionistic level, including the importance for mental health of a vital connection with a community bigger than oneself and the sense of meaning that religion provides, and I would not deny those factors, but I would certainly like to assert that the knowledge that one's sins are forgiven and that one has peace with our Creator through Jesus Christ is a factor as well.

The pioneer American psychologist/philosopher William James still has much of interest to say on the empirically observable benefits of Christianity in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. He found that those who believed in justification by grace through faith were more mentally healthy than those who adhered to religions of works righteousness whose practices focus on winning God's favour for temporal and spiritual benefits (not co-incidentally, several recent studies have shown that India is the most depressed society on earth). That makes sense if one believes that a conscience at peace with itself must have salutary effects on the mind and body of the subject. Along those lines, it would be very interesting to see a breakdown of the results cited above according to denominational/confessional allegiance.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Misreading Luther With Bishop Tom Wright

Welcome to 'Misreading Luther with Bishop Tom Wright'. (I originally titled this post 'Wright Wrong on Luther' but thought it rather too obvious, so I hit upon the above, which might serve as the title of a series if I have enough time.)

What can I say by way of introduction to the topic? Every time I read something the very influential scholar Bishop N T Wright has said on Luther I come away scratching my head and thinking 'Has he even read Luther?!'

For example, here's Bishop Wright on the 'Lutheran' milieu he grew up in:

"I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, “Whew…the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ.” All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin." [From an interview published in Reformation and Revival Journal, volume 11, numbers 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring 2003), available on-line] [Italics mine]

Now here's Luther on the law:

"In chapter 7, St. Paul says, "The law is spiritual." What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remain sin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good, just and holy." [Italics mine]

Imagine that, Luther actually agrees with Bishop Wright that the law is "good, just and holy"!

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Clearly, Wright has (mis)read Luther as antinomian, and pegged him as the source of what perplexed him growing up in evangelical Anglicanism, which eventually sent him running to Calvin as his guiding light (although more than a few Calvinists are upset at the direction Bishop Wright's theology has taken since, but that is a subject for another post).

If only Bishop Wright had actually read a text as basic as Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, from which the above quote is taken - not to mention the Small Catechism - he would have known that what he was hearing from evangelical Anglican pulpits as a young man was not Lutheranism at all, but antinomianism, which Luther goes on to reject in the very same little preface, following the Apostle Paul closely, of course.

A lecturer at my alma mater, Luther Seminary in Adelaide, once wisely said, "If you want to understand someone's theology, seek to become familiar with their biography." Alas, it seems that Tom Wright's youthful misadventures with 'Lutheranism' were formative for his theology, which might not matter one iota but for the fact that Wright is probably the single most influential 'evangelical' theologian writing today, and he is well read by Roman Catholics too, as a visit to my local Catholic book shop will testify. Indeed, the local bishop is a Wright fan - and no wonder, I might add, given the implications of Bishop Wright's theology for the magisterial Reformation's doctrine of justification (of which more anon., d.v.).
To the many evangelicals who buy Wright's books, including his series of popular-level New Testament commentaries which are rapidly filling the place once occupied on the layperson's bookshelf by another popularising scholar who abounded in dubious opinions, William Barclay, one can only say: caveat emptor!

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Sigh! I was tempted to post this under humour; it would be funny if it were not so serious. I mean no disrespect to Bishop Wright, who is clearly a bright man, but it does go to show that even the brightest have their blind spots.

A Lutheran Pastor's Confession

"Forgive me, please, for reminiscing today. X years ago today...I graduated from Luther Seminary in Adelaide, South Australia. As I headed off to my first assignment in ministry I was proud of who I was and glad to be part of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA).

The LCA has never been a large church. We're not tiny, but then again we aren't bursting at the seams from all the new converts we're gaining. For some in our church that's a reason to hang our heads. We must not be doing our jobs since we're not growing, we're told.

In our hometowns we listen to enthusiastic neighbours tell all about the local community church that's really doing ministry. Their church is packed because so many love the modern music and the charismatic preacher. The accomplishments of the church are impressive indeed: teens taking mission trips all over the world, seniors running a food pantry for the local needy, young parents recruiting others through soccer games.

As LCA Lutherans, especially if we're part of a smaller congregation, we smile politely as we hear the glowing report. But deep inside we are thinking, "There's got to be some way our congregation can do this."

The first thing we do is study how the community church is doing what it's doing. We rush off to the local Christian book store and buy up all the "how to" books on the shelves, all written by people outside our fellowship. We glean an awful lot of good ideas and then we sit down and try to "Lutheranise" them all.

Quite often we find some resistance in our congregations. "We've never done it that way before," is the age-old cry. If we've been in the LCA long enough, all we can do is go home and complain to our spouse that the LCA is such a fuddy duddy church.

After a little thought, though, we get up the nerve to speak to our pastor. We say to him:

"Liven things up a bit in worship."

"Let's not be so formal."

"Develop your own orders of service that really speak to the people."

"Don't repeat things in the service every week. Do we really need to confess the Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed so often? Surely we can confess our faith in words that mean more to 21st century people. People today like more variety!"

"People get tired of hearing that they're sinners. Do you really need to make a point about that every Sunday? Be more positive!"

"In the service talk more about things that really matter today. As Lutherans we know that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, so you don't have to repeat that so often. What people really want to know is how Jesus helps them with their families, their jobs, their lives today."

"Use videos in worship. That's how you're going to grab people's attention. After all, this is the TV age!"

"Let's make sure our people know that we need them to work around the church. Remind them of that every week, please."

About a year ago, after speaking with other LCA people in town, I thought that the "niche" my aging congregation could grab was that of contemporary worship. After all, that's what people want these days. If we're ever going to get younger members, we've got to give them what they want. And I see it in more LCA congregations now than ever before."

Sound familiar, LCA people? Sure does!

OK. Now I have a confession of my own to make, that is not an LCA pastor's confession but a WELS pastor's confession (WELS = Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, in the US); I've simply changed the nomenclature and spelling to reflect the Australian context. The original confession (unaltered!) can be found here http://www.intrepidlutherans.com (or just click on the post title), and I encourage my Australian readers to follow these intrepid WELS Lutherans as they attempt to chart a confessional course for their church body. We may learn something!

HT Lito at Extra Nos (link in right hand column).

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Trials of Pope Benedict XVI

A recent article in Time magazine has placed the current trials of Pope Benedict XVI in several important contexts: as the inevitable result of the poor administration of the RC church by his predecessor, John Paul II; as that of a theologian with a retiring nature coming up against ruthless ecclesiastical politicians adept at getting their way and stifling reform (it's 48 years since a Pope outwitted the Vatican apparatchiks); and as possibly the end-game of the hitherto almost mythical world-historical power of the Roman Magisterium, which no longer commands the automatic assent of the faithful:

"As the crisis grew in March and went on into April, many in the Vatican worried about the effect it would have on the papal magisterium — the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God. Vatican officials are concerned that a mea culpa would diminish the magisterium, which has been integral to the papacy's ability to project power in the world throughout its history, from the humiliation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in the 11th century to the humbling of Soviet power in Poland in the 20th. It plays a key role in the doctrine of papal infallibility, which declares that the Pope is never in error when he issues teachings ex cathedra — that is, elucidating dogma from the throne of St. Peter. It is tied up in the traditional prerogatives of that Apostle, to whom was given the power "to bind and loose" in heaven and on earth — in rough terms, the church's ability to open the gates of heaven to you or damn you to hell because it will always be holier than thou.

A truly successful mea culpa and penance for the abuse scandal must preserve the magisterium while dealing with these facts: Ratzinger, both in his role as the local bishop in Munich from 1977 to 1981 and as the overseer of universal doctrine in Rome, was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century. An effective mea culpa must assuage the faithful but still be couched in such a way that the shortcomings of the prepapal administrative record of Ratzinger are admitted and atoned for separately from the deeds of Benedict XVI, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. In that regard, the letter to the Irish faithful, while a model, has limited utility. The Pope was merely apologizing for errors committed by the hierarchy of Ireland, not for anything he or, indeed, the Holy See may have done, much less the mystical entity called the Church, the bride of Christ. Presented with the scenario of a personal apology by the human embodiment of the church, a well-placed Vatican official sighed as he weighed the theological and historical implications. "It's dangerous," he said. "It's dangerous." "

Whatever one may think of Roman Catholicism, this is a crisis of historical proportions playing out before our eyes, and it makes for fascinating observation.

Click on the post title to read the full article.