The Perils of Remaining Lutheran

Evan McClanahan

la-cknight-1479672294-snap-photoAs a Lutheran pastor, my life, livelihood, peace of mind, and joy is inextricably bound to the Lutheran Church. It is not merely a part of my life. It is my life. As it goes, so I go to a very large extent. And that goes for the local parish as well as the Lutheran Church at large, even those denominations of which I am not a part. I care about it. I believe in it. I shapes my worldview. It gives life to and it tempers my hopes and expectations.

I suspect the same kind of sentiment is true for pastors in a variety of denominations and even for those disciples who are concerned for the Church beyond occasionally showing up on a Sunday morning. When things are good in the Church, anything is possible. When they are bad, despair always seems close at hand.

Like most mainline denominations, Lutherans have fallen on hard times. Mergers large and small took place over the course of the 20th century which gave the appearance of growth, unity and a bright future. But now, the numbers of Lutherans are in free fall. Where there was once genuine hope that a united Lutheran Church (or as united as Lutherans can be) would be stronger, wealthier and omnipresent, reality has set in that contraction is the norm.

What has become of this once-proud Church? After all, our namesake is the inspiration behind the most important moment in Western History since the Edict of Milan. I would argue that Lutheranism has at least three things going against it.

1) The issue which gave birth to Lutheranism is not the same issue our culture is concerned about. It is hard to imagine now, but there once was a time in history when human beings were concerned about their standing before God, given His holiness and our lowliness and all. Saint Paul, of course, provided the answer to this dilemma in his writings in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians on justification. You might even call his writings on justification the very heart of the Gospel itself.

As that knowledge was obscured by sub-biblical church traditions and practices, it needed to be rediscovered. Thus, the Reformation was born out of a real need to understand the joy of justification through faith alone.

But does the doctrine of justification, the animating force behind the founding of Lutheranism, still speak to us today? Sure, there remain many people who are burdened by their sins and receive the Gospel with glad hearts. But many have a casual attitude towards their evil. Worse, most of us assume, in fact, that we are by nature “good people”, and do not feel the burden of conviction from which only Jesus can free us. Preaching justification to people who are already justified in their minds is like offering a five-course meal to a man who just completed a meal of ten courses. There is no appetite for the historical (and biblical) Lutheran message so long as there is no fear of God.

So unfortunately, we must first convict the world of its sin before the sweetness of the Gospel will make any sense. But so long as Lutherans refuse to do the former, even the best expression of the latter will fall on deaf ears.

2) Lutherans possess neither the clarity of the Calvinists or the enthusiasm of Evangelicals. Protestantism in America generally falls along three lines: Calvinist, Evangelical (Baptist, Non-Denominational usually), and Charismatic. Lutherans have an alternative voice, a voice that might be welcome to many. But we have never had a significant foothold in the American religious landscape and we never will. Lutherans love to mock Calvinists for their logically air-tight arguments, but it is their sound arguments and powerful preachers (Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, etc.) through the centuries that keep them in the middle of the discourse whereas Lutherans are generally kept out.

Evangelicals (a word attributed first to Lutherans, of course) have had no shame in speaking about Jesus, frequently transgressing boundaries that Lutherans feel are safe. Again, all of the great non-Calvinist personalities in the history of American religion were Evangelical or Charismatic. None were Lutheran. Lutherans often attribute enthusiastic preaching of Jesus to emotionally-charged invitations to “accept Jesus” into one’s heart, a theological position that has been untenable since the early days of the Reformation.

That leaves us without much excitement one way or another, either in the logical purity of holiness-driven Calvinism or in the way of Evangelical furor. We look tame by comparison without much to offer.

3) Like it or not, Lutherans in America are here due to immigration, and that culture has defined us for centuries. When the Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes came to America for a better life, they acquired land and got to work. They developed communities, churches, schools, and wonderful lives, often defined by their language and their religion. They stuck to themselves by and large, sometimes refusing to even fellowship with other Lutherans if they were from a different home country!

There was little need for evangelism. Usually the problem for the pastor was keeping up with his demands. My own congregation’s records indicate that any pastor from say 1850-1950 would have conducted all of the normal Sunday services and Bible studies, dozens of weddings, funerals and baptisms to boot, and – one can imagine – an enormous strain of administrative duties. The culture of isolation and never needing to evangelize sunk in and never left. Once we realized that the church was no longer organically growing, it was too late. The inertia had set in.

To be clear, I do not feel that all is lost! But I also do not possess delusions of grandeur when it comes to Lutheranism in America. In a follow-up essay, I will try to offer some more positive thoughts about the future of Lutheranism and be so bold as to offer solutions. But we first need to understand what battles are at hand and why. Hopefully, I have offered an accurate critique and a defense for why Lutheranism either needs to change, or just needs to be better at being Lutheran.

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Reflections on the Autobiography of Malcolm X

malcolm-x-9396195-1-402Evan McClanahan

I am probably the least likely person to read the autobiography of Malcolm X. As a white, conservative Christian, I embody virtually everything wrong with the world from Malcolm X and the current “woke” world’s point-of-view. I am one of the “white devils” that Malcolm X so vehemently fought against during his eclipsed, but brilliant career. And yet, after the encouragement of a friend to read what is widely considered one of the most important American books of the 20th century, I admit that I found myself captivated and surprisingly empathetic to Malcolm X’s person and story. Further, there can be little doubt that his remains an important story to be told, especially in the wake of never-ending racial tensions and the call for reparations for slavery.

Malcolm X proves to be a fascinating character some 50+ years after his death. Undeniably brilliant and driven, Malcolm X made a mark on the world by sheer force of will and because the facts undergirding his inflamed rhetoric were largely on his side. Through his life and speech, he taught that blacks were victims of many injustices and whites had, generally, encouraged it or sat by while it happened. That had led to the races being odds with one another and hypocrisies on both sides. Malcolm X pointed that out and everyone hated him for it.

But he was a man with significant flaws, and his book bears that out. By the end, he begins to admit to several of them. (As is almost always the case with men of controversy like this, it sure would have been nice to see what a few more years of thought and experience might have done for Malcolm X.)

For one, Malcolm X was a man for whom moderation held no real value. Whatever he did, thought, felt, or believed, he was all in, in a way most of us mortals wouldn’t dare to tread. The chip on his shoulder – rightly earned through childhood hardship – drove him to see the world myopically and, literally, in black and white. He believed the line that Elijah Muhammad (the founder of the Nation of Islam and mentor to Malcolm X) was selling about whites being literal devils and blacks being the “original” and sanctified race, and his absolute belief in that reality made nuance impossible. In the world of human relations, nuance is a necessity, especially if you hope to educate in a way that deeply changes hearts and minds.

In a related manner, Malcolm X clearly fell prey to a con-artist and Scientology-level scam when he fell under the spell of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) generally. (He repudiated the NOI shortly before he was assassinated.) The founding myth of the NOI – that an evil scientist named Yakub created the white race through centuries of selective breeding on the island of Patmos – is so absurd it is hard to believe anyone could base their entire worldview upon it. And yet, Malcolm X did exactly that for over a decade. It, at least, calls his own credibility into question. Conversion or not later in life, the bulk of his work was founded on a myth that L. Ron Hubbard would have laughed off as absurd. (It is no wonder that the NOI and Scientology are now in cahoots.)

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t believe Elijah Muhammad expected many people to believe the myth. He only needed enough to carve out a comfortable life for himself and family. The Nation of Islam had only 400 members when Malcolm X stumbled upon these teachings while in prison. But because Malcolm X believed the myth and he was an “all or nothing” personality, he took it and ran with it and grew the NOI to levels no one could have possibly imagined. Soon, that mythology was held by hundreds of thousands, and intelligent men like Malcolm X, who should have known better, legitimized it by preaching it.

But as I said, had the black situation not been what it was historically, there would have been far fewer grievances to give rise to the likes of Elijah Muhammad in the first place. So Malcolm X’s rhetoric – once removed from the myth – held an uncomfortable ring of truth. The first third, for example, of the book details what was a common experience for many blacks in America in the early 20th century: Malcolm was without a father figure due to violence against him, the surrounding network was inadequate, educational opportunities were limited and discouraged, and a life of crime offered a more lucrative life. That’s not to say criminal behavior is “excused”, but it is better understood. If it is the case that blacks remained systemically segregated and outcast and without opportunity (even in the north), then whites need to be aware of that real history. And for heaven’s sake, if more whites had simply encouraged and educated blacks and opened doors, how much misery could they have alleviated?

As his speaking career blossoms, Malcolm X becomes famous for seeing no real compromise between the races, a position he ultimately retracts after his conversion to orthodox Islam. (A fascinating reality about this book is that it is written in the midst of his NOI indoctrination, his move away from the NOI, and his conversion to Islam.) So when he advocates black separation (not segregation), he is belittled by everyone, including the mainstream Civil Rights movement and especially by whites. Malcolm X correctly points out the hypocrisy of the whites: they had enforced segregation for years, but if a black person now advocates separation, they are dangerous? The same was true of gun ownership. If a white person advocated gun ownership, they were defending the 2nd Amendment. But if Malcolm X did it in the name of protection, he was inciting violence among blacks. These were the kinds of inconsistencies that Malcolm X excelled at pointing out, and they are still worth considering.

He also proves to be the kind of integral and committed figure that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. may not prove to be historically. No one has ever accused Malcolm X of financial impropriety, greed, adultery, or being anything but 100% committed to his beliefs.

So where does it book leave us today? Malcolm X speaks of many whites who were sympathetic to his teachings and agreed with them. Early in his career, he didn’t want their help. After his conversion, he did. And generally, his advice was that whites could make a difference in personal relationships among both blacks and whites, encouraging one another to see a common humanity and be advocates of peace and equality. That remains good advice.

What of the lingering phrase, “white devils?” That is a far more complicated question. As I said above, whites should be aware of the historic injustices of slavery, colonialism, and segregation. As Christians, we oppose all evil, no matter who committed it. But historic evils committed by whites does not mean that all whites are devils or that all whites have what they have through dishonest means. Virtues and injustices must be judged on a personal basis for that is how God will judge us. And systemic evils are changed when individuals – including those in power – change. To expose Malcolm X’s hypocrisy, his selective hatred of whites and praise of blacks along racial lines is the problem, not the solution. By the end of his life, he seems to have understood that, but the body of his work – while he was speaking for the NOI – is what remains most acutely in our collective memories.

As a Christian, I appreciate the need to listen to others, for it is always good to hear the cries of our neighbors. It gives us credibility as we form opinions on policies or the issues of the day. After reading this book, I didn’t walk away “woke” or in agreement that reparations solve our problems. I actually agree with Malcolm X’s cure to what ails the black race, or indeed, any ethnic group: he advocated a moral and upright life, free from basic vices and crime. In the end, he did not see any race as an enemy. And he did not trust the government enough to be a true solution to the black man’s plight. I’d say we need a bit more of all of that. Again, it would have been fascinating to see his thought development in time. Though far from perfect, he seems to have the intellectual honesty and unconventional courage that would have made a significant difference in time.

Violence in the Bible, the Nation of Islam, and some Current Events

8c26d21a47d7d791bcee520487ba4bdfThis solo episode looks at violence in the Bible, especially those troublesome portions of the Old Testament, the Nation of Islam’s mythology, and some recent events including the NPR’s new style guide when discussing abortion.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

First Lutheran also publishes a daily podcast called The Scarlet Thread (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-scarlet-thread/id1110938468?mt=2). This podcast is a reading of the appointed texts for the Two-Year Daily Lectionary. After two years, listeners will have heard most of the Old Testament once and most of the New Testament twice. If you are liturgically-minded and want a little more Bible in your life, this is a great podcast for you. Contact me here: emc2@felchouston.org.

A Theological Look at Netflix’s “Black Mirror”

downloadI’m joined by fellow “Black Mirror” enthusiast Broun Stacy to look at Netflix’s popular and controversial near-future show. We explore our relationship to technology, what many people hope it will offer, and where it will lead us astray. If you haven’t seen the show on Netflix, we give away the ending to every episode, so this is your spoiler alert! If you like sci-fi and have seen the show, then you might find this theological look at the show interesting. If you haven’t seen the show but plan to, keep this episode on hand.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

First Lutheran also publishes a daily podcast called The Scarlet Thread (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-scarlet-thread/id1110938468?mt=2). This podcast is a reading of the appointed texts for the Two-Year Daily Lectionary. After two years, listeners will have heard most of the Old Testament once and most of the New Testament twice. If you are liturgically-minded and want a little more Bible in your life, this is a great podcast for you. Contact me here: emc2@felchouston.org.

Reflections on the Death of Rachel Held Evans, Two Cultural Issues

Griswold-RachelHeldEvansThis solo episode looks at the death of progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans as well as two cultural issues. The first is a humorous look at comparing men of history to today’s standard and the second is a chilling story about a Canadian father’s resistance to calling his daughter a boy, even in the privacy of his own home.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

First Lutheran also publishes a daily podcast called The Scarlet Thread (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-scarlet-thread/id1110938468?mt=2). This podcast is a reading of the appointed texts for the Two-Year Daily Lectionary. After two years, listeners will have heard most of the Old Testament once and most of the New Testament twice. If you are liturgically-minded and want a little more Bible in your life, this is a great podcast for you. Contact me here: emc2@felchouston.org.

Links cited:

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/04/720298646/rachel-held-evans-christian-writer-who-questioned-evangelical-beliefs-dies-at-37

https://spectator.org/how-many-of-historys-famous-men-would-survive-modern-standards/

https://thefederalist.com/2019/04/29/authorities-arrest-canadian-father-refers-trans-child-real-sex/

A Debate: Should Worship Change with the Times?

Worship Debate FlyerOn Saturday, April 26, First Lutheran in Houston hosted a debate on contemporary and traditional worship practices. The question was: “Should worship change with the times?” This debate featured the pastor of First Lutheran, Evan McClanahan of First Lutheran, and Clinton Wilcox, a contemporary worship leader at Trinity Lutheran Church in Fresno, California. The audio for the debate can be found on the Sin Boldly Podcast and the video will be uploaded to YouTube soon.

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here.  That link will take you to iTunes. To subscribe to the Sin Boldly podcast with an Android phone, I recommend the Cast Box app, which easily finds Sin Boldly via search. Your iPhone (or iOS) Podcast app finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it may take a few hours from the time of publication until it shows up on the feed. To listen immediately, see below.

A Debate on Abortion with Egberto Willies and Clinton Wilcox

a88bf554b0bfdb0ee4aaed0a85380418KPFT’s own Egberto Willies joins pro-life speaker Clinton Wilcox to look at the question of abortion. Is it a great social injustice in our land or is forcing women to have children a kind of injustice on its own? Who can answer the question of when a human being becomes a person? When do human beings get rights, and when do they lose rights and why?

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here.  That link will take you to iTunes. To subscribe to the Sin Boldly podcast with an Android phone, I recommend the Cast Box app, which easily finds Sin Boldly via search. Your iPhone (or iOS) Podcast app finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it may take a few hours from the time of publication until it shows up on the feed. To listen immediately, see below.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

The Notre Dame Fire, with Architect Julien Meyrat

UnknownI am joined by native Parisian and architect Julien Meyrat to look at the Notre Dame fire and all of the surrounding questions in the wake of the fire. Where does it stand in the history of culture and architecture and what are the prospects for rebuilding it?

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here.  That link will take you to iTunes. To subscribe to the Sin Boldly podcast with an Android phone, I recommend the Cast Box app, which easily finds Sin Boldly via search. Your iPhone (or iOS) Podcast app finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it may take a few hours from the time of publication until it shows up on the feed. To listen immediately, see below.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

2 Views of Criminal Justice, 2 New Abortion Bills, and a Look at Mayor Pete’s Creator

heroThis episode, I look at two views of criminal justice, two new abortion bills, and Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s faith.

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here.  That link will take you to iTunes. To subscribe to the Sin Boldly podcast with an Android phone, I recommend the Cast Box app, which easily finds Sin Boldly via search. Your iPhone (or iOS) Podcast app finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it may take a few hours from the time of publication until it shows up on the feed. To listen immediately, see below.

Why the name “Sin Boldly”? Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon in 1521: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” To sin boldly, therefore, is not to seek unholy living, but to follow the course we believe the Bible demands even if the world is against us. And if and when we sin, trust in an even greater savior.

 

A Debate: What is Man’s Purpose?

Man's Existence Debate FlyerThis debate between two philosophers looks at the classic question: What is man’s purpose? Are we “merely” highly evolved animals, or something more? Do we need external, objective reasons for purpose or can we find it on our own? Thanks to Dr. Steven Pena and Professor Evan Friske for offering their skills and time for this event. Enjoy!