Lutheran Fun?!

Mark Ellingsen had me hooked with the words freedom, spontaneity, and fun, terms he uses to round out his explanation of what it means to follow Jesus along Lutheran paths.  Quite honestly when I hear “Lutheran,” those are not the first words that come to mind. Bach chorales, perhaps, but that’s a rather rarefied form of fun and hardly spontaneous.  Yet in considering further Ellingsen’s claims, I thought of the old man himself, the Luther we know through the informal Table Talks, the husband, father, friend, and theologian who said to guests around the supper table, “Our loving Lord God is willing that we eat, drink, and be merry, and make use of his creatures, for therefore he hath created them.”  There and elsewhere, Luther points to a theology of freedom, spontaneity, and fun.

It was surprise and a delight to experience how Ellingsen evokes neurological structure and brain chemistry to explain the joyful effects of walking in the way of Jesus, a framing that helped me to think about Luther’s Freedom of a Christian in entirely new ways. Doing good won’t save us – Christ has already done so – but it feels good to perform acts of Christian love.  Luther knew nothing about dopamine and oxytocin as brain chemicals that mobilize our happiness, but he knew how to be a serious biblical exegete and find joy at the same time.  Joy in a different key converted me to Pentecostal ways, but it was joy, nonetheless.  Maybe Pentecostal practices like dancing in the Spirit, praise breaks, or running the aisles also stimulate the synapses in ways I hadn’t thought about.  Hallelujah! What an important insight this is— that it’s possible to find joy, spontaneity, fun and freedom as we follow Jesus through life, a possibility often buried under Christian tendencies to take ourselves too seriously.

My evocation of Luther in the first paragraph of my comments here makes me wonder what it’s like to be a part of an eponymous Christian tradition, even when, as Ellingsen says, the appellation “Lutheran” was intended as a diss of Luther’s followers.   (This question anticipates our discussion of another eponymous Christian movement, the Wesleyan.)  As Ellingsen reminds us, in many places the proper term for Lutheran is “evangelical,” yet the old reformer’s name is also attached to Lutheran denomination in the U.S. and other places around the world. How much of a presence does Luther occupy in the imagination of Lutherans? And to what degree is the founder’s way of following Jesus reproduced in the body of Christians now called by his name, Lutheran?  Is the reverence for Luther among Lutherans an aide to piety, as if Martin Luther himself becomes a kind of Protestant saint to be revered and emulated? Or can the towering father figure of Luther sometimes be a stumbling block?

Ellingsen’s explanation of Lutheranism includes a heavy dose of attention to the formal confessions that are so prominent the tradition.  Pentecostals have confessions too, but they are local, varying from one congregation to another, and are of recent vintage. What do terms like Augsburg and Formula of Concord and Large and Small Catechism evoke in the lifeworld of everyday Lutherans?  A dim memory from confirmation classes, perhaps?  Or do these creeds and documents, intended to amplify insights and injunctions from scripture, really set the terms of following Jesus for Lutherans?  I’m really asking about the lived experience of Lutherans.  How much of that experience is linked to historical artifacts like these confessions?

I ask these questions with an eye on the reality that much of this Christian tradition, like so many others, took shape in a European context five hundred years ago and has spread globally by following (and sometimes resisting) efforts to colonize and convert.  European colonization began at roughly the same time that Luther’s reform emerged.  Luther’s memory, along with early Lutheran sermons and confessions (and ways of reading scripture), rode this wave around the globe.  It’s this protracted process that helps explain why there are more Lutherans in Tanzania than in Sweden.  What has this global spread contributed to understandings of being Lutheran and following Jesus on Lutheran paths?  How do those at a long temporal and geographical remove from Wittenberg and Augsburg see faith, piety, and politics?  Have they recast old Euro-American Lutheran theological and liturgical arguments, or do the divisions follow the trails that Mark outlines here?   Have the relationships between the colonized (or formerly colonized) and the colonizers and their descendants given Lutherans new insights into how to follow Jesus?  What happens now, as it seems likely, that Lutheran Churches in Europe and the United States continue to decline?

So far, ritual, ceremony, and liturgy have been consistent themes in our postings – no surprise, given that we kicked off the discussion with the Orthodox and Catholic conversation partners.  Ellingsen, too, appreciates this line of inquiry, and I’m grateful for the ways in which he calls our attention to the variety of Lutheran sacramental theologies and practices.

One artifact of modern Lutheran thinking that has enlightened me over the years is the Nairobi Statement, a 1996 declaration by the Worship and Culture Study Team of the Lutheran World Federation.  I assign it to my worship students, because at the center of its attempts to understand the dynamic relationship of worship and culture is the question:  Is there an essential core to Christian worship, a core that is transcultural?  The signers of the Nairobi Statement insist there is, and it includes the Sunday service of word and table, the Bible and its narratives about Jesus the Christ, and the performance of two sacraments instituted by the Lord – baptism and Eucharist.  Although the Nairobi Statement was intended for a global audience of Lutherans attempting to negotiate the cultural realities I mentioned above, the proclamation gained some traction in ecumenical circles as well.  Its skillful framing of the relationship between Christianity and “culture” might be instructive for us too, as we continue our respectful conversations.  To me, the question – is there a core to Christian worship? – can be extended in adjacent ways:  Is there a core to Christian life, a core that is transcultural and transtemporal?  A core meaning to following Jesus?

Whatever the cacophony of responses – even the multitude of conflicting voices from within my own tradition – I’ll be sure to take the question seriously but myself less so, as I follow Father Martin’s invitation to enjoyment of this life: “eat, drink, and be merry.”