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.”


1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Terry,
    I definitely had your heritage in min d when I wrote my posting, with references to spontaneity and the strong Lutheran teaching about the Holy Spirit. But I was even happier to learn that you thought we might even have some Christian fun together. No surprise in a way, because I see real connections between the Pentecostal experience and the ecstasy (and fun) of living a life of faith. For one, the ecstasy of union with Christ in justification is not unlike the ecstasy of the experience of tongues. At least there seems to be neurobiological similarities, for although a focus on Jesus activates the front part of the brain, in glossolalaia it is the back of the brain (the parietal lobe which is exercises) which is activated. In both cases, though, the believer loses his/her sense of self (Andrew Newberg et al, “The measurement of religion cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study,” Psychiatry: Research Neuroimaging [2006]). Also note again the strong Lutheran emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit involved in all aspects of following Jesus (The Small Catechism).

    I should address the good questions you pose. Regarding the role of Luther and the Confessional documents in Lutheranism, the best answer I can give is, “it depends on who you ask.” The Liberal Protestant leadership will tell you that they are irrelevant and a stumbling block or (diplomatically) tell you they are important but proceed to ignore them in practice. Pietists can go either way. And Confessionalists, while lamenting their lack of impact and lamenting lay ignorance of them will insist that these are rich resource for reform in Lutheranism and in the Church catholic. Personally I have found a resonance towards Luther and these documents in the pews, at least among life-long Lutherans, that you have a better chance of making changes in church life if you can cite Luther and these Confessions as precedents for what you are doing. Loyalty to the Confessional documents is pledged in Lutheran congregational constitutions.

    Regarding how all this cashes out it worship, as a former staff member of a Lutheran World Federation-related organization I can say that the Nairobi Statement you cite is on target, Lutheranism at its theological best, though we have a long way to go in implementing these ideas in practice. The statement does not invoke, but stands in a tradition dating back to Lutheranism’s 16th-century Confessions, invoking the concept of adiaphora – things indifferent (Formula of Concord, SD X). This is the concept that if a practice or idea does not pertain directly to the Gospel and is not in contradiction with God’s Word, anything goes. Do what works. Obviously this potentially opens doors to flexibility in polity, worship, congregational life, even lifestyle. You may better be able to sense how the Nairobi Statement is in this tradition. Alas, due to the close association of Lutheranism with German or Scandinavian ethnicity and culture this concept has not been well executed, though I am told that in Tanzania (the largest African Lutheran church) worship is thoroughly indigenized.

    How is the concept of adiaphora applied to following Jesus? Interestingly enough, I think Augustine best describes how to identify the core of Christian life and what to do about it a transcultural way. He wrote: “Act as you desire, as long as you are acting with love” (Enchiridion, 22,21). To me, that’s freedom, and then all the good-feeling brain chemicals that also bubble up in joyful worship kick in.

    Your partner in freedom and Spirit-filled fun,


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