Mean Lutherans PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 05 September 2011 07:38

Lutherans are mean. That’s one of the takeaways from James C. Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod (Fortress, 2011). Burkee documents the backroom betrayals, quotes the sharply worded personal correspondence, recounts the red-faced shouting and the table-pounding, records the scuffles on the way to the men’s room during General Synods. Glad I got out while the getting was good, off to the kinder, gentler world of Presbyterianism.

Burkee’s book, though, is not tabloid history. It fills a large gap in the history of American church history, and American political history as well. Though barely noticed by many American church historians, Missouri Synod Lutherans played a critical role in the mid twentieth-century renewal of fundamentalism and the formation of the Religious Right. Burkee makes the initially startling claim that Rev. Herman Otten, publisher of The Christian News and relentless scourge of liberals and moderates everywhere, “belongs on any list of the most significant leaders of the ‘New Christian Right.’” On reflection, it’s clear that Burkee is right.  The reversal of the Missouri Synod is right up there with the conservative recovery of the Southern Baptist Convention as major events of American Christianity in the last century, and no one was more responsible for Missouri’s turnaround than Otten.

Burkee’s portrait of Otten is not complimentary. Otten is a young firebrand who started charging professors with heresy before he left seminary, a crusader with a “Luther” or a “Machen” complex, an unscrupulous battler who published personal correspondence in his newspaper and regularly reprinted copyrighted material without permission from the original publisher, a man increasingly isolated, embittered, and “kooky.” Here I must declare an interest: My parents know Otten, and consider him a hero. Every now and again, the heroism shines through in Burkee’s tragic, even pathetic portrayal, as even Otten’s enemies (and they have been legion) see some grandeur in his unwavering commitment to principle.

And besides, not many of the other characters come off any better. Burkee quotes an interview with Otten in which he claims that then-LCMS President Jack Preus offered an alternative to open heresy trials, which Otten favored: “get some of these pastors, you know, some of them shack up with their confirmands, or something, you get something on them about sex, and tell them scram.”

I repeat: Lutherans are mean.


Christian ethics is best understood by analogy with improvisational acting, argues Samuel Wells in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Brazos, 2004). Valuable as “narrative” or “dramatic” models of Christian ethics are, Wells thinks improv is better because so much of what makes for Christian living is “unscripted.” Scripture’s narratives must be internalized, but then we have to perform in situations for which there are no obvious biblical instructions.

If this sounds like a prescription for subjectivism or relativism in ethics, it is because most people misunderstand the nature of improv. Improv is not about being clever, or being original, or doing whatever comes into your head. Being original is, in fact, the worst thing an improv actor can do. Rather, improv is all about doing the obvious, and in Wells’s view the way of Christian living is to steep “in a tradition so that the body is so soaked in practices and perceptions that it trusts itself in community to do the obvious thing.”  When the gospel becomes our sole given, we are ready to perform Christianly with “creative fidelity” (Kevin Vanhoozer’s phrase).

The second part of Wells’s book runs through six skills of improv (forming habits, assessing status, accepting and blocking, questioning givens, incorporating gifts, reincorporating the lost) and teases out their theological implications. One of the most intriguing notions is the contrast between “blocking” and “accepting.” A child shoots a finger pistol; his friend can either fall down dead (accepting) or pretend he didn’t get hit (blocking).  In improv, every action of a partner is an “offer,” and the rule of thumb is for the members of the group to accept everything that comes, and never block. Blocking stalls; it makes the action run aground.

One variation on accepting is “overaccepting,” which is “accepting in the light of a larger story.” Wells gives the charming example of a concert pianist who was interrupted by a child running on stage and sitting at the piano. Instead of shooing the child away, the pianist began to play along and integrated the child’s random notes into his own improvised music. Biblically, turning the other cheek is over-accepting. So is going to a cross. Over-accepting is not non-resistance to evil. It’s incorporating evil into the larger drama of God’s victory over evil.

Wells does not make sufficient room for blocking, which in my view remains a necessary item in the ethical toolbox. “No” cannot be expunged from Christian vocabulary. But his book calls attention to some neglected tools in an innovative, practice, and refreshing way.

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