Lutheran: To Be or Not to Be


So Herr Veith has another post on why Lutheranism is not considered the go-to choice of young, restless, and reflective Christians. He is playing off a post by Matthew Block over at his Captain Thin blog, which is responding to an AmCon piece entitled “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy.”

Everybody got that?

Check out the combox at Cranach for opinions as to why those millennials yearning to smell bells don’t head to Wittenberg, as opposed to Canterbury, Rome, or Constantinople. I already offered my opinion as to why I thought Calvinist churches were more attractive to many than were Lutheran, so let me throw one more stink bomb onto the buffet table:

Lutherans are boring.

Let me explain before you expel something you may need later in life.

Never underestimate the power of pop culture in molding young minds into malodorous plops of goo. Pop culture is where images are emblazoned on young minds, and where challenges to “orthodoxy” or tradition are often waged. When a twenty-something plays back his DVR or calls something up on Hulu, and there’s a scenario in which a Christian is represented, what typically does he or she see?

1. A fundamentalist of the Carrie’s mom type. (Stephen King is particularly good at reducing all Christians to the Misery-inducing fanatic.) Angela in the early seasons of The Office also fits nicely here.

2. The bland parson/minister whose treasury of bromides and claptrap is as .

3. A born-againer who is kinda thick and narrow-minded but not necessarily a bad person. Think Sheldon’s mom on The Big Bang Theory or Shirley on Community. They usually have an unorthodox love life of some kind or a behavioral tic that signals “hypocrisy.”

3. The progressive type, usually a woman, who has eschewed anything resembling doctrine in order to spread spirituality like peanut butter, leaving the allergic to grasp wildly for that EpiPen.

4. A Catholic. Catholics come in more than one variety:

(a) the corrupt clergyman in a big hat who’ probably got a woman or small child chained to an altar somewhere.

(b) the detective (see Father Brown or Cadfael or Father Dowling) — wicked smart but doctrinally irrelevant,

(c) the all-purpose “religious” who performs weddings, funerals, and baptisms and who usually blurts out “Haven’t seen you in church for a while” to uncomfortable grimaces all around.

In other words, what’s a Lutheran? If they’re not on the screen, they aren’t really seen. And why would you choose a Lutheran for any of these purposes? Remember, pop culture deals in tropes, types, especially when it comes to “traditional” and “conservative” types. Sensitive progressives hammer home stereotypes in order to box in figures they believe are adversarial by nature or proclamation. Lutherans don’t register as offering anything these more conventional and immediately recognizable figures do. (Eastern Orthodox also lose out here, unless the scene is set in Russia. As for Calvinists, they’re usually lumped in with the fundies, screaming about the wrath of God and that damn Darwin.)

Lutherans don’t bring anything to the party that, say, an Anglican minister wouldn’t: a guy in a dress in a big stone church who, unlike an RC priest, can marry. The Lutheran distinctives are truly distinctive only to the initiated.

Think about the last “Lutheran” character you encountered in pop culture. There was that Gary Marshall film with Goldie Hawn’s daughter whose name escapes you, if it was ever lodged there at all. There was that funny scene in Catch Me if You Can with Amy Adams and Leonardo DiCaprio. And, of course, the great LCMS-ELCA schism debate in Cheers.

Am I missing something?

That this is shallow stuff and shouldn’t matter is beside the point. We’re talking impressions: good and bad. We’re talking baggage and history and color and “powers” — don’t all Catholic priests know how to solve crimes, given all that canon-law stuff and insight into human character gleaned from the confessional? I mean, when they’re not abusing children or banning abortion? And don’t they have all that cool “magic” — like holy water and vampire-vanquishing crucifixes and crying statues and saints who could fly because they never ate butter?

And don’t underestimate the appeal of “celebrities” in this regard. By that I don’t mean Martin Sheen. I mean the saints (many of whom Lutherans claim as their own, as part of the church catholic, but no one seems to believe them), and the great writers (Waugh, Greene, O’Connor, Tolkien, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis — not to mention Swift and Donne and Herbert), artists (not enough room), theologians, and mystics. Lutherans have the great Bonhoeffer: but how many confessionals look askance at him? There are the great artists of the Reformation, Cranach foremost among them, but how many millennials know his work and consider him in that league? There’s Bo Giertz, but, again, how many non-Lutherans have even heard of him? (Or, for that matter, how many Lutherans?) The only true Lutheran rival to the aforementioned greats is, of course, J.W. Bach.*

Even evangelicals have the stink of activism about them. Along with the tract-distributing and the textbook-fiddling, don’t they work in soup kitchens and with the homeless a little? Didn’t they protest something once that I could’ve gone along with? Was it slavery? (Or was it busing?) Do they still burn witches?

What do Lutherans do, if anything? Isn’t that mostly a cultural thing, like being Ukrainian Orthodox? Don’t you have to be German or Denmarkian or a Norweegie or from one of those other icy countries to be Lutheran? Do they even let foreigners in?

Growing up, all the Lutherans I knew were boring. They minded their ps and qs and paid their taxes on time (begrudgingly—I was LCMS, after all) and kept their heads down and their feet on the ground. They were good citizens and thought things through and were practical, rarely all that imaginative (although every once in a while a teacher would try and shake things up, only to be brought to heel if no great measurable results were forthcoming). There were exceptions, of course. (An elementary school teacher pretty much drank himself to death.) But they were notable for being exceptions.

I also knew a lot of Catholics, growing up in an Italian family and a working-class neighborhood in Queens and all. Among them were a handful who had horror stories about the church, who had suffered life-altering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy. I knew others, almost all women and adolescents, who had a long list of things they had to do and had best never do lest their salvation slip from their hands like a Rosary made of Crisco. I was 26, however, before I met an adult male who was a practicing Catholic. They wore their Catholicism like those chains around their neck — an identifier and charm in case of car accident. Culturally, Catholicism was in their DNA — if you were Italian, you were Catholic and could be nothing else. But in terms of actual practice, it was for children and old ladies. Of course there were the Baptism and First Communion parties. The church was a necessary adornment to Life, with a capital El. So long as it knew its place. Even gangsters were Catholic in this sense.

In other words, Catholics were many things, but boring was not one of them.

The few born-againers whom I knew (my best friend, Joe, included) were scary. In terms of things they were not allowed to do, good gravy, what could they do would have made a shorter list. I remember when a bunch of my friends and I went to see a Broadway play in high school — there was no way in hell Joe was going to be allowed to step foot in that temple of doom. And when we tried to get tickets to see a live taping of Saturday Night Live — we may as well have invited him to a brothel. (To be sure, these were mostly his mother’s, and his Pentecostal church’s, restrictions. He would have loved to have gone.) To the Born Again, God seemed like a next-door neighbor, someone you talked to every morning on your way out and every evening on your way in. If you needed to borrow something, why, there was God, ready to lend! If you were depressed or confused, why you popped over and had a chat with God, who seemed to have all the answers to questions it would never have dawned on me to ask Him. He had a very specific will for almost everything, and if you stepped outside that channel he had dug with his very own hands, well, you had better be prepared for some extraordinary chastisements.

Yes, the 70s-style Born Again Christian was anything but boring.

But Lutherans. Slow. Steady. Invisible. Boring.

Of course, as I got older, I realized there were many many worse things than being boring. Like being abusive. And legalistic. And filling kids’ heads with all manner of wrath-of-God/sinners dangling from a thread over the fires of hell stuff.

OK. So Lutherans don’t so much get bad press, as no press. But what to do now? How to capture the attention of these millennials now?

Haven’t a clue.

Look, if the millennial in question is looking for a church with a rich catholic heritage, one where he or she doesn’t have to make believe the Holy Spirit went AWOL from Clement of Rome to Geneva, but who also doesn’t believe in a literal six-day creation or a universal flood through which Noah carried baby dinosaurs, then confessional Lutheranism is not for them. If you hand them Pieper or Walther and they happen upon an attack on “Copernicanism,” you’re cooked. Maybe they’ll discover enough that is still attractive about the Lutheran construal of the Faith such that they’re willing to keep their “liberal” opinions to themselves — but that’s a maybe. They don’t have to worry about such things in RC and Orthodox churches, and I would imagine in high-church Anglican ones, too.

And if the millennial in question wants to change the world, get out there and fight the culture war, get those Ten Commandments back into those infernal public schools, pass a buncha laws that will put Christ at the center of the public square, and fashion a truly Christian Pilates, then maybe a 2K faith is not for them either.

So just hand them some Luther. Straight up. The only Luther I remember reading before college was the Small Catechism and mere snippets, soundbites, of this that and the other. Give them Luther’s great triad: Two Kinds of Righteousness, The Babylonian Captivity, and The Freedom of a Christian. Show them how the Great Reformer infused the catholic faith with evangelical doctrine, purging piety of medieval accretions and superstitions while clinging to what was truly cruciform. Let Luther’s voice reach down into their soul. (I heartily recommend Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull, as an ideal Luther starter.) Share with them that the Lutheran understanding of Holy Communion and Baptism — of baptismal regeneration and the real physical presence (not merely spiritual) — is ancient and biblical and coherent, whereas if you ask a “continuing” Anglican to explain those two sacraments, you will get as many answers as there are “traditional” Anglicans — from evangelical to Anglo-Catholic. (Also make the distinction between Roman transubstantiation and Lutheran “in, with, and under.” The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ?)

If you really want to pull out the stops and extoll the distinct way in which Lutheran do theology, direct the inquirer to Stephen Paulson’s Lutheran Theology. His head will explode. All that talk of God trying to kill the sinner in order to raise him from the dead. It’ll sound like a damn monster movie, in Apollo Creed’s phrase.

But once you direct the inspiring Lutherans to a church, we have another obstacle to overcome. Assuming you are a confessional Lutheran reading this, you know as well as I that if they walk into, say, an LCMS church, there is no way to prepare them for what they will encounter. Forget about the preaching for a moment, the endless squabble about the third use of the law or exhortations to good works or progress in sanctification. Let’s focus on the liturgy as liturgy for now. It can be almost anything these days, from something cooked up in a Baptist lab to near Tridentine stolidity. Catholicism has some of this problem, too, but I think most of the post–Vatican II flakiness has been contained. And worse comes to worst, there is always a Latin Mass somewhere.

Aside from some evangelical, mega-churchy wannabes among Lutheran clergy, the Lutheran Service Book also presents a problem, in my opinion: there are simply too many choices. I grew up with The Lutheran Hymnal, where we used basically two services: Matins and Holy Communion—what we now refer to as Divine Service 3. We knew both by heart by Confirmation time. You could leave the church and come back 20 years later and be able to sing the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei from memory—the music and voices would reach such a pitch that you didn’t need glossolalia to speak in a heavenly language: it became the background music to your life. It was also catechesis in a bottle. There are too many variations of the liturgy now, and too many cut-and-paste jobs, where pastors excise the parts that either slow down the service (in someone’s mind) or that make him uncomfortable. (And by that I mean you can always get a cantor to sing if the pastor can’t.)

Divine Service 3 is thee Lutheran liturgy for me: rich, beautiful, memorable, catholic, Christ-focused.

But that’s my bugaboo. You may enjoy the other liturgies and the fact that there’s variety. Fine. But again, there’s nothing you or I can do about how an individual congregation handles whatever liturgy it uses, if it uses one at all. That is where most Orthodox churches have the advantage, I would think. There are cultural variations, certainly, but would most newcomers notice them? They’d notice a heckuva lot more traditional practice and uniformity, no?

So there you have it. What does Lutheranism have to offer that Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism doesn’t? Luther. A pre-medieval worship that has exorcised the penitential out of repentance, all the obfuscating cults of the saints that made grace something one had to connive out of God as if he were a Renaissance prince whose attention could be gotten only by court insiders. Justification by faith alone. The gift of vocation that put a blacksmith on spiritual par with a bishop. The great freedom in knowing that God doesn’t need your good works — but your neighbor does, who is therefore not a means to a ladder-climbing end.

And the theology of the cross, which does more to eviscerate the unconsciously karmic idea of life’s causes and effects than anything else. Ever pray fervently for some good thing and received the exact opposite of what you prayed for? Yet instead of rebelling, you came to understand what it was to wait with Christ one hour in Gethsemane? You are a theologian of the cross.

In other words Christ at the beginning, Christ at the center, Christ at the end. And for you.


P.S. Should someone bring up the vile On the Jews and Their Lies, tackle it head-on. Explain that Luther was a sinner in need of saving like everyone else, given to fits of rage and even megalomania, and that our faith is not built on a man but on the man-God, Christ, whom that sinner, remarkably, reminds us can be found only in Word and Sacrament. The apostle Peter was a sinner, too, as was Paul, who was implicated in the murder of Stephen. We have no need for plaster saints whose lives are as much legend as history. Also, if you really want to get into it, point them to where the practice of herding Jews into ghettos began, who first put stars on their clothing. Remind them of how the Jews were expelled from England, and also of the pogroms of Eastern Europe. In other words, there is more than enough calamitous sin, in some cases rank evil, to go around when it comes to the way Christians have treated their Jewish friends and neighbors in history. Also give them a copy of this.   

*Thanks to commenter — and Lutheran pastor —  Tapani Simojoki for the reminder!


48 thoughts on “Lutheran: To Be or Not to Be

      1. Although – in the same movie, the young Catholic priest is presented in a very nuanced and complimentary light. Doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the “Catholic priest” categories you outline above. Not at all the typical Hollywood depiction of the “religious” character. Refreshing, really. Eastwood gets a thumbs up.


    1. Should have added a paragraph re: obstacle to millennials becoming Lutheran — contending with the gatekeepers of “orthodox” Lutheranism. By the time they figure out who has the keys to unlocking that apparent mystery, they’ll be so exhausted it’ll be easier to just stay where they are.

      BTW: Gene Veith seems to have appreciated what Paulson contributed in that book. But I guess he doesn’t understand or appreciate orthodox Lutheranism either:


      1. Actually, I was really happy to see you get through a whole post extolling the blessings of Lutheranism without taking a swipe at your fellow Lutherans.


  1. Anthony,

    Great piece – going to link to it at my own blog. I’d add to boring: simple, humble, weak.

    Well, I commented on that thread of Veith’s – and ended up posting about it as well on my own blog (do a search for “Paulson” there). I took issue with this statement:

    “…The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free.” (italics mine, Lutheran Theology, p. 7)

    I would assert this: To say that truly free people don’t have anything to accomplish, anywhere to go, or won’t ever need to be directed at all in this life (or heaven for that matter) is something we have no business asserting.

    So this seems to touch on all that “third-use” stuff you were talking about above.



    1. “I would assert this: To say that truly free people don’t have anything to accomplish, anywhere to go, or won’t ever need to be directed at all in this life (or heaven for that matter) is something we have no business asserting.”

      Agreed. Because that would imply we are merely free from something and not also free for something.


    2. Perhaps it goes down more smoothly if you add in the context of “not in accord with ourselves”.

      “Nowhere to go, nothing to do” that concerns ourselves.

      Perhaps Paulson was so caught up in that context already that he didn’t see the immediate necessity to clarify himself.
      As Anthony pointed out, it gets the “free FROM ourselves” part right, but it just isn’t clear on the “free FOR God” part.

      I agree with both of you, I’m just attempting to put a positive spin on Paulson as a courtesy.


  2. Mr. Sacramone,

    What do Lutherans have to offer? Only Jesus, I hope. I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll never be the cool kids on the block. At its best, being Lutheran is simply a way of faithfully being catholic that, in faith and practice, privileges the gospel of Jesus above all—what Herman Sasse called “the lonely way.” We’re curious critters, sure, but what’s wrong with that?

    Thanks for your words. From one Italian Lutheran to another, I salute you.


  3. Good post. One criticism, though: you’re talking modern Lutheranism, with a decidedly (and understandably) North American perspective. Once upon a time, pretty much the only church music worth listening to was written by Lutherans, from Praetorius and Schütz up to the death of J.S. Bach. That’s pretty impressive. There were some great Lutheran painters, especially in the 16th century, though not nearly enough. Almost no-one wrote hymns (at all!) except the Lutherans, until Isaac Watts.

    Alas, Lutheranism lost its soul and its courage at some point. First, it went wifty-wafty, as my daughter would say. Then it re-branded itself as Fences-‘R-Us. But it does have a soul: the Gospel, and a theological framework that should liberate whatever is noble, etc., in art, politics, or whatever.

    At the same time, the theology of the cross teaches us not to worry about any of this too much.


    1. Sure — but if we’re talking about modern North American millennials poised to make a decision about a liturgically minded church, that is the perspective from which they will be judging.

      I should have included Bach as a major contributor to culture, to sit alongside the others. In fact, I will.


  4. Fair enough. And don’t forget Mendelssohn, or if we are happy to be cultural Lutherans, Brahms.

    But a church that gives birth to Bach et al. has (ought to have) something to say to millennials, too. It ought to be intrinsically interesting to find out what could give birth to them. It’s just that we’ve lost an awful lot of what did give birth to them.


  5. Silent and as boring as light and salt, we hope. For without light and salt we fall down and nothing is preserved or tastes good.

    P.S. Let’s not forget Garrison Keillor and Walter Wangerin, on second thought….


      1. Mr. Keillor told me one major reason he went Anglican is he can usually count on a well done liturgy. That says something about us silly Lutherans


      2. Interesting. I would have thought it was because TEC/broad-church Anglicanism comported better with his politics. At least I can understand the liturgy objection, and sympathize. The question is, yes, they do a nice liturgy, but what does a given Anglican church teach?


  6. Hi Anthony,

    Great insights in this post, as usual. Oh, just a couple of Lutherans-in-movies that come to mind that you missed:

    1) In Catch Me if You Can, Brenda (the girl Frank almost marries) and her family are Lutheran.
    2) The church that Lars is a member of in Lars and the Real Girl is also a Lutheran church.

    Also, good advice regarding Luther and the dreadful work On the Jews and their Lies. I wrote something similar in an article for The Canadian Lutheran last year entitled “Martin Luther: Sinner/Saint.”


    1. Thanks, Matthew.

      1) That’s why I included that clip — which is why the line, “Frank, you’re not Lutheran?” is particularly funny/poignant.
      2) Never saw that movie. But I will now.



  7. Did I see mention the Lutheran Confessions? If you want to understand Luther read the Confessions. If you want to know what it means to be Lutheran compared to the others, read the Confessions. Book of Concord is the way to know what is Lutherans believe. And the Confessions are not boring!


  8. “There’s Bo Giertz, but, again, how many non-Lutherans have even heard of him?”

    This non-Lutheran has. But only because of a Lutheran commenter on a blog thread.

    Great post. Thanks for the honest internal critique of Lutheranism.


    1. Just so everyone knows, this guy “Truth Unites” is a serial troller at Lutheran sites, venting his spleen and spewing his venom at every opportunity against Lutheranism. My theory is that he did not get as many cookies as he wanted at a Lutheran Vacation Bible School when he was seven years old and has never forgotten the experience.


  9. Great insight, Ser Sacramone:

    One cinematic example of a non-boring Lutheran from one of Brian de Palma’s better movies (realizing that this is not setting the bar very high, I still liked it)


  10. Many consider the Lutheran church to be cold. When I took a friend to church I told her that no one would talk to her. She didn’t believe me, but I was right.


    1. I’ve heard this before, but, on a personal note, the reason I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran was because of the warmth (and personal instruction in a whole new way of looking at the Christian faith) that my mother experienced at a small Lutheran church in Queens, New York. She was 12 at the time. And not yet my mother. Which I think is implied. She eventually became a Sunday school teacher and insisted her children be raised Lutheran. My father eventually left the Catholic Church and became a Lutheran, too.

      As for my experience, I can’t get people to stop talking to me at church. “Why are you here? Why don’t you leave us alone! Why do you write those terrible things? You’re a sad, sad man. We hope you choke on that donut. And by the way, stop eating our donuts.” You know, the usual coffee-hour chit-chat.


  11. Now this is the definitive answer. I’m going to post about this. Though my experience has been so different. Coming from the blandest version of mainline liberal Protestantism, I found Lutheranism–all that chanting, theologizing, and eating the body and blood of Christ–to be very exotic and mind-blowing.


    1. For an adult convert who is immersed in the theology, it’s easy to see why it is compelling. For a teen fixated on movies and the future or a secular culture that views Lutherans as merely Roman Catholic lite, it’s easy to miss a lot.


      1. It’s a viscous cycle, I guess. My parents (when I was a teenager) were drawn in by the doctrine/new way of looking at Christianity, etc. I guess you could say I was too in that I didn’t grow up with Lutheranism. My children, however, DID grow up with Lutheranism, and they seem to have stuck with it so far. At least they haven’t lapsed into complacency with it I don’t think. Now that my grandchildren are being “raised Lutheran” I wonder if their experience will be more like yours, where being a Lutheran seems like something your family has always done without thinking. I hope not. At least all the old Lutherans closest to them are also fixated on movies. Maybe that’ll make a difference.

        But I have to echo Dr. Veith in that I have heard African American Lutherans, apparently tired of the routine of more traditionally southern denominations, say that they found Lutheranism new and refreshing.


      2. But I have to echo Dr. Veith in that I have heard African American Lutherans, apparently tired of the routine of more traditionally southern denominations, say that they found Lutheranism new and refreshing.

        Yes, certainly: Which is why I noted in my “The Lutheran Church Is a Mess” post that the experience of adult converts, especially those coming in from legalistic or charismatic churches, will no doubt differ from those who have another history with the church.


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