Saturday, November 4, 2017

Ein feste burg ist unser Gott�Luther's Reformation at 500


To perform a good deed once or twice is easy. But to avoid becoming bitter from the ingratitude and wickedness of those for whom you have done good deeds, that is difficult.

If I knew the world would perish tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.

One should not dispute with quarrelers. They won't be bettered thereby, but become all the more furious. They are not seeking truth, but glory and triumph.

Martin Luther
My junior year of high school was just incredibly painful. My nominally Lutheran preacher father had relocated the family to an ugly little oil town in northwestern North Dakota. Now there ARE people who are in love with vast and very bleak vistas of the "Peace Garden" state, but there aren't many of them, and I was certainly not one of their club. The wind howled all the time. Temps of -30�F (-35�C) in the winter were routine and while the brief summers were a lot warmer, the season brought clouds of hungry biting bugs.


The survivors of this natural brutality tended to be vicious and narrow-minded and my father had barely arrived before involving himself in one of those church fights that show the truly ugly side of Protestant Christianity. Since the preacher's kids were assumed to be part of the traveling salvation show, my behavior became fodder for about 300 gossiping church ladies. One of the charges was that I wouldn't join the high school basketball team�which really needed help (like losing 109-17 help). And while it was true that at 6'3" (190 cm) with large hands, I did look something like a basketball player, the problem was that I could NOT play the game. Not. Even. Close.

Perfect strangers would walk up to me and ask accusingly why I wouldn't help out the basketball team. My assurances that I would be no help�at all�fell on deaf ears because they all assumed the real reason was that I hated their town (and yes, I DID hate their little town.) To avoid these lovely encounters (and others like it) in a town that was obviously intent on running my father out of Dodge, I basically spent my time away from school hiding out in a cold, dark, but quite spacious, basement.

I had decided on an ambitious project that ate up major blocks of time�I would build the most beautiful model airplane I could build with the resources available in my remote little corner of the world. It would be a red and white biplane of my own design and would feature wheel pants, an engine cowling, an inverted fuel system, laminated balsa tail feathers, etc. From October to early April, I had something to do to escape the madness of a church fight in a minor burg that often smelled like ripe farts because the oil refinery at the edge of town would flare their sulfur gasses making enough hydrogen sulfide to stink up a whole corner of a state.

And then it was done. I did something I had never done before�I hung a completed model from the ceiling of my bedroom. I invited several people to see it. Got a few "That's really nice!" type comments but really, I wanted to take it out and fly it. Spring takes its time in arriving on the high prairies so waiting for a warm enough day to start a glow engine�that also included winds light enough so as not to just blow a model biplane from the sky�was an exercise in a patience I did not really have.

Finally, a day arrived where it was occasionally sunny with temps around 50�F (10� C). The winds were gusty but included long periods of calm. Close enough! So during a patch of sunlight, I started the engine and prepared for flight. Long story short, the flight lasted less than 15 seconds and the resulting crash essentially broke every part of the plane. I picked up the pieces and put them in a couple of grocery bags believing that somehow the beautiful biplane could be repaired. But by the time I got home, the reality had sunk in that seven months of pretty intense craftsmanship had been destroyed beyond any repair that used less effort than building a new plane from scratch.

That plane deserved a post-mortem and I discovered the cause of the crash. The method I had selected for securing the control rod to the elevator was just stupidly wrong. I had lost control almost immediately on take-off. It was obviously my own fault but soon I was raging at the heavens because I thought the punishment wildly exceeded the crime. "How could it be," I demanded of no one in particular, "that one small error in over 2500 operations could destroy seven months of work? And why isn't there an appeals process? Certainly I deserve a do-over."

Not surprisingly, as I was in the midst of an intensely stupid church fight, I began to see the crash of my beautiful biplane in theological terms. The god of the Old Testament was a mean old codger who insisted on complete obedience. Jesus, the god of the New Testament, was all about the forgiveness of mortal failings. He was the heavenly appeal process. He was the god of the do-over. If one were to call the scientific laws of nature the laws of god, then my airplane crashed because the Old Testament god demanded sinless perfection and I had sinned in my pushrod connection choice.

Suddenly, I began to understand why Martin Luther spent so much time trying to answer the question, "How can we love an absolutely just god?" His answer was that such a love was very unlikely but that god had provided a means to be saved even if someone is not perfect�the grace of Jesus. My problem was that by building an airplane, I had left the world of forgiveness and atonement. I was now in the world where if you make the tiniest error, you are destroyed. If you want to fly, you must obey ALL the natural laws�NO EXCEPTIONS, no appeals, no do-overs. The upside is that if you do love the god of natural laws, you can FLY (along with doing thousands of other nearly-magical acts.)

For me, this was a stunning lightening-bolt of an idea. By teaching themselves how to fly, humans had figured out how to be "perfect" in significant areas of their lives. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to live in the world where perfection is not only possible, but sometimes routine. And as the ugly church fight proved�the world that pursues sinless perfection is a remarkably superior alternative to the folks who argue about the best routes to forgiveness. Or as Toyota taught us�the route to high quality production isn't about being careful and hiring more inspectors, it's about getting it right the first time, every time. It's about designing the process so production "sinning" is impossible.

Anyway, I stopped going to devout observances at the first opportunity. But getting over the craziness of being a preacher's kid was going to be a long and drawn-out process. Mostly, I was furious at all the time and brainpower that I had wasted learning and defending utter bullshit. My intellectual breakthrough in the healing process came when I discovered that even (especially?) if religion is stripped of unbelievable claims like water into wine, it is still a fascinating demonstration of cultural anthropology. I still wish I could have back the wasted time and energy devoted to religion, but it turns out there is much to appreciate about my Lutheran / Nordic culture.

So in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I have compiled a list of those things about my cultural upbringing that have added to my understanding and appreciation for life.

Top seven reasons to be a (cultural) Lutheran


The notion of true moral courage. Martin Luther taught us that there were causes worth dying for. He stood up to some real bullies like the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor�folks who could have had him killed in truly hideous ways. Luther knew what he faced and seemingly never flinched. There are never many people like that�and most of them die in obscurity. Luther survived and thrived and created a singular role model for his followers.

The concept of vocation. Easily the best explanation for why Lutherans create remarkably successful societies, the glorification of vocation means you believe all work is honorable and should be rewarded fairly. In turn, you believe your own work is your contribution to the glory of god. Your work may be lowly but it should never be shoddy. As my father would thunder, "If it is your job to slop the hogs, then slop the hogs to the glory of god."

The belief in equality before God. This one is very important. It means you believe that everyone, no matter their social standing, should be subjected to the same rules used to control the poor.

The real virtue of honesty. Some folks seem to believe that honesty is an optional form of behavior. Such folks have some nifty-sounding names for their dishonesty like calling it "bullshit" or "enhancing the narrative." The Leisure Class swims in this world of lying with gradations. On the other hand, there is no Producer Class job that can be done well by dishonest people. Luther hated lying and lairs. The most famous Lutheran philosopher, Immanuel Kant, made honesty the categorical imperative. Not surprisingly, the Nordic Lutheran countries are nations of world-class builders where political corruption is extremely rare.

The role of literacy. By making literacy a requirement of the faith, Luther solved many problems simultaneously. By creating best-sellers like the Luther Bible, he paid back the printers who had supported his movement. He inspired courage and confidence by giving his people a great method for figuring things out for themselves. He offered his poor followers a way to cope with their social standing. Even the very poor can be rich in knowledge�something my ancestors believed to their very marrow (especially when times were hard such as during the Dust Bowl in Kansas.)

The importance of music. Yes indeed, it is good to teach Bach to children. Learning to sing parts means your music can go with you at minimal expense. It is interesting to note that in secularized Scandinavia, church attendance may have collapsed but there are hundreds of singing societies. A cultural Lutheran is someone who is pretty sure there is no god, but IF there is, Bach was his court composer.

The glorification of science and humanism. There are flavors of Protestantism that have turned "humanism" into a swear word. They are NOT Lutheran. Luther was a highly educated man who surrounded himself with some of the finest humanists of the day. Science, technology, and industrialization found receptive homes in the Lutheran cultures. Even the artistic preference for music spawned economically valuable skills as Lutheran churches went on a buying binge of pipe organs�the moonshots of their day.


Every year around the time of my birthday, my mother would retell just what a hassle my birth had been. It had been one of the hottest Julys in history and air conditioning in Minnesota was still very rare. But according to her, it was all worth it because my parents had been praying for a son who would grow up to be a great man of god (no pressure there, huh?) I was assured that I had come into the world to the sounds of my mother reciting the 23rd Psalm. (And yes, religious families do indeed talk like that.)

So on this 500th anniversary of an Augustinian monk finding 95 theological objections to the practice of selling indulgences, I have been wallowing in the various tellings of how the Protestant Reformation happened. Youtube has been my friend. And occasionally I would ask myself, "if Luther had been the prototype for my mother's 'great man of god,' how did I turn out?" Well, I had nowhere near the moral courage of Luther who was up against folks who burned people alive for amusement. I am not nearly so literate as someone whose translations are still beloved after nearly 500 years.

As for those other principles listed above, I think I could convince Dr. Martin to give me an A in both conviction and execution. I have seen them in action and can attest to their success. And if there is one area where I have the jump on Luther it is this: Because of all the natural laws that have been discovered since his time, I have been given thousands of reasons to love that no-appeals god he found so hard to love. I wonder how Luther's theology would have changed if he had been able to understand oxygen or electricity.

So this celebration has been fun. And now like a good Lutheran, I will slide back into my natural state�invisibility.

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