Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Bitter Brew

The Brewers' quest to reach the post-season for the first time since 1982 is over. Their 6-3 loss to the Padres last night, combined with the Cubs' victory, has eliminated them from contention. Thus ends a season of high hopes that started strong but ended with a series of maddening breakdowns. Now the goal, however pathetic, is to win at least one of their final two games in order to finish with a winning record, something the Brewers franchise hasn't done since 1992.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel so disgusted. The future remains bright - they're a young team that will certainly contend for the NL Central title next year. But let's review the events of the past 11 days, and maybe you will better understand my smoldering rage:

Sept. 18: The Brewers win their fourth game in the row, a 9-1 trouncing of Houston, and move into a first-place tie with the Cubs. But Ben Sheets, Milwaukee's perpetually injured "ace", leaves the game with tightness in his hamstring. His season is over.

Sept. 22: Against John Smoltz and the Braves, the Brewers tie the game on J.J. Hardy's two-run homer. In extra innings, Corey Hart leads off the top of the 10th with a solo shot but the Brewers can't get any more, leaving the bases loaded. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Brewer's closer Francisco Cordero gives up a home run to Scott Thorman (average .221!). In the bottom of the 11th, the Braves win thanks to a fielding error by Rickie Weeks.

Sept. 23
: The Brewer's bullpen suffers another meltdown, surrendering a 4-1 lead by giving up six runs in the 7th and 8th innings. Milwaukee manger Ned Yost is thrown out of the game for arguing with the umpires. He would be ejected from two of the next three games, and is currently serving a suspension (vide infra). The Brewers are now 3.5 games behind of the Cubs.

Sept. 24-25
: Milwaukee takes two from the Cardinals in dominating fashion, while the Cubs lose. The gap is closed to 2 games. Do they still have a chance?!

Sept. 26: No, they do not. Even though the Cubs lose again, the Brewers suffer the most aggravating loss of all. Trailing the Cards 3-2 in the 7th and with one out, idiot manager Yost sends in pitcher Seth McClung with orders to drill Albert Pujols in the ribs (McClung gets this done with one pitch) in retaliation for St. Louis hitting Prince Fielder earlier in the game. Both Yost and McClung are ejected, and later suspended. Turnbow relieves McClung, strikes out the first batter, and then forgets where the strike zone is located, eventually walking in a run. The Cards go on to get four runs in the inning, thanks in large part to Yost's macho posturing.

Sept. 27-28: Brewers lose badly to the Padres, twice. In the first game, they somehow manage to commit five errors! It's over.... Now all of America gets to cheer for those lovable Cubies (excuse me while I swallow my own vomit).

Where do we go from here? Like I said above, this is a team with a bright future, but it's a future that needs to be actualized now. Given the meager size of Milwaukee's payroll, we're not going to be able to keep all these players together for very long. So time is crucial. Hopefully, GM Doug Melvin will acquire some much-needed pitching in the off-season. And another question needs to be answered: is Ned Yost up to the task of leading the Brewers to the post-season? His performance down the stretch has been miserable - clearly, the pressure got to him. So perhaps it's time to make a change. Regardless, it will take a good deal of winter to get this bitter taste out of my mouth.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

God's Word in Filthy Language

In a previous post, I quoted from Heiko Oberman's biography of Luther to illustrate how the Reformer's frequent talk of the Devil, while often extreme, usually served evangelical purposes. It turns out the same can be said for another of Luther's embarrassing traits: his penchant for scatological language. Indeed, talk of Satan and talk of crap often went hand-in-hand, usually as a way of expressing contempt for the adversary. Once, after professing his faith in Christ, Luther added: "But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite." As Oberman writes, "Luther's language is so physical and earthy that in his wrathful scorn he can give the Devil 'a fart for a staff': You, Satan, Antichrist, or pope, can lean on it, a stinking nothing... A figure of respect, be he Devil or pope, is effectively unmasked if he can be shown with his pants down."

Luther's filthy language undoubtedly had something to do with his physical ailments. He suffered frequently from constipation, hemorrhoids and perhaps anal fissures. He once wrote to a friend that "after five days of constipation his bowel movement had caused him such pain 'that I nearly gave up the ghost - and now, bathed in blood, can find no peace. What took four days to heal immediately tears open again."

Most shocking of all, perhaps, is Luther's claim that he had his Reformation breakthrough while sitting on the toilet: "The Spiritus Sanctus gave me this realization in the cloaca." Catholic polemicists have seized on this comment as proof of Luther's depravity, and Protestant apologists have tried to explain it by saying he didn't mean the actual toilet, merely the study in the tower above it. But Oberman insists that we take Luther at his word:
"The cloaca is not just a privy, it is the most degrading place for man and the Devil's favorite habitat. Medieval monks already knew this, but the Reformer knows even more now: it is right here that we have Christ; the mighty helper, on our side. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost; this is the very place to express contempt for the adversary through trust in Christ crucified... Luther attests to the birth of Christ in the filth of this world. The Son of God was truly born into the flesh, into the blood and sweat of man. He understood men because He experienced - to the bitter end - what it meant to be human."
Luther was not some 16th-century Lyndon Johnson, using crude language to humiliate and intimidate. Instead, his goal was to express the profound earthiness of Christianity, the supreme condescension of God Incarnate who is "with us in mud and in work, so that his skin smokes." As Hamann understood well, God's Word often appears in filthy and vulgar language: "How the Holy Spirit humbled himself when he recorded the most trivial, and the most contemptible events on earth, revealing to man in his own language, in his own transactions, in his own ways, the mysteries and the ways of the deity."

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Denominations: What are they good for?

This is a bit belated, but D.W. Congdon has a must-read post at The Fire and the Rose on the future of Protestant denominations. It is no secret that the Protestant churches are in crisis, both here in America and abroad. D.W. cites Bruce McCormack, who has written that "if current rates of decline in membership continue, all that will be left by mid-century will be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches... The churches of the Reformation will have passed from the scene – and with their demise, there will be no obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation." A chilling thought!!

What I find so valuable about D.W.'s post is that he locates the problem in worship and tradition, not theology (although he admits that the two issues are not unrelated). Simply put, the established Protestant churches have failed to "inculcate an ecclesial tradition." I couldn't agree more. What's missing from many Protestant churches is anything distinctive, anything to give their members a unique identity. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others have all merged into a bland, homogeneous soup. These denominations have different histories and theologies, but most members aren't aware of these differences since they rarely manifest themselves on Sundays.

D.W. helpfully identifies five means by which traditions have historically been preserved in Protestant churches: sacraments, liturgies, catechisms, confessions, and hymns. All five have been marginalized in recent decades - the sacraments ignored or trivialized, liturgies radically revised or discarded, catechisms not used for the young, confessions unread and unknown, and hymns replaced by contemporary praise songs. To borrow Tillich's terms, gone is both "Protestant principle" (in the form of catechisms and confessions) and "Catholic substance" (in the form of sacraments and liturgies). It's no wonder that the churches are emptying. Of course, it's possible that this decline can be reversed but I'm not sure the leaders of mainline churches are up to the task. In their urge to be relevant, they keep repeating the same mistakes. They don't understand that the way forward requires going back to the past and reclaiming the traditions that have been lost.

In the end, it may prove impossible to save the "denomination" precisely because it's not worth saving. It's an artificial concept that emerged fairly recently and only in the American context. Moreover, it's profoundly uninspiring - who wants to be a member of a mere denomination when they can be part of The Church. That's why I've always been attracted to Robert Jenson's notion of Lutheranism as "a confessing movement within the church catholic." This movement transcends the boundaries of any particular denomination and has no existence apart from the universal church. Denominations are at most emergency institutions with penultimate significance. So perhaps we should shed no tears at their demise. But the question remains: can the confessing movement known as Lutheranism survive in America without them?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

On WTM's recommendation, I've been reading Heiko Oberman's impressive biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. As the title implies, Luther's vivid conception of the Devil figures prominently in the book, perhaps because one of Oberman's goals is to present Luther in all of his glorious strangeness. Here we do not encounter the tame and enlightened Luther of latter Protestant hagiography, but the bold, brilliant, shocking, and apocalyptic monk who turned Christendom upside-down. Regarding Luther and the Devil, Oberman writes:
"Luther's world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle...

"There is no way to grasp Luther's milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ - and Luther's faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of the time."
It's not surprising that latter generations of Lutherans have often been embarrassed by Luther's apparent obsession with the Devil. He sometimes sounds like one of those paranoid street-corner preachers who see the Devil everywhere. For modern folks, the Devil is either nonexistent or understood in a thoroughly demythologized way. Thus, Luther's worldview is bound to regarded as strange at best and dangerous at worst. After all, wasn't fear of the Devil behind all of those gory witchhunts? But Oberman is quite sympathetic towards Luther on this point. He stresses that Luther's talk of the Devil was usually done, not to terrify, but to comfort; it served evangelical and pastoral purposes. Take the following passage from Luther's Table Talk:
"[Luther said:] When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins - not fabricated and invented ones - for God to forgive for God's beloved Son's sake, who took all of my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny, but want to acknowledge and confess."
To which Oberman writes: "Luther's purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful.... As a rule [these stories of the Devil] have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generation for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of Gospel... They are not meant as horror stories to keep the overly audacious in line but as consolation and strength to timid and tired souls."

Oberman assumes that modern people are no longer capable of taking the Devil seriously, at least not to same extent as Luther. Satan's gone and he's not coming back. Which raises an interesting question for Lutheranism today: given the centrality of the Devil to Luther's thinking, are we really capable of understanding this man? More importantly, is Oberman right is saying that "without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ"? Is there any way to reclaim Luther's understanding of the Devil for the present age that isn't unbearably offensive?