Thursday, October 11, 2012

Confessional Lutheran Evangelism: Confessing Scripture's Message about Advent & Christmas

The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, Jesus Christ

The Church Calendar and Evangelism: Reformation

In my previous post, entitled Confessional Lutheran Evangelism: Confessing Scripture's Message about the Reformation, I promised in this final installment to feature the evangelism mailing our congregation had developed for Advent/Christmas – and in the case of this mailing, Advent definitely made a prominent showing. We did this on purpose – just as we recognized of the term “Lent” (see my post covering the development of our Lenten mailing), we realized that most folks in the upper midwest have probably at least heard the word “Advent,” and have maybe even heard it used in connection with Christmas, but probably don't really know what it is. Since our congregation takes the season of Advent as seriously as it does Lent, holding mid-week Advent services in the weeks prior to Christmas, and since most folks have already heard of Christmas (though many are confused about its true meaning), we decided to develop a mailing that would share the message of Law and Gospel by making use of the term “Advent” in a way that prominently connects it to Christmas and to as many of the other topics we shared throughout the year as possible – using and reinforcing terms and concepts from our Lenten, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost and Reformation mailings. Thus, it begins by both telling and depicting the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah, continues by depicting the fulfillment of that prophecy with the birth of Jesus Christ, and then concludes by telling the reader of His second Advent – of His imminent Return as a victorious King and righteous Judge – and pointing the reader to his very real need for Righteous standing before God, to his very real need for Faith, in order to be prepared for that Day.

But I also promised to share some brief personal thoughts regarding the vocational needs of the evangelizing congregation and the Evangelical Church at large.

Nurturing the Fine Arts in the Church
If the Church, or the individual Christian, has any “job to do,” if there is anything which the individual Christian, or the Church, ought to become “effective” at, or strive to become excellent at, it is this one thing: communication. The Church is a herald, and Christians tell, of the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Message of Law and Gospel. The Holy Spirit works through that Message to create and strengthen Faith and to teach and remind its hearers of all that Christ taught. We communicate the Message. Period. The Holy Spirit does the rest. But we do communicate.

As was discussed at length toward the end of the 2011 Christmas Season, in my post, Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 2: Heinrich Schütz ... and other thoughts to ponder over the New Year Holiday..., true Art isn't just dazzling technical skill, it's compelling conversation or communication; and in the comments of that post I elucidate further that skilled communication, as represented in true and compelling Art, represents mastery of the highest stage of learning: the Rhetoric Stage. Thus, true Art isn't “unbridled natural creativity,” which often succeeds in communicating little more than gibberish. Moreover, developing creativity has very little to do with nurturing a child's “natural creative instincts” with a box of crayons or by providing “outlets for creative expression” – although this sort of thing may well develop some technical skill while providing enjoyment and developing interest. The fact is, almost no one has enough creativity of their own, “nurtured” or not, to produce anything compelling, on its own. On the contrary, and as also discussed in that post, true creativity is nurtured by studying the Masters, the very best that Western Civilization has produced throughout its history, by understanding their idiom in its context, and then adding to it one's own pittance of creativity as he communicates in his own context. In other words, the creativity required to to produce a widely compelling work, is not just one's own, it is mostly the creative genius of others plus one's own. In this sense, true Art isn't radical. It's conservative. That is, it is conserving something, namely, the creative genius of the past, carrying it forward through the present and into the future.

This emphasis on “conserving the past” comes up frequently on this blog. In fact, it was the major theme of the paper I delivered at the 2012 Conference of Intrepid Lutherans. That is because it is in this sense that the very character of Lutheranism is historical. As Charles Porterfield Krauth explains in his monograph, The Conservative Reformation and its Theology, the Lutheran Reformation was not a radical reformation, it was conservative. His Preface helps to explain the difference:
    The history of Christianity, in common with all genuine history, moves under the influence of two generic ideas: the conservative, which desires to secure the present by fidelity to the results of the past; the progressive, which looks out, in hope, to a better future. Reformation is the great harmonizer of the two principles. Corresponding with Conservatism, Reformation, and Progress are three generic types of Christianity; and under these genera all the species are but shades, modifications, or combinations, as all hues arise from three primary colors. Conservatism without Progress produces the Romish and Greek type of the Church. Progress without Conservatism runs into Revolution, Radicalism, and Sectarianism. Reformation is antithetical both to passive persistence in wrong or passive endurance of it, and to Revolution as a mode of relieving wrong. Conservatism is opposed to Radicalism both in the estimate of wrong and the mode of getting rid of it. Radicalism errs in two respects: in its precipitance it often mistakes wheat for tares, and its eradication is so hasty and violent that even when it plucks up tares it brings the wheat with them. Sober judgment and sober means characterize Conservatism. Reformation and Conservatism really involve each other. That which claims to be Reformatory, yet is not Conservative, is Sectarian; that which claims to be Conservative, and is not Reformatory, is Stagnation and Corruption. True Catholicity is Conservatism, but Protestantism is Reformatory; and these two are complementary, not antagonistic. The Church problem is to attain a Protestant Catholicity or Catholic Protestantism. This is the end and aim of Conservative Reformation.
Thus, the Catholicity claimed by the Lutheran Confession is necessary to what it, and True Christianity, really is – it represents the outflowing of two thousand years of Christian faith and practice into the present, and projects it into the future.

But this character is not independent of the times and influences in and under which the Lutheran Reformation took place. It was the period of the Renaissance, the guiding principle of which was ad fontes”, or “to the sources.” The Renaissance rediscovery of the past, and re-acquaintance with the Masters of previous millenia through study of their works, not only gave birth to the Reformation, but gifted the world with a veritable explosion of creativity in every area of study, and resulted in some of the finest works of art the West has yet produced. In fact, one could say that all great accomplishments in the West since the time of the Renaissance, has flowed from the principles of Renaissance Humanism, of “returning to the sources” that we may be carried forward on the shoulders of history's giants.

Not only that, and as also explained in last year's post, Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 2: Heinrich Schütz ... and other thoughts to ponder over the New Year Holiday..., the Renaissance, and the Lutheran Reformation in particular, produced the kind of education that is necessary to conserve the past in this way: called The Great Tradition until the time of John Dewey's “Education Revolution” early last century, which entirely overthrew the “conservative” education of The Great Tradition and replaced it with his pragmatic task-oriented theories of “Progressive Education,” it is today making a comeback under the banner of Classical Education. As I had also explained in that 2011 Christmas Season post:
    “To be sure, there are those in the secular world who yet value this form of education: St. John’s College and Nova Classical Academy are two such examples. Among Lutherans, Classical Education is making a comeback as well: ...the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education has made significant progress in advocating and effecting a return to Classical Education in the LCMS [and among other Lutherans as well]. To the shame of confessional Lutherans everywhere, however, credit for the return of Classical Education to American Christianity really belongs to the Reformed, who, influenced by the leadership of groups like the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, have about a two decade head-start on Lutherans in bringing Classical Education back to Christianity. Christian Home Educators are well-known for having adopted this model of education in great numbers early on. In fact, many of the underground Home Educators of the 1970’s were Roman Catholics who wanted their children brought up with Latin and the Classics, but found that both had swiftly disappeared after Vatican II mandated that the Mass be conducted in the vernacular. Yet it remained essentially Evangelical Reformed sources which, apparently being far more attuned to and suspicious of educational movements in secular academia, developed educational resources and supplied encouragement and assistance to Classical Home Educators. The trend proceeded a little more slowly among Christian day schools, but these days the number of Christian schools adopting Classical Education is nearly proliferate... Even the subtitle of Veith & Kerns’ well-known work on the subject, Classical Education, was changed by their publisher in its recent second edition, from 'Towards the Revival of American Schooling' to 'The Movement Sweeping America' – and this is true, largely due to the efforts of the Reformed and of Home Educators.”
To engage in the kind of compelling conversation in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ naturally belongs, it behooves the Church to nurture the Fine Arts, rather than the contemporary entertainment arts (which are “compelling” only as much as they are, and only for as long as they are, entertaining, and thus are in their very nature entirely contrary to the serious Message of Law and Gospel, which confronts its hearer with the weight of eternal significance). To engage in “excellent communication” befitting the nature of the Gospel's message, the Church needs competent thinkers, it needs competent writers, it needs competent poets, it needs competent orators, it needs competent musicians and artists; and to acquire them, it must engage in the difficult task of preparing them with a competent education, one which seats students of the Liberal Arts directly at the feet of history's finest examples and conserves their excellence for our use and for the benefit of those who hear and engage our attempts to communicate with them.

What the reader of this series has seen is a very meager attempt to communicate the Message of the Gospel to the general public in just this conservative fashion, by using the language of the Church and speaking as the Church speaks. This is obvious from the words and phraseology used in the prose itself. It is equally obvious in the artwork used throughout this series, where, again, the artist made use of the familiar artistic language of the Church that it has developed over the millenia to simply represent complex theological Truths and communicate the weighty and joyous Message of the Gospel. For example, in the mailing featured in this post, we see, quite obviously, the Nativity of Christ depicted, with the Protestant use of the nimbus to designate the divinity of the Christ child, and the woman holding the Baby Jesus as His mother, Mary. This is still a familiar image. But I stated above that not only was the Nativity depicted, so was the Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messiah. Where is that depicted? Here is the specific prophecy from the Old Testament that may give the reader a clue:
    There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots... And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; For the Gentiles shall seek Him, And His resting place shall be glorious.” (Is. 11:1,10 NKJV)
The dead stump, or “stem,” with a new live branch growing out of it, is a common image long-used by the Church to represent the Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messiah. This image is reinforced with the use of leaves and berries from the Holly Oak, another common Christmas symbol, used by the Church to symbolize the Passion of Christ, specifically, the crown of thorns because of its thorny leaves, and Christ's blood because of the red berries (Holly, being an evergreen, is also said to have been the tree of the Cross, but that is only legend). While some of this artistic language may be lost on the viewer – just as the meaning of the prose may be lost on the reader – this would be the case no matter the artwork or the prose. One thing is clear, however: the Church is speaking, and it is directly speaking the Good News of Jesus Christ. The reader knows this the instant he sees it, and any continued reading and viewing of this content is nothing other than his willingness to hear what the Church says about Jesus. We have every confidence that the Holy Spirit will use those aspects of the Message received by such a hearer to perform within him His work of creating and sustaining faith, and that as his faith grows, he will be compelled by love of God and His Truth to learn more – from whatever source to which the Holy Spirit may guide him.

No, the unregenerate do not need to be tricked into hearing the Gospel through community events, social groups, the allure of entertaining worship, or educational services offered by the congregation – those so-called “pre-evangelism” techniques promoted by the Church Growth Movement are just crutches to prop up a visible Church in steep decline, that has lost the art of compelling communication, that has lost the compelling art of communicating Wisdom with eloquence.

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