More Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

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Martin LutherA little more than a year ago, I wrote this blog post, expressing my annoyance that Martin Luther is often incorrectly associated with certain liberal ideas such as a mistrust of organized religion and the subjectivity of biblical interpretation. Seriously, Martin Luther is among the most misquoted historical figures of all time. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the Augsburg Confession in the 2006 publication of the Book of Concord, the time-honored tradition of grossly misquoting Luther dates back to 1519 in a book written by John Eck for the purpose of turning people against Luther. But I think that some of the current non-Lutheran viewpoints associated with Luther actually have the opposite purpose; they come from some people’s desire to claim that Luther’s reforms were heading in the direction that certain current denominations are going. At any rate, Luther never wanted the Bible to be subject to personal interpretation and he by no means believed that religion is a one-on-one individualistic relationship with God that doesn’t have anything to do with church. That’s basically what I said in the aforementioned blog post from last summer.

It has come to my attention since then, though, that Martin Luther’s name has also become associated with transcendentalist ideas. There are a number of popular bogus Luther quotations that get posted all over the internet, and I am aware of one particular facebook page that bears Martin Luther’s name, but has posted the words of Romantic-era transcendentalist poets with the assertion that they have some connection to Luther’s teachings. I later unfollowed that page after noticing that the admin had done that kind of thing on several occasions, but I am disturbed to know that such a page exists and that there are many people who repost those things with the idea that those heretical (or, at best, heterodox) quotations are profound, true, and consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

Transcendentalism is the philosophical idea, associated with Romantic-era literature as well as with a few much older beliefs, that nature is itself divine. Depending upon who is being quoted and what the context of the statement is, transcendentalists may assert either that there is no God apart from the natural world, that God speaks to us directly through the natural world, or that He can be studied by immersing oneself in the natural world. Transcendentalism can be rectified with various different beliefs about what God or the gods are like, but it is not consistent with biblical Christianity. In all fairness, I suppose it is technically possible for someone to be a Christian with a transcendentalist point of view, but this cannot be supported by scripture and is not in keeping with Lutheran doctrine. (I am here defining “Christian” as a person believing in the existence of the triune God, viewing the Bible to be God’s Word, and having faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, who was both true God and true man and who lived a sinless human life and died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for the sins of all humankind so that we may have eternal life in heaven.)

Luther quoteThere are several fake Luther quotes out there that speak about finding God in nature. The most famous of these is “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Another one, which is very similar and perhaps is just a variation on the same quotation, says, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime”.  There are others out there on the internet that are along the same vein. Not only have the people of the internet been unable to cite a source for these statements, but they don’t even sound like Luther. Martin Luther’s rhetoric is not known for being cutesy and fluffy. He certainly had a way with words, but he often used it to disagree with people who taught false doctrine. Basically, if you can use a quotation as the caption for a beautiful and inspirational picture of the natural world, either it’s probably not a Luther quotation, or you’re probably pretty bad at captioning your pictures. Here’s a website that gives genuine Luther quotations. (I would like to point out for the record that Luther did not specialize exclusively in insults and name-calling; he also had much of importance and significance to say about God.)There’s also a twitter page where someone posts these Luther insults in response to false doctrine that Joel Osteen puts on Twitter. Frankly, I think that Martin Luther would approve of this posthumous use of his words. It’s very much in keeping with the way he used them when he was alive. It’s certainly more consistent with Luther’s personality and his beliefs than are vague transcendentalist statements about finding God in nature.

I have no doubt that Martin Luther was as capable as anyone else of acknowledging the beauty of certain aspects of the natural world, and that he appreciated the fact that God had created that beauty. You don’t have to look any farther than the Small Catechism (for example, the explanation to the first article of the creed) in order to see that Luther saw creation and every good thing in it as a direct gift from God. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that God created something good and thinking that he communicates with us through it.

It is commonly said by Christians of all denominations that we can see God’s hand in the natural world, and this is certainly true to some extent, but God does not literally speak to us through nature. In fact, the existence and beauty of the world around us obviously does not constitute proof of the existence of God, because if it did, there would be no atheists or agnostics. Even if someone was to conclude that there is a God just by looking at plants and rocks and shining lakes and majestic sunsets, they wouldn’t be able to know anything else about God from those sources of information.

Jesus on the CrossOne truth that we can learn from the natural world is that people aren’t the only beings that experience disease, destruction, and death. Even in a relatively wild and untouched place, there will be plants and animals that suffer and die and rot, and that may suffer and/or look ugly in the meantime. While it’s true that the creative hand of God can be seen in nature, the destructive effects of sin are also written there very clearly. And nature doesn’t tell us which is which; if it wasn’t for the actual real Word of God, we would have no way of knowing that God gave us a perfect world and that it was sin that damaged it. Many people actually do see the imperfection of the world as evidence that God either doesn’t exist or that he isn’t entirely benevolent. Those are the doubts that come from ignoring the Biblical teachings about sin. Furthermore, the natural world doesn’t inform us that this destruction caused by sin isn’t the end of the story, that God has already fixed things for us. There is nothing in nature that tells us about Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection. To receive all of that crucial information, we need the real Word of God, which is the Bible. And Luther never said anything to the contrary; he firmly believed in Sola Scriptura.

Anyone who claims that Luther said or believed otherwise is misrepresenting him. And anyone who says or believes otherwise themselves is placing faith in something other than God by reading divine messages into something that God has never said He would use to communicate with us. It’s essentially a belief in omens and signs, no different than in many pagan religions. At best, it’s a form of superstition that shouldn’t blend with Christianity, and at worst, it’s a completely non-Christian religion that is particularly evil because it falsely calls itself Christianity.

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Why I Don’t Like Liturgical Dance

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I was a dance major in college, and on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that I ought to do liturgical dance in church. That disturbed me, especially in one particular case where it was a visiting pastor who said it. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about the idea of liturgical dance, because I know a number of well-meaning and sincere Christians who have participated in liturgical dance, and besides, there technically is nothing heretical about it. But there are a number of reasons that liturgical dance just isn’t a very good idea. I was reminded of all these reasons when I saw a youtube video on facebook yesterday of a liturgical dance performance in a Lutheran church. I should acknowledge the fact that the person who posted the link and the other people who commented on it shared my dislike for liturgical dance, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who don’t see what’s wrong with it. As someone who has had to express a specific opinion on this issue before, I’d like to offer a list of reasons why I don’t approve of liturgical dance.

1. Dance is a performance art where the focus is on the performer

praise danceIn general, a choreographed dance is intended to display the skill of the dancer(s) and/or to be a form of artistic self-expression for the choreographer and dancer(s). Either way, the focus is on the dancer(s) themselves, and the viewers’ impressions and reactions are supposed to reflect that. Yes, dancers and choreographers can and do use dance to tell stories, to convey emotions, and to express ideas, but those stories, emotions, and ideas are based upon and centered around the dancers’ bodies. I think that dance is the most performer-centered art form. If you don’t agree, think of what happens when dancers and musicians perform together. From the audience’s point of view, and usually from the performers’ perspective as well, the dancers are the real stars and the musicians are just providing accompaniment. I am not saying this to insult dance as an art form or to imply that dancers are egotistical. As someone who has spent an awful lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears on dance, I definitely think that dancers deserve appreciation for their talent and dedication. But I also think that it is inherent in the nature of dance that it is impossible for the audience’s focus to be on anything other than the dancer. For that reason, dance does not belong in a worship service. Even if the dancers genuinely are doing it in praise of God, the audience is paying attention to the dancers, not God.

2. Liturgical dance tends to have theological problems

I suppose that it would be hypothetically possible to choreograph a dance piece that had accurate theological significance. But all of the liturgical dance videos that I can find on the internet seem to fall into one of two groups: they are either a meaningless and repetitive series of generic dance moves set to a theologically shallow praise song, or they portray a personal struggle that ends with the main character finding her way to God. (I say “her” because I actually haven’t seen much of any liturgical dances featuring men) I realize that there really are some Christians who actually believe that Christianity is all about winning a personal struggle against evil and achieving faith and salvation, but that’s not a biblical idea. If these dances were theologically accurate, they would first make it clear that the main character is a sinner herself, not an innocent victim of vague evil powers, and then show that it is God Himself who brings salvation to the sinner, rather than an individual’s own personal victory. The choreography also ought to work the crucifixion and resurrection into its story, because those are absolutely central to Christianity, and any “Christian” message that leaves them out is running the risk of not really being Christian. If the congregation doesn’t want to see a liturgical dance that doesn’t portray the individual Christian as the hero, then they obviously don’t have the kind of devoted faith in God that their lead liturgical dancer shows at the end of her performance, and probably are confused about what faith is anyway. Faith is not wearing a white dress and making graceful gestures towards the altar while nobody dressed in black pulls you back anymore; it is belief in God and the salvation that comes from Him. These people would benefit a lot more from hearing the law and gospel in their service than from watching an artistic expression of what the Christian life is like.

3. “Do everything to the glory of God” isn’t just about the church service

I'm really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

I’m really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

This oft-quoted phrase is from 1 Corinthians 10:31, and it is often completely taken out of context, since that passage is about whether it’s okay for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods. That isn’t an outdated and irrelevant passage because it applies to other situations where the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. But it really has nothing to do with the worship service. A variation of this phrase also appears in Colossians 3:17, but it’s still quite a stretch to read that passage as saying that a person is compelled to display all of their God-given talents in the worship service. There’s this thing called vocation; it means that it’s good and godly for us to do whatever we’re supposed to do in every aspect of our lives, and not just in the worship service. Even a world-famous professional dancer wouldn’t be compelled to dance in church in order to justify the fact that dance is his/her God-given talent. After all, the church service can’t encompass everyone’s individual abilities. What if you’re a rocket scientist or a marine biologist or a soccer player or something? Good luck finding a way to showcase those useful and significant God-given talents in a worship service. If everyone actually believed that doing something to the glory of God required doing it in church, the worship service would be nothing but a talent show. I think it’s really a symptom of the trend towards Sunday-morning-only-Christianity that anyone would believe that performing in a church service is somehow more Christian than using whatever talents you have been given throughout your life, even in contexts that aren’t exclusively Christian.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really... edifying. I'm sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really… edifying. I’m sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

4. Liturgical dance is not liturgical, it’s a distraction

I got this on google but I can't figure out what the original source was.

I got this on google but I can’t figure out what the original source was.

I have heard people comment with surprise about the fact that churches of different denominations sometimes have very similar liturgies. For example, the traditional Lutheran liturgy is pretty similar to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. That is not just a weird coincidence. It’s a result of the fact that every traditional liturgical church can trace the history of its liturgy back to the early church. Over the centuries, many traditions have stayed more or less the same because they just work so well. It’s not just a matter of the aesthetic beauty of an “old-fashioned” church service; the ancient liturgy is theologically rich. Law and gospel are embedded within the order of the service itself, most of the responses come directly from the Bible, and old hymns tend to be much more meaningful and didactic than modern praise songs. That’s not to say that innovations are evil. There’s nothing wrong with singing a hymn that was written relatively recently, just as long as it is theologically accurate and actually says something. There’s nothing wrong with using an instrument other than a pipe organ, just as long as that doesn’t lead to singing songs that aren’t theologically accurate and don’t actually say anything. There’s nothing wrong with using technology in the church service, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. And by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with adding something new and artistic to the liturgy, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. But liturgical dance doesn’t serve a purpose because it doesn’t offer anything that the ancient, traditional, liturgical service is lacking. It just interrupts the flow of a service that has a logical and meaningful order without it. At least a musical solo can be smoothly incorporated into the service because the liturgy is already characterized by music. People who want to see liturgical dance or other diversional performance acts in the worship service are just looking for entertainment, and that’s not the purpose of worship. In fact, catering to people’s desire for entertainment in church can be dangerous because it reinforces the belief that religion is just another kind of recreational hobby.

In conclusion, I think that liturgical dance is parallel to popular Christian praise music. Both are creative art forms that have little or no theological value and don’t belong in the worship service. But in both cases, they are perfectly acceptable and maybe even good things outside of the divine service. There’s no reason that mainstream art and culture can’t include non-satirical references to God, sincere praise for God, and positive portrayals of Christianity. If Christians find those types of music and dance to be likable and entertaining, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy them in their everyday lives. Maybe some people will even find that such things reinforce their beliefs and values to some extent. But no religious-themed but theologically shallow art form is faith-giving, or acts as an acceptable substitute for the divine service or for any aspect of it.