By Jeff Mallinson –
Sometimes, in Lutheran circles, I’m asked about my surname, which is English. My best guess is that it means Mary’s bastard son. Mallinsons are from the northern part of England, particularly Huddersfield and York. Family lore has it that my particular Mallinsons were poachers on the king’s land. We fished in the king’s streams without licenses, and we hunted the king’s stags. We were anarchists, and that blood remains in my veins, whether I like it or not. More recently, Mallinsons have been tradesmen, authors, and quirky churchmen. I mention all this because a while back I ran into a conservative Lutheran professor who was skeptical of me because of my surname. He suggested I get to know a Peruvian student who happened to be standing nearby, since he too was a minority in the land of German Lutherans. I’ve had similar—though less ethnically offensive—interactions with Norwegian Lutherans. I’ve been a Lutheran since my early 20s, but I remain to many an outsider, and the default is suspicion. I often get scowls when I encounter new enclaves of Lutherans, until I prove my Lutheran cred. I dread to imagine how much harder to fit in it must be for Lutherans in America who are not white.
What I didn’t mention to the professor who called me a minority, was that my great, great grandfather, Victor Volkhaussen was a solid Lutheran who came to the United States precisely to fight against slavery. He rose to the level of captain and engaged in mortal combat against other Missouri Lutherans who believed that the Bible condoned slavery. I mention this to note that half my ancestry is German Lutheran. My aunt went to Concordia, Bronxville. A quarter of my ancestry, on my father’s side were hard working Danish immigrants who helped establish Lutheran education in Iowa. Now, my folks checked out of the establishment for a while in the 60s and 70s, despite a love for Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran hippies could dig. In any case, though my surname doesn’t reveal it, my actual “Lutheran ancestry” is as pure as the next guy’s.
But if your question is whether you should trust me, an adult convert to Lutheranism, you are sniffing the right trail. If you can trace your ancestry back to the first 800 Saxons to settle in America, fleeing the forced Prussian Union, don’t expect me to defer to you. Just as I believe apostolic succession is a succession of apostolic teaching, not the succession of bishops touching other dudes’ heads, neither do I think that true Lutheranism is genetic. I became a Lutheran because I saw in it three indispensable themes:
- Law and Gospel: in American Christianity, the confusion of these two aspects of Scripture tend to cause confusion and inner turmoil for earnest believers who get the mistaken sense that the Bible is a sadistic volume, taking with one hand what it gives with another, baiting and switching broken souls. Lutheranism is a comforting oasis in the desert for those who have tasted the alternatives.
- Theology of the Cross: even if I were to lose my theism entirely, I could never deny that the theology of cross, and the many ways it might be applied to knowledge and spirituality is one of the most fascinating and compelling ideas in history. In this type of theology, I shed my need to tame theology. I shed my need to put everything into nice and tidy categories. It allowed me to sit back and listen to Scripture, letting the Word do its terrible and beautiful work on me. In this theology, I didn’t need to iron out all the wrinkles and perplexities of the biblical text. I need only be faithful and listen closely.
- The Two Kingdoms: instead of having to stomach the theonomistic strands of Reformed theology or the desire for cultural hegemony amongst the religious right, I could relax a bit, realizing that we can’t create a utopia in this penultimate life. Instead, I could turn my attention to supporting and being a part of God’s alternative kingdom, and provide a beacon rather than a bludgeon to a distressed culture.
There are other incredibly attractive things about Lutherans of course, but these were the big three (assuming that the doctrine of universal objective justification is assumed under #1).
Now, I think Lutheran theology is the best theology on the planet. Hands down. So why should you be skeptical about me? Because you should be skeptical about all adult converts. We’ve come to the table for the meal, not the country club. Your politics tire us, and detract from the savory Gospel cuisine laid out before us. Also, unlike you, we know there is another world out there. We can detect sectarian behaviors and attitudes that go unnoticed by you who have been hanging around Lutherland for a while. You might think the adult convert doesn’t get it. But I contend that the outsider who’s come in just might have a good take on things. Granted, new converts can get too zealous, and often need more catechesis than they realize. But those problems may not be as common nor be as fatal as the problems associated with complacent, life-long marinating in the Lutheran system. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I had had the joy of being an acolyte and of memorizing the liturgy early on in my life. And I think you who are lifelong Lutherans are likely better, more moral people. It’s just that I’ve dedicated nearly two decades of my life to your cause, for no other reason than that I happen to think that Lutheran theology is true, despite the sour-puss attitudes of many actual Lutherans.
This is a long preamble to a very simple point. Why do so many LC-MS Lutherans keep exchanging their original treasure for what increasingly looks to me like just another form of American fundamentalism?
The articles on which the church stands or falls now seem to be 1) young earth creationism, 2) political advocacy of traditional family values, and 3) close(d) communion. Whatever you think of these issues, why do I hear more about these matters than about the comfort of the Gospel, that we are justified by grace through faith on account of Christ, at least online? On the most recent episode of the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we discuss the history of American fundamentalism. There are various phases and definitions of this “F-word”, but in its current usage, fundamentalism, to paraphrase Dan, who was quoting George Marsden, a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is hopping mad about something. I became a Lutheran to escape the suffocating road of legalism and comfortless Christianity. Don’t rearrange the furniture on me. Do Lutherans really have to also be sociological fundamentalists now, in solidarity with generic American fundamentalism? Is this really our DNA? I commit wholeheartedly to being your dutiful servant, Lutheran friends, but, like my poacher ancestors in England, I am inclined to shrug off unjust yolks of enslavement, whatever logo is on the sheriff’s banner. Did I get duped by yet another religious tradition? Sometimes, these days, if feels that way. Please let me know whether or not I’m wrong in the reply field below.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Composed at a noodle joint in Shenzhen, sipping—I kid you not—snake venom wine, between chapters of Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way.