Saturday, June 10, 2006

Not Quite Right

Let me say, first off, that I enjoy David Edelstein's film reviews on public radio's Fresh Air. But in my experience, when reviewers begin to delve into the realm of religion they find themselves out of their element, and even the esteemed Mr. Edelstein is no exception here.

Yesterday on Fresh Air Edelstein reviewed Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion, loosely based on Garrison Keillor's weekly radio show. In attempting to describe the inhabitants of Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, Edelstein described Lutherans as a spiritually haunted people "who believe that you're guilty until proven innocent, which is pretty much never."

I had a good chuckle over this in the car on my way home from work. Not because Edelstein is wrong, mind you. He's much closer to the truth than the scandalized fundagelicals who think that Lutherans (and I'm sure some of us more than others) are decadent antinomians blithely sinning our way to hell in a handbasket. No; Edelstein got it righter. But he just didn't go far enough into the grounding of Lutheran theology.

Sometimes I think that Keillor himself, a late-in-life Episcolutheran, has an occasional tendency to project a bit of his own fundamentalist background onto the Lutheran citizens of Lake Wobegon. But on his good days I think he would explain to Edelstein that Lutherans are not people wallowing in guilt, but simply people who know who they are; sinners and saints at once; simul iustus et peccator. "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better and better" isn't a tenet of Lutheran theology. Our understanding of the Christian condition comes closer to Julian of Norwich's wonderful illustration of a servant teetering under a heavy burden en route to the master, and every so often falling into the ditch along the road. We acknowledge that we're broken people, living in a broken world. When we confess our sins in our worship services, it isn't for the benefit of newbies among us who haven't yet achieved spiritual enlightenment, but for ourselves, all of us, because we know we haven't gotten it right, either in the things we've done or the things we've failed to do

Which is the bad news. But the good news is that God loves us -- not for who we are but for who God is -- and forgives us, and invites us to follow Christ boldly into the future. Luther used the term "boldly" because we simply don't always know what way is the right way; the situations in which we find ourselves don't always lend themselves to a cut-and-dried rightness or wrongness, contrary to the thin-lipped, nit-picking, bean-counting Phariseeism of so much of the religious world. We just don't know; all we know is that Christ tells us to follow him, so we do, as best we can in this world. And when we stumble along the way, we know that Christ can pick us back up and set us on the road again. That's how it works; that's how it goes with us.

Keillor's motto for Lake Wobegonians is We Are Who We Are. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Both. And I wish Ken Edelstein knew that.

An online friend and I have been corresponding about Life and Stuff, and last night she sent me the lyrics to Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem." In it he sings:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.


OTRgirl said...

Good post. I've always liked the dynamic tension with grace and justice that Lutheran theology struggles to maintain.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Lovely post. I've listened to GK for years and suspected that his background isn't Lutheran, and I'm right about that, according to Wikipedia. But he does get something right, I think. Since we are both saints and sinners, we Lutherans never feel quite right about telling others how to do something. So maybe that is why Lutherans aren't such good evangelists. [BTW, did this last carnival draw no interest?]

The gospel songs that GK often falls back on as old timey Lutheran hymns just aren't in my background. But I came out of a German Lutheran background, so maybe that is why. He used to use more of these in the old shows. Bu my pastor's Lutheran background was where the people often did spontaneous 4 part singing. And geographically that would be fairly close to Lake Wobegon. I gather that the Scandinavian Lutherans were less liturgical. ???

Anonymous said...

"I gather that the Scandinavian Lutherans were less liturgical. ???"

My impression is that the Norwegians have been less liturgical, but the Swedes have been far more liturgical.