“The Tyranny of the Middle” vs. “The Idolatry of Better”: a reader’s response to Mrs. Mussmann

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I love the article, Anna, as well as the emendation to charity that graces the combox (just noticed the latter).

It’s easy to agree with the beneficence of the principle you articulate, i.e., that one should avoid the judgmental air which is wont to accompany the holding of an extreme position. And I do agree with the principle. But principles, like the Law, always accuse, even as they instruct, and this principle is no exception. In fact, the most curious thing this principle does is undermine its own veracity on occasion. It’s the old “moderation in all things — including moderation” switcheroo, or the “all absolute statements are wrong, including this one” conundrum. It’s not that I don’t agree with you…in principle…it’s just that a lived life isn’t made up of principles, but concrete persons, places, and things. The best principle, which Christ articulates and which centers the Tao, is The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You touch on this with your wry jest about people lamenting their inability to participate in “food fellowship” with their friends. Of course, such a statement really just shows forth a case of conflicting absolutes: “friendship” or “dietary purity”? And when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object…well, something’s got to give. If it’s going to kill your children to eat Velveeta cauliflower once every three months when the Hendersons invite your family over for dinner, then I guess it’s time for you to make a judgment-call.

But let’s move from the wry jest to another thing you at least hinted at: Church fellowship. This is the area where I think the application of the principle gets dicier.

You write:

Confessional theology and historic liturgies are life-changing and a blessing, but our pursuit of them can become ridiculous when we won’t attend a church that does/doesn’t chant the Lord’s Prayer, or harmful when we treat less theologically-sound congregation members like inferior citizens (refusing to patiently discourse with them and try to understand their side during a congregational brouhaha over the purchase of a pink chasuble, say). Our pursuit of the truth can actually become a selfish gluttony for being right instead of a love of what is right.

First off — am I correct in assuming that I know of the exact situation which inspired the “pink chasuble” comment? Or is this a trope in LCMS circles on account of the uneven adoption of Adventine liturgical colors in our synod? I feel like either is entirely plausible! Hmmm. Plausible chasuble. I think I may have just helped two lost rhyming words find each other…

I question two things in your above statement — question, not disagree with outright. The first is whether confessional faithfulness and liturgical piety constitute a “pursuit of the truth.” I don’t mean to mince words, but I really think it’s much less dynamic than you make it sound: simply receive what you have been entrusted with. Don’t pursue; receive. This goes for pastors and laymen alike.

The Rev. Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn writes to pastors in the opening to The Conduct of the Service, “There is really only one basic rule of good form: ‘Be courteous!’ And similarly there is really only one basic rule of altar decorum: ‘Be reverent!’ Every other rule is simply a practical amplification of this basic charge.” Don’t be edgy, don’t try to “get people out of their comfort zone,” and don’t try to be “cool with God.” God is not cool. He is holy.

Do this, and you have nothing to worry about and nothing to apologize for as a church. Don’t do this, and, well, then be prepared to justify your novelties (which by nature harm the unity of the body) to visitors and inquirers. And don’t get bent out of shape if those who wish to be good catholics (I do not mean Romanists, but good Lutheran catholics) cannot in good conscience participate in your new and “improved” worship service.

With that in mind, I would submit that the principle you have hinted at in your comment regarding liturgy verges on — but does not commit — what my friend and mentor Pr. Larry Beane would call “the extremism of the middle.” Since he is far more eloquent than I, I will simply direct you to the piece wherein he articulates his own thoughts on the matter, “Goldilocks, George Carlin, and the Middle of the Road.” Here’s a spoiler:

Playing the role of a liturgical Goldilocks (“not too high… not too low… just right!”), some will offer opposite-and-equal criticisms against both non-liturgical “praise” services (Carlin’s “idiots”) and the “Gottesdienst Crowd” (Carlin’s “maniacs”) – as though these are two equally un-Lutheran choices. Some may argue for a certain level of ceremony, and not anything more – as if there is some kind of Golden Mean, a “just right” for everyone. It calls to mind a joke by Dr. Norman Nagel (as recounted by one of his former students, now a professor) who advised pastors (with tongue in cheek) to wear their stoles a little crooked so as not to be thought of as “high church.”

In many areas of life, moderation is certainly wise: beer, fried chicken, cigars, etc. But sometimes moderation is not such a good thing: teaching correct doctrine, being true to one’s vows (ordination, wedding, promise to tell the truth in court, etc.), preaching the law in its severity, preaching the gospel in its sweetness, being well-groomed and hygienic, being deferential to ladies and to children, politeness, genuineness, a commitment to excellence in one’s various vocations, taking pains to communicate through ceremony what we confess, etc.

I don’t think anyone would want to go the Goldilocks route in such matters, seeing a Happy Medium between the “extremes” of, say “Gentleman” and “Philistine.” What would such moderation look like? A guy who only belches and wipes his nose on his sleeve occasionally at the dinner table?…

Anyway, I feel like you and your readers might find Pr. Beane’s piece insightful and enjoyable. Thank you once again for a most stimulating read, as always.

+VDMA

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9 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Middle” vs. “The Idolatry of Better”: a reader’s response to Mrs. Mussmann

  1. Having no history or future in the Lutheran Church, I am nonetheless interested in Anna and her blogs, which is how I arrived at your post. I very much appreciate the Golden Rules of the altar that you shared, Be Courteous and Be Reverent. And the admonition to receive what has been passed down to us is well-received. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading, Joanna, and thank you for your comment! Anna and I are former colleagues; I’ve followed her writing since we parted paths. She definitely has a gift.

  2. Trent,

    Thank you for continuing the discussion with this post. You are right that “the middle way” is not automatically any holier than other positions, and is often wrongly claimed by those who are trying to appeal to the perceived majority by disassociating themselves from “extremists.” I appreciate your point about receiving, versus pursuing, theology and liturgy.

    One problem with blog posts is that they are short. They cannot be all things to all men. There are people who use the rhetoric of moderation to try to weasel their own preferences into the church, and to paint the faithful as extremists (a popular tactic in our day and age, isn’t it?). However, there are also people, on both sides of every issue, who continually desire better instead of good. These are usually the ones who are snotty to each other when they disagree.

    Hmm, I thought that I was making up the pink chasuble reference. Have I missed a famous church color clash?

    • Hello Anna,

      Perhaps I did not sufficiently communicate that I really do agree with what you wrote in your post! I apologize for amplifying what was mostly a quibble. You are of course absolutely correct about those who make the “better” the enemy of the “good” and the snottiness which accompanies such Puritanism.

      And your imagination is quite adept — yes, there was indeed a church color clash at one point, very near to the both of us, in fact! I’m sure you will find this both amusing and apropos.

    • Anna,

      Several bloggers with a certain Lutheran youth organization said that those who wear rose chasubles need to repent because it is idolatrous and pharisaical. They also suggested we are homosexuals. Immanuel bought that chasuble for me, and several members asked me to post the picture. It certainly seemed that you were referencing that incident.

      Regards,
      Pastor Esget

      • Pastor,

        Thank you for explaining. I had not heard of the incident, and it is mortifying that I must have seemed to be referencing such an unchristian and unkind set of opinions. I was trying to choose examples of things (classical education, healthy eating, liturgical traditions) that I myself love and support, so that I could address the problem of attitude rather than seem to be attacking other people’s preferences.

  3. Nicely written, Trent, and admirably charitable. You truly put the best construction on Mrs. Mussmann’s essay.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Trent!

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