Sighting Christ

Marion Ireland in the preface to Textile Art in the Church (Abingdon, 1971) raises a question long ignored by many evangelicals:

Art in the church—who needs it? One might as well ask: words—who needs them? A congregation that is truly striving to give full expression to the majesty and love of God, the creator of the universe, will exclude visual media no more than verbal ones. True, a vestment is still a vestment whether it employs symbolism or not, and the Sistine ceiling would keep out the rain without the benefit of Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes. We could worship in a barn, but the same question arises as when one claims to be able to worship God on the golf course as well as in church. The question is, “Do you?”

Perhaps in reacting to Roman liturgical iconography we have moved too far in the other direction. It is time to reconsider the role of art in worship, and Miss Ireland’s richly illustrated volume is a good place to begin. She surveys the history and contemporary use of art in worship. Interest in fabric art, as she points out, is rising. Young people using inexpensive materials such as felt or canvas and professional artists working with costly fabrics produce a tapestried proclamation of the Gospel. Altar and pulpit cloths are designed to reflect our gratitude to God. Even carpeting can add a joyful dimension to worship when woven, for example, with traditional symbols.

Visual art can powerfully convey the Christian message; it is a tool for evangelism as well as worship. A tapestry Miss Ireland designed, for instance, depicts the empty tomb, symbol of Christ’s final victory over death. She attempts to show what happened there: “I have shown only an entrance, radiant with light bursting forth from it.… On a hill in the distance the three crosses stand, now empty. Incarnation and redemption are the themes symbolized here.”

Rustic or formal banners, wall hangings, and tapestries are appropriate for both coffeehouse and church—or anywhere Christians meet to pray and study. Let’s not overlook this simple, effective means for communicating Christ to a weary-eyed world, searching to see his truth.

Demille Lives On

McCall’s magazine calls it “a beautiful retelling of the Nativity.” Publisher’s Weekly applauds it as one of the hottest new titles. Since its release a couple of months ago, the book has sold more than 100,000 copies. Author Marjorie Holmes, an Episcopalian, says Two From Galilee is “a love story of Mary and Joseph, the greatest love story of all time—told for the first time as a love story.” And Miss Holmes does tell it as a love story, but of the Hollywood strain—sentimental, trite, melodramatic. Hollywood thinks so, too; a film company is bargaining with Revell, the publisher, for the movie rights.

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Revell asserts that Miss Holmes has told the story “without departing from a scriptural base.” The difficulty is that she adds so much to that base. The fundamental problem with “historical novels” is found in Two From Galilee: the author has taken a fact of history and fabricated around it attitudes, emotions, and dialogue, but the reader cannot shake the feeling that the story is “made up.” We know that Mary and Joseph lived and that they were betrothed when Mary conceived and bore Jesus. But the dialogue, subplots, and characterization are mere speculation. And the author’s technique of weaving Scripture verses into the dialogue seems to enhance the book as fiction rather than authenticate it as truth.

There is another problem with the novel. Marjorie Holmes has attempted to dramatize an event that needs no such help. Christ’s birth is too awesome an event, too deep a mystery, too joyful a happening, to be fitted into a twentieth-century, love-story mold. To such greatness Miss Holmes has overreacted. Rather than power, she achieves a clichéd, formula type of writing. At what should be the climax and the glory of the story—the actual birthing of Christ—the language is the weakest. Imagination is tied to stone as we read,

The pain was the only reality. The pain had become her master and the god she served.… Pain was her lover, her husband, her master, her god, smiling, insistent, forcing outcries from her with whip and kiss and brutal embrace and mailed fist and chain … the bloody grip of God.

In trying to create a “grand passion” between Mary and Joseph, the author shifts the focus from Christ to fallen man. And this is the ultimate problem with the novel. Contrary to her intention to bring a more human, “real” quality to the story, the shift makes Jesus’ birth seem less perfectly human.

A Necessary Jolt

Most people agree that expenses cannot exceed income indefinitely, but few have transferred this principle from the financial to the ecological realm. We cannot forever go on using more oxygen, for example, than is produced. Yet there is little doubt that consumption is outpacing production.

The public needs to be jarred from its complacency on this matter, and the administrator of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency last month took the biggest step yet in this direction. Under the authority of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and court prodding William D. Ruckelshaus officially proposed a system of gasoline rationing designed to curtail the use of automobiles in the Los Angeles area by up to 80 per cent. The effects of such restrictions would, of course, be phenomenal, and experts doubt their feasibility. But the fact remains that some kind of drastic action must be undertaken. In the Los Angeles area, whose air-pollution problem is probably the worst in North America, the projection is that unless pollution sources are checked, by 1977 a total of 691 tons of hydrocarbons will be released into the air daily. Even now, the national standard of .08 part per million of oxidants (a higher level tends to aggravate asthma) is being exceeded some 200 days a year in that part of southern California.

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The longer we put off a day of ecological reckoning, the more we wrong ourselves and our offspring.

Guides For Evangelism

In this Key 73 year of special emphasis on evangelism, we do well to recall some of Paul’s evangelistic practice and advice. En route to Jerusalem Paul met with the elders of the metropolis of Ephesus, reminding them how he had proclaimed the Gospel when he had lived there, and hence, by implication, suggesting how they were to continue the task. There are at least five points to note.

First, the evangelist is to be humble (“serving the Lord with all humility,” Acts 20:19). He must clearly distinguish between himself, a sinner saved by grace, and his glorious message. And he must continually guard against the pride that so easily possesses a man when he gains a following.

Second, he who evangelizes must have compassion upon those who hear his message. Paul communicated the word of God “with tears” (vv. 19 and 31).

Third, the evangelist is to be comprehensive in three ways: the message (“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable,” v. 20; cf. v. 27); the methods (“teaching you in public and from house to house,” v. 20); and the audience (“testifying both to Jews and to Greeks,” v. 21).

Fourth, the evangelist must expect (though of course not seek) persecution (“trials which befell me,” v. 19) and not be surprised at defections induced both from outside (“fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,” v. 29) and from within the believing community (“from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them,” v. 30).

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Finally, the evangelist must realize that his assignment, done in the power of God, is not impossible. Fulfilling his responsibility does not require the conversion and perseverance of every inhabitant of an area. Paul could solemnly tell the representatives from Ephesus, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you” (v. 26). The evangelist cannot force people to believe; he can only share the good news that has transformed his own life.

More Fog Over St. Louis

In an attempt to overcome the suspicion engendered by charges that they are unfaithful to the Scriptures and to the Lutheran confessions, members of the faculty of Concordia Seminary at St. Louis have published a two-part affirmation entitled Faithful to Our Calling, Faithful to Our Lord. Part I, “Affirmations” and “Discussions,” contains a joint statement signed by a large majority of faculty members and explicitly repudiated by one. Part II contains personal confessions, again of almost all the faculty members. One dissident, Professor Robert Preus, explicitly rejected Part I and requested in II that brother Jacob A. O. Preus’s “ ‘Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles’ be considered as his personal confession,” while another, who also did not sign the joint statement, refused to contribute a personal confession on the grounds that Missouri’s district presidents, who requested it, were exceeding their authority and transgressing that of Synod president Preus.

Concordia’s teachers—unlike those in some seminaries—do overwhelmingly affirm essential Christian doctrines such as the deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of Christ, eternal life, and—in general terms—the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Beyond this, in these written confessions some appear to affirm the most disputed doctrines, such as the historicity of Adam and the Fall; others engage in elusive discussion of the topics such as duality between Law and Gospel. Virtually all of those who contributed personal confessions, including those that were least unambiguous and most orthodox, nevertheless subscribed to the “joint statement,” which is much more ambiguous and less orthodox. Do they think that the threat to the autonomy of the faculty posed by the Synod president’s investigation is more serious than the charges of doctrinal deviation leveled at the faculty?

The joint statement can only be described as an attempt to obfuscate the issues: it affirms a number of central doctrines that are not in dispute (e.g., the Creation of the world by God, the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ), while it veils in ambiguity the signers’ convictions on doctrines that are. Thus, following the unexceptionable “Affirmations,” Discussion One (Creation) speaks of three different “pictures” or descriptions of Creation in the Bible and sidesteps the question of how they are true, as well as any real or potential conflict with naturalistic evolution. Discussion Two, while not denying the possibility that Adam and Eve were historical persons and that the Fall was a real space-time event, clearly inclines to the opinion that they were not. The discussion of miracles (Three) is evasive, calling for a “perspective of wonder” and stating that to follow Christ means “far more than accepting miracles as such.”

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The section on Christ (Five) affirms the historicity of the resurrection and the empty tomb (though it does not specify a bodily resurrection) but downgrades the importance of history: “Our faith rests in the promise of a faithful God, not in the accuracy of ancient historians.… What counts is God’s Promise that Jesus Christ died and rose for us and for our salvation” (p. 26). But who tells us the promise, if not certain ancient historians called evangelists? This is question-begging indeed.

It should be noted that the inspiration and authority of the Bible—which is after all what the whole controversy is about—is presented under the heading “The Holy Spirit and the Community of God” (Eight). Inerrancy in terms of “twentieth century standards of factually” is expressly repudiated, but at the same time the signers affirm that “God does not err” in disclosing “the whole truth about what God was doing in Jesus Christ.”

“So-called ‘historical-critical’ methodology” (Nine) is described as being neutral in and of itself. Its presuppositions, however, may be “reverent” or “destructive.” Such an approach, particularly in view of the present controversy, would seem misleading if not false. It is of course possible to conceive of a methodology that would be neutral, but in fact the “historical-critical” method as frequently applied at Concordia and repudiated by President Preus almost always embodies destructive presuppositions: e.g., that naturalistic explanations must take precedence over supernatural ones, and that all miraculous elements, if not necessarily to be repudiated, are to be isolated and set aside as beyond the province of “historical-critical science.” As Olaf Valen-Stenstad points out in The Word That Cannot Die, the method as almost universally applied closely resembles anatomical dissection: it presupposes that the object of investigation is a corpse and, if he is not, will quickly turn him into one.

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Whether one agrees or disagrees with Synod president Preus’s interpretation of his right and/or duty to investigate, and whether one accepts or rejects the majority statement of the Concordia faculty as an adequate presentation of the essentials of the Christian position, it is hard to dispute one thing: in the context of the Concordia crisis, the “Affirmation in Two Parts” answers a number of questions that have not been asked and leaves unanswered most of those that have.

The Prophet Of Punxsutawney

On the morning of February 2 each year a contingent of reporters and other curious types descend on the lowly diggings of the famous groundhog of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Later in the day the wire services faithfully relay pictures and text to papers around the country, telling us whether or not the groundhog saw his shadow so that we can know whether or not to expect six more weeks of winter.

This old custom, curious in our science-adoring culture, testifies to man’s continuing desire to know something of the future. It is accompanied this year by widespread Christian fascination with prophetic themes. The preacher of Ecclesiastes states the problem well: “There is a time and a method for every enterprise, although man is greatly troubled by ignorance of the future; who can tell him what it will bring?” (Eccles. 8:6, 7).

Rather than answer the question, Jesus rejected it when he said: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own” (Matt 6:34). Far more important than whether or not we’ll have six more weeks of winter is whether or not Jesus is the Lord of our winters and summers, our good weather and bad.

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