It’s a difficult thing to bear the burden of a legacy. Even more so when it comes to traditions of faith.
“What would our Patron Theological Figure do?” we may ask. Or perhaps we mentally transport ourselves back to some imagined Golden Era when our tradition seemed to have found itself in God’s holy favor. Often we end up sounding like the psalmist—“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps. 84:10). Those courts must be places like Wittenberg, Geneva or some idyllic New England colonial town; elsewhere like as it is in the here-and-now. For some these legacies are burdens, and for others they are treasure chests. Either way, they are heavy, difficult to carry with us.
In my own Lutheran tradition, we have embarked on a decade-long celebration of the Reformation. This commemoration is meant to mark 500 years since Luther “changed the history of the world” (as the official website puts it). Only I wonder if we’re really experiencing the “joy of the Lord” that I am sure the organizers intended. It’s something of a high bar, really . . . changing the world. Seems a little unfair if you ask me, especially since it’s not exactly like Luther was trying to start something. Like so much of our lives, these things often happen to us rather than because of us.
TOURISM & TOYS
I often cringe when religion finds its way into the news. Two reasonably recent Newsweek stories, however, featured Lutherans and underscored the burden of bearing Luther’s legacy today.
In the first article, from 2014, there was a familiar tenor of pessimistic longing for the distant past. It was a feature on the current successor to Martin Luther at the parish church of St. Mary’s in Wittenberg, where Luther famously preached to the townsfolk. The vicar, Johannes Block, gave a sobering account of his struggle to pastor a community in dramatic flux. In part due to the promotional work of the Luther Decade committee, attendance can be over a thousand, including visitors. Yet reportedly only fifty to a hundred of them are members and residents in town. The sociological conditions for the decline in membership in Germany’s churches are complex, but the result is devastating nonetheless. The article quotes a German sociologist as saying, “People don’t know what exactly the church represents. It’s having a hard time differentiating itself from other organizations within civil society, from trade unions or political parties.”
Towards the end of the piece, Pastor Block is quoted again: ”This is the mother church of the Reformation. Being a local parish and a tourism destination often presents a split, but we have to continue Luther’s tradition.” Though many pastors feel this way about their historic properties, Block is quite literally justified when he wonders whether he is called to be a tour director at a Luther theme park or a minister of Word and Sacrament.
It is a poignant narrative of the existential dilemma the church faces in the twenty-first century: who are we?
The second, more recent article, offered something of a counterpoint to the existential despair of the first. It told of Luther’s recent reincarnation as a toy figure produced by Playmobil. The little Luther comes with “a quill, a German-language bible and a cheery grin.” I, for one, am glad they didn’t model him after his successor’s disposition.
This tribute of sorts was the work of the organizers planning the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Much to everyone’s surprise, the miniature, plastic Luther became an instant sensation, selling out its first edition of 34,000 pieces in just 72 hours. They are now on back order until April. I suppose we’ll all have to keep our consumerism at bay until after Lent.
It’s possible to rationalize this phenomenon. After all, in 2003, a German public television poll named Luther one of the greatest Germans of all time, second then only to Konrad Adenauer, the country’s first chancellor after World War II. It very well may reflect what these organizers describe as a deep interest in history, though as it appeared in my Facebook feed it felt to me more like a not so veiled attempt to resist our existential dilemma: “See, our tradition still matters. Our Patron Theological Figure is a best-selling toy!”
Despite the second article’s unrestrainedly positive tone, however, I wonder if Playmobil Luther was more a projection than a than selling point—pun intended!—for the Reformation’s legacy. Pessimistically, I might wonder if the best we have to offer is a history lesson on Luther’s religious and cultural significance, a tourist destination, and a commemorative toy to remember it all by.
Perhaps the existential dilemma the church faces in the twenty-first century prompts a slightly different question: Who are we, now?
Pilgrimage & Play
But on my better days, I wonder if maybe this isn’t so bad. What if we could reimagine the tourism and toys theologically as opportunities for improvised faithful practice of pilgrimage and play? If all we have to offer is tourism and toys, then yes, let’s sit in despair. But, if it’s pilgrimage and play we have to offer, what a gift we have to give.
A theological reimagining of this moment can’t be analogous to a bad re-branding effort, as if the solution is to mask the difficulty of being church today in fine theological prose. Such reimagining can’t simply be to embrace a vacant optimism. Instead, we must learn to see old things in new ways, like the “teacher of the law” in Matthew’s gospel who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as the old (Matt. 13:52).
What if it turns out that we are called to be a pilgrim people?
Lately, when theologians have drawn upon the metaphor of pilgrimage to describe the people of God, it has been with a certain distain for a faith enmeshed with the social and political powers of our American society. But more generatively, the metaphor points us towards faith on the move. Not so much an image for guiding our politics, but a theology that is lived on our feet in pursuit of God. Reflecting on his own pilgrimage to Santiago, Paulo Coehlo writes, “We always know which is the best road to follow, but we follow only the road that we have become accustomed to.” For those of us in historic Protestant denominations, Despair Avenue has not gotten us where we want to be. Perhaps we need a new road and new tour guides to lead the way.
What if we are called to be a playful people?
Modern tendencies have not always encouraged us to think about faith and the church in playful ways. But in human life, in our own development from childhood to adulthood, it is in playing that we begin to form the contours of our identities. As the noted developmental psychology theorist D. W. Winnicott wrote, “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
It may be, then, that the church’s sense of self is developmentally challenged, stunted in its growth by a lack of play. Perhaps we need more toys for tinkering.