Monday, June 29, 2009

A Weekend in a Lutheran World - Is There a Place for Christian Pretentiousness? An Honest Question.

As an introduction, I will say that I just spent a long week end in a Lutheran world (my in-laws). In the reunion, there were 42 people. Out of that group there were six ordained Lutheran pastors, a daughter of a Lutheran pastor . . . and the rest, all Lutherans except for myself and my 5 kids. Even my daughter in-law is Lutheran.

But before this starts to sound critical, I will say that I have a real, honest question that they may have a better way of living. Yes, just like my Bible belt roots, the Lutheran Christian world is very pretentious . . . but in some ways it seems to work. The question I want to discuss further . . .is there a place where you give up on living honestly on the first floor and finally realize that life seems to work better up on the thirtieth?

Before I continue this thought I must explain what I mean by pretentious so that the reader’s connotation will not take them in a more extreme direction than I intended. The level of pretentiousness, which I’m talking about, is the common Christian variety. My personal Bible-belt heritage was full of it and I am sure my own personal, post-evangelical life is as well.

The late theologian Francis Schaeffer once spoke of the American culture of the 1960s as being an age of personal affluence and peace. The counter-culture hippies of that age labeled the acumination of these traits as the “plastic society.” Unlike the meaning of the word “plastic” today it had nothing to with credit cards (which didn’t even exist in the 60s) but referred to the facades held up by the American middle class to give the illusion of personal peace, moral goodness and affluence.

When the hippies revolted against the establishment (the Leave-it-to-Beaver, American-Christian culture of the 60s) for being the plastic society, Francis Schaeffer said the Church made a grave error. In his opinion the Church should have stood side by side with the hippies showing support in common opposition to that plastic society . . . pushing towards a more honest one. However, the Church reacted with the first battles of the coming culture wars. They condemned the long hair of the hippies, their loud music and the use of the “F” word . . . but, they did not listen to the other words, the actual message of the hippies that echoed from the megaphones in places like Berkley and Woodstock.

But this personal peace and moral goodness is the part I want to talk about as it relates to being pretentious in the Lutheran world, which I just experienced. Regarding the peace, what Schaeffer meant by this concept was very different than world peace (the absence of wars, which the society in the sixties did not oppose, such as the war in Vietnam) but a calm in your personal and family life.

Maintaining personal peace came to mean keeping calm in your life at all cost. In other words, it means keeping your life still like the mirrored surface of a quiet mountain lake. One stone or one bug landing on its surface will sent out rings of concentric ripples across it.

In order to keep this personal peace, certain things must not be said. A very general and proverbial example of this concept is the social more of never bringing up politics or religion among relatives at the table during the holidays. But this oath of silence would eventually mean, in this Lutheran cultural at least, the avoidance of questioning anything, the voicing of any feelings or the discussing of things without calmness (any part of life that is not consistent with the Christian ideal or moral goodness).

In my In-laws’ family, they never, ever speak of personal problems (besides brief mentioning of health concerns or bad crops). They never discuss controversial questions, or express displeasure in one another . . . while I know that on a deeper level there is great animosity between a few of them. However, personal problems certainly do exist—no less than any other family—but beneath the surface. I know this for a fact thanks to a few of us out-laws who do talk.

There have been some major family issues which stand like the elephant in the room . . . but never spoken of. The elephant sucks in his chest, sticks his trunk close to his chin, his tail between his legs and tries to hide behind a potted plant 1/80th his size and everyone tip-toes around him.

Before I continue with this Lutheran culture of pretentiousness and I talk about its possible benefits (or vices) I will, in contrast, mention a few points about my imperfect Bible-belt/Baptist culture.

In my culture, there was not an oath of silence at least not near as much. In Tennessee it is common to wear your dysfunctionality on your sleeves. The problem there, in my opinion, is that they have a very different form of pretentiousness. There, habitual sin and Christian, or at least Southern Baptist culture rest comfortably in the same bed (sometimes literally if you know what I mean—wink, wink). It would not be unusual for a family friend and deacon of my mother’s church to make the comment, “I went to church so drunk that I could hardly walk straight enough to take up the offering plates.” Then they would all belly-laugh. But that’s a different set of problems, which I will have to deal with at another time.

In this Lutheran culture, family and church are at the center of life. There is a precise protocol of behavior and verbiage. But does this type of pretentiousness have a good side? I don’t know but am just posing the question.

In the in-law group there have been eleven marriages, the longest (my mother and father in-law) 60 years and the shortest, (my niece and her husband), two years. Out of that group of marriages, there has only been one divorce and one separation, which of course if far better than the average. No one in that extended, Lutheran family has been arrested (that I know of), no one hooked on drugs (that I know of). No one has "come out of the closet" save one sister-in-law, once removed. So does holding firmly to the oath of silence, the pretending that the Christian ideal exist (even though it does not in the secret places) work?

I’m pretty confident that I am the least favorite of the in-laws. I’m not sure I know all the reasons as to why. Maybe a lot of it is my fault and my poor social skills. I don’t know the Lutheran lingo, how to properly sing in a Lutheran choir . . . but I do know how to eat Lutefisk. That must say something. I’ve learned to speak “farmer.” Some of the problem may have to do with the fact that I came and took their daughter 2000 miles away.

But I can’t help believing that I when I say things that break that code of silence I offend a lot of the family. It is not that uncommon that I find myself at the end of telling a long story only to see stoned-faced people quickly changing the topic in a spirit of social awkwardness. My stories might have dealt with friends, whose kids are on drugs, pastors running off with a woman in the church or etc.

This past weekend, I noticed once that all eight Lutheran pastors were sitting in the living room at the same time. I came very close to asking, “Where do you stand on the ordination of gays?” Why? I wanted to ask only because I’m a curious guy. I have no agenda. But that would have been a social disaster because I know that the complete spectrum of views exist among those family pastors so they would never talk about it in public . . . a personal peace issue.

I know that my wife, being a product of her culture just like I’m a product of mine, is most happy when we are smiling but not talking or asking questions.

My daughter once went from visiting my wife’s side of the family to seeing mine. On the plane back from Tennessee she made the comment, “Your family is certainly dysfunctional.” Well, besides freely talking about their fears, sorrows, grief and disagreements there is clear external signs that their system is not working out. I have one brother and two sisters. There are 9 marriages shared among that group of four (and I only account for one marriage).

So, does Christianity work better when it is pretentious? If there is a strong Christian tradition that when it is adhered to closely, meaning everything from sacraments to pot lucks (but never talk of where people really are in their beliefs or feelings) is that better? Maybe it is.

In closing, I will say the problem for me becomes a moral issue. I can restrain myself and never share my feelings, questions or disagreements . . . but eventually it must lead to lying. Faking emotions must eventually be joined by faking words. “Oh, I loved that song. Oh, I loved that message. I love the fact you sold my car for me (without asking me), I love the fact that you took off for eight hours with an old friend without telling me. Keep smiling. Oh, I love everything and everyone. I love all political views.


Molly Aley said...


Oh, that shirt is too funny. I would almost become a Lutheran, just to wear that shirt.

Molly Aley said...

I relate so much....

...but I have no answers. I think the only answers there are, are when we find *healthy* family groups, people who have healthy relational dynamics. But even there, the fall affects lives and bad things happen to them, and they do bad things. I don't think there is a way to escape that.

I would rather have honesty, even if it exposes a lot of garbage, than hide under a veneer of niceness. I did the smiling thing for a long time, being a smiling pastor's wife, etc, while my own personal life was miserable.

It really doesn't make people comfortable when you stop smiling nicely and leave, exposing the garbage (or, at least, a little bit of it). They can get pretty mad at you.

"Quit pointing to that trash heap! Put the blanket over it and get back to smiling nicely already. This is making us terribly uncomfortable!"

And if you think it's your job to be responsible for their emotions, or that your self-worth is dictated by their opinions of you, then you will go back to smiling nicely. But that means you are keeping them happy at the cost of the quality of your own life.

But I'm rambling more about my own personal situation (also involving, lol, a few private lutherans). I do think that when the problem issues belong to someone else in the group (and no one small or weak is involved and/or being harmed), then it's probably best to grin and smile and let them keep their "issues" under wraps.

I also think that, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," on family visits. However, if a person lives next-door to that family and is expected to remain quiet and fakely polite for his entire life, that's crossing a line. A one week visit is another story. You can guarantee you'll slip up now and then (which is what I do, heh), but at least you're trying to respect their way of doing things. The trick is doing it to honor them as opposed to doing it to try and gain their approval. The first thing is part of following Christ, the second is part of fearing man.

Reforming Man-Fearer,
(who's wordpress thing won't let her sign in, for some reason, so am using blogger)...