Thursday, March 03, 2011

Twilight of the Idols, Sixties Style

"My Father's Disappointed Generation" is a nice piece in The Cresset, by Paul Gregory Alms. Sensitively and generously, Alms talks about his father, who was born in 1940 and spent a lifetime working for BF Goodrich, and worshiping in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Here is how Alms describes his gather's generation:
My father, and men like him, were men of faith, shaped by loyalty to company, country, and church. Theirs was not a “greatest generation” who were called on to sacrifice their lives on the foreign shores of Europe or Korea or Vietnam. They gave their lives in the office and the sanctuary and the voting booth. ... It was the fabric of how they spent their time. The days and weeks and years they spent meant something beyond paychecks and possessions. They were Christian Americans who worked for a living in the greatest country that had ever been. Church and country and company all blended into a way of life that was sacred and special.
We have known people like this. They exist, and in large numbers. But be careful. A lot of people born in the 193os and 40s fought in Korea and Viet Nam. Many leaders of the 60s counterculture were just the age of the elder Alms (Jerry Rubin, born 1938; Abbie Hoffman, born 1936; Grace Slick, born 1939). Had he wanted to, Alms pere might as easily have chosen to turn on, tune in and drop out. To some extent, the way of life Alms describes -- that of the classic Company Man -- was an individual choice, not a generational marker.

Still, there were a lot of these guys. And we love those guys. And Alms is at his most touching when he talks about their collective "disappointment":
By the 1970s and 1980s my father watched the objects of his faith dissolve. The basis of his vocational, civic, and spiritual attachments fractured and collapsed. One by one, everything he held to be most holy and essential to his way of life slipped away and changed shape, so much so that he could no longer recognize it. ... His frustration was more existential than political. His country, which had once been both victorious and morally good, was no longer either. He had believed in the divine specialness of America, and now there was very little in which to trust.
This is, of course, all about civil religion -- and civil religion, is by definition, the worship of a false and changeable god. But "real" religion was an integral part of the disappointment:
The same cultural pressures that bent America in the 1960s and 1970s pressed hard on the LCMS. As the synod became more and more Americanized, it absorbed the diversity and divisiveness of the culture. The monolithic Missouri Synod, where all believed, worshipped, and acted in common, slowly went away.
A great battle over the inerrancy of the Bible came to stand for many of these changes and tore through the denomination in the 1970s. ... Yet in the aftermath of that great struggle, congregations continued to go their own ways in matters of belief, worship, and practice and became more and more splintered. For my father, this was heresy. The Synod, in order to be the Synod, had to be of one mind.
My father quit going to church for a number of years in the 1980s because the local LCMS congregation to which he belonged was using a non-LCMS hymnal and embracing practices that were unknown in the LCMS of his youth. The smaller issues revealed larger ones. His synod had ceased to exist.
Well, yes and no. In fact, after the flare-up, the LC-MS did settle down on a particularly strict interpretation of its shared belief. And while liturgical uniformity is, to be sure, one way to indicate and even create doctrinal uniformity, it is not the way historically favored by Lutherans. Sure, there's Muhlenberg's "one church, one book," not to mention our beloved Common Service. But in the final aanalysis, there is above these things the section of CA VII that we quoted the other day, to the effect that "it is not necessary for the unity of the Church that rites and ceremonies instituted by men should be everywhere the same."

So all this raises a specific question about the Missouri Synod, and several more general ones about the characteristics of religious belief in our society.

The question about Missouri is how much of its internal wrangling, either then or now, is about the desire for the emotional comfort provided by external signs, and how much comes from a genuine concern for the Gospel as the Gospel? When the elder Alms stopped worshiping because he didn't like the hymnal, he was clearly missing the CA VII boat. What about the Steadfasters, and their desire to repristinate "your grandfather's church"? Only Missourians can answer the question, and -- note the irony -- they will never agree on the answer.

For Americans as a group, the questions are not so different. The 1950s and early 60s are often sentimentalized (or villified) the way Alms describes his father's life: as a generation of conformity and trust in God, Country and Corporation. In a sense, this was what Americans were trying to get back when they elected former GE spokesman Ronald Reagan. But those were also the days of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, of segregation and the John Birch Society -- that is, the days of an intensely paranoid political effort to suppress dissent at any cost, including fundamental rights of a free society. And the simple, unreflective and patriotic conformism of people like Alms's father placed its trust in these forces, which preyed upon it like savage beasts.

So the questions abound, especially for religious people, and most especially for people who like their religion traditional. We have to ask ourselves, at every turn, whether we are holding onto the Gospel or to our own dreams; whether we are placing our faith in institutions for their own sake, or for the sake of the values those institutions are meant to serve -- liberty, or prosperity, or God. The institutions, even the Church when its is considered as a body of rules and practices, are human creations; like the Sabbath, they are made for man, and not vice-versa. We can trust them, if we can trust them, hesitantly, contingently, and never without question.

Otherwise, we are sure to be disappointed.


Christopher said...

Reading this I had a flashback to Susan Faludi's book "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." It doesn't cover LCMS stuff, but does deal deeply with the greatest generation and beyond.

Anonymous said...

I will trust institutions rather than god: institutions exist.

Father Anonymous said...

That's actually kind of funny, coming from a guy who signs himself Nixon. I mean, Tricky Dick (along with LBJ) was one of the main reasons that so many Boomers became disenchanted with the institutions they were raised with. If the president is a lying crook, they asked, then is there anybody we can trust?

Seriously. Not to get all Voltaire on you, but a completely bogus God who was nothing more than a nice idea might very well deserve more devotion than any [other] human institutions.