And Sad is the Life of a Reactionary, by Jon Townsend

(Jon Townsend’s posts are archived on the Regular Columns page under the title “I Desire Mercy and Not Satire but a Little Satire is Good for the Soul.” Jon is also the writer,  producer and even the voice of  our BJS  commercials on Issues, Etc.)


On a rainy summer night, when I was a student in Munich, I was invited to a concert, in a large big top tent. There I discovered what would be for years to come my favorite band, Element of Crime. I was there with my wife and two of my friends and we were dancing and drinking beer and having a great time. Amongst the songs I was introduced to, was a song called, “Nichts Mehr Wie Es War” or “No Longer How it Was”. The song is about a bar, that has been taken over by “the beautiful people” or “Schiki Mikis” so to say.


I am no Catherine Winkworth, so a poetic translation of one of my favorite songs is outside the realm of my abilities as a Dolmetscher, but this is the scene:

The drapes have been changed. Everything has been scrubbed clean. What is being served at the bar is hardly anything a real man would drink, and the current clientele looks like they only drink sports drinks anyway. The same way they drink they also dance, and it is no use taking out your cigarettes – because smoking is allowed no more, it is unhealthy you know, my favorite chair is gone…..


Maybe you’ve been there; your once favorite restaurant or bar. You moved away, or maybe got too busy to stop by. But you’ve come back and you are like, “What in the world did they do to the place? Yeah, maybe they updated, but they ruined it!! The whole ambience is gone. I don’t feel welcome. This is no longer my home from home!”


Und traurig ist das Leben als Reaktionär or Sad is the life of a Reactionary.


We probably all know the story of Luther and Karlstadt: The papal bull came down and the Lutheran Princes decided that Luther wasn’t safe anymore in his life as a parish pastor and public figure. He was spirited away to the Wartburg Castle. Although Karlstadt was also on the Pope’s short list of “bad guys”, he remained in Wittenberg and served as the pastor. In Luther’s absence he preached about being lead by the spirit, he tore down altars and did away with statues. He liberalized communion and allowed the laity to come to the altar and distribute the consecrated elements to them selves. He down played the efficacy of Baptism and took a symbolic view of Holy Communion.


Upon Luther’s return he preached eight sermons attempting to undo the damage Karlstadt had done in his absence.


Karlstadt moved on, became the pastor at Orlamünde and went on to publish further works – works which moved further away from sacramental theology.


Luther and Karlstadt met up again at Jena, where Luther went to preach and met in a local pub, the Black Bear, where Luther thoroughly annoyed and fed up with Karlstadt’s departure from true faith, Word and Sacrament, threw a golden coin at Karlstadt. This was the same as throwing down one’s glove – the feud was open. Luther told Karlstadt, “Publish against me.”


When the Peasants War broke out, Karlstadt’s life was threatened and Luther gave Karlstadt’s family refuge within his household. Luther’s wife, Katarina, supposedly became the godmother of Karlstadt’s child. Karlstadt also let it slip that he allowed a child that was born to him and his wife earlier to die unbaptized.


In the story of Luther and Karlstadt, we see a past we cannot escape. As heirs of Luther we are constantly caught between the Pope and Karlstadt – the Pope says “You must do this!” Karlstadt says, “You must not do this!” And Luther says, “Let the Gospel have its way with you and then see what you do!” The only issue in all of this, is that the Pope is clear – we do not share the same house. Karlstadt is always with us, he seeks refuge in our house, but the Word, “Baptism now saves you” and “This is my body” do not mean to him what the plain Word given to us says. Why would you trust a man that would allow his own child to die outside of baptismal grace to teach and serve your children?


Luther’s sermons upon his return to Wittenberg were “reactionary” against Karstadt. They sought to restore good order, confession and the sacraments. Luther threw down the gauntlet against Karlstadt with his golden coin toss in Jena. He published against him, and Karlstadt against Luther and when Karlstadt was in jeopardy, Luther intervened. When Karlstadt was proud and defiant, Luther was a lion and went on the attack. When Karlstadt was in need of mercy, Luther sheltered him in his home.


Reactionary Confessional Lutheranism or Tossing the Golden Coin at Karlstadt


When modern day Karlstadts walk into our modern day Wittenberg, they break the costly art work, or media, and they cancel it or seek to undermine it. They let their own children die, by not allowing pastors to baptize in areas for fear of offending the local Anabaptists. We are without a Pope, who can excommunicate Karlstadt. We have no lay princes, which under our advice, can strongly suggest to Karlstadt that he and his über-reform move on to the next city. So what do we do?? We throw the only golden coin at Karlstadt that we can – and that is our protest in email, letter, blog and website.


But doesn’t all of this reaction get tiresome? Isn’t it ugly? Where is the beauty of our theology? We should let the good we have carry the day, rather than constantly being against something, shouldn’t we?


Yep, all these things would be nice – but if the beauty of sacramental theology were enough to win Karlstadt, he would have been won already and he would not seek to tear down the beauty that was given to us. If Karlstadt were comfortable with beauty, he wouldn’t constantly be telling those of us with traditional liturgies that we need to get out of our “comfort zones”. This spirit cannot be won with beauty, for it turns up its nose at the beauties of all beauty: Baptism, Absolution and Holy Communion.


In thinking on the subject of the Sad Life of a Lutheran Reactionary, maybe there is a way to make it not so “tiresome”. I have two thoughts:


Throw the Coin at Karlstadt – If a pastor preaches something un-Lutheran, or un-Lutheran sounding in your parish, talk to him. Invite him to lunch. Buying lunch for the ordained is almost always a good thing. Invite him to the local tavern. Take on his assertions. Use what you have learned from Issues, Etc., especially the sermon diagnostic from Pr. Wilken to take him on. Bring your Small Catechism or Large Catechism and talk to him about the open communion practices at your parish. Show him Luther’s “Brief Admonition to Confession” and ask him why he doesn’t offer it. Challenge Karlstadt with little concern over your fitness to challenge the called and ordained. If you seem to fail, trust the Holy Spirit to do the real work. Do it in the real world.


Teach – Don’t trust the Christian education of your children to others without knowing what they teach. Use what you have learned from the “New Media” available to us to truly evangelize. The “New Media Evangelism” is not by getting others to listen, but it is doing the teach aspect of evangelism. Be a little Luther to the children in your parish. Show them that Christ is on every page of the Bible. Encourage them to confess their sin. Teach them that the Cup of Blessing which we bless is the Blood of Christ and that what is put into their mouths is truly Christ’s Body. Teach them that the Law will not make their problems go away, but that escape from sin is in the Gospel and that those forgiven of their sins are free, no matter the misery they may feel.


In the end, with this understanding, I see what may be perceived as Reactionär as a movement that is rather Avant Garde – considering that Karlstadt tore down all the paintings and statues long ago and white washed the place.

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