Monday, March 21, 2016

The Witch, Enthusiasm, and Sharla Fritz

I recently did something which I rarely do – I went to the theater to see a movie. The movie I saw was called The Witch (or “The VVitch”…I’m not sure why it was spelled that way in the title). It was a horror movie that told the story of a puritan family which is shunned by their community for some ambiguous sin committed by the father. The family goes into the wilderness to begin their new life in exile. It is there that they come into contact with the witch, who torments them for the duration of the film. I won’t ruin the movie for any of those who might wish to see it, though I will say it is not for the squeamish. Normally, horror movies aren’t my thing. My cousin, however, thought that I would be intrigued by the depiction of the puritans and the accuracy with which the filmmakers portrayed their religious beliefs, and how they affected their everyday lives. He was right.

Watching the movie, I was struck by two scenes in particular. In one the mother prays a prayer over and over again after the family is struck by a gruesome tragedy. She lies in her bed weeping, hands clasped in desperate prayer, begging for God to send His Holy Spirit into her heart so that she could know that she was his child. In another scene, father and son are walking through the woods. The father is catechizing his son. Suddenly, the son tells his father that he knows he is a sinner and is afraid he is damned. The father tells his son that yes, he does deserve damnation because of his sin. He then tries to comfort his son by telling him that we can’t know whether we’re saved or lost, but we must pray and live according to God’s law. The child actor was good – the look of utter despair he gave in response to his father was heartbreaking.

I remarked to my cousin that what that family needed was a good Lutheran pastor to preach to them Law and Gospel properly. Of course, that would have made for a much shorter, less suspenseful movie.

The issue the characters were dealing with was Enthusiasm. The Lutheran Confessions describe Enthusiasm as the belief that God speaks to people separate and apart from Holy Scripture, and that He would save people without the means of grace. This is a concept with which we are all familiar, whether we realize it or not, and we all struggle with it, even in so-called confessional Lutheran congregations.

I recently began reading a book called, “Soul Spa: 40 Days of Spiritual Renewal,” by Sharla Fritz. It is a woman’s Bible study published by Concordia Publishing House. The author recently spoke at my church to the women’s Bible study group, and I was interested to find out the things she was teaching. Before I was very far into the book I would wager that the expression on my face resembled that of the puritan boy in the movie who was given the law by his father after having been crushed by it, rather than the Gospel.

I was particularly distressed by “Day Two” of “Week Three,” a chapter called “Solitude.” The author begins the chapter by quoting 1 Kings:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12).

As soon as I read the Scripture quotation I knew what this chapter was going to be about – Enthusiasm. She writes that people need solitude to connect with God and hear his voice. By seeking out solitude we can sort out our feelings, we can more clearly hear God’s voice, and experience the miracle of God’s grace (whatever that means).

The world constantly demands our attention. Sometimes the only time we can truly hear God is when we shut out all the other voices. We need solitude to hear the Father’s whispers to our hearts (Fritz 2015).

The Father’s whispers to our hearts? That doesn’t sound Biblical. Don’t worry. The author explains how Elijah functions as our example for this.

The prophet Elijah experienced a time of burnout and depression after a very successful time of ministry. In response to his ragged feelings, he took a forty-day journey to Horeb, the mount of God. He instinctively knew he needed time alone with the Lord. Elijah’s journey to solitude in 1 Kings 19 can help us with our path to hearing God in the empty places of our souls (Fritz 2015).

Elijah was burnt out? He instinctively knew he needed to be alone with the Lord? Hearing God in the empty places of our souls? This is a total twisting to God’s Word, and a dangerous path down which to tread. Far from teaching us to seek out solitude to listen for God’s whispering to our hearts, this passage shows how God uses means to communicate with us. Elijah only found comfort when God spoke to him – using words – rather than from God’s power manifested by the wind, the earthquake, and the fire.

Furthermore, we are not Elijah. He was a prophet of God, with whom God dealt directly. He has not promised to deal with us in the same way.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Scripture teaches that God works among us through means, not whispers in the empty places of our souls. The Gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit offers us all the blessings of Christ and creates faith in us (Concordia Publishing House 1991). That Gospel is delivered to us by means of the written word and the sacraments.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message…Faith comes through hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ…You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (John 17:20; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23).

The problem with what the Bible teaches, however, is that it takes all the work away from us. God’s grace is solely responsible for our salvation. Because we are fallen, sinful creatures, bent in toward ourselves, we cannot accept this and constantly seek to merit what Christ would give us as a gift. This attitude of Enthusiasm has been engrained in us since the fall.

All this is the old devil and old serpent (Revelation 12:9), who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts. He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride (Genesis 3:2-5). And yet, he did this through other outward words. In the same way, our enthusiasts today condemn the outward Word. Yet they themselves are not silent. They fill the world with their babbling and writings, as if the Spirit could not come through the apostles’ writings and spoken Word, but has to come through their writings and words. Why don’t they leave out their own sermons and writings and let the Spirit Himself come to people without their writings before them, as they boast that He has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures? We do not have time now to argue about this in more detail. We have treated this well enough elsewhere[1] (Concordia Publishing House 1991).

We need not retreat to the solitude of a remote mountain top in order to hear from God. In fact, if we go off to remote places to search for God, we can be certain not to find him. What we will find is our own sinful nature and desires. In order to hear God speaking to us we need to go to where he has promised to be. He has promised to be wherever two or three are gathered in his name to hear his Word preached. He has promised to come to us in the waters of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We should all stay out of those dark and empty places in our souls.

As for Elijah being an example for us to go off into solitude to sort out our feelings and hear from God, Luther deals with that as well:

God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself. God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken word (Exodus 3:2-15). No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments or the spoken Word. John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice (Luke 1:11-20, 41). Peter says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy. Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak when they were still unholy. They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them[2] (McCain, et al. 2005).

I expect people to be enthusiasts. I am one as well, and I must repent of my enthusiasm daily. What I don’t appreciate is how the publishing house of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod would cut the legs out from under their faithful pastors by putting their imprimatur on such unbiblical, unconfessional, pop-Christian, fundagelical nonsense as this. How are pastors supposed to teach their congregations rightly when the Synod publishes material which directly contradicts biblical and confessional teaching? Pastors encourage the people in their care to gather regularly around word and sacrament and receive what the Lord has promised us – the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Materials such as these encourage people to seek something different, something better – a personal, emotional experience with God, apart from corporate worship. When the faithful pastor attempts to correct this, his parishioners suspect him of simply being cantankerous. After all, it can’t be all bad if CPH publishes it, right? Lord, have mercy!

Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Fritz, Sharla. Soul Spa: 40 Days of Spiritual Renewal. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015.

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

[1] SA III VIII 5-6
[2] SA III VIII 10-13