Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Revival: An Augsburg Evangelical View

It didn't help that Jeremy Abel had said a friend of in Indianapolis had said, "I can't believe you recommended this to me!" or that the blurbs were all written by professors of theology, or that the first page of the introduction talked about the book's "many mind-boggling and heart-wrenching dialogues" (cliche alert!)

All of which is to say, I approached Hammer of God with considerable trepidation, worrying that it was simply theology in dialogue with a few cardboard characters set up to enunciate the standard Augsburg Evangelical theological points. But I was pleasantly surprised by what is, if not really a masterpiece on the level of Crime and Punishment (as the introduction says one critic claimed), or Harriet Beecher Stowe (to mention my personal favorite church-life novelist) at least one in the same league as the novels of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton. The novelistic format is really related organically to the pastoral-theological insights and errors expressed by the characters. Hammer of God, by Bo Giertz who later became Sweden's foremost confessional Evangelical bishop, traces three revivals in the Ödesjö region of Sweden, from 1810 to 1940 and how their experiences in these revivals forced three pastors to acknowledge the wisdom and truth of Luther's Evangelical theology.

Martin Lloyd-Jones in his valuable pamphlet What Is an Evangelical? wrote that only "evangelicals" (by which he meant mostly revivalistic Christians) are interested in revival. If this is so, then Bo Giertz, despite or because of his sacramental theology, is indeed an evangelical. Revival, and the pietist sense of a life lived methodically in God's presence (that's the origin of the word "methodist," by the way) is one of his great desires. Yet he sees such revival as menaced always by the dangers of legalism and separatism. Revival brings on a great sense of God's holiness, which is an essential starting point in the Christian life. But it is only the starting point, and if made the whole of the Christian life, will lead either to Phariseeism or burn-out.

Thus the pastor Torvik, as he wrestles at night with the disaster brought on by Schenstedt's existential antinomianism, wonders if his whole previous revival work was useless, one in which he had stressed "the four absolutes" and surrrendering his life to Jesus. Mulling over the importance of remaining within the apostolic and confessional channels, he wakes up and puts on his clerical collar:

"Man, what are you intending to do?" she asked.

"Only begin a new life," he answered and laughed. He went toward the door. She sat up.

"Be careful, then" she said, "that you do not deny Jesus!"

He turned in the doorway, and looked at her, wonderingly.

"I mean the work Jesus has been doing in what He has already let you experience thus far in Ödesjö."

"No danger!" he said with a smile as he left the room. On the stairs he stoped short and remained standing with his hand on the bannister. Yes, there was perhaps a danger. There was need for sober thought. There was really no reason for renouncing that which had been. Where would he have been now if this wind of the Spirit had not blown through his parish? He would very likely be sitting in Upsala, a disillusioned former parish minister. And here in Ödesjö, the holy Table of the Lord would have stood as empty as at first, the spiritual inertia would have been unbroken, the many old disputes anbd offences would be still unsettled. Jonsson would have remained the same inwardly unhappy gambler at cards, and Arvidsson the same respected community leader but, in that case, without the slightest glimpse of the eternal hope he now possessed. No, this work of God was really nothing nothing to pass by with a smile (p. 280).

He concludes his meditations:

Nothing of the old was obsolete: the confessions remained just as firm, and the answers the church had given through the centuries were just as conclusive against the many enticements of the modern enthusiasts. But through all this that was old and settled blew the Spirit of life and awakening, sweeping away the dust of dead routine and making the miracle of conversion repeatedly as great and new as when it first took place in the early church. The Spirit of revival also belonged to the holy heritage of the Church. If now he would reconsecrate himself to the service of the Church, he would not be untrue to that heritage (p. 281).

He then begins to pray for the first time according to the canonical hours with a set order of intercession, including for "revival, for a salutary unrest among sleeping souls, for real need that arouse the indifferent." Pietists and revivalists are good for starting the work of revival with a preaching of the law, but if they are left to finish it, the fermentation will curdle and go sour.

One can also see from this book why Bishop Giertz was unwilling and unable to depart from the Church of Sweden, even when ordination of women, about which already had some tart things to say in 1941, became a reality. Throughout the novel runs the parallel of the established-ness of the state church with the objectivity of Evangelical theology. The spire, the vestments, the tithes, the whole formal structure of the old established church expressed in material form the Confessions' opposition to all forms of harmful subjectivity and arrogant individualism into which revival constantly threatened to turn. No wonder that in the end he was unable to break with the established church even though by 1960 it was controlled by a laity that was largely non-Christian, and that could not help but wish to destroy real Christianity.

Another theme that may be surprising is the prominence of militant patriotism as the mark of true Augsburg Evangelical piety. In 1810 the Swedes are battling the Russians for Finland, and in 1940, the Swedes again are leaving as volunteers to help a now-independent Finland battle a Soviet invasion. In both cases, the pastors' support for the front is seen as one of the healthy sprouts that battles the teetotalling, separationist urges unleashed by revivalistic zeal, and eventually returns the protagonists to the Lutheran confessions. And in the 1880 scenes, the new liberal curate at first despises the old confessional rector because of his enthusiasm for soldiers and military scenes. It is interesting that the original translation omitted the last, crucial chapter precisely because in it, the curate expresses his fear of a Bolshevik invasion and his obsessive mulling over of the names of the battles in Finland against the Soviet armies. The translator presumably thought that the American public would not be in sympathy with a pastor who in 1940 worried more about rampaging Communism than rampaging Nazism. And even this revised edition which has added a translation of this vital chapter, omits the long conversation between the pastors in 1810 about the politics and trends in Napoleonic Europe.

I often wonder if what stunted post-war European piety was not the contamination in people's minds with the evils of the Nazi era of this generous and nostalgic patriotism among Europe, that gloried in the Christian character of their nations and their readiness to defend that Christian character with the sword and bayonet. Can European Christianity revive before Europeans unlearn their shame at their traditional heritage of Christian nationality and martial patriotism?

Not that such Christian patriotism will be pro-American. The Christian nation of Sweden envisioned by Bishop Giertz in Hammer of God at its best is not a land of individualism, but one of paternalism and a manor house that works in tandem with the established church's parsonage. America appears in Hammer of God several times as a place to where irresponsible individualists run off. I don't think it is an accident that the one American character mentioned by name, a businessman who seduces a Swedish Christian woman, is called Rothmann, which is close to "Red Man"; although I can't decide whether that is "red" as in the sense of "pagan Red Indian savagery" or Red as in "purveyor of a revolutionary red, anti-Christian materialistic ideology" -- probably both. Hard as it may be for Americans to accept, Christian Europe's patriotism has always defined itself in opposition both to America and to the enemy to the East (whether Islam or Communism). As a Christian American who hopes for revival in Europe, I pray for the day when Europeans once again despise my country (in ignorance, I believe), not for being "fundamentalist," but for being a land of anarchic materialism and egalitarianism that unreasonably separates the confessionally Christian church and the paternally benevolent Christian state.

More from Hammer of God:

Mother Lotta on Testimonies and Women Preaching
Pastor Fridfeldt on Infant Baptism and Faith
Pastor Olle Bengtsson on the Clerical Collar