Nate Metzger, "Ordinary Time, Ordinary Ministers, Ordinary Everything" (Remnant, November 22, 1013):
I’ve written previously of my anti-climactic conversion from Lutheranism, and I don’t want to bore the good readers of this magazine by opining at length over an issue that is merely testimonial in nature. But allow me the indulgence to speak of this one last time.
Confessional Lutherans who convert to Catholicism are a peculiar lot. We are in the rare position, among converts, of knowing quite well what Catholics actually teach, long before converting. Certainly, I was under some slight misapprehensions, but my coming to the Church was not a matter of discovering that the picture of Catholicism I had been taught by my teachers and pastors growing up was full of gross exaggerations, outrageous mischaracterizations, and outright falsehoods. In catechism class, we read the Baltimore Catechism and looked at the Tridentine Mass. It is not uncommon to find a confessional Lutheran kid, attending his parish school, who knows more about Catholicism than the kid at the Catholic school down the road. In fact, these days, that’s what one should expect.
Reading conversion stories by former evangelicals is always enlightening for this reason. I confess to finding it slightly amusing learning what some of these poor fellows thought of Catholicism during their super-protestant days. As compared to them, I knew full well that Catholics didn’t worship Mary or the pope, for example. I knew that there was nothing ‘pagan’ about their religion, and I wasn’t weirded out by the kneeling, the incense, or the genuflecting. They were wrong on a lot of important, nay crucial, doctrinal points, I thought; but they had a lot of things going for them. And anyway, I was taught that it was far better to be Catholic than a bloody Calvinist or Methodist, or some other hyper-Anabaptist, iconoclast mutation that eschews all sacraments, thinks of the bread and wine as mere ‘symbols’ of something or other (God knows what), doesn’t cross himself at invocations of the Trinity, has no real notion of holy orders, and is wary of creeds and councils.
As for T.U.L.I.P., God save us. And as for Baptists and their ilk, confessional Lutherans look with curiosity on anti-creedal churches, they have no patience for liturgy-free worship, and they have no idea what it means to accept Jesus in your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.
I remember back as a Lutheran kid, I attended my buddy’s Baptist service. It was utterly, frighteningly bizarre: there was a big projector with the words of some stupid song on a white movie screen, the singing was accompanied by pre-recorded rock music, there was lots of hugging (a nightmare for a Lutheran kid), and a sermon that was more of a self-help talk than a meditation on the day’s scripture readings—of which there were none. People got up midway through the service (not that there was any real order to anything anyway) and told the whole congregation of their problems and the help they received from God. It occurred to me that this is what an AA meeting must be like, if such meetings included canned music about Shouting to the Lord. What struck me as the weirdest and most troubling aspect of it, though, was the pressure it put on the poor pastor to perform. It was all on him to inspire and lead: his panache had to do it all. Moreover, all of his prayers were impromptu, with lots of ‘we just wannas’ sprinkled throughout. It was so foreign and wild, that it might as well have been a feature in National Geographic, as far as this Lutheran kid was concerned.
No, if a ranking system was called for, any confessional Lutheran kid would tell you that Catholics were better off than these other sorts of Christian metamorphosis. In fact, most confessional Lutheran kids wince at being told they are protestant. Protestants don’t believe in the Real Presence, they get around to baptizing (or usually just ‘christening’) their kids when they are six or seven, they reject liturgical time, they think on the bible as an ex-nihilo and exclusive guide to dogma and morality, and they have empty crosses behind whatever it is that they have in place of an altar.
Yet, perhaps precisely because of the confessional Lutheran’s general antipathy towards the wide world of Protestantism, many of this ilk feel the pull to Holy Mother Church. The reasons are myriad, to be sure, but there are some common, core features that many Lutherans, suffering ennui in their own milieu, long for. Despite the fact that confessional Lutherans use the liturgical calendar, it is one that is less ‘full’ than the one used by the Church. Despite the Lutheran’s good and holy enmity toward the putrid and wicked Zwingli, the iconic riches of the Roman Church make many Lutheran churches look downright puritan by comparison. Despite the liturgical riches of Lutheran worship, it looks impoverished next to the Traditional Latin Mass.
Generally speaking, many Lutherans love the clutter of Catholicism. They envy the unending saint days, feasts, and ferias, the colloquial customs and countless liturgical addendums, the processions, the statues, the beads, the novenas and medals, the apparitions, the mystics, even the hagiography. In addition, they love the commitment, and the rigid calls for discipline. Many Lutherans envy the formidable set of rules that Catholics must abide by, and even the guidelines for corporal and spiritual mortification. What many modern Catholics see as repressive and stifling, many Lutherans see as liberating.
I can’t begin to fathom the complicated psychology of a woman, but I can tell you with more or less certainty that there is nothing better for a lax twenty or thirty-something man—wary of ‘freedom’ afforded by modern times, yet quite happy nonetheless to do the minimal amount called for—than to be told that he must perform certain religiously-significant actions in the course of a week, month, or year. The great thing about Catholicism is that when it comes to disciplined living, we never have the problem that the Baptist minister has when trying to figure out what to pray: it’s simply not on you. There are rules to follow, and specific guidelines to abide by, in order to stay on the straight and narrow. Catholics must attend Mass. No exceptions. They must get to confession. They must abstain from meat on Fridays. They must fast certain days of the year. There’s no rationalizing allowed, nor is it possible to find some other suitable form of sacrifice. You can’t just give up chocolate and think it’s fine, or think that you’re good with God by thinking about nice things on your couch. You can’t feast on steak on Friday and then make it up by giving up bacon and eggs the next morning, or have a nice chat with the Almighty on your way to the gym. You can’t make up the rules to fit your situation, and it ain’t just about poverty of the heart. There are certain actions that must be done, and you as a practicing Catholic can’t make yourself some sort of exception or think that the peculiarities of your circumstance give you a pass. You aren’t a special little snowflake. You gotta do it. Nope, no excuses. Just do it.
Brilliant, says your average man, stifled by the existentialist and hedonistic freedom bequeathed to him by a modernity obsessed with subjective experience. Brilliant, and liberating. Rules? Men need them. Give us rigidity; give us structure and custom-saturated discipline. Go figure, the one true faith is as cluttered with devotions, feasts, and fasts. It is a bag or riches, able to sustain the attention spans of an ADD riddled populace. And it is endless: there are always deeper levels to explore. It is as we should expect.
So, despite their own rich and brilliant devotions and disciplines, many confessional Lutherans find solace and liberation in a Catholic Church that is, on the face of it, that much more disciplined and liturgically-saturated.
They would, that is, if it weren’t for the fact that the Catholic Church, this side of the Council, has decided to clean up the clutter. Curious confessional Lutherans, longing for something even more messy, rich, and layered, end up leaving their own tradition-saturated, liturgically-heavy communities for something discombobulated, sparse, minimal, neat, and tidy. The Lutherans arrive in their new, sanitary environment with confusion. What he thinks is an upgrade is more like, well, the opposite of that. He leaves the one year lectionary for the three, and a highly structured liturgical calendar for the nihilistic, desert wasteland of ordinary time. Often, depending on where he attends Mass now, our Lutheran convert even leaves behind chanting, kneeling, and reverence, for…well, something else. He leaves behind a disciplined church searching for even more, only to get weird looks when he opts for a fish fillet on a Friday, when he announces that he’s fasting for Ember Days, or when he makes it clear, to the chagrin of the usher, that he’s going to abstain from going up for communion. He leaves a church that cherishes tradition, and has a plethora of it, for a church that is more or less self-loathing, that can’t seem to run fast enough from its past, and that eschews feast days and fast days as if they were forms of repression.
New springtime my foot, says the Lutheran. More like spring cleaning. Curiously, most converts to the Faith aren’t able to catch the hospital-like sterility of their new environment. And that makes sense, I suppose. If my childhood Baptist friend attended even the most comically lame of Novus Ordo masses, and the most tradition-loathing of churches, he’d still be intimidated by all of the form and order. He’d be wowed by the kneeling and crossing. He’d be impressed with the very fact that these people follow something called ‘liturgical time’. The year starts in December? he’d query. Amazing! How historical and tradition-bound! he’d opine. He’d be overwhelmed by the structure of it all. As compared to the anarchic and ‘contemporary worship’ service he came from, one which puts as much stock in its national holidays as it does its ‘religious’ ones and looks on the liturgical calendar and the feast day with a McCarthyesque suspicion, even the most inane of Novus Ordo Masses would look damn near druidic, and the church as a whole would seem other-worldly.
But for confessional Lutherans? Not so much. For us, conversion is a massive case of false advertising. Sorry, but we aren’t impressed. We know what you had. We’ve studied it. We’ve written endless pages of polemic against it. As far the confessional Lutheran is concerned, Catholics have jumped ship.
Of course, as mentioned, this insight is only available to those of us with the fortunate fate of a particular enculturation. For the most part, the Church has gone about its de-cluttering on the sly. I’m sure that Vaticanistas are all too happy to have yet another evangelical convert rave about the liturgical riches and structure of his new home.
Alas, it seems that we confessional Lutherans who convert are the Second Vatican Council’s worst nightmare, because we can call their bluff. We know about the disciplines and dogmas, the creeds and councils, the feasts and traditions. We came for the holy mess, and we know that you’ve sent in a cleaning crew. You can’t wow us with the remaining smells and bells, icons, and formal worship and prayer. Been there, done that. We know that by comparison, what you offer now is simply a shadow of what you once had.