Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Shops in One City

Jakarta is predominantly Muslim, something like 85% of the population. However, it is a large enough city that even the relatively small percentage of Christians amounts to a substantial number of people, roughly divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There are barely any Lutherans to speak of; only a small handful who are really Lutheran in anything more than name. All of the Protestants, including almost all of those churches claiming some affiliation with Lutheranism, belong to a unionistic fellowship with pulpits and altars open amongst them.

Serving the Christians in Jakarta are two shops: one, a Roman Catholic church supply store, the other a Protestant book store. I had the opportunity to visit both shops this afternoon. The contrast between them was striking and significant.

The Roman Catholic church supply store was practically wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling covered in crucifixes of every size and a variety of styles. There was some of the usual kitsch, but not much. A few of the crucifixes seemed a bit on the cheap and cheesy side, but nothing tawdry or distasteful. The vast majority were quite nice, and a number of them were magnificent. Oh, what I wouldn't give to bring a couple of the gianormous ones homes with me, which I could purchase at a fraction of what they would cost in the United States.

The entire store sang with a marvelous confession of the Lord's holy Passion; not only with the wide array of crucifixes, but with chalices, ciboriums, and chasubles for the Holy Communion. Like St. John the Baptist, everything pointed to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The selection of books ran along a similar vein. They dealt primarily with pastoral care and catechesis. Along with that were liturgical and devotional materials, and some simple things for children. I'm sure it wasn't all worthwhile, and I'm not presuming to assess or comment on the theological content of everything (I don't read Indonesian, anyway). However, the focus of the books was churchly and centered in the means of grace, the Ministry of Word & Sacrament. The focus of the entire Roman Catholic church supply store was clearly on the Gospel.

Even the ambience of the Protestant book store was different, from the moment I walked in the door. I was immediately hit by the pop music being piped over the speakers; no doubt the latest in "Contemporary Christian Music," but nondescript and indistinguishable from any slightly-outdated Top 40 station. That's when I realized that, either there had been no music in the background of the Roman Catholic store, or else it had been quieter and more tasteful; if there was any there, it didn't call attention to itself. At the Protestant store, I couldn't escape it.

The Protestant store had very few crosses, and, except for a few small necklaces, all of the crosses on display were barren and plain. No Jesus there. There were some pictures of Jesus, smiling and welcoming, friendly and happy, but not suffering to atone for the sins of the world. If there were any depictions of His Passion, none of them managed to catch my eye. I did spot the small selection of individual-cup communion trays (no chalices), and the supply of "sacramental drink" (not wine) in plastic bottles along a bottom shelf. Really, though, what dominated the entire store were books of the Joel Osteen sort. There weren't books on pastoral care and catechesis, nor on liturgical practice, leastwise not that I could find anywhere. There were some Bibles, so far as I could tell, but not a large selection. No, mostly there were books on how to live a better, more disciplined life, with rules for this and principles for that, cautions against this and warnings against that. Okay, so I'm not saying that all of these things were necessarily bad, though the gist of what I could discern from the English titles was not promising. There certainly is a place for discipline and guidance in the Christian life. But the Law always accuses; and the Law without the Gospel does not bring real life but only death. And yet, the focus of the Protestant book store was not only centered in the Law (or some bastardized version of it), but predominantly consumed by it.

This contrast between the Roman Catholic and Protestant shops probably ought to seem ironic, but somehow it doesn't anymore. It reminded me of the similar contrast I encountered many years ago, when I was making my institutional visits as part of my seminary training. At the nursing home where I made those visitations, there were little old ladies of various Christian confessions. I did my best, as a novice seminarian, to speak the Word of God to them, the Law and the Gospel, but many of them did as much or more of the talking than I did. I tried to listen, and to learn something from them in the process. To this day I vividly remember how surprised I was by some of those conversations. The little old lady Protestants (none of them Lutheran) would, more often than not, tell me about their good works and good intentions; about how hard they had tried and how much they had contributed to their congregations; and about some of the other parishioners who had certainly done far less of the good stuff and far more of the bad stuff. The little old lady Roman Catholics, on the other hand, would tell me about their hope in Christ Jesus, their love for His Cross and His Sacrament, and above all their trust in His mercy.

After what I saw in Jakarta this afternoon, if it is at all typical of the contrast between Roman Catholics and Protestants, I could hardly be surprised anymore by the difference in those little old ladies I visited once upon a time in Fort Wayne.

If the Cross and Passion of our Savior are left in the past, out of sight and out of mind, instead of being preached and distributed in the ongoing Ministry of the Gospel, then the people have to keep themselves busy and preoccupied with something other than His work. But if His Cross and Passion are constantly set before the eyes of His people, preached into their ears and placed upon their tongues in the Holy Sacrament, then their own works and efforts are submerged in His grace, mercy and peace. How much better when the teaching and confession of the faith also coincide with such salutary practice; which is why I am grateful to be an evangelical catholic, otherwise known as "Lutheran."


  1. You don't have to go to Jakarta to see this contrast. You can visit Mardel and Trinity House right here in Kansas City and find the exact same situation.

  2. I second Kaleb's comment, you can find that in big towns like St. Louis and in little towns like Stevens Point, Wi. And then there is the Eastern Orthodox Icon shop in St. Louis... wow.

  3. Most of "Protestantism" is just Roman Catholicism without the vestments. At least the vestments preach Christ.

    In Protestantism, the subtle synergism of Rome has given way to a nearly complete focus on one's good works, or, in some more mild cases, one's faith. Either way, I thought we were to keep our focus on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

    I am not at all comfortable with Rome. Officially speaking, they deny the Gospel. But whereas Protestantism heralds the Gospel, officially speaking, when you sit in their pews (if they even have pews), the true Gospel is hard to find. What you find is a lot of moralism and talk about how to have your best life now.

    It is fortunate, in an ironic way, that most people these days don't pay that much attention to what is said in the sermon. Like it or not, people’s attention spans and their ability to process orally communicated ideas aren’t what they used to be. In many cases, the preaching, even if it's truly good (And look around, gang. Most of the time it isn't.), falls on deaf ears, for one reason or another.

    But, in a typical Protestant Church, what else do you have to fall back on? If the preaching doesn't hit home, what else is there? Crosses and crucifixes are out. Statues and stained glass are out. Vestments? Come on. Try khakis and a polo shirt. So, what else is there?

    At least in most Roman Catholic churches, even here in America, when you walk in, you can see the Gospel: The paintings on the wall, the statues, the stained glass, the baptismal font, the (usually) huge/ornate altar, the vestments...

    Rome is still in need of Reformation. I would suggest that most of Protestantism is in even greater need of the same.

    As things stand, as a Lutheran, telling someone to go to a Protestant church would entail giving the following warning: Don't listen too closely to what they say. But, then, what's left?

    On the other hand, telling someone to go to a Roman catholic church would entail giving the same warning. But at least they would still benefit from seeing the Gospel there with their eyes.

    I would suggest that a deaf man is far more likely to be saved in a Roman catholic church than in a Protestant one. Or you could try a Lutheran church where you can look and listen.

  4. All synergisms being equal, Rome's danger is idolatry, Protestantism's danger is falling into various flavors of gnosticism.

    I would rather drink my wine with idolaters, for they would have a better chance grasping the incarnation.

  5. Dear Ryan:

    I think idolatry is kind of a harsh charge to levy against Rome. Some of my Protestant school children (mimicking their parents) accuse us of idolatry because we have a statue of Jesus in our sanctuary.

    The Reformation was about recovering the Gospel that had been obscured by corruption and bad theology. It was not about removal of statues and images. Neither was it about restoring the "lost" 2nd Commandment according to our Protestant brethren (in fact, we number the commandments the same way as our Roman brethren, following Augustine's method).

    Your quip reminds me of these quotes from Luther from his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ's Supper:

    "I have taught in the past and still teach that this controversy [between Wycliffe and the Scholastics about transubstantiation] is unnecessary and that it is of no great consequence whether the bread remains or not. I maintain, however, with Wycliffe that the bread remains; on the other hand, I also maintain with the Scholastics that the Body of Christ is present." (AE 37:296)

    "I have often asserted that I do not argue whether the wine remains or not. It is enough for me that Christ's Blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only Blood." (AE 37:317)

    Both of these passages are cited by Piepkorn in his "The Lutheran Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Altar, Ecumenically Considered" (which I recommend) as published in *The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn,* Vol. 1, 2nd Edition, pp 146-147.

  6. Please read my post again, I'm sorry if it sounded that I charged Rome with idolatry -I would not charge Rome with idolatry, rather the danger of gross idolatry is found more in Rome than in a Protestant's bare walled auditorium. And that is a danger I can well live with, its the opposite that I have a problem with, gnosticism.

    I can drink wine with the idolater because thought he confuses the creation for the creator - at least the creation is good, The gnostic on the other hand may well try to deprive me of any pleasure in creation since they not only do not worship it - but in the end reject it as evil and thus reject its creator.

    It is a great joy as a Lutheran to worship God in the beauty of his holiness in word and art.

    As for those Protestant school children and their parents I find Collossians 1:15 (Christ as "icon" of God) and Exodus 25/26 (Cherubim on Ark and Curtains) particularly helpful when I deal with similar types.

    Good Discussion!

  7. But I see no evidence at all of any idolatry on Rome's part, actually; none whatsoever. Certainly no more than when the charge of idolatry was falsely laid against the iconophiles of the eighth century.

    We rejoice with the bishops of the Seventh Ecumenical Council that the veneration of images is not the worship of them, and such veneration is therefore to be commended.

  8. Dear Ryan:

    "As for those Protestant school children and their parents I find Collossians 1:15 (Christ as "icon" of God) and Exodus 25/26 (Cherubim on Ark and Curtains) particularly helpful when I deal with similar types."

    Sage advice indeed!

  9. And how much of this, I wonder, is also the Americanization of Protestantism?

    For example, at Catholic Supply in St. Louis I see much of the same sort of stuff here identified as "Protestant": books on the "successful" life, statues of St. Joseph to bury in your yard to get your house sold, etc.

    Serious Protestantism was (and is) about the blood of Jesus. Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, John Knox, the old Southern Baptists, would have been just as embarrassed as we to be associated with Joel Osteen, et al.

    The American Church, rather than some spirit native to Calvinism, Lutheranism, or Romanism, is, I think, at the center here. And it's a bug that the "successful" American Church has now exported around the world via books and media.


  10. I'm sure there's some truth to what you say about the "Americanization" of religion; and of course it is true that Roman Catholicism has, in many ways and places, been colonized by the same regretable influences.

    However, I would still suggest that Protestantism's rejection of the blood of Christ poured out for the many in the Holy Communion leaves a huge vaccuum in its theology, piety and practice, which is then filled with legalism, pietism and self-righteousnessness in one form or another.

    Of course, we are all prone to these things by sinful nature, but when they are met with both the preaching and the administration of the true body and blood of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, then legalism gives way to the real liberty of faith in the Gospel, pietism gives way to genuine piety, and self-righteousness is removed and replaced by the beautiful righteousness of Christ-for-us.

    Luther believed that it was the practice of Holy Baptism which had saved the Church through the darkest days of the Middle Ages. In a similar fashion, I believe, the centrality of the Sacrament of the Altar in the life of the Roman Church has preserved an emphasis on the Gospel -- notwithstanding the Roman Church's grievous errors with respect to the sacrifice of the Mass.

    When Holy Baptism is treated as man's testimony to God, and when the Lord's Supper is treated as an occasional memorial meal in honor of the once-upon-a-time Jesus-who-was, there's nothing left to believe or do or cling to, except the frantic activity and activism of pietistic, self-righteous legalism.


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