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The New White-Wine Pietists
by Craig Parton

Though lacking Scriptural support for this, I contend that hell consists in some small part in viewing films with English subtitles. Babette's Feast, however, is an exception - a must-see film for adherents of confessional orthodoxy.

The film is set in Denmark in the nineteenth century. A bleak, windswept coastal fishing village is inhabited by the exceedingly bleaker remnants of a barely discernible historic Lutheran orthodoxy. The film begins with the village remnant already drinking fully from the founts of a crossless, mystical "Christian" pietism. Vestiges of a long-lost orthodoxy appear only in the names of two sisters within the remnant - Martins (after Luther) and Philipa (after Philip Melanchthon). Their papa had, apparently, some sense of the contribution of these Lutheran reformers. Any appreciation of theological orthodoxy is slim pickings indeed by the time of the arrival of the central figure of the film, Babette.

Babette is a haunting Christ figure. Her origins are obscure and not fully revealed until the film's astounding conclusion. She brings gifts to the remnant at a level that these pietists cannot appreciate. In fact, at one point she is considered to be completely demonic. Babette, though, comes only to serve. Eventually (after over a decade of silent servanthood) she does make a "demand" - she requires that the villagers attend a Michelin Guide five-star feast. Babette's gastronomical gift is presented in stark contrast to the frozen cod and lumpy porridge of these law-driven, gospel-starved people.

Martina and Philipa Come to America

Having fully emasculated Lutheran orthodoxy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the pietism portrayed in Babette's Feast took flight to America, where it found willing bedfellows.

Nary would a contemporary American pietist, however, ever recognize himself as one of the villagers in Babette's Feast. But Martina and Philipa are alive and well in 1996. The new American Christian pietist of the '90's is often a hip, white-wine-drinking, Land-Rover-buying, laptop-computer-owning, kinda-MTV-watching, wannabe-generation-x member sired in the hottest evangelical temples. He may or may not have a ponytail and an earring - he definitely does have a testimony. The new white-wine pietists are big on "fellowship" and "accountability groups." They may wear Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and loafers with no socks. They invite equally hip renegade Catholic priests and socially and politically liberal evangelicals to "fellowship" meetings and "ecumenical prayer breakfasts."

Pietism is thus no longer championed by nerdy, pocket-pen-laden, Catholic-bashing, Louisiana Bayou Baptists who condemn dancing, drinking, smoking, and doing the Hoochy Coochy. The new white-wine pietists have few social hang-ups with alcohol, tobacco, or music. Pietism is cross-dressing in American Christian culture today in a way that would have been unthinkable to the pietists of twenty-five years ago. The new white-wine pietists are cotton-clad, jeep-owning preppies, football coaches of major powerhouses, Yuppies who know the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay, and political insiders who walk through the halls of Congress comfortably with the New York Times under their arms.

Thus the cultural and social package in which pietism dresses in the 1990's is often dramatically different from that which initially arose in reaction to the Reformation of the six-teenth century. But while the package is much different today, the theology of pietism remains, incredibly, unaltered. That manmade theology (what Luther called a theology of glory) was created by the first Adam while in rebellion in the garden and continues to this very day with its proclamation of the redeeming power of the law. Theologia gloria remains an enemy of the theologia crucis (theology of the cross). It must be vigilantly identified, scoped, and slain in every generation if our Lord is to find faith when he returns.

Thus the greatest threat to the church today is not from the ACLU, Martin Scorsese, The New Age Movement, Gangsta Rap, Planned Parenthood, Time-Warner, Madonna, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, or Hugh Hefner. The greatest threat is a crossless pietism that has been given luxury-box seating within the walls of the church militant. It is a crossless pietism with confidence in the old Adam and in the life-giving power of the law. It is, though, the old, dank, putrid theology of glory now in the guise of dominion politics, or the seven promises of a promise keeper, or yielded or victorious living, or traditional family values, or any other appeal to life and salvation not centered in the daily inglorious and lowly forgiveness of sins found only in Christ's atoning death. The new white-wine pietists are lethal because they don't look, smell, dress, or socialize like the pietists of old. They are, however, enemies of the theologia crucis.

I am a recent convert to Reformation theology. After speading almost twenty years in white-wine pietism, I come to warn. Martina and Philipa are now with us, only they wear lycra work-out shorts, carry head-sets, and drink designer water. They are alit and well in the church and they are legion. They are also alive and well-fed in the historic churches of the Reformation.

While the Reformation identifies the heart as the problem, white-wine pietists see it as an answer.
The following are the nine spiritual laws of white-wine pietism (ten being too doctrinal a number to use), which are increasingly espoused by the ignorant and arrogant within even confessional churches. Thus these laws are no longer being championed by fringe members of confessional churches; they are being brought in like the Trojan horse at the highest levels of influence. They seek to turn Babette's Feast into a serious bout of botulism.

The Nine Spiritual Laws of White-Wine Pietism

1. Doctrine divides.
As one white-wine pietist told me recently: "Who cares how many natures Christ has? It's enough to just love Jesus." The point regularly made by white-wine pietists is that the quest for theological depth, clarity, and maturity lead one away from Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

2. Subjectivity is spiritual.
White-wine pietists encourage people to look inside themselves to their very core. Here one finds purity of motive, willingness to follow God, good thoughts, marital fidelity, and truth-telling. To the extent these qualities do not exist in one's heart, the more one must strive to obtain them through various well-tested ladders of ascent (for example, fasting, accountability groups, a "discipleship" relationship, prayer, and displaying "integrity" in one's profession). While the Reformation identifies the heart as the problem, white-wine pietists see it as the answer.

3. Liturgy dulls.
White-wine pietists distrust ordered worship - it shackles the heartfelt response. These pietists in confessional churches incessantly clamor to "update" worship so that the "spirit can lead." Thus Lutherans, for example, now experience the strange phenomenon of having an Amy Grant song in the middie of a "modified" Divine Service. In response to questions about this dubious practice, a white-wine pietist told me roughly the following: "We've been doing this liturgy-thing for years and nobody knows what they are saying anymore. It's only meaningful and alive to you because it's new to you. Anyway, the liturgy is a sixteenth-century German invention. Frankly, it's all rote and boring to us (and too hard to understand) and to our children. By the way, can you believe how the public schools dummy down to the lowest common denominator? It is scandalous!" The result is that we now have more user-friendly services because the historical (and thus liturgical) service doesn't "work" for white-wine pietists who have specialized needs within varying age groups, as well as soccer games at 12:10 P.M. on Sunday.

Pastors of white-wine pietists are encouraged to use their word processors on Thursday night to rearrange the liturgy in order to "surprise" victims on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, evangelicals coming to the Reformation come precisely to get away from "surprises." (A "surprise" on Sunday morning is usually prefaced with the "worship leader" asking: "Does anyone have something that they would like to share this morning?") The stability of an historic liturgy and its constant reminder each Sunday that we are in need of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins is what I, for example, found so utterly compelling about the Lutheran Church. Instead, white-wine pietists encourage services that end up being cheesy, mid-1970s praise meetings (but without bell-bottom pants) that eclipse the gospel, promote a theology of glory, and teach the congregation that they don't "participate" unless they're up front with the white-wine Yuppie "leadership team" doing piano bar music.

4. The Sacraments are scary.
White-wine pietists neither promote nor defend growth in and by the sacraments. Why? Because the objective forgiveness of sins in the means of grace is gospel through and through. White-wine pietists drink from the chalice of the law and either turn sacraments into ordinances or downplay their centrality in the Christian life ("once a month is more than enough - and why not do it on Sunday night so it is less time-consuming?").

5. Catechesis is for teenagers or intellectuals.
The new white-wine pietists (like their forefathers) disdain the systematic learning of Christian doctrine. Catechesis, it is thought, smells of Rome, and we all know how little good catechism class does them, right? There is the perception among white-wine pietists in confessional churches that confirmation classes are to be endured and that works like Luther's Small Catechism are to be thankfully put on the shelf at the end of the eighth grade. The concept of a thorough theological education from the earliest grades through adulthood is gone. Pietism has killed it. White-wine pietists keep the coffin nailed shut.

Vacuous Sunday school curricula that catechizes one in the theology of glory (with no emphasis, of course, on the sacraments) are brought in wholesale and fed to the children. Youth rallies stress the inner spiritual life over objective growth in faith through the means of grace (word and sacrament). Yet no one understands why kids are leaving confessional churches in droves for the evangelical movement as soon as they get to college. Of course, they are! Why stay? Johnny Angel goes to college and soon realizes that the evangelical parachurch organizations and other non-denominational Bible churches do a theology of glory with more enthusiasm and quality. The very churches that bemoan declining membership have set the next generation up for the completely logical next step.

6. Small groups promote "real" growth and "accountability."
I thought I had left the horizontal approach to Bible study back with my white-wine pietist past. Not so. The Relational Bible Study School of Theology is being resuscitated by the new white-wine pietists operating in confessional churches. The result is an erosion of confidence in the value of corporate worship tied in with the worship of all Christians throughout time, in the sacraments and the word as the only sure means of growth in the Christian life, and in the liturgy as both cross-and counter-cultural.

Pietism created The Horizontal School of Theology. That school will never support an emphasis on confessional orthodoxy or on sacramental corporate worship. Small groups within churches that do not foster commitment to corporate worship and thus to the means of grace are enemies of the cross of Christ. The premise of such groups is that word and sacrament are not enough to meet individual felt needs. Everyone is different, so everyone must be met on a different level. Some have daily sins to confess and to be absolved from and some don't. All have something different they need or want from the church salad bar on Sunday morning. This is a malignant American individualism, and it smells of Lucifer's droppings.

7. Doctrinal hymns are elitist, but praise choruses edify.
As the white-wine-pietist son of a Lutheran minister told me recently, the first priority should be on whether the song can be sung easily and only then should one focus on the text of the song. Since the key is to experience God directly, immediately, and quickly (like an Egg McMuffin), the easiest way is by using the ubiquitous Maranatha praise book dearly cherished at the local McChurch.

It is known among trained musicians that within certain groups simply playing certain chords will immediately elicit the response of closed eyes or raised hands (somewhat like Pavlov's dogs salivating at the ringing of a bell). It has nothing to do whatsoever with any content that is being sung - it is simply a matter of musical form eliciting a certain emotional response. Because of their abject ignorance of doctrine, the new white-wine pietists disparage the historic hymnody of the church and encourage a musical style that allows them to put one arm around their girl-friend and the other in the air. While Bach signed his works with "Soli Deo Gloria," the music of white-wine pietism is signed with the godly reminder that it is "used by permission only, Big Steps 4 U Music, License #47528695, copyright 1986, administered by Integrity Hosanna Music, Incorporated."

The hymns of the Reformation are often theologically dense and difficult to sing. They can elicit an emotional response too, such as contrition, falling prostrate in fear of God, or despairing of the merit of one's good works. The impression is given that because there is a language and style to learn, and that it is difficult, it is not worth making the effort. If I had listened to this kind of advice during the first year of law school, I would never have become a lawyer. To those who say you can put any content to any praise chorus and get the appropriate result, I respond: Then why don't we put the content of Luther's catechetical hymn "From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee" to the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun 'Til Daddy Takes the T' Bird Away"?

8. The Holy Spirit hates apologetics.
White-wine pietists despise apologetics, because it deals with rational argumentation, and pietists distrust the mind. The heart promotes worship while the mind just gets in the way. The new white-wine pietists are no different from their sixteenth-century predecessors (and Luther's nemeses) the so-called "Zwickau Prophets," Carlstadt and Muenzer - they put the head and the heart at war with one another. While we would gladly agree that no human effort (intellectual or otherwise) can ever be attributed as the cause of regeneration or saving faith, Scripture calls us to give a defense of the hope that is within. This takes work, study, and contact with the objections of unbelievers. White-wine pietists don't do well in these waters, though to their credit they often socialize well with unbelievers. It is easier to attack apologetics as trying to "argue people into the kingdom" than it is to do serious, time-consuming study. Historically, pietism has ignored and disdained apologetics, placing it in tension with the "testimony from the heart."

Historically, pietism has ignored and disdained apologetics, placing it in tension with the "testimony from the heart."
The new white-wine pietists, unlike their fundamentalist forefathers, do go into the marketplace to "win the lost." But their method of winning the lost is presenting a theology of glory based on their "lifestyle of integrity," their "model family," or by showing unbelievers how "tight" their "fellowship group" is. Mormons and all other moralists or anyone else with their lives halfway together, however, should be profoundly unimpressed. A reasoned and vigorous (and thus apostolic) defense of the cross is simply gone. In fact, it is arrogantly mocked as a strictly unspiritual endeavor. The "good news" preached by the new white-wine pietists is never really that good, because the bad news of the law is never fully grasped or preached in its awful severity.

9. Growth in faith comes through obedience to the law.
This is the central theological sulfur of all strains of pietism. The Reformation in general, and Luther in particular, were emphatic that the prime function of the law was to slay and kill Adam, the first pietist. Growth in the Christian life is a growth in grace - that is, a growth in the life and salvation given by Christ and springing out of the daily forgiveness of sins. A focus on the forgiveness of sins will always push a person to the means of grace, where a holy God promises and delivers that forgiveness. The new white-wine pietist, true to his origins, has an individualistic and pragmatic interest in the church. Pietists interest themselves in the work of the church to the extent that it fosters relationships, love for God "fellowship," a growing commitment to small groups, and access to God unencumbered by the means of grace or by liturgy, in favor of more emotional worship.

Coming to Babette's Table

The irony of white-wine pietism is that it has so broadly infiltrated into historically orthodox churches, and yet it is hostile to orthodoxy's emphasis on word and sacrament. Pietism devoured Lutheran orthodoxy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (it is generally agreed that Lutheran orthodoxy in Europe died for over seventy-five years with the death of J. S. Bach in 1750, an ardent foe of pietism in his day), and now casts its bulbous eyes toward the confessional orthodox churches of America.

Fortunately, a few confessional churches are still faithfully serving Babette's Feast each Sabbath. Our Lord Christ still comes faithfully to feed his sheep with his own word and with his own body and blood. For those white-wine pietists in our midst who enthusiastically seek to offer up cold cod and porridge, they should be supplied with rowboats and pointed out to sea. They disdain Babette's Feast. For the confessionally orthodox, however, dinner is served, and the wine is most assuredly red.

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