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What Does the Reformation Mean for Us?
A Roundtable Discussion
Screwups and Saints
Katie Benjamin   |   all discussants

Valparaiso University taught me to read texts and talk to people, particularly if they were from a different perspective than my own. This was how I know Valpo is a place engaged with the Reformation tradition. That may seem odd. The Reformation isn’t known for its respectful dialogue. Luther himself called the Catholic baptismal font a “goblin bath”—Kobelbad in German (Luther, 307)—and the legacy of those years is a rift in Western Christianity that hasn’t yet been repaired.

But there’s a time and a place for invective, and not every age is a golden age (Steinmetz, 54-55).  Now is not, and I say that because that’s what Valpo taught me. Valpo taught me to engage with people and viewpoints different from mine, with charity and understanding. That’s the other part of this that might seem odd. Valparaiso, diverse? Really? As diverse as it could be? Probably not. But I will say that you don’t have to go far to find a viewpoint, background, or tradition that’s different from your own. It doesn’t take much to divide us. I don’t know a better story to illustrate this, or Valpo’s reaction to it, than the saga of Chick Tract Man.

A Chick Tract, if you’ve never seen one, is a hand-drawn comic book meant to lead people to Christ, usually by telling the story of an incredibly self-centered person leading an incredibly self-centered life and missing several obvious signs about God’s existence until they finally die and go to Hell. While I was a student here and a member of the chapel staff, these tracts started appearing out of nowhere. It bothered my friends and me, but we didn’t know who was behind it, and the tracts kept showing up. Until I got an email from a colleague: “I got him,” he wrote. “I got Chick Tract Man.” Apparently, my friend surprised the man in the act of dropping off his tracts, gave chase, caught him—and they talked. Chick Tract Man, it turned out, was a Valpo alum, and he was acting out of concern. He was concerned because Valpo seemed to be admitting a lot of Catholics, a lot of Muslims, and a lot of people with no religion at all. He wanted to call us back to the Gospel, and these tracts were his Ninety-Five Theses, nailed right to our front door.

We were big on the Gospel at the Chapel. We were also big on welcoming the stranger, and the strange point of view. And we were especially big on talking it out, which is what my friend did with Chick Tract Man, and which is what another friend did when he wrote and presented an academic paper on the theological merits of your average Chick Tract, against the iconoclasts.

All of this is true to Valpo’s Reformation heritage. See, Martin Luther was also big on the Gospel. And he was big on talking it out, and I don’t just mean all of his lengthy treatises and sermons that have come down to us. I mean his Ninety-Five Theses, and the theses from the Heidelberg Disputation, and other episodes from early Protestant history where Luther and others gathered precisely in order to talk things out. These disputations assumed disagreement, and they were exercises in working from disagreement toward truth. They were normal, and they were fun; just like chasing down someone you’ve got a question for, or using a paper to argue the merits of an unpopular view, is fun.

The question becomes—and this is what I spent a lot of time learning at Valpo—how do we take that passion for truth, which Luther had and Valpo shares, and not talk about the people we disagree with in terms like, say, “goblin bath.” Luther himself, famously, didn’t always do that perfectly, but he did have an idea. The idea was about saints, those folks that go on the list with purgatory and relics and celibacy as things Luther had real issues with. See, for the Catholic Church, saints are people who lived exemplary lives and went straight to heaven. But for Luther there’s no one whose life was good enough to get them into heaven. We’re all horrible screwups. And yet, because of who Jesus is—God with us, and God for us—we’re all saints, too. Everyone is both: screwup and saint at the same time. And when it comes to talking to one another, that’s what we have to remember. We have to believe the person across from us, the total screw-up, who’s wrong, is a saint.

If you’re not a Christian, you might wonder where you fit in this paradigm—whether you still get to be called a saint. All I know is that wherever you are, God invites you. If you reject that invitation, like the unfortunate central character of a Chick Tract, God nevertheless invites you. That’s the only thing I know. That, and that Valpo, which exists to help you find truth, welcomes you as a saint. Even though you’re a screwup. That’s Christ’s invitation. As a university that engages the Reformation tradition, I always found that it was Valpo’s invitation as well.

Katie Benjamin graduated from Valparaiso University in 2007 with degrees in theology, English, and humanities. She is finishing her doctorate in historical theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

Works Cited

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, vol. 53. American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965.

Steinmetz, David. Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

Read more from other Roundtable participants:

Brian T. Johnson: Setting the Stage
Ronald K. Rittgers: Loving the Unlovely
Alissa Kretzmann: An Encounter with Grace
David King: Freedom Under the Cross
Nura Esther Zaki: Honoring Our Heritage
David Rojas Martinez: The Chapel of the Resurrection as a Pilgrimage Site
Amelia Schroeder: Moving Beyond Disagreements
Thomas Albert Howard: Remembering the Reformation and the Problem of Christian Disunity 

 

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