Reviews

A battle for young hearts and minds

Disturbing the Peace of the Church: Lutheran Youth Ministry and Social Change in the 1960s. Molly Schultz Bogh. Kirk House Publishers, Minneapolis. 2012. 170 pages. Softbound. $18. www.kirkhouse.com.

A familiar refrain in Lutheran congregations is “Where are our young people?” Variations include “There aren’t enough teenagers in our pews” and “Why are our kids giving up on the church?”

This is not a new concern. Perhaps beginning after the Second World War, when social norms were increasingly coming into question, young people in Christian congregations began struggling with key questions. Two that have been vexing for Lutheran youngsters for many years are “Can science and faith agree?” and “Why is the church afraid to answer my questions about sex?”

When the “new” American Lutheran Church (ALC) came into existence in 1960 (following an “old” one, created in 1930), the newly-selected director of its Youth Department decided it was time to take on both concerns. L. David Brown assembled what can only be called a controversial support staff. Two high-profile members were Joe Bash and John Schultz. Both men came to their new ALC posts from service in campus ministry on state university campuses.

Brown’s idea was to help Lutheran young people confront issues that, if the church didn’t address, they would by default address on their own. Since only five percent of Lutheran college-bound youth typically enroll in Lutheran colleges, 95 percent are likely to get their information about science (including evolution) and sexuality from “secular” faculty and classmates. Those not going to college are likely to get their “advanced education” on the street.

In a gutsy move, Brown gave Bash and Schultz a lot of leeway. The result, among other things, was a curriculum intended for older high school Lutheran youth titled “Called to Be Human.” The intent was to help Lutheran teens deal with issues of science, sex, and faith. But critics saw in the title a clear attempt to “force evolution down the throats” of impressionable youth.

Exciting times ensued.

Straddling a sharp edge

Molly Schultz Bogh’s chronicle, Disturbing the Peace of the Church, details where it all came down. Among other things, it led to a stormy national church convention in Milwaukee in October 1962. At that convention, the Youth Department staff were called on the carpet. Then came what can only be called a “heresy trial, ” held in January 1963 before a full-house in the nave of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

When the “new” American Lutheran Church came into existence in 1960, the newly-selected director of its Youth Department decided it was time to take on two important concerns — science and sex.

Bash and Schultz were exonerated but cautioned. The Youth Department was directed to “watch its language” and make its intent more transparent.

Because there was no outright condemnation, some conservative clergy were outraged. One result was the creation of “Lutherans Alert,” a rebel movement inside The ALC. Over time the group behind this movement created its own breakaway seminary in Tacoma, Washington.

It’s hard to appreciate, looking back from 2013, how confused and volatile the social scene was in the U.S. in the decade of the 1960s. Outside the churches, young people were protesting the Vietnam War (and, arguably, bringing it to an end). Sexual freedoms were being embraced at places like the Woodstock rock festival in New York state.

And the furor over evolution (and whether Lutherans could accommodate it in their theology) led to some serious conflict over how properly to read the Bible. The debate over calling Scripture “inerrant” or “infallible” came to the fore during this time. This “battle for the Bible” has not ended, and continues to define the difference between the ALC’s successor, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and other U.S. Lutheran groups to this day.

Bogh, the daughter of John Schultz, set out to tell her father’s story during the “Stormy Sixties.” She does it fairly, comprehensively, and compassionately.

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