Vol. 85 - No. 6
June 2014


Lutherans in Popular Culture

             A few weeks ago, Stephen Colbert made a memorable comment on his television show: “If you’re going to break the rules, you might as well be Lutheran.” Colbert’s well-aimed zinger accents the fact that our church doesn’t have a lot of “rules” (Blessed Martin Luther once wrote that the Ten Commandments are challenging enough without adding a bunch of other rules!). Perhaps Colbert also was referencing our emphasis on Christ’s love and forgiveness. Even though the comment was a little snarky, it was nice to have a shout-out on a hot television show.

             Lutherans tend to have limited visibility in America–we’ve never had a Lutheran president, for instance. (Fritz Hollings and Paul Simon ran, as did former Lutherans Ron Paul and Michelle Bachman, but none has been successful). It’s a memorable moment when we surface in popular culture. Here are a few such moments, some light-hearted, some very serious:

             Cheers. The bartender Woody is about to get married–but then the engagement is imperiled by religious differences. The “differences” are: Woody is Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and his fiancée is Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They throw theological arguments back and forth–until Woody gives in and decides to join the ELCA. (I can’t really describe in this publication how Woody’s fiancee accomplished his conversion–but she used the same technique employed by the ladies in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata). This Cheers episode is noteworthy for showing the general public that there are two different Lutheran denominations in America.

             Nicholas and Alexandra. Alexandra, wife of the Russian Tsar, says: “I was raised Lutheran. I take God seriously.” I love this quote. To me what it means is that if we believe we can earn salvation through our own works, we really aren’t taking God very seriously. We take Him seriously when we

acknowledge that we cannot earn His favor with our own goodness, but must depend on His grace and receive salvation as a free gift.

             The Bells of St. Mary’s. I think this is the funniest Lutheran reference in any film. Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is visiting a classroom in a Catholic school. One of the students is named Luther. Father O’Malley whispers to a nun, “How did he get in here?”

             Caddyshack. In The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, we often debate using the word “bishop” for our District Presidents. Missouri Synod viewers of Caddyshack might well be relieved that we don’t officially use that title, for the drunken Lutheran bishop played by Charles Durning is not exactly a sterling spiritual leader. At one point he exclaims, “There is no God!” He also invites a young man to visit the Lutheran youth center, and then withdraws the invitation upon learning that the young man is Roman Catholic. Perhaps the message here is that, when people know that we are Lutherans/Christians, we want to be especially careful not to give a poor witness or to act offensively.

             Murder Ordained. A Missouri Synod pastor in Emporia, Kansas, was arrested and convicted for murdering his wife and his secretary’s husband. The case was dramatized in this two-part miniseries. To avoid lawsuits, the church name was changed to St. Mary’s Lutheran (an unlikely title for a Lutheran parish); the church was also depicted singing only the first verse of “A Mighty Fortress”, thereby leaving the Devil in charge (“on earth is not his equal”). This tale of a murderous clergyman reminds us that the Devil can indeed take charge of a person’s life. (I know that firsthand: the organist from my Albany congregation went to seminary to become a pastor, and is now doing a life sentence for murder at the Texas state pen in Huntsville.) When evaluating clergy who go horribly wrong, we need to remember that the Word and the Sacrament remain valid and powerful even if performed by a really bad dude. The power comes from God and His Spirit, not from the pastor.

             Casualties of War. In this Vietnam film, an American unit commits a massacre in a village. Michael J. Fox is a young Lutheran soldier whose conscience is tormented by the event. He eventually goes to a chaplain and confesses the incident. The film shows that Lutherans, even though we don’t have a lot of “rules” in comparison to other Christian traditions, do take the Ten Commandments and the dictates of conscience seriously.

             We could also mention Garrison Keillor’s continual Lutheran references in his radio monologues (Keillor, who was raised in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, went from making fun of Lutherans to becoming one!) The chaplain in Battleground, a classic film about the Battle of the Bulge, was Lutheran. The 1953 film Martin Luther proved quite popular (its director, Irving Pichel, played a lot of menacing heavies in 1930s films, including Dracula’s daughter’s assistant, then went on to direct one of my favorite movies, Miracle of the Bells–which has nothing to do with Lutheranism but, on the contrary, features Sinatra as a Catholic priest!) The more recent Thrivent-sponsored Luther film was also an outstanding piece of work, as was the American Film Theater version of John Osborne’s play Luther. So Lutheranism has had an impact on popular culture.

             What’s ultimately important, though, is that we have an impact on individual hearts and lives by proclaiming the saving Gospel of Christ the Saviour! May the various pop culture appearances of Lutheranism pique people’s interest so they can hear that Gospel.

God loves you and so do I!