Book Review: A Giant Sleeper?

Waking the Sleeping Giant Book

A book review of Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Birth, Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of an American Church. By Gerald B. Kieschnick, Concordia Publishing House, 2009. 288 pages. $16.99. By a contributing editor.

In the 15th century, a hodgepodge was a stew made from whatever vegetables and meat was on hand. In the case of the stew, the ingredients might or might not go together on their own but were cooked until they blended into a thick paste. In the case of Gerald Kieschnick’s Waking the Sleeping Giant, the book is a hodgepodge of stories, letters, emails, bullet points, convention overtures, Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) documents, statistics, quotations from the Lutheran Confessions, and the Scriptures thrown together and stewed into a book of 288 pages, including the appendices.

Perhaps anticipating potential questions why Kieschnick, a man not known for his literary works, was writing a book a few months before the 64th regular convention of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), he writes, “My life and ministry have been tested in the crucible of nearly 40 years of ministry in various roles in the LCMS. I believe I have something worth saying” (15). Indeed, most authors feel that they have something worth saying or they would not undertake the endeavor of ink to paper. Yet Kieschnick explains further, “a book is a vehicle in which information may be shared in a way that clarifies misunderstandings and refutes misinformation about many matters, including what this church body and its president believe, teach, and confess” (15). Precisely, what misinformation and misunderstandings he has in mind must be left to the reader’s inference from the topics he chooses to address.

One of Kieschnick's main points is that doctrine is a strength of the “sleeping giant” while dogmaticism is “non-productive,” that is, “becoming our own worse enemy.” In chapter two, Kieschnick produces a 29-point list of the “major theological positions of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” that have made “our church the theological giant it has been since its inception” (30). His list includes the five pillars of Christian fundamentalism plus statements on the ethics of abortion, homosexuality, the nature of marriage, etc. In the next chapter, Kieschnick proclaims, “We have so much more that unites us than divides” (36).

He next produces historical examples of how the practice of doctrine did not keep up with the rapidly changing world. His list of seven includes: the purchase of life insurance, questions of membership in the Boy Scouts, Lutherans being excommunicated for dancing, the forbidding of Lutheran musicians from performing in the weddings or funerals of non-Lutherans, the forbidding of Lutheran pastors and laity from praying with non-Lutherans, the forbidding of men and women from sitting together in church, and conflict over the use of English in formerly German congregations.  While C.F.W. Walther in his Pastoral Theology did caution against seductive society, unsupervised get-togethers between the sexes, and indecent games, he nowhere speaks of excommunicating people for dancing. In fact, Walther’s counsel is not much different than that given by pastors and church fathers since the earliest days of the church. No doubt we would be better off today if we heeded the calls of our forefathers toward more modesty. Other parts of the list are if not historically inaccurate, are greatly exaggerated. Kieschnick’s list is troubling not only because it is presented without any historical explanation why the church issued such cautions (nor does he acknowledge that the majority of Christian churches in the 19th century said exactly the same sorts of things), but also because these apparently unreasonable and unfathomable concerns become the straw man or foil for his list of “doctrines” some in the Missouri Synod do not agree on today.

According to Kieschnick, the five areas of doctrinal disagreement, or in his words, “The slumbering and snoring of the giant,” in the Missouri Synod today can be summarized impiously as wine, women, and song. Regarding wine, Holy Communion, Kieschnick states the disagreement is over who should be admitted to the Lord's Supper. His characterization of the conflict and strife portrays two groups: one group allows and encourages anyone who believes, is baptized and agrees with some minimal doctrinal statements to commune regardless of church membership, the other group are those who “hold that only ‘card-carrying members’ of the LCMS should commune in our Congregations” (43). He addresses these two “ends of the spectrum” not with an exegesis of pertinent Biblical texts or with as a study of the Lutheran Confessions (although Appendix C excerpts 32 pages of the Tappert edition of the Book of Concord; one wonders why not the Concordia edition produced by CPH?), but samples of communion statements from various churches in the Missouri Synod, quotations from Synodical Convention overtures and CTCR documents. In fact, every doctrinal matter is treated in the same manner, with Synodical Convention overtures cited as the primary sources for a doctrinal position with CTCR statements following close behind—an approach that has much akin to the citing of Canon Law by Rome. As for the doctrinal concern over who is admitted to Holy Communion, Kieschnick is content to place “the principal burden of this decision upon the prospective communicant.” (49) If such an analogy were extended into the medical field, patients would diagnose and medicate themselves with prescription drugs under their own responsibility, whether or not such treat was actually beneficial or, worse yet, harmful. Whom the Lord invites to His Table is not something for us to review or revise, as Kieschnick seems willing to consider.

Kieschnick also touches on the role of women in the church, the proper form of worship (formal, liturgical, traditional on one pole and “blended,” “contemporary,” and praise teams on the other), inter-Christian relations, and the proper relation between laity and clergy. In brief summary, Kieschnick says little on the role of women, deferring to recent Synod Convention overtures that “honor the gifts of women and encourage those gifts be used in appropriate ways.” In regard to worship, Kieschnick notes that pastors tell him the “overwhelming majority of new members are first introduced to the congregation through the informal, blended, or contemporary services rather than through the traditional, formal services of worship” (61). He mentions that he has “never worn a miter, carried a crosier, or swung an incense pot,” which is probably true for the majority of pastors in the Missouri Synod, including those who use Lutheran Service Book every Sunday. A major point of his discussion on worship was the interpretation of the LCMS Constitution, Article VI, “Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school.” Apart from encouraging “great care” in worship matters, Kieschnick concluded this section by reproducing a convention resolution from 2004, “To Affirm Responsible Use of Freedom in Worship.”

In regards to church relations and the LCMS’ historic position that renounces “unionism and syncretism of every description,” Kieschnick writes, “these requirements have the appearance of sectarianism and communicate the wrong message to Christians from other denominations” (67). Kieschnick tells a couple of stories on how the non-participation of LCMS pastors in community prayer services, etc. have communicated the wrong message, “Instead of presenting a faithful witness to the truth of the Gospel, in many cases the message communicated by non-participation is one of exclusivity or aloofness, telegraphing a false spirit of being ‘holier than thou’” (71). Kieschnick concludes this section by saying, “In the present and into the future, the LCMS must rethink its position in this regard” (80). A couple of chapters later, Kieschnick reopens the discussion of the infamous Yankee Stadium event from 2001 by likening President David Benke’s prayer to a giant encountering another giant or Elijah responding to the opportunity given him by the prophets of Baal. This is one of the few times Kieschnick cites Scripture that was not previously quoted in a Convention Resolution or CTCR Document. Kieschnick reaffirmed that President Benke made a “pastoral decision to participate in the Yankee Stadium event, doing so with my counsel as ecclesiastical supervisor” (142). Considering that this issue has been on a low simmer, if not lukewarm, it is surprising that the Yankee Stadium event received such treatment in Kieschnick’s book. Apparently, this is one of the matters Kieschnick felt where misunderstandings needed clarifying and misinformation refuting.

Other sections of the book deal with the declining demographics of the Missouri Synod and what Kieschnick thinks needs to be done to reverse some of these trends. He also treats the topic of funding the mission of the church. These chapters mention the various initiatives begun during the Kieschnick administration such as “Ablaze,” One Mission. One Message. One People.”, the “Blue Ribbon Task Force on Structure and Governance” (BRTFSSG), et al.  He quotes the BRTFSSG where it says, “We also acknowledge in our report that the divisions in our church over the last 30 years have hampered our effectiveness no less than the factions in Corinth emptied that first century church of the power available to them. Add to that the fact that our structure has been created piecemeal over the last 100 years and needs to be addressed for the maximum efficiency of the Lord’s resources… This new way of ‘operating together’ will not happen overnight” (123). While not explicitly stated, part of Kieschnick’s vision for waking the sleeping giant involves restructuring and reorganizing the Missouri Synod in a way he considers more efficient.

Kieschnick closes his book with the metaphor of a 160-year-old woodpile that is seasoned and ready to burn. “It is full of potential to bring the light and warmth of Jesus Christ to a cold, gloomy, sin-filled world. And yet, too often, ignition that could lead to a roaring blaze is doused by our own hand. We pour water on our own wood. We pour water on another’s fires because we don’t like the way our brother is going about building and burning his. It’s not exactly how we would do it, and so for some reason it isn’t right. We meddle in so many other fires that we fail to tend to our own” (196). In his analogy, doctrine and practice is the neatly stacked pile of wood that can either be used for the “slow, smokeless burning decay” or for the “light and warmth and energy produced by a roaring fire.” The proper burning of the Missouri Synod’s wood will make the giant rise.

Due to Waking the Sleeping Giant’s hodgepodge, the book was difficult to review. A variety of metaphors and similes were employed through the book, metaphors that frequently did not mix well or blend into a stew. In places rather than a clear thesis statement, a section would end with a metaphor or story, leaving the reader with the task of discerning the point. Although Kieschnick states in the preface, “the observations regarding life, ministry, and vision for leadership articulated in the chapters that follow are applicable to an audience not limited to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (13), it is difficult to imagine anyone outside of the Missouri Synod desiring to read this book. For that matter, the book while purporting to articulate a vision for leadership, the book does is not inspirational or devotional in any sense. It is not unfair to say that the book is a convoluted compilation of various short speeches and addresses given by President Kieschnick at a variety of venues over the past 9 years, mixed with Synodical Convention Resolutions and CTCR statements. Indeed, there may be some people who find such things stimulating or interesting. Apart from the value of having President Kieschnick’s vision for the future on paper and a historical overview of the events that occurred during the past decade of President Kieschnick's tenure, most pastors and laity within or without of the Missouri Synod would gain little from reading the book.