Q&A with Dr. Gene Veith and A. Trevor Sutton

    Gene Veith and Trevor Sutton are the authors of Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World. Keep reading to learn more about their book, what it’s like collaborating on a project, and their thoughts on Lutheran Christianity.  

    What prompted you to write Authentic Christianity at this time?

    Gene Veith: “Evangelicalism” is discredited, with many in that movement running away from the name. Lots of Christians are giving up on the pop Christianity that has been trying to imitate the culture. Some are looking to Catholicism, only to find that today’s church has drifted far from its former identity. The “nones” are on the rise, as are the “spiritual but not religious.” We believe that Lutheranism offers a Christianity that can resolve today’s religious problems and that can address in a unique way the struggles of people caught in the postmodern condition.

    Trevor Sutton: We are constantly looking for ways to share the promises of Jesus with our contemporary culture. However, there is a problem when Christians think that we must continually update our theology and practices so that they accord with the non-church culture. Both Gene and I are convinced that speaking to a postmodern world does not require reinventing our beliefs; instead, we think that Lutheran theology uniquely speaks to the postmodern condition and the world today.

    In your preface, you say this book is about how the Lutheran tradition addresses the spiritual struggles of today. Without giving too much away, what are some of the spiritual struggles this book will address?

    Veith: Recovering the presence of God. Finding redemption from guilt, imperfection, and moral failure. Coming to grips with suffering and what it means. Understanding that the physical world has spiritual significance. Discovering the purpose of life. Learning how to function in the world without compromising your beliefs. How to grow spiritually.

    Sutton: Along with what Gene has mentioned, the Lutheran tradition offered a robust theology of work long before “work-life integration” was a trendy topic for TED Talks. The Lutheran tradition has always sought to bring together the various parts of our life—work, spirituality, family, citizenship, and church—into a unified life in Christ Jesus.

    You mention that this book is a collaboration between an aging academic and a young pastor. What were some of the challenges and rewarding experiences from co-authoring this book?

    Veith: The challenge in any collaboration is to somehow write with a single voice, so that the reader forgets that there are two different authors. Trevor and I write with very different styles. I wrote a section and then he tinkered with it. Then he wrote a section and I tinkered with it. In the end, readers tell us that they cannot tell who wrote what. So that’s a successful collaboration!

    Sutton: The greatest challenge for me—as well as the most rewarding aspect of this project—was trying to keep up with Gene! It was a great honor and privilege to write with such a brilliant author and scholar. I have spent much of my adult life reading his books and learning from his scholarly writing. It was with great trepidation that I “tinkered” with his writing in this project. In particular, I recall when Gene sent me the content he had prepared for our chapter on vocation. I thought to myself, “Much of what I know about vocation has come from reading Gene’s books; how am I supposed to improve upon what he has written here?” Thankfully, by the grace of God and the efforts of our editors, the finished project resulted in a book significantly better than either of us could have written on our own.

    What do you think are some of the main misconceptions of the Lutheran tradition and why?

    Veith: That Lutherans are stuffy. That they are standoffish. That they only talk to one another and have nothing to do with other Christians. That they are always fighting with other church bodies and with one another. There is some validity to these charges, but the misconception comes from not understanding why Lutherans seem to act this way. Doctrine and fellowship concerns are very important, but in a way that can only be fully appreciated from the inside of the church. As it is, many Christians do not even know what Lutherans believe. I once talked with an Anglican priest who was astonished to learn that Lutherans worship with the liturgy and have such a high view of the Sacraments. His ignorance was his fault, but it was also the fault of us Lutherans, who haven’t done as good a job as we should in conveying what we believe and what we practice. This book, in part, is an attempt to get the word out about what Lutheran Christianity is.

    Sutton: The biggest misconception about the Lutheran tradition has to do with Martin Luther. People often assume that we follow Luther, focus on Luther, and are obsessed with Luther. The truth is that Lutheran theology is all about Jesus. We follow Jesus, we focus on Jesus, and we are obsessed with Jesus. To be certain, this misconception may be a result of Lutherans talking more about Luther and not enough about Jesus. Nevertheless, at its core, the Lutheran tradition is all about Christ Jesus.   

    Gene, you mention that you took the long road to Lutheranism—going on a pilgrimage from liberal Protestantism, through 1960s-era syncretism, to evangelicalism, and finally to Lutheranism. What are a few lessons or experiences from your journey that particularly impacted your life and found their way into this book?

    Well, I really love Lutheranism. It was literally a lifesaver to me. I have since found, though, that some Lutherans take for granted what they have, to the point of wanting to embrace elements of the other churches that I was fleeing from!

    The Law so easily overwhelms the Gospel in other theological traditions, whether they are conservative or liberal, whether they construe the law in moral or in political terms of either the right or the left. Those other traditions likely believe in Christ and His work—though not always—but I would hear sermons that never so much as mentioned Jesus. The view in many of them is that the Gospel is for conversion, but that after that, you are under the Law. Whereas Lutheran churches continue to proclaim the forgiveness that is ours in Christ, which becomes the energizing factor even in our good works.

    Trevor, you were baptized as an infant in a Lutheran congregation, grew up in the Lutheran Church, and attended a Lutheran university and seminary. What have been some of your experiences with denominations outside the Lutheran tradition and how did those influence your life and therefore this book?

    I have spent my entire life in the Lutheran tradition. When I entered into the pre-seminary program at Concordia University Ann Arbor, a number of people asked me if I was becoming a Lutheran pastor simply because I was brought up in this tradition. Those questions really stuck with me, and I began to actively ask, “Why am I Lutheran? Why am I not ___________?” I have spent a great deal of time studying and exploring other Christian traditions and denominations. And I remain convinced that the Lutheran tradition is where the Gospel of Christ Jesus is most fully and clearly articulated.

    In what ways does this book speak particularly to Lutheran Christians as well as disaffected evangelicals, disillusioned secularists, and burned-out believers?

    Veith: I have found that many Lutherans, oddly enough, sometimes do not understand their own theology. Or if they do, they sometimes don’t appreciate it. Sometimes they assume that all Christians hold to the Lutheran beliefs they learned from the catechism, not realizing how radically different many of them are. And sometimes Lutherans, though very faithful, do not realize what is happening beyond the walls of their church. This book should help them appreciate their heritage and also motivate them and show them how to explain their faith to those in desperate need of what Lutheranism can give them.

    As for the disaffected, disillusioned, and burned-out, this book will show them that there is a different kind of Christianity, unlike the versions they are fed up with, one that can take them deeper into the Christian life than they had thought possible.

    Sutton: The Preface to the Augsburg Confession states, “We may embrace and maintain the future of one pure and true religion under one Christ, doing battle under Him [Psalm 24:8], living in unity and concord in the one Christian Church.” It is very important for us to never lose sight of the fact that Lutheran theology is simply Christian theology. It is not as if Lutheran theology is some sort of variation or deviation away from true Christianity. Thus, this book speaks to Lutheran Christians, non-Lutheran Christians, and even people who are disillusioned with inauthentic versions of the Christian faith.

    You mention that Lutheran Christianity sparked a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Is the Church ready for—or in need of—another Reformation today? Please explain.

    Veith: The church of 500 years ago was legalistic, power-hungry, superstitious, and culture-bound. The same can be said of contemporary Christianity. To be sure, there are important differences, but today’s churches need a Reformation, just as the church did 500 years ago.

    Sutton: Along with what Gene has mentioned, I am not sure that the world has changed all that much since the time of the Reformation 500 years ago. Sure, we have cars, the Internet, and smartphones; however, we still struggle with maintaining authentic Christianity rather than allowing legalism, theology of glory, or self-justification to become the center of the Christian faith. In this regard, we will always need the Reformation.

    What is one thing you hope your readers will take away from your book?

    Veith: The role of the physical realm in Christianity, as opposed to the hyper-spiritual Gnosticism that prevails today. Lutheranism can help readers realize that God is not an abstract idea or a transcendent being looking down on a world of evil and suffering, but that He has come in the flesh, that He took the world’s evil and suffering into Himself on the cross, and that He continues to come to us through the physical means of water, bread, and wine.

    Sutton: I want people to read this book and recognize that speaking to contemporary culture does not require us to water down our theology or change our practices. We can engage postmodern individuals while still being authentically Christian. In fact, I think the only way that we can engage disillusioned secularists and burned-out believers is with a robust and authentic Christianity. Many people today are wary of the fake fog of smoke machines in worship and skinny jeans on a preacher in a feeble attempt to be relevant. This book offers a real and robust Christianity to our contemporary culture.

    As two accomplished writers, what piece of advice would you give to someone who is interested in writing, whether their very first book or their twentieth?

    Veith: Become interested in something other than writing so that you will have something to write about!

    Sutton: Ask others for help and wisdom. I am convinced that any accomplishment to my name is simply by the grace of God and the tremendous help of those around me. Rely on the help, encouragement, wisdom, and support of other people. They are a gift from God!

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