Thursday, November 3, 2016

Watching the World Series During School

The recent World Series, which was decided on the seventh game, reminded me of two such World Series games that happened while I attended St John Elementary School. When both those games were being broadcast, our teacher turned on the television so that we could watch the final innings.

In those days, ordinary people could not record television shows, and so we male teachers and students had to watch the game when it was broadcast. The girls in the class were not interested in the game, but they had to watch anyway.


When I was in seventh grade, the 1964 World Series was played between the New York Yankees and the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Series was decided on the seventh game, which the Cardinals won by a score of 7 to 5. The final game took place on Thursday, October 15, 1964, in Saint Louis, Missouri. It was a day game (not a night game), as can be seen in these photographs of the game's ending.


The teacher who let us watch this game was either Rupert Giesselmann or Harold Zimbrick. I remember this occasion vividly because we students were not given a break from watching the game and eventually I had to pee so badly that I worried I might wet my pants.


When I was in fifth grade, the 1962 World Series was played between the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. The final game took place on Tuesday, October 16, 1962, in San Francisco, California, and New York won by a score of 1 to 0.

That game must not have been the game that we watched, because Nebraska was two time zones ahead of Nebraska, and so we could have watched the final innings after school.

I think that we must have watched the fourth game, which took place in New York on Monday, October 8, 1962. (The fifth game was delayed because of a rain storm, and so we could have watched it after school.) The teacher who let us watch was Herbert Peter.

This video shows highlights of the 1962 World Series, and the fourth-game highlights begin at 18:04. You can see that it was a day game.

I don't remember much about those two baseball years. The year that I remember most was the 1961 season, because of the competition between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to hit the most home runs. However, that year we had a female teacher, and there was no way she would have let her class watch any baseball game on television.

Anyway, I am rather sure that we did not have televisions in our classrooms in 1961. They were installed a few years later. (By the way, we eventually got televisions in our classrooms because of my father, Robert Sylwester, put them there for the student-teacher program that he managed.)


I write another blog about the movie Dirty Dancing, and there I have published an article about the Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax, who was a role-model for us at St. John.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Seward Origins of My Mom's Religious Revolt

My mother, Ruth (née Maier) Sylwester died on May 12, 2016, at the age of 83. She enjoyed a long, happy life. She gave birth to and raised seven children, all of whom are still alive. She died peacefully, of natural causes.

Ruth Sylwester at about the age of 80
I am the first of her seven children, born in 1952. The seventh was born in 1961, so she gave birth to seven children in about nine years. She gave birth to three boys in a row, then to one girl, and then to three more boys in a row. (Mike, Steve, Tim, Tricia, Larry, Peter, Andy)

My Mom and Dad visited my family in New Jersey in 2008.
Here we are in the dressing room of a Manhattan fashion show
where my daughter Luka (on the left) appeared as a model.
She was an intelligent, attentive, loving, encouraging, tolerant, calm mother. She remained married to Robert Sylwester to the end.

Ruth Maier at about the age of 18.
She grew up as a "PK" -- a "preacher's kid". Her father served as the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Eugene, Oregon, for about a quarter century. He was the pastor at her marriage ceremony in that church. One of her brothers, Don, became a Lutheran pastor.

While attending high school, she served as the yearbook editor, she was inducted into the National Honor Society, and she was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Oregon.

She dropped out of her first university semester to get married, when she was barely 19 years old. My Dad was 24 years old and was the one-person staff -- teacher, bus driver and janitor -- of a Lutheran elementary school in Vancouver, Washington.

Dad still was working at that school when I was born ten months later. Mom remained home as a housewife for the next two decades.

After her youngest child, Andy, began attending school, Mom resumed her college education and eventually earned two Masters Degrees -- in 1) Library Science.and 2) Secondary Education. Subsequently, she worked as a school librarian and finally as a bookstore owner. She read avidly and filled our home with books and periodicals.

She filled our home also with antiques and art. Our home was decorated beautifully. She well could have become an artist. For a couple years she wove artistic fabrics on a loom.


A key development in my Mom's intellectual life was her rejection of the Lutheran Church. In about 1970, a couple years after our family moved from Nebraska to Oregon, she stopped attending church services. The church that she stopped attending was the church she had attended as a child, where her father had served as pastor.

My Dad objected to her decision, and they argued about attending church practically every weekend for a couple of years. Sometimes there was yelling, and always there was at least angry tension. He argued for staying and trying to reform the Church. This weekly drama traumatized our family.

My Dad continued to attend church services without her. The children had to attend with him, but they too stopped attending church as soon as they could get away with it.

I myself was rather critical of my Mom's refusal to attend church. I thought that her marriage obligated her to deal with her religious change in a more compromising, gradual manner. Her refusal to attend church embarrassed her family, especially my Dad. In the weekly arguments at home, she often lost her temper and sometimes made anti-male comments, which upset me.

She emphasized her complaint that our Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) adhered to a doctrine of forbidding women to serve in positions of authority. More generally, however, she had lost her belief in Christianity.

Gradually this argument between my parents dwindled. Dad continued to attend church, and Mom continued to stay home. All the children went through confirmation (Steve and I already had done so in Seward), and the youngest Andy was confirmed in about 1974. Perhaps that final confirmation marked the end of that family trouble.

After Mom rejected Christianity, she developed a personal religion, which featured reincarnation. She believed she had lived other lives in the past and would live other lives in the future. She believed in a spiritual world and in divine beings. She believed in spiritual mediums and sometimes visited fortune-tellers. Ironically, Mom became much more spiritual than Dad, who was quite a rationalist.

I respect Mom's rebellion from Christianity. My Mom made a difficult intellectual decision and upheld it in the face of disapproval. Her apostasy upset her retired-pastor father and other Lutheran relatives.

I myself have evolved far from Christian doctrine. I attend church only rarely, and then I usually attend a local Roman Catholic church. My religious evolution was not, however, affected significantly by my Mom's rebellion.

Now that my Mom has died and I reminisce about her life, I consider her religious rebellion to be an important turning-point in my perception of her personality. She became significantly more self-assertive, intellectually independent and argumentative.


After Mom died, I discussed her religious rebellion with my godmother Marion, who grew up with her, almost as a sister. Marion told me that already in adolescence my Mom resented her father's patriarchal attitudes. He had in his home library a book titled Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers, which criticized uppity females. At some point Mom angrily stole that book from his library and eventually gave it to her daughter Tricia as a relic -- according to Marion.

I do not remember my Mom ever saying anything negative about Christianity while we lived in Seward. I suppose she made some snide remarks about the Lutheran Church's discrimination against women, but any such remarks did not impress me as serious. I did not perceive any portents that she would quit the church angrily a couple years later.

Now as I look back now, though, I think that her religious rebellion began, under the surface, already in Seward. I regret now that I did not question my Mom about this when she still was alive. Now I have to speculate a lot as I write this article.


We lived in Seward from 1959 to 1968 -- when I was age six to 15.

Our family had a photograph album that had many photographs of our Seward years, but the album has been lost. Until the album is found, I have practically no Seward photographs of our family to put into this blog.

The below photograph was taken at about the beginning of 1958. My Mom had recently turned 25 years old and already had four children. She is wearing a maternity dress for her fifth child, Larry, who was born in February 1958. About a year-and-a-half later, our family moved from Eugene to Seward.

Family of Robert and Ruth Sylwester in about 1958 in Eugene, Oregon.
(Left to right) Ruth, Tricia, Mike, Steve, Tim, Robert.
(Ruth was obviously pregnant with Larry.)
During that last year-and-a-half in Eugene, my Dad was studying for his doctorate at the University of Oregon (UO). We lived in a small apartment that the university owned and provided for married graduate students. Baby Larry slept in a dresser drawer.

Until my Dad became a graduate student, he had attended only Lutheran parochial schools for his entire life. He attended Lutheran elementary and high schools in Portland, Oregon, and then attended Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska. Then he taught at a Lutheran elementary school in Vancouver, Washington, for several years before enrolling in the UO doctoral program. When my Dad finished his doctoral work, he became eligible to fill a faculty position at Concordia College in Seward.

So, except for that couple of years as a UO graduate student, my Dad attended and taught at Lutheran schools. Although my Mom had grown up as a Lutheran preacher's kid, she attended only public schools, because Eugene did not have any Lutheran schools. My Mom's first experience with Lutheran schools happened after she married my Dad and became the wife of a a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school.

Since my Dad was the school's only staff member, there were no other staff members' wives who might have socialized as peers with my Mom. I suppose that she was isolated somewhat from the society of Christian education, even though she was married to a Christian educator.


Concordia College provided housing to its faculty members, but when our family arrived in 1959, there was no house available in Seward that was large enough for our seven-member family. Therefore, our family was assigned to live in a large house that was located in Middle Creek, several miles outside of Seward. Our house was surrounded by farmland. Our house stood next to a church and a one-room school that served the area's farmers.

We lived in Middle Creek for a year. I loved attending second grade in the one-room school so much that I felt sad to move away to Seward. I described our Middle Creek year in a previous article of this blog.

When we moved into our Middle Creek home, my Mom was 26 years old, the mother of five young children and pregnant with her sixth. (Peter was born in the middle of our year there.)

Our house in Middle Creek was infested with insects, especially boxelder bugs. I remember the day we moved into the house, when I was horrified by seeing many of them crawling around everywhere.

The house was infested by moths, and we had to put mothballs in all our clothes closets. The house was infested also with mice, so we set mousetraps in the kitchen, and every morning we threw a dead mouse or two into the garbage.

So, Mom suffered a bad start in our Nebraska years. Our Nebraska house was infested. Mom had no nearby Nebraska neighbors in Middle Creek and did not have the free time to travel into Seward to socialize with other Nebraska faculty wives there. Probably Mom's first Nebraska winter was cold, windy and snowy.


After we had lived for a year in Middle Creek, our family was assigned to our home in Seward, on Faculty Lane. There we were surrounded by other faculty families. Each family had many children who attended the nearby Lutheran elementary school. Mom socialized with the neighboring faculty wives. The children's extracurricular activities -- sports, plays, concerts, field trips, swimming lessons, etc. -- brought the parents together. During the summers, big picnics took place on the campus for all the faculty families.

In our last couple of years in Seward, many of the faculty married couples got together for volleyball games in the gymnasium, and Mom really enjoyed that social activity.

Mom enjoyed many happy times in Seward, but I think she always felt somewhat alienated. Her heart was back in Oregon. She did not want to participate actively in whatever clubs, activities and projects that were available for Concordia's or Seward's women. Her large family always gave her an excuse to avoid participating. She basically was an introvert, and her life in Seward reinforced her introversion. She stayed mostly within her immediate family.

The Seward Concordia experience probably socialized my Mom less than it socialized other faculty wives.


A hobby that Mom developed and enjoyed in our early Seward years was buying and restoring antique furniture. She bought the furniture mostly at farm-household auctions. Today we would call them "estate sales". The farm parents grew too old to operate the family farm, and the children did not want to take over the farm. The family sold the farm and home and all its stuff. The farm family hired a professional auctioneer to come to the farm and to auction everything away during a Saturday.

Mom began going to these auctions soon after we moved onto Faculty Lane. We now had a big house but little furniture. She began by buying basic furniture -- beds, dressers, tables, chairs. She soon learned how to improve the furniture's quality by stripping off the old paint or varnish, sandpapering the surfaces smooth and then brushing on new paint or varnish. I remember seeing her spend hours restoring furniture pieces for hours on our Faculty Lane driveway. She did this work outside because of the turpentine, sand papering, varnish, paint, etc.

She continued going to these auctions whenever she could. Sometimes another faculty wife would accompany her -- Betty Stelmachowicz became a rare close friend this way -- but Mom would go alone if necessary. Sometimes she traveled rather long distances. My brother Steve went along with her sometimes. I myself went to one auction, where I bought a television set for my bedroom.

The near solitude of these activities -- the traveling to the auctions, the selecting and bidding at the auctions, the restoring of the furniture, and the decorating of the home -- fit well with Mom's introverted personality. When she did these activities, she might be accompanied by one or two other persons or she might do them completely alone. She was happy doing them alone. Mom loved the artistry of these activities too -- making plain things beautiful.


Dad had much talent in the visual arts. As a child, he had taught himself origami, and he folded beautiful paper decorations for our home every Christmas. As an elementary-school teacher, he had learned many school crafts -- silk-screening, papier-mâché, and so forth. While we lived in Middle Creek, he painted a plain wood hutch as illustrating the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Part of a family portrait. On the left side is a wooden hutch
that my Dad painted while we were living in Middle Creek, Nebraska.
Eventually Dad focused all his free time on writing and abandoned the visual arts, except for our origami decorations during the Christmas season.

Eventually Mom became our family's visual artist. Her main medium was auction purchases, and her gallery was our home's interior.

By the time we moved away from Seward, our home was full of antiques and art. Soon after we moved back to Eugene, all those antiques and artworks were destroyed in a warehouse fire. My Mom started over and eventually decorated our Eugene home just as beautifully.


Dad's Concordia office was in Weller Hall's basement, right next to the studios where the art classes were conducted. Dad became close friends with the chief art professor, Reinhold Marxhausen, and then with other art professors such as William Wolfram and Richard Wiegman.

In general, my parents socialized mostly with the the faculty members who were involved in the arts -- the visual arts, theater and music -- rather than, say, theology or history. For the purpose of this article, I will characterize the art-specialty faculty members as rather malcontent. Whenever their church art was criticized by Lutheran philistines, the art professors griped about the criticism. For example, I remember Marxhausen griping about criticism he had heard about some cloth banners he had made to decorate some church services. Also, the visual-art professors received outside income for their artworks and therefore could consider quitting their Concordia positions.

My parents' close social interactions with the art professors influenced my Mom. Their particular discontent about the Lutheran church rubbed off on her, especially since she herself had become active in visual arts.

Especially Reinhold Marxhausen inspired Mom's interest in the visual arts. He preached that we always are surrounded by beautiful things if we simply learn to recognize them. He preached that we can easily turn ordinary or found objects artistically into decorative objects. He decorated his own home with such objects, and he also gave a lot of public, slide-show lectures, demonstrating his ideas and found-object art.

Mom admired also his wife Dorris's jolly humor and social confidence. Dorris participated actively in Nebraska state politics. Mom admired Dorris for being a secular activist away from Concordia College.

During the summer of 1964, while our house was being moved from Faculty Lane to North Columbia Avenue, our Sylwester family lived in a dormitory across the street from the Marxhausen home. In this blog, I have written an earlier article about being summer neighbors of the Marxhausen family. This was a time when Mom got to know the Marxhausen family especially well and was influenced by their rather unconventional (for Concordia) lifestyle.


Our family subscribed to two newspapers -- The Omaha World-Herald and The Lincoln Star -- and to a large number of magazines -- Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, Readers Digest and so forth. In our early Seward years, Mom did not have time to read books, but she read newspapers and periodicals -- and all the subscriptions were purchased by her.

She also bought book sets for children. For example, our grocery store sold a multi-volume Golden Encyclopedia set -- one volume every month. In general, our family had much more reading material coming into our home than other families.


In a previous article, I wrote about Mom's parents and her oldest brother Bill serving as missionaries in Africa. Uncle Bill and his family returned from Africa to the USA in 1963 or 1964, while our family still was living on Faculty Lane. Uncle Bill's family stayed with us for about a week and then moved to Oklahoma City. We Sylwesters visited them in Oklahoma City for about a week.

Uncle Bill became very critical of the Lutheran Church while he was working as a medical missionary. As I understand, he felt that his doctor skills were not being used effectively and that his family was not supported adequately. So, when he returned to the USA, he spent much of his energy bad-mouthing the Lutheran Church. Eventually he quit the Church completely.

On one occasion, my godmother Marion visited us in Seward, and she and Mom drove together from Seward down to Oklahoma City to visit Uncle Bill and his family for a few days. On Sunday morning, that family did not go to church, but one of the children was watching a religious program on television. Uncle Bill angrily ordered the child to stop watching the program.

My godmother Marion told me that memory recently. She added that Bill was resentful because his father had forbidden him to attend social dances while he was in high school, because he was a pastor's son.

Anyway, I assume that my Mom was influenced significantly by her brother Bill's criticism of the Lutheran Church, of Christianity, and of missionary work in foreign countries. I think she was proud and interested that her parents served as missionaries, but she came to think that missionary work was generally arrogant and chauvinistic.


When our family's youngest child Andy began attending school, Mom began attending classes at Concordia College. This happened during our last two years in Seward, when Mom was about 34-36 years old. Mom's auction-buddy and neighbor Betty Stelmachowicz was attending college classes about the same time, Mom and Betty spent a lot of time talking with each other after classes.

One of the first classes that Mom took was an art class, and I think that subject interested her most. She learned how to mix oil-paint colors and to make mosaics. I think she realized early that she did not have the time, patience and discipline to become proficient in illustrative arts. Eventually she came to prefer collages, weaving, stamping and other such non-illustrative arts.

She also took courses in literature, history and sociology. In these courses she began to read books for the first time in about 15 years. I remember that in her literature course she read a William Faulkner novel.

I remember a particular incident involving her history course. She read about how Ivan the Terrible had used the Christian religion to justify a horrendous massacre of Russian aristocrats. She was seriously upset by the religious hypocrisy of that historical event.

I think that Mom did not take any Concordia classes about Christianity -- about theology, church history or any other religious focus. Instead, she seemed eager to study secular subjects.


Mom read Betty Friedan's book The Feminist Mystique while we lived in Seward. The book was published in 1963, but I think Mom read it a few years later.

The book proclaimed that many women found themselves feeling intellectually stunted in mid-life, after marrying young and then spending many years working only as housewives. Mom recognized herself as just such a woman.

The book inspired Mom to resume her education and to begin a career outside her home. The book caused Mom to much more critically re-examine her own life and the conventions that had influenced her younger decisions. In her own case, her decisions had been influenced strongly by the Lutheran Church.


The years 1967 and 1968 were socially volatile throughout the USA. People were re-thinking and challenging many social conventions -- in politics, racial relations, music, art, fashions and so forth.

During those two years, when Mom was attending Concordia College classes, a major controversy about doctrine was developing in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I wrote about this in a previous article. The culmination of his controversy during those years was part of the overall social ferment. Some Lutherans were challenging the conventions, and some Lutherans were pushing back against those challenges.

I don't remember my Mom saying anything about this controversy, but I am sure that she sympathized reflexively with all the Lutheran teachers who were being attacked as heretics.

I don't remember Mom expressing any opinions about that controversy while we lived in Seward -- except to make some snide remarks about the Lutheran Church's discrimination against women. Mom did not express any criticisms of other Lutheran doctrines. In retrospect, I think that she did have strong opinions but that she refrained from voicing them in the presence of us children while we lived in Seward. She herself was losing her faith, but she did not want to cause us children to lose our faiths. (She never tried to turn any of her children against Christianity or whatever religious or philosophical beliefs they maintained. She thought each person should decide such beliefs for himself.)

While we lived in Seward, I never had any idea that Mom would quit the Church. Only after -- long after -- she did quit the Church have I considered that her loss of faith probably began already in Seward.


During our last two years in Seward, I attended Concordia High School. Although our family received a faculty discount, attending this parochial school cost money. Paying for a series of seven children to attend Concordia High School and then to attend Lutheran colleges would have been financially ruinous for our family.

My brother Steve remembers overhearing a conversation between my parents in Seward. Mom suggested to Dad that all we children should attend Seward's public high school instead of Concordia High School.

When Dad received an offer to become a professor at the University of Oregon, Mom was eager to move away from Seward Concordia as soon as possible. This was a big step up in Dad's academic career, and he would be earning much better money and benefits. Mom's parents and most of her siblings were living in Oregon. She looked forward to making a new beginning in her life.


Mom enjoyed many happy times in Nebraska. Although she was socially isolated, her solitude facilitated her artistic development. She did have a few good friends among the faculty families, and some of them influenced her well. When she returned to college in her mid-30s, Concordia College was a relatively comfortable place for her to begin. Seward was a place where a major intellectual development in her life began.

Most of all, she wanted to be a good wife and mother, and Seward was a good place to do so. The town was safe, and she let us kids roam around freely, as long as we showed up on time for dinner.

Providing a Christian education to her children was important to her during most -- perhaps all -- of the period when our family lived in Seward. If she indeed did begin to leave Christianity there, that happened only during the last couple years of the eleven years that we lived there.

The attending-church battle between my parents was waged openly for only a couple of years -- during about 1970-1972. Perhaps during that period Mom made some angry statements about Seward Concordia. I really don't remember that she did, but she did make a lot of angry statements during the weekly arguments.

After those battles ended, more than four decades passed. Mom did not bad-mouth Seward or Concordia College, at least that I ever heard about. On the contrary, she discussed that period of our lives positively. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, Mom was an intelligent and calm person. She looked back on that period with a correct perspective, which included an appreciation of that environment's many good qualities, which fostered her family's development and her own personal development.


My Dad's response:

My perspectives of Mom differ slightly from yours on occasion Mike, but this is your perspective, not mine.

For what it's worth, though, Mom's background led her to believe that movies and social dancing were wrong, so I got her to go to movies and to learn how to dance and that it was fine for us to go out to dinner and have a life independent of our family. She subsequently embraced all of these eagerly and found them to be yet another great joy in her life -- going to Salishan, to Ashland, to the theater, traveling to conferences with me, etc.

Relative to religious differences. We actually agreed far more than we disagreed. I thought that the LCMS had been on its way towards a positive theological moderation but got sidetracked by a rabid right -- but that it had values worth preserving. Mom's religious background had been more rigid than mine, so she disagreed. It had nothing worth saving. We had always considered our perspectives as more of an intellectual interaction, and in the end, both of us gave each other the right to our own opinion (something we had also given to each of our children).

Mom was her own self -- private, quiet, and unassuming for the most path. I think she saw me as more gregarious and outgoing. A good balance. We each gave each other a different perspective of life., and that provided the balance and a good marriage and parenting needs.

Two errors, Mike:

1. Mom read Betty Fiedan's The Feminine Mystique during our Seward years. It was a genuinely important book in her life. [This passage in the above article is now fixed.]

2. Mom returned to school librarianship after owning her bookstore for four years. During those final years in her professional career she moved from school to school to reorient libraries -- when teachers went on sabbaticals and things like that -- into beautiful new facilities.


My sister Tricia's response:

I was heavily influenced by Mom's decision to leave the church, and I am thankful for that. Mom was a great role model for me.


My brother Andy's response:

I was struck by two passages:

I myself was rather critical of my Mom's refusal to attend church. I thought that her marriage obligated her to deal with her religious change in a more compromising, gradual manner. Her refusal to attend church embarrassed her family, especially my Dad. In the weekly arguments at home, she often lost her temper and sometimes made anti-male comments, which upset me.

…I myself have evolved far from Christian doctrine. I attend church only rarely, and then I usually attend a local Roman Catholic church. My religious evolution was not, however, affected significantly by my Mom's rebellion.

Everyone who lived in that house was affected by this dispute. I don’t recall us ever talking about how it affected us, beyond the fact that it gave us each an argument to stop going to church. But I was taken aback a bit by Mike’s reminisce, because it is so polar opposite from mine.

First, I never felt embarrassed by Mom’s decision, nor was I ever critical. I felt embarrassed by having to walk down the center aisle when we arrived late, because it felt ‘showy’. This could all be explained by my age. Mike’s reactions could partly be due to his position in the family, and him being in high school.

My reaction to Mom’s complaints, about dominating men in particular, was to wonder what the hell was wrong with men. I paid attention to her, took her as a credible voice, and I reflexively took her side, perhaps because I was youngest, but it has been my impulse through life to favor the underdog. Mom’s complaints have always been with me, and I tried hard to understand what she was so angry about. I was a boy, and became a man, and was acutely aware that I was in the camp that angered her. But I understood it wasn’t everyone that made her mad, it was a certain kind of man. The type of man that demeaned and dismissed her. At many points in my life I’ve sworn to myself I wasn’t going to treat others like some have treated me, or other people I’ve seen mistreated.

As for my religious evolution, not once have I ever been a blind faither. I remember doing my paper route and wondering how God could send babies to Hell, or stupid people who just didn’t know what they were doing, to Hell. I remember when I first started dating Mary, and learned the importance of spirituality to her, that I was missing something, and felt I was ‘broken’ somehow. My thoughts about religion have meandered so far I can’t talk about the topic without nuance. I have come to a place I never could have imagined, where I know that Science can’t answer everything, and that there are aspects of our lives we can never know or understand, and must simply give in to our subconscious.

I don’t believe in any kind of ‘god’, but I recognize a real value to religion, in that it’s a way to commune with others and to connect with a part of ourselves that is an eternal mystery. I don’t resent any of my religious instruction; rather, I feel it gave me a base, a structure that helps me understand our culture, and allowed me to veer off into my own exploration.

There’s not a yes or no, right or wrong to how these things affected us. It’s just interesting to me that they’re so different.

Friday, July 1, 2016

My Mom's parents served as Lutheran missionaries in Nigeria

While our Sylwester family was living in Seward, my mother's parents decided to move from Eugene, Oregon, to Nigeria to work as missionaries. On December 16, 1961, The Eugene Register-Guard newspaper published the following article about their decision.

The photograph's caption says:
Now just a location on the map of Africa, Obotidim, Nigeria, will soon become the home of the Rev. and Mrs. W. B. Maier of Eugene. The minister and his wife, who have been in Eugene for 23 years, announced this week that they will accept a call to the African mission station. The Rev. Maier is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Eugene.
The the article says:
Lutheran Pastor, Wife, Heed Summons to Post in Nigeria 
After 23 years in the pastorate at Grace Lutheran Church, Eugene, the Rev. W. B. Maier announced this week that he will accept a call to a missionary post in Africa. 
He and his wife expect to leave in about three months. 
On Monday, the Rev. Maier's request for a "peaceful dismissal" -- his release from pastoral duties at the church -- was approved by the congregation of Grace Lutheran. 
The minister will go to a mission station seminary at Obotidim, in the coastal area of Nigeria. It is a few hundred miles from the medical mission station served by one of the Maiers' three sons, Dr. William Maier, a former Eugene resident. 
Obotidim, Mrs. Maier explained, "is just a little village in quite a primitive section." 
The missionary "compound" -- which includes a high school, the seminary and boarding schools -- only has about ten residences other than the school buildings. 
Groceries and supplies have to be purchased elsewhere and trucked in, Mrs. Maier said. 
The seminary for native students now has an enrollment of about 50, the pastor said, and the mission sponsor -- the Board of Missions of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod -- hopes to expand the seminary "as much a possible." The sponsoring denomination hopes to have an indigenous ministry in Nigeria by 1970. 
At the seminary, the Rev. Maier will teach various subjects, "probably mostly advanced theology." 
The minister's decision to consider mission service came rather recently, he explained. 
"I hadn't given it any thought until Bill (Doctor Maier, who left in September for his second term of three years in Nigeria) decided to go back." 
While on a recent trip, he said, he visited the Board of Missions office at St. Louis, Missouri, and the call to Nigeria came soon after. 
"We thought about it for a while," Mrs. Maier said. ""One reason we chose Africa was that we can deal in the English language there. At other mission posts, we would have a long period of language training before beginning work." 
But, she noted, looking around the comfortable church parsonage at 1343 Mill Street, Eugene, "it's going to be quite hard to break up housekeeping here." 
The Rev. and Mrs. Maier and their family came to Eugene in September, 1938, after nine years at Pocatello, Idaho. 
At that time, the Grace Lutheran congregation was meeting in the church at 11th Avenue and Ferry Street, now a place of business. Five years ago, under the leadership of its pastor, the congregation moved to new and larger quarters at 17th Avenue and Hilyard Street. 
Remaining in this country will be four of Maier's five children. 
Both of their daughters are now married. Mrs. Albert Brauer (Alice Maier) lives in Florence, and Mrs. Robert Sylwester (Ruth Maier) in Seward, Nebraska. The Brauers have six children, and the Sylwesters have seven children. 
Don Maier is a student at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he will graduate in June. He is married and has two children. 
The Maier's youngest son, Kenneth, is a first-year student at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. But he hasn't decided yet whether to follow his father and older brother into the mission field.
My Maier grandparents did move to Nigeria in 1962. At first, Grandma did not want to go, but she changed her mind when she learned that she would be able to visit Europe on the way there and on subsequent vacations. Eventually my grandparents came to love living in Nigeria. They stayed five years and left only because the Biafra war began and they were forced to depart in 1967.

My grandparents lived in Africa during the period when my age was 10 to 15. They visited us in Seward twice. The first time they visited, our family was living on Faculty Lane -- probably in about 1964. On that occasion, Grandpa gave a talk to an assembly at St. John Elementary School, and I will say more about that later in this article. The second time they visited was in 1967, when they had been forced to leave Nigeria permanently and they were returning to Oregon.

Grandpa Maier taught theology at the Nigerian Lutheran seminary. His son (my uncle) Bill worked as a medical missionary in Nigeria, and his family visited us in Seward for about a week when it moved from there back to the USA. Another son (my uncle) Don later served as a missionary in neighboring Ghana. Many years later, his son-in-law (my uncle) Abbie worked as a medical missionary in Kenya.

Three or four times a year, our grandparents mailed us a package that contained a letter and some photographs. We would send our own letters and photographs back. The packages was that they had to be tied with string so that they could be opened easily for Nigerian customs inspections.

In later years, the packages going back and forth included a reel of recording tape. My Dad would bring a tape recording machine home from college, and we would listen to our grandparents talking, and then we would talk back to them.

The photographs that my grandparents sent us showed their environment. They lived in small but nice house. Some of the photographs featured snakes. One photograph showed a snake so large that it extended across a road. One photograph showed a snake that had crawled into their home. My grandparents hired some servants, who were shown in some photographs.

The photographs that I remembered most were taken when my grandparents traveled to villages in rural areas. At that time, young women in villages normally went topless, and they appeared in many photographs. Eventually I became accustomed to seeing bare breasts in the photographs that my grandparents sent to us. (In those days, the National Geographic magazine showed bare breasts in illustrated articles about Third-World countries. When our class visited the school library, that magazine would be grabbed and studied immediately by the boys.)

When my grandparents visited us in Seward in about 1964, Grandpa was invited to give a talk at St. John Elementary School. Before he went to the school, I saw him in our home putting a lot of slide photographs into a slide projector. I noticed that some of the photographs showed topless teenage girls. I suggested to Grandpa that he should think twice about including those photographs in his talk. He dismissed my concern and said that he simply would explain to his audience that this topless clothing was common in that society. It seemed to me that Grandpa had become so used to seeing topless teenage girls during his preceding few years in Nigeria that he had lost his understanding of how these photographs would be perceived by a crowd of Lutheran elementary school pupils in Nebraska.

Indeed, later that day, Grandpa gave his slide-show talk to the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium in St. John school. I was sitting in the bleachers, cringing at my fore-knowledge that Grandpa's slid-show would include several of those photographs. As he showed the photographs and continued his talk, he did not remark immediately about the bare breasts. He continued to talk and show his slides, among which the bare breasts were interspersed. I was relieved to see that my fellow students refrained from exclaiming or laughing about those photographs. Only near the end of his talk did Grandpa remark that the topless clothing in the preceding slides was common in Nigerian village society and that we should think nothing of it.

Grandpa's talk to our school was excellent. I was impressed that he was so comfortable and articulate speaking to such a large audience.

While I was living in Seward, I thought that I myself might become a missionary in a foreign country. This thinking was part of my decision to begin learning the Russian language in Seward.

While my grandparents lived in Nigeria, they bought a lot of local art and gave it as presents to their relatives in the USA. Our family received many such presents, and so we had a lot of Nigerian hand-carved wooden masks hanging on our walls as decorations. For many years the masks retained a peculiar odor, from the wood itself or from the plant stalks on top that represented the head hair.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Fates of 144 Faculty Lane and 115 Hillcrest

Tobin Beck sent me some reports and photographs two years ago, in June 2014, and I am posting them belatedly now. Sorry for my long delay, Toby !!!


Here’s an update on what’s happening with Faculty Lane. Yesterday [June 7, 2014] it was sad to see the end of 144 Faculty Lane. Jenny Mueller-Roebke’s old house, which was destroyed in a practice fire by the Seward, Garland and Tamora Fire Departments. 

The destruction of the home at 144 Faculty Lane
in Seward, Nebraska, on June 7, 2014.
Before the fire. 

The destruction of the home at 144 Faculty Lane
in Seward, Nebraska, on June 7, 2014.
During the fire.

The destruction of the home at 144 Faculty Lane
in Seward, Nebraska, on June 7, 2014.
After the fire.
I found some history of 144 Faculty Lane in the Blue Valley Blade. The house was built in 1924 by Concordia as a home for Prof. H.L. Hardt and his family. The newspaper said the house cost $10,000 to build and it was the first time brick veneer construction had been used for a house in Seward. 


Here’s an update on what’s happening with Faculty Lane. The below three pictures taken today [June 24, 2014] show workers in the process of moving the house at 115 Hillcrest (southeast corner of Hillcrest and Columbia) to make way for the Heartfelt Memorial for families who have lost children. The roof over the breezeway and garage was taken off to facilitate the move. 

115 Hillcrest was built around 1958-1959 as a Concordia house for Walter and Margaret Hellwege (and I remember a bunch of us kids playing on the dirt pile when the house was under construction). 

The removal of the home (the white building, back side)
at 115 Hilcrest Avenue
in Seward, Nebraska.

The removal of the home (covered by a blue tarp, side view)
at 115 Hilcrest Avenue
in Seward, Nebraska.

The removal of the home (front side)
at 115 Hilcrest Avenue
in Seward, Nebraska.
Below is a photo of 115 Hillcrest being moved today [June 27, 2014] in the rain. The photo looks south down Columbia, with the house at the intersection of Columbia and Hillcrest just east of St. John’s. 

The transport of the home
from 115 Hilcrest Avenue
in Seward, Nebraska.

The space cleared by removal of the two houses will be used for a memorial for families who have lost children.

Still remaining on the block are:

* the house just east of St. John’s -- 920 Columbia, which is a Concordia guest house and was built in 1919, before the current Faculty Lane became a street in 1924; 

* 158 Faculty Lane, which also has been used as a guest house; 

* 200 Faculty Lane, the former president’s house that now is the Global Opportunities Center, which includes a classroom and office space. 

-- Tobin Beck

I kissed a girl at Camp Lubogi

The Lutheran Church's Walther League managed a summer camp called Camp Lubogi, located in Fremont, Nebraska, which was about 70 miles northeast from Seward. The name "Lubogi" was an acronym formed from the expression "Lutheran Boys and Girls". The camp hosted children from fifth through eighth grades from Nebraska and its surrounding states.

An article about Camp Lubogi in
The Lincoln Evening Journal,
dated July 27, 1958 
Until the Walther League was disbanded in 1977, it was a large organization that organized social events for Lutheran young people. The ultimate intention was that Lutheran young people would meet, fall in love, get married, and give birth to and raise more Lutheran children.

Walther League events brought my parents together -- and also my aunt Alice and uncle Abbie -- and my godmother Marion and her husband Hal. Probably a large portion of my Sylwester and Maier relatives of that generation met at Walther League events.

Fremont is located along Nebraska's Platte River, at  the Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area (also known as "the State Lakes"). That area includes 20 man-made tree-lined lakes which cover nearly 700 acres. At one lake, the Walther League owned or rented the Camp Lubogi site, which included several dormitories, a kitchen-dining hall, and an activity building.

Camp Lubogi could accommodate at least 70 children, plus a staff of counselors, cooks, secretaries and administrators. In my memory, there were about a half-dozen dormitories, which were one-story, wooden buildings, and a kitchen-dining hall and an activities building.

An article about Camp Lubogi in
The Lincoln Star, dated July 21, 1951
Each summer, Camp Lubogi hosted two sessions, each of which lasted two weeks. I found one old newspaper article reporting that Camp Lubogi began its first session on July 21. I found another article reporting that the last session ended about August 13. So, the camp had one session during about the last two weeks of July and a second session during about the first two weeks of August.

An article mentioning Camp Lubog in
The Belleville Telescope, dated August 13, 1953
I attended Camp Lubogi in the summer between the seventh and eighth grades -- in the summer of 1965. I was considered to be in eighth grade in relation to the statement that Camp Lubogi was "for children from fifth to eighth grades."

I was able to attend Camp Lubogi for free, because I had scored highest in my class on a standardized test. Without that award, I would have attended only the "Sylwester Summer Camp", which meant playing at our home.

Also attending for free was the our class's highest scoring girl, Sue Curtis.

Susan Curtis in eighth grade
Several of our classmates were able to attend because their families paid the camp's fees. Remarkably, Sue and I attended one of the summer sessions, and all the other classmates attended the other session. I think that Sue and I each decided independently that we preferred to attend without our other classmates.

My reason for choosing to attend the session that most of my classmates did not attend was that I intended to try to get a girlfriend there. If a lot of my St. John classmates were present, I would act just my normal, class-clown self  and be too inhibited by girls. My fantasy -- "get a girlfriend" -- was merely to experience a puppy-love romance, perhaps consummated by a kiss on the last evening.

As it turned out, I did fall in love with a girl and did kiss her on my last evening at Camp Lubogi. Neither my love nor my kiss were reciprocated by the girl, but I enjoyed my experience. Now I will tell the story.

When I was informed that Sue Curtis would attend my session at Camp Lubogi, I considered the possibility that she might be the girlfriend whom I might get there. Sue was my second crush at St. John.

My first crush was Jeanette Tonniges.

Jeanette Tonniges in eighth grade
I vividly remember one day, in seventh grade, when Jeanette was standing in front of our class and reading a book report that she had written. Suddenly for the first time in my life, I felt the attraction of female beauty. At that moment when some puberty hormone began seeping into my brain, I happened to be looking at Jeannette. My crush did not last more than a couple weeks, however, because Jeanette was much taller than me.

Soon, still in the seventh grade, I moved on to my second crush, Sue Curtis. A primary reason why I liked her was that she had dark skin, like me. Every fall when school began, she and I had the darkest tans in our class. I figured that if she and I ever married and had children, they they all would be very dark-skinned.

Another reason why I liked Sue was that I appreciated her poetry talents. Whenever our class was assigned to write poems, I would long poems that tried to be funny. My poems were doggerel. When Sue her own poems to the class, however, I recognized that she was quite talented. Her poems had real rhythm and rhyme and expressed intelligent thoughts. She was a very smart girl.

Sue's father, Paul Curtis, offered to give me a ride to Camp Lubogi, so I found myself sitting in a car with Sue for a more than an hour during the drive there. Mr. Curtis talked with me a lot -- he was a jolly conversationalist -- but Sue said little. As soon as we reached the camp, she immediately went off to become acquainted with the other girls there. She and I did not talk at all during the two weeks.

Ignored by Sue, I would have to get some other girlfriend at Camp Lubogi.

Camp Lubogi was for children in fifth through eighth grades I was considered to be an eighth-grader, because I had graduated from seventh grade. The older two grades predominated in numbers. If, say, 70 children were there, then more than 40 of them were seventh- and eighth-graders -- and half of them were potential girlfriends for me.

The camp's activities caused a lot of interaction. We played volleyball, went on hikes, swam in the lake, roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories at a bonfire, and so forth. We participated also in religious activities -- devotional services, Bible discussions, hymn singing, etc. -- every day. I enjoyed my two weeks there.

Within the first couple of days, I began focusing on a seventh-grade girl. She was a little shorter than me, was pretty and had black hair and squinty eyes. I have forgotten her real name, but we boys nicknamed her "Tex" because of her squinty eyes. Probably it was I who thought up that nickname, because I thought she looked like a Texas cowgirl. The nickname caught on among the boys, who assigned nicknames to many of the girls.

Tex actually lived in York, Nebraska, which had a Lutheran elementary school. My flirting with her was limited to calling her Tex frequently and asking her questions about Texas. She figured out that I paid special attention to her, and she felt just annoyed by me.

One remarkable thing about Tex was her swim suit, which I saw her wear at the camp's lake. I loved to swim and dive, and I spent a couple of hours there every day. Whenever Tex was there, I would show off by doing back-flips and other tricky dives. Tex wore a black one-piece swim suit that looked like a bikini, because the top and bottom were joined by a mesh midriff. That was a daring swimsuit for a Nebraska girl to wear in 1965. We boys agreed that it was the sexiest swimsuit at Camp Lubogi. The swimsuit looked something like this -- maybe even with such a the middle band. In those days, female swimsuits usually had a short skirt around the hips, to cover the crotch.

If the model were younger and had blacker hair and squinty eyes, then she would look something like Tex.

Eventually we Lubogi kids reached our last evening at Camp Lubogi. Strange as it might seem, this Lutheran camp had a tradition that the older boys and girls would play spin-the-bottle during our final party. The youth counselors carried on this tradition from summer to summer. I suppose that this tradition had begun at Walther League summer camps for college-age Lutherans and somehow had descended to seventh- and eighth-graders at Camp Lubogi.

The final party featured a series of party games that culminated in spin-the-bottle. The younger kids were sent to bed, and we older kids remained and sat in a circle. Everyone in the circle took one turn spinning the bottle. If the bottle ultimately pointed toward an opposite-sex person, then the spinner kissed that person on the cheek. When everyone in the circle had taken one turn, the game ended.

A miracle occurred. When I took my turn, I spun the bottle hard enough that it spun around many times. When the bottle stopped spinning, it pointed toward Tex. The people who had figured out that I had a crush on Tex howled with laughter -- with one exception. Tex herself stood up and screamed as loud and she could, and she kept screaming while I walked across the circle to kiss her cheek. After I kissed her cheek, she kept screaming for quite a while.

I felt humiliated by her screaming, but I still enjoyed kissing her cheek. I felt very happy. This experience at Camp Lubogi confirmed my Lutheran belief that there is a loving God who sometimes performs miracles for sincere believers who pray to Him.

During the following autumn, the York High School football team came to Seward to play against our Seward High School football team. As a Concordia kid, I never went to our town's public-school games, but I did go alone to this game, hoping to see Tex. I expected that she would not be there, because she attended York's Lutheran school, but I was willing to spend the time for any chance at all.

Another miracle occurred. Tex had come to watch the game, and I saw her there. I admired how pretty she still looked. In fact, she had grown even prettier. I watched her until she had separated herself from her group of fellow fans, and then I walked up to her and greeted her by the name "Tex". I asked why she had come to the game in Seward. She answered that she came with friends and that she intended to attend the public high school in York after she graduated from eighth grade. Our conversation lasted about 15 seconds, and then she turned around and re-joined her York friends. She obviously did not want to talk with me any more, so I left the game and went home. I was disappointed, but I was glad that I saw her again.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Newspaper "Christian News"

When my family moved away from Seward, Nebraska, during the summer of 1968, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS), was going though a doctrinal struggle. A year later, in July 1969, the church's convention elected Jacob A. O. Preus II as the church's new president. Preus had criticized many of the church's pastors and college teachers for liberalizing scriptural interpretations, and he promised to purge such pastors and teachers from their church positions.

My Dad did not teach theology -- he taught methodology of elementary education -- so he was not a teacher who was prominent and notorious in this controversy. I was too young (15 years old when we moved away) to understand the controversy well, but I was aware of it and understood that my Dad opposed Preus's faction.

Because my Dad was a teacher in a LCMS college, he received a free, unrequested subscription to a pro-Preus newspaper that was named Christian News. (Actually, the newspaper was named Lutheran News while we lived in Seward, but in this article here I will use only the name Christian News, which has been its name since 1968.) In my memory, each issue was about eight pages, published weekly. My Dad disdained this newspaper, but he allowed it into our home, where it was mixed in with the many newspapers and magazines that my family received.

I read Christian News regularly during my last two years in Seward and then for several more years in Eugene. Somehow, the publisher learned my Dad's new address and continued to mail the newspaper to him for free, even though he no longer was teaching in a Lutheran school.


Christian News was not published by the LCMS. Rather, it was published by a dissident Lutheran pastor, Herman Otten. He did not write every article, but he was the major writer and the editor. He must have received monetary support from some wealthy Lutherans, because surely there were not enough paid subscriptions and advertisements to pay for the printing and mailing costs.

The newspaper's goal was to expose heretical liberalism among the church's pastors and teachers. Many articles quoted and criticized religious books that had been published by Lutheran college teachers. Any deviations from literal interpretations of the Bible or from Lutheran doctrine were exposed and denounced.

One example that sticks in my memory involved a LCMS college teacher who had written a book that described various literary genres in the Bible. One such genre was epitomized by the Book of Jonah and was compared to the genre of the modern comic book. The teacher wrote that the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and surviving three days in the whale's stomach was an amusing fiction, like a comic-book story. Of course, Christian News denounced this teacher and his book as heretical and insisted that the Jonah story was literally true.

I myself did not agree with such literal interpretations of the Bible, but I appreciated this newspaper's forthright argumentation and advocacy. At that time, I was thinking about becoming a journalist, and I admired this one pastor's ability to publish such an influential newspaper. As my own religious beliefs evolved in Eugene during the early 1970s, I eventually stopped reading Christian News. I became more interested in other controversies and rarely took the time to look at it when I noticed it in our home's pile of periodicals.


I am writing this article about Christian News here in my Seward blog, because I intend to write my following article about my Mom's religious rebellion. I have been thinking about that rebellion since she died a couple weeks ago. The controversy that was developing in the LCMS when we moved away from Seward was a significant circumstance.


Christian News has a website,, which includes the newspaper's mission statement:
Proclaiming faith in the saving merits of Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven.

Emphasizing that the Holy Trinity is the only God who exists.

Exposing the Universalism which has taken over most major denominations.

Defending the inerrancy of Holy Scripture and opposing the destructive higher critical notions of the Bible promoted by liberal scholars.

Below are excerpts from an article about Otten's career, published by his local New Haven Banner newspaper in 2012. It's important to note the article's many indications that Otten was opposed by much of LCMS's establishment.

Pastor Herman Otten leaving Trinity Lutheran Church after 55 years

New Haven, Mo. – Pastor Herman Otten officially announced in a press release this morning [July 26, 2012] the he will be leaving Trinity Lutheran Church after 55 years.

Otten will remain editor of Christian News “To promote 21st century reformation and realignment in all of Christendom."

In a “Farewell Address” that Otten had presented in a voters meeting at Trinity Lutheran Church on July 15 announced that he would be leaving Trinity after 55 years as pastor on Easter 2013. He said he wants to give Trinity time to call a new pastor. Few congregations have kept their same pastor for so many years.

Otten, however, will not be retiring from the ministry. He will continue serving as editor of Christian News, now in its 50th year with issue No. 2,326, until a new editor takes over. Otten said once he no longer has weekly pastoral duties he plans to travel promoting the need for a realignment in Christendom and a 21st Century Reformation as the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s

He has been working on a book tentatively titled Why a Realignment and 21st Century Reformation Today? He says this book will be somewhat like his popular Baal or God published in 1965. It was enthusiastically promoted by Bible believing Christian in many denominations in the U.S. and other nations. ....

When Lutheran News became Christian News in 1968 ..... Rev. Wayne Saffen of the University of Chicago, a liberal theologian, wrote in The Lutheran Campus Pastor that “Christian News has widened its strategy from dividing or conquering the Missouri Synod and the Lutherans to dividing or conquering the visible churches of Christ on earth. Its own realignment of Christendom calls for division between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’” ...

Otten says that even in such formerly conservative denominations as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), evolutionists and liberal higher critics of the Bible are permitted to remain on the clergy roster. .....

.... Christian News says the religious leaders, including LCMS President Matthew Harrison, are dead wrong when they claim that the Bible is silent about contraception. Christian News photographed a page from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Genesis where Luther condemns contraception.

The new book by the father of seven says that in 1890 the average LCMS pastor had 6.5 children. Today it’s around the national average of 2. When Otten began serving as a pastor of Trinity, the LCMS was baptizing about 83,000 children a year. Today the number has dropped below 23,000 per year. ....

Several times Trinity, New Haven has petitioned conventions of the LCMS to call for a 21st Century Formula of Concord which reaffirms the Formula of Concord of 1580 but also speaks to the issues of our day, evolution, abortion, homosexuality, “gay marriage,” higher criticism of the Bible, the historicity of the Genesis creation account, the findings of archaeology, Bible texts, etc. ...

During the last 50 years convention workbooks of the LCMS have more overtures from Trinity, New Haven than any other congregation. Trinity petitioned the LCMS to take a stand vs. abortion, higher criticism of the Bible, homosexuality, euthanasia, theological liberalism, racism of the left and right, and for such doctrines as the inerrancy of the Bible, the historicity of the Genesis account of creation the virgin birth of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the physical resurrection of Christ, the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible, a 600 B.C. dating of Daniel, the unity of Isaiah, the historicity of Jonah, etc. Some overtures Otten drafted were signed by more than 300 pastors and laymen in over 20 states.

The Lutheran Campus Pastor, a liberal publication, commented:
Christian News is now without doubt the most influential publication in the (Lutheran Church) Missouri Synod. .... It is an impressive record. Concerns which had been generated when the editor was still a student have almost all been validated by convention resolution: affirming a six day creation ,a historical Jonah, an inerrant Scripture, Adam and Eve are real historic persons, etc.
While conservatives in many church bodies commended Christian News and Trinity, the LCMS never certified him for the ministry. Otten graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1957 with an M.Div. and a few days later from Washington University with an M.A. in history. A year later he earned an S.T.M. from Concordia Seminary and was on course to earn his doctorate at age 26 when his long battle with the LCMS hierarchy began. He never had time again to return to the classroom.

He informed leaders of the LCMS during the 1950s, at their request, about what was going on theologically at Concordia Seminary and elsewhere in the LCMS.

When Trinity, New Haven, which he had been serving as a student while doing his graduate work, would not remove him as pastor when ordered by LCMS officials, Trinity was suspended several times and then expelled from the LCMS.

Each time the suspensions and expulsion were declared invalid by the LCMS Board of Appeals, which consisted of 5 attorneys and 6 pastor/theologians elected at LCMS conventions. This same Board of Appeals ruled after interviewing professors under oath that the seminary had not shown just cause for not certifying Otten for the ministry.

The board found Otten had told the truth about the liberal professors. The vote in 1984 was unanimous for Otten. However, even though the LCMS Handbook required the LCMS and Concordia Seminary to accept the ruling, they refused to certify the pastor of Trinity.

The rulings in favor of Otten and Trinity were a major reason who LCMS officials worked to get the LCMS to change its entire judicial system where evidence was carefully evaluated, a transcript made, witnesses sworn in, examined, and cross examined. Now the LCMS’s Council of Presidents is the final authority and the Board of Appeals is gone.

Officials of the LCMS say Trinity is currently under the threat of expulsion from the LCMS and Pastor Otten “is an impenitent sinner on the road to Hell.”

When Matthew Harrison was installed as president of the LCMS, Pastor Otten was banned from communing and participating at the installation. Some 200 pastors participated in the installation/communion service. No liberal promoting evolution was banned. Harrison came for more than six hours to New Haven to urge Christian News to support him for president.

He gave Otten many of his books and writings, which were then reviewed in Christian News. For more than a year Christian News regularly promoted Harrison for president. Other LCMS presidents have also requested the support of Christian News since this publication was the only newspaper reaching all LCMS congregations and later convention delegates each week. Once elected, these presidents kept their distance from Christian News and wanted Trinity to remove him as pastor.

One of the most significant events in the history of 20th Century American denominationalism occurred in 1974 when 45 out of 50 liberal faculty and staff members at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis walked off the campus of the seminary and began “Seminex” at the Roman Catholic St. Louis University Divinity School and the United Church of Christ’s , Eden Seminary.

Liberal and conservatives have said that it was two “stubborn” New Yorkers from Concordia, Bronxville, NY who were primarily responsible, Dr. John Tietjen, President of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and then Seminex and Herman Otten, pastor of Trinity and editor of Christian News.

Today the official line from the LCMS is that Trinity, New Haven, Otten and Christian News had little to do with any of the conservative positions taken by the LCMS since Trinity began submitting overtures and Christian News began.

A Seminary in Crisis, published by the LCMS’s Concordia Publishing House in 2007, hardly mentions Trinity, Christian News or any of its publications sent to all LCMS congregations and convention delegates.

Others have not been as critical of Otten and Trinity or minimized the influence of Christian News as have LCMS officials and their publications.

James Burkee, chairman of the faculty at Concordia University, Wisconsin, the largest Lutheran University, writes in his Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod – A Conflict that Changed American Christianity, in a caption of a photo showing Otten with a group of students at a college where Otten was invited to speak:
Herman Otten Jr. founded conservative tabloid Christian News following his rejection by Concordia Seminary. He shaped Missouri conservatism with an impact magnified by his freedom from church oversight. Otten was the most significant figure in modern LCMS history.
Burkee’s book was published in 2011 by Fortress Press of The Evangelical Church in America. The Foreword is by Martin E. Marty, referred to by some as America’s leading church historian.

James Adams, religion editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in his Preus of Missouri and The Great Lutheran Civil War, published by Harpers in 1977, wrote:
But when historians assess power and influence in Missouri (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) in the 60s, no man right or left will be more important than journalist Herman Otten. Before the ink was dry on his final exams at Concordia, St. Louis in the late ‘50s, Otten was accusing his professors of heresies. . . Although he was to influence the mighty Missouri Synod as much as any individual, he never became a certified minister. He liked his independence. . .

Bill Miller the editor of the Washington Missourian, who has served as president of the Missouri Press Association and traveled in many countries, said in his "Editor's Notebook" in an item titled "A Man of Courage, Discipline" in the February 12, 2003, Washington Missourian:
Pastor Otten battled the odds and scored many victories. However, he still is considered a radical, disturber and misdirected crusader by the liberals. He is feared by that element because of his comprehensive research and investigative reporting. He is a fierce debater. His newspaper interests range beyond religion, although there usually is a moral connection. He investigates and comments on most major issues facing the world today. He never backs away from his fundamental beliefs. Yes, he is controversial! There are people who will disagree with this column. 
He is the most disciplined person this writer has ever met. His day is organized by the hour and he is a shining example of one who does not waste time. Although in his late 60s he retains his zeal for physical conditioning and even has competed in ‘iron man’ competitions in various parts of the country. For years he jogged the 17 miles to The Missourian office early every Thursday morning to proofread and layout his newspaper. 
Pastor Otten has never neglected his congregation. Those duties come first. He visits the sick in hospitals and the aged in nursing homes, regardless of their faiths. 
He also has not neglected his family but he has had to depend on his devoted wife Grace, a deaconess, for her dedication in the family's many activities. 
Also assisting him have been all of his seven children, at one time or other, who share many of the same disciplines of their father. Several have their own careers but they come home to help with the camp when needed. They inherited his work ethic.
While the LCMS’s Lutheran Witness has a policy of refusing to publish any letter from Otten or mention Christian News or Camp Trinity, both the New Haven Leader and the Washington Missourian have published favorable reports about both.

“Forty years of Christian News,” a feature article in the January 22, 2003 New Haven Leader had this subtitle: “The newspaper that started in the basement on Maupin Street now has readers around the world.”

An article published in the New Haven Leader 10 years ago said:
Despite the literal millions of words he’s published, friends and congregation members say he’s always put his family and his congregation first.” “And the congregation also stood solidly behind its pastor despite the pressure from the LCMS to get rid of him.
When Otten married Deaconess Grace Anderson in 1962, they went on a 5,000 mile wedding trip where Otten spoke to groups along the way on the “Crisis in Christendom”. At the time he may have been the only pastor who publicly took issue with liberal professors at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and elsewhere. When a leading Lutheran theologian, who denied the inerrancy of the Bible and promoted liberal higher criticism of the Bible, challenged conservatives to debate him, a group of California laymen sponsored a debate between a liberal and Otten. Almost all of the 600 at the debate remained for all six hours. ....

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Meaning of "Charlotte's Web"

When my class was in eighth grade, our teacher Mildred Schwich read aloud to us the children's novel Charlotte's Web. Our class had several teachers that year, and I remember that she taught us literature. Perhaps she taught us another subject or two.

Mrs. Schwich was quite intelligent, and she tried to teach us students to read intelligently. As she led us through stories in our literature textbook, she pointed out nuances, allusions and other insightful elements. She led us through a reading of the early chapters of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, using his ambition and entrepreneurship to inspire such qualities in our own lives. She guided us through reading also part of Vince Packard's book Hidden Persuaders.

She strove to make us into self-motivated readers. She impressed me as the most intellectual of my teachers at St. John Elementary School.

Mildred Schwich, upper-grade teacher at St John Elementary School in Seward, Nebraska

The Schwich family was remarkable for its athleticism. The father, Luther Schwich, was a head coach at the college, and all the children excelled in sports. However, her brother was a famous theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, who wrote many articles and books about religion, especially its relationship to politics. The father of Mildred and Richard was a Lutheran pastor. Although Mildred's brother Richard was raised in this Lutheran family, he ultimately became a Roman Catholic priest.

 Mrs. Schwich's decision to read Charlotte's Web aloud to our eighth-grade class was strange for a couple of reasons:

1) The novel was written for younger children. The main human character is an eight-year-old girl.

2) We eighth-grade students were capable of reading the book ourselves.

Mrs. Schwich thought this particular book had some extraordinary quality that she wanted all her students in her eighth-grad class, including its lazy or less capable readers, to experience and appreciate. If she did point out that quality explicitly to us, I have forgotten it.

The story is about a farm family that raises pigs and other animals. When a litter of piglets is born, the father decides to slaughter the smallest piglet, the runt. The eight-year-old daughter, Fern, begs her father to spare this runt piglet, and the father relents on the condition that Fern take care of it. Fern names the piglet Wilber and raises it it in a fenced area at the barn. As Wilber grows larger, he communicates with the other animals, including a female spider, who calls herself Charlotte. As the piglet-spider friendship develops, Charlotte writes words about Wilber into her spider webs. The spider-web words eventually attract human attention, and Wilber becomes a famous public attraction. Eventually, Charlotte dies while giving birth to a multitude of baby spiders.

This strange story is one of the biggest sellers in children's literature. More than 45 million copies of the book have been sold, and two movies have been produced, in 1973 and in 2006.

The cover of the book Charlotte's Web.
The book comprises 22 chapters, and Ms. Schwich read a chapter to us every school day, so we spent about a month on the book. As I remember, she read to us right after lunch recess. She allowed us to lay our heads on our desks while we listened. Toward the end of the book, the spider Charlotte died, and some of us students cried. When Mrs. Schwich finished the final chapter, I thought that the long reading had been worthwhile, but I don't remember why.

 I was reminded about this story-listening experience when my wife and I recently watched the 1973 animated movie.
A scene from the 1973 animated movie Charlotte's Web.
The eight-year-old girl Fern taking care of the pig Wilber.
As I watched the movie, which was excellent, I remembered the story that I had heard Mrs. Schwich read to me a half-century ago.
A scene from the 1973 movie Charlotte's Web.
The pig Wilber looking at the spider Charlotte.
The entire movie is on YouTube:

Now watching this story as an adult, I immediately recognized the story's Christian allegory. Listening to the story as a child, I was oblivious to the allegory, but I suspect that this allegory is the reason why Mrs. Schwich read the book aloud to us. Perhaps Mrs. Schwich was told about the Christian allegory by her famous theologian brother.

I perceived the allegory as follows:

* Wilber the pig is humanity. Wilber was doomed to death for being the litter's runt. Humanity is doomed to eternal damnation for being sinful.

* Fern the girl is Jesus Christ. Fern saved Wilber from death. Jesus Christ saved humanity from eternal damnation.

* Charlotte the spider is God the Father's angel, communicating Jesus' miraculous significance.

After I watched the movie, I searched the Internet to find anyone else who had recognized this Christian allegory. I found a superb series of essays on a blog that is titled The Moral Premise Blog: Story Structure Craft, written by Stanley D. Williams. He is a film producer and analyst with a special interest in Christianity. He has written a book titled Growing Up Christian: A Search for a Reasonable Faith in America's Heartland, which describes his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. His book has been summarized as follows:
Stan Williams was born into a Bible-believing, Evangelical home. But he was utterly confounded by all the versions of Christianity around town. Each claimed to be the exclusive caretaker of truth and interpreter of the Bible. Yet, each disparaged the others. Who had the truth? Why was the church he was raised in right and everyone else wrong? Was everyone out of step except his little denomination? How could that be true? 
The last place he considered was Roman Catholicism. He was taught Catholics were not Christians. And so, his life became a fascinating, odd, and sometimes humorous journey of faith. It led him where he least expected. 
From a little boy seeking adventure, to a denomination-hopping man crisscrossing America's Christian landscape, Stan Williams entertains and challenges us with over a 100 stories of his intrepid journey as he searched for a spiritual home that embraced both the faith of his fathers and the reason of natural law. 
Based on his interests in Christianity and movies, Williams wrote another book, titled The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success. This book has been summarized as follows:
The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success reveals the foundational concept at the heart of all successful box office movies and other stories. It is a principle that has been passed down from ancient times. It is a principle that modern research has shown is in all great stories that connect with audiences. 
If you ignore this principle, your story is doomed. But if you consistently apply it to each character, scene, and dramatic beat, it is the principle that will empower your storytelling, and illuminate all the other techniques you bring to the craft. It is the guiding principle of writing that allows films and all stories to be great. 
In brief, the Moral Premise describes how successful motion pictures are always structured around a psychological (or spiritual) premise based on true moral values, and how screenwriters can appropriate the structural elements of the moral premise to write successful movies. 
This concept has been at the heart of all successful story telling from ancient times. We find its controlling nature in the writings of Plato, the Bible, and Aesop. We find it in English Classics ... and in the many good stories of modern stage, movies, and television. Most respected writers on screenplays mention it, but they use a variety of confusing terms and never tell us how important it is ...
Williams writes a blog that develops his Moral Premise analysis of movies. The blog includes a series of four essays about the 2006 movie Charlotte's Web. These essays analyze the Charlotte story's Christian myth differently than I did. For example, Williams sees Wilber as Jesus Christ and sees Fern as God's angel. Below are some highlights from the second of William's essays.
... Charlotte's Web is a myth that subliminally reminds us of, and passes on truths from the story of Christ. Now, many people will misunderstand what I mean by "myth." There are many who connote the word "myths" with "falsehoods" and even "evil." But in this case, a myth is a story that passes on something that is true. A myth story does not necessarily pass on truths about what happens in the story's visual realm, but it does pass on truths about things in the invisible realm, e.g. values. .... 
In that way Charlotte's Web the movie (and to a lesser degree the book) is a Christ Myth. There are many "types" in Charlotte's Web that will resonate with the Nativity and other stories of Christ, but not so much that we can't enjoy Charlotte's Web for a story that stands on its own. .... they [the "types"] are very subliminal pointers of other things (physical and psychological or spiritual) that Christians hold to be true. Let me enumerate those ["types"] that I have seen ....
A. Wilbur is born a lowly pig, whose primary purpose in life is to die to feed others ...  
B. Wilbur is born in a stable, and lives in the basement of a barn. ... 
C. Wilbur eats from a manger. The Christ child slept in a manger. 
D. Wilbur draws attention from those beyond the farm because of a web hanging from what Wilbur later titles the "Hallowed Doorway". The web looks like a star .... In the Nativity story, as popularly told, wise men follow a star that hangs over the stable where Christ can be found. Just as there is a crowd of people come to see Wilbur in his barn, so there are many who come to see Christ is his stable. 
E. In Charlotte's web are words, that are proclamations or prophecies about the lowly but miraculous pig below. ....  
F. In the book, and implied in the movie, the minister in his sermon explains the words in Charlotte's web this way "words on the web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders." ... 
G. Shortly after Wilbur is born, Mr. Arable takes an ax and is about to take Wilbur off to be killed. Shortly after Christ's birth Herod sends his minions out to take the life of Christ. 
H. In the movie, Fern, the angel that she is, objects to killing Wilbur as a great injustice and thus protects Wilbur's life. In the Nativity story, an angel warns Joseph in a dream of the injustice about to be done with Herod's slaughter of the innocents. 
I. In the movie the smokehouse sits ever present on a hill near the barn, as a reminder that the pig's life has an end at the hands of humans. In the story of Christ, Golgotha sits ever present on a hill near the city that awaits Christ's death at the hands of humans. 
J. Charlotte looks down from above and is omniscient. One of the movie's tag lines is "Help Is Coming From Above." In the story of Christ, God looks down from above and is omniscient, and it is Christ that is sent as help from above. A tag line for the Bible could be: "Help is Coming From Above." 
K. In the movie (and the book) Wilbur escapes his home and chases after the school bus on which Fern rides to get an education. Wilbur soon returns, obediently, because that is where food, shelter, and his friends are. In the Christ story Jesus "escapes" to the temple, a religious school. He soon returns, obediently, to his home with his parents. 
L. In the movie, Wilbur looks like an ordinary pig, but his life is miraculous. In the Christ story, Jesus looks like an ordinary man, but his life is miraculous. 
M. In the movie, the narrator tells us that Somerset County is an ordinary place with ordinary people and animals, except that "here a little girl did something that would change everything." In the story of Jesus, a young woman, Mary, lived in an ordinary village except she would do something that would change everything. 
N. In the movie, Fern cares for Wilbur over whom the threat of death is constantly present. In the Nativity story, Mary cares for Jesus over whom the threat of death is constantly present. 
O. In the movie, it is Wilbur's respect for the beauty of all life (even ugly spiders), which brings a greater degree of grace to Somerset County. In the Christ story, it is Christ's respect for all kinds of people, no matter their heritage or race, which brings a greater degree of grace to mankind. 
P. In the movie, what appears ordinary, is quite miraculous. Jesus Christ appeared to many as quite ordinary. But he was quite miraculous 
Q. Charlotte prays over her food before she drinks its life giving blood. Her action is an offense to most in the barn at first. But Wilbur and his friends come to understand that it is Charlotte that keeps the pesky flies and other insects from being worse. A priest prays over the gifts before Catholics drink Christ's life giving blood. It is an offense to those that do not understand (John 6:66). It is God's grace, through Christ, that helps to keep sin from getting worse. 
R. Charlotte, the omniscient looks down from above, she always keeps her promises. God, the omniscient looks down from above, and always keeps his covenants. 
S. Wilbur always looks to Charlotte for friendship, comfort, assurance, and oversight, and she provides all that and protection, too. That is how Jesus looked to his father, and how Christians look to and trust the Trinity. 
T. In the movie, Avery, Fern's brother, takes a pitch fork and stabs it at Charlotte trying to kill her, while Fern watches. In the story of Christ, while Christ hangs on the cross a soldier spears his side to see if he is dead, while Mary watches. 
U. In the movie, Wilbur draws a crowd due to the presence of miracles, literal signs like "SOME PIG", and wonders. In the Christ story, Jesus draws crowds because of his miracles, signs, or wonders. 
V. In the movie, at the very end, Wilbur promises to Charlotte's daughters, now spinning their web in the "hallowed doorway": "I pledge to you my friendship forever." Jesus' last words to his followers (as recorded by Matthew) are: "I am with you always, until the end of the age." 
W. Charlotte repeatedly reminds those in the barn to be patient and "Never hurry, never worry. Don't be afraid." Christ repeatedly reminded his followers "Do not worry. Do not be afraid." 
X. While Wilbur sleeps, Charlotte works. Wilbur doesn't always see what Charlotte is up to, but what she does is always for Wilbur's good. Jesus told his followers that they will not always see or understand, but the hidden wholeness of God's providence will always work out for their good. 
Y. Miracles can have a conversion affect on people. In the book, when the farm hand, Lurvy, first sees Charlotte's "SOME PIG," he drops to his knees and says a short prayer. In the movie, when the sloppy farm hand, Harvey, sees "SOME PIG," he goes to town, gets a haircut and new clothes. Christ's miracles had a similar affect on people. 
Z. Charlotte says to Wilbur "I will save you, trust me."...which Charlotte reinforces to mean, do what I say. God promises to save us if we trust Him and do what he says. 
GL. ... At the very end of the movie, hundreds of Charlotte's babies throw a thin thread of silk up into the air, and trusting the wind to carry them aloft, they float off to places far and wide to spin their own web. This reminded Gus of how Christ sent out his disciples, and later the church, trusting the winds of the Spirit to carry the Good News into all the world. And in each new city they settle they would cast their nets (look like webs) and proclaim the Good News with both their words and actions. ....  
ZZ. There are four times that Charolette writes in her web, communicating with humans. The words are "SOME PIG", "TERRIFIC", "RADIANT", and "HUMBLE." There were four events in Christ's life that correspond to these words. ... The first was when Jesus was born and God revealed the birth to shepherds and wise men essentially saying this is SOME BIRTH and you need to pay attention to it, which is what Charlotte is saying about Wilbur's arrival. The second time, was when Jesus was baptised, and a voice came down from heaven saying "This is my TERRIFIC Son, with you I am well pleased." The third time, was when Jesus was transfigured and shone RADIANT as he talked with Elijah and Moses. The fourth time, was when Christ took on his most HUMBLE estate and was crucified.
The Charlotte's Web story seems to involve various Christian motifs, and that's why the story became so extraordinarily popular, and that's why Mrs. Schwich wanted her eighth-grade students to listen to it.