Dec 27, 2013

Dec 26, 2013

Where are the angels in evangelicalism?: Thursday links

Disenchantment in evangelical churches:
In all my years in evangelical churches, I cannot recall hearing much teaching about [angels] except from one Sunday School teacher who was oddly preoccupied with mysterious phenomena. She would close each class with an 'angel story' that she'd read from a magazine, where men suddenly appeared, did some good deed, and then disappeared again.  
I loved her stories, but my understanding of angels never grew up. Angels remained frozen on Sunday School felt boards or in pageants at Christmastime (Christianity Today).
The cross is a Christian symbol:
Attempts to remove the 59-year-old cross have been unfairly vilified as attempts to wipe all signs of religion from public spaces. Of course, crosses have a proper place on public land. One example is the large cross in a corner of Camp Pendleton that marks the site of the first baptism in California. In that case, history and religion are inextricably bound. The crosses that mark the graves of Christian war veterans are an appropriate way to honor both their service and their beliefs. But we doubt anyone would say that such a symbol belongs on the graves of Jewish or Muslim war dead. A cross is not a universal symbol for memorializing the dead. It is a Christian marker (Los Angeles Times).
St. Augustine and sexual orientation:
When I was in my early twenties and just beginning to allow myself to face up to my sexuality, I remember a wise pastor friend telling me that anyone with an Augustinian anthropology -- for those playing at home, that's a dim view of natural human ability to be virtuous and an uber-high view of God's slow-moving, unpredictable grace -- should have no time for the notion that gay people (or anyone else!) 'choose' whom they'll be attracted to (Spiritual Friendship).
Reject the sin, don't dehumanize the sinner:
It does not matter if you think homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is simply another expression of human love. It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because people are dying. Kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life. As a Youth Pastor, this makes me physically ill. And as a human, it should make you feel the same way. So, I’m through with the debate. 
When faced with the choice between being theologically correct . . . as if this is even possible . . . and being morally responsible, I'll go with morally responsible every time (In The Parlor). 
Financial mismanagement at the American Bible Society:
From 2002 through 2011 [the American Bible Society] overspent its budget by $250 million . . . The organization watchdog found that in 2012, 30 percent of the ABS budget was spent on fundraising, 'an amazing five times the average fundraising cost ratio of ministries covered in the database.' Another watchdog, CharityNavigator, gives the ministry an overall three out of four stars, but only two out of four for financial efficiency, and MinistryWatch gives it only one star out of five.

Staff compensation also raises eyebrows, totaling $29 million for its 220 employees in 2011. That's an average compensation of about $130,000 per employee, with at least 10 senior staffers making more than $200,000 per year. By contrast, grants to other organizations such as foreign Bible societies -- a primary way the ABS facilitates Bible distribution -- came to less than $8 million (World (behind a paywall)).

  American executions in decline:

Dec 25, 2013

The Puritan war on Christmas

Puritan theologian William Perkins, considered a moderate in 1595 Cambridge, decried the practice of Christmas. It was, he wrote, a basically heathen day of "rifling, dicing, carding, masking, mumming" and assorted "licentious libertie":

In New England, where dissenters worked to establish a truly Christian society, Christmas was frowned upon, and actually illegal for some years. Anyone caught celebrating in Massachusetts would be fined five shillings.

As Michael D. Hattem writes,
Due to the penchant for disorder, immodesty, gluttony, and the (temporary) breakdown of the social order, it should come as no surprise that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English dissenters began to take a very dim view of the holiday. Indeed, the hotter the Protestant, the stronger the aversion to Christmas. But their opposition to Christmas was not just due to the overtly social nature of its celebration. Puritan faith derived wholly from scripture, and, in 1645 and again in 1647, the Long Parliament declared the abolition of all holy days except the Sabbath, which was the only day described as such in the Bible.
It's common to hear contemporary Christians make claims about the missing "true meaning" of Christmas. The Puritans of Early America might have countered that, if you understood the true meaning, you wouldn't celebrate the sham holiday at all.

Update: Things Not Seen radio has a segment on this topic today.

Dec 23, 2013

American church

Independent Christian Church, McDonough, Ga.

Dec 19, 2013

Harold Camping, 1921 - 2013

Harold Camping was committed to the conservative Christian doctrine of Biblical inerrancy that was articulated in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of his youth, and followed his understanding of that belief even when it lead him into the wilderness.

Only if the Bible is accepted on its own terms, Camping taught, as entirely self-sufficient, could it be rightly understood. It is its own interpreter. The Bible is its own context. Most methods of reading the scripture err because they don't rely on the text completely. As Camping wrote,
We can do almost anything we wish with the Bible. We become free to read the Bible and make our own personal judgments as to what God means in every verse ...
Read the full obit at Religion Dispatches: Harold Camping, Prophet of Apocalypse, dies at 92. 

No monument for Satan: Thursday links

The goal of announcing a Satanic monument is not to promote Satanism but to demonstrate why government endorsements of religion are undesirable ... While this tactic of prank-as-protest is clever, these invented religions never win their day in court. The Supreme Court case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009), in which a new religious movement called Summum sought to erect a monument listing the 'seven aphorisms' of their religion in a park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, virtually guarantees that Oklahoma will not have to erect a monument to Satan (Religion Dispatches).
Contraception is a compelling state interest:
In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court will consider whether the provision of contraceptive services meets a compelling public health need. We believe, along with an Institute of Medicine committee that reported in July 2011, that it does. First, appropriately prescribed contraceptive services prevent unintended pregnancies without promoting promiscuity. Preventing unplanned pregnancies, more than half of which are currently terminated, averts these induced abortions and their attendant financial, physical, and psychosocial expense (New England Journal of Medicine).
St. Augustine, therapist:
Perhaps the most puzzling (false) dichotomy is [David F.] Wells's emphasis on the objective versus the subjective. This would confuse Augustine, for instance, who wrote: 'Do not go outside yourself, but enter into yourself, for truth dwells in the interior self.' Yet no one would confuse Augustine with Oprah. 
Indeed, Augustine's Confessions recount the interior journey of a soul toward the majesty of God, culminating in the meditations of Book 10: 'Through my soul I will ascend to him.' By turning inward, Augustine's self-confidence is destabilized ... in this internal vertigo, he also finds the One who is greater: 'You are my true life.' 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you' (Christianity Today).
It's time to change Christian television:
Some people might say this is not the time to have this discussion. But I think Paul Crouch’s passing signals the end of an era -- and it is time for a reformation. 
Crouch’s generation built monolithic organizations with autocratic leadership, and broadcasters who began their networks in the 1970s created a showy, bigger-is-better style that included endless telethons, sensational preaching and celebrities in spotlights. That may have worked in 1975 -- and it still appeals to a segment of the market. But my generation and my children's generation tuned out long ago because Christian TV came off as fake, campy and spiritually out of touch (Charisma Magazine).
The mystery of the C.S. Lewis industry:
Why all the interest in the man himself? His life wasn’t boring, exactly, but most of his great adventures were interior: his learning, his adult conversion, his grief, his joy. Lewis didn’t travel much. He was born in Belfast and spent much of his childhood shut in the house for fear that he would take sick from the damp, cold weather. After his mom died of cancer, Lewis’s father shipped him off to a series of dreary boarding schools. Second Lieutenant Lewis spent about as much time during World War I in the hospital as in battle. He then lived the bulk of his adult life at Oxford, learning and teaching and drinking and debating with his friends. He decamped for some years to Cambridge, took ill, returned to his old Oxford home, and died ... Lewis himself would be flummoxed and embarrassed at all the attention (The American Spectator).
Atheist in the public square:
When I spoke recently with [Rep. Barney] Frank, he told me his decision not to come out as an atheist wasn't a matter of political expedience. 'Atheism didn't come up,' he said. 'It wasn't relevant to policy.' He mentioned his contributions to secularism and the separation of church and state -- such as his fight against Sen. Rick Santorum's bid to make faith-based organizations eligible for tax funding. Frank told me that for many years he had 'affirmed' instead of swearing an oath. 'I haven't said 'so help me God' in a very long time,' he said, 'but no one notices' (Politico Magazine).
Comedian Pete Holmes goes surfing with Rob Bell:

Dec 17, 2013

Converting alone

In the second half of the 20th century, Americans stopped joining things. Where Americans had previously been enmeshed in numerous social networks and had, further, shown an affinity for affiliation, that ended. Now Americans disengaged. Now they hesitated before signing on to anything or joining up.

Now, increasingly, people chose isolation.

Whether it was a lodge or a union, a social club or a political organization, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, group membership and participation dropped off sharply.

Robert D. Putnam writes,
Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tends of thousands like them across American began to fade. 
It wasn't so much that old members dropped out -- at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members. 
Those would-not-be members were, increasingly, as Putnam's title famously put it, Bowling Alone.

This is true of religion, too. Part of this social shift and this trend was and is the increasing number of those who don't identify with any religious organization, the "nones." Part of this change is Christians who don't want to identify with any denomination. There was 400 percent growth of non-denominational Christians between the 1970s and the 2010s. Part of this shift is the emergence of the category of people who said they were spiritual, but disliked "organized religion." People are still religious in America, but they're more likely to forgo the communal aspects of being religious. They avoid the social networks, the enmeshing.

There are even cases where people "join" a religion, undergo a conversion in their own minds, and yet remain in isolation. Their religious identity is detached from the "denser personal relationships" that, in Putnam's research, seem to matter so much. Their new-found faith is, so to speak, all personal belief and no church suppers.

People bowl alone. People convert alone.

One notable case of this is Terry Lee Loewen.

Loewen is 58 years old, a Kansas native who lives in Wichita. He is white, divorced and remarried, and has a son. He takes blood-thinner for his heart. He has a career as an avionics technician, working for a contractor at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

He is also a Muslim convert.

As a convert, Loewen is inspired by the idea of "my Muslim brothers + sisters." He is inspired by the idea of "Ummah," an Arabic word he learned online that means "nation" or "community." He feels a great love and compassion for his fellow religionists, even though he actually doesn't know any of them.

In fact, it would appear that the only Muslim Loewen deeply engaged with was an undercover FBI agent pretending to be a radical Islamic jihadist online.

Dec 14, 2013

The apocalyptic vision of Christian TV

The world's largest Christian television network was conceived as a short-term project. That's because when the first TV satellites began broadcasting, founders Paul and Jan Crouch were anticipating the apocalypse. 

They had their hopes, actually, that their network would be the fulfillment of the prophecies necessary for Jesus Christ's second coming and the end of human history.

Paul Crouch died last month, 40 years after he and his wife began Trinity Broadcasting Network. He was 79 years old and at his death TBN reportedly had 84 satellite channels and about 18,000 television affiliates. According to industry website TVNewsCheck, TBN has the third largest reach of American broadcast networks. By that measure, it's bigger than CBS or FOX. TBN's broadcasts are available all day, every day, in about 46 million US homes. The network is continually beamed across the globe and has been since 1978, when TBN's first satellite TV station was anointed with oil from Israel. It broadcasts to every continent except Antarctica in fulfillment of the vision Crouch had when, he said, God spoke one word to him in 1975, and the word was: "satellite."

That vision was an eschatological vision -- a dream of the return of Christ, the rise of the antichrist, a final clash of cosmic good and evil -- of the end of human history heralded, if not prompted, by the beaming broadcasts of evangelical TV around the world.

Crouch claimed, in fact, that the TBN satellite was foretold in Revelation 14:6-7:
Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth ... saying with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come.'

Dec 11, 2013

Lanny Moody, 1959 - 2013

Lanny Moody, a Christian comedian from the Atlanta area, died last week at the age of 54.

Moody, who operated a crane for 25 years as his day job, was reportedly standing next to his semi truck on the side of Interstate 285 when he was struck by a swerving vehicle. The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and failure to maintain a lane, according to WSBTV, an Atlanta news station.

Moody's family has forgiven the driver. They said Moody would want his death to serve as a reminder that one never knows when life will end and should be ready. Moody was a youth minister at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Covington, Ga., a member of an evangelical motorcycle club, Run With the Son Christian Motorcyclist Association, and had recently received a B.A. from Anderson Theological Seminary. His obituary notes his passion for "sharing the gospel and bringing people to Christ."

Even his comedy, though it didn't focus strictly on religious themes, was used for evangelism.

During a stand-up set at an evangelical festival in 2012, Moody explained how his comedy and his Christian witness were connected. "Life is too short not to have fun, man," he said. "This is my belief, that if we as Christians looked like we were happy with what we had in Jesus, more people would want what we got in Jesus. That's just the way I think about it."

Dec 10, 2013

Songs of the silence of God

Taylor Muse decided he'd lost his faith on the way home from work.

A Southern Baptist from East Texas, Muse had been struggling with his Christianity. Since college, at least, when he moved out of home and read Kurt Vonnegut and just got away from the all-encompassing context of praise teams, choir practice, youth group, church-all-the-time, he'd felt an increasing distance from faith.

Had he ever even believed?

Maybe once it had seemed like God spoke to him, in his heart, while the band played four chords and the preacher asked everyone to bow their heads. But now he wondered. That didn't really seem like what it would be like if God spoke. Or even like it should count as "speaking," really. When he had really needed God to say something in his life, there had only been silences.

Then Muse had a daughter. He thought about what he wanted for her and the question of belief became more acute. The Bible and his Baptist beliefs, he felt, had been a source of anxiety, depression and shame -- especially shame -- in his own life. He didn't want that for his daughter.

"I don't want her to be ashamed," he said, "based on a 2,000-year-old book that has no relevance in our lives."

So he came home from his day job as an insurance adjustor and, as he recounted recently on NPR, he told his wife, "I think I'm having a little bit of a crisis of faith. I just realized today that I can't make a case for Christianity that would convince myself."

Then he wrote some songs about that crisis.

Then Muse and his band, Quiet Company, made that into an album:

Dec 3, 2013

Alas, and did my savior's death symbolize something secular?

When does a cross communicate a religious message and when does it not? This is, legally, a contentious issue. In more than one First Amendment fight, the religiousness communicated by certain symbols is the central dispute. 

Is a cross on a hill religious? In a school? On a teacher? In a square? On a mountain?




If the symbol is on public space and communicates a religious message, it would seem that the government is endorsing a religion. But just because a symbol could be religious in some contexts doest mean it is always, everywhere. The problem, though, is in the US courts there's no really well-worked-out method for determining what a cross or another symbol communicates, according to two legal scholars who've just published an article on this topic.

Frederick Mark Gedicks, of Brigham Young University, and Pasquale Annicchino, of the European University Institute, write,
the legality of government display of a religious symbol depends on whether the symbol possesses non-confessional significance or, at least, lacks meaningful confessional significance. Yet both the United States Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights lack a workable approach to the crucial determination whether the required secular meaning is actually present or the prohibited confessional meaning is really absent.
The two scholars argue that courts should turn to semiotics for the answer. They recommend the work of American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce, who developed a semiotics of icon, index, and token. The idea is that these are three different ways in which symbols communicate, and the courts would need to ask three different questions, about icon, index, and token, to really get at whether or not a symbol is communicating religion and thus endorsement.

Gedicks and Annicchino:
Consider, again, 'This chair is broken.' It could constitute a warning, if directed at someone about to sit on it: 'This chair is broken,' don’t sit on it! But at a garage sale it could instead be an explanation: 'This chair is broken,' I don't want to buy it. Or an accusation, from someone who has fallen from it: 'This chair is broken,' you should have told me! Although the linguistic meaning of the sentence remains the same in each example, its performative meaning changes according to the context in which it uttered. As these examples illustrate, the performative meaning of a sign depends on the context in which the semantic meaning of the sign is deployed.  
The meaning of confessional signs likewise depends on the physical context in which they are displayed. Given the ordinary meaning of the Christian nativity as a sign of Jesus’s miraculous birth, its placement on the lawn of a Protestant church identifies a place of Christian worship. But a nativity displayed by itself in the lobby of a courthouse might additionally imply Christian bias in the administration of justice. And yet, the identical nativity in a commercial shopping district surrounded by secular signs and symbols may find its ordinary Christian significance diluted or entirely absent, displaced by another, secular meaning according to which the nativity is simply a marker of the 'winter holiday season' celebrated by Christians, some non-Christians, and most unbelievers. The significance of a religious sign displayed by the government is not necessarily its ordinary confessional meaning.
I'm not convinced of all the details of their suggestions, but I find the basic outline of the problem and general recommendation for the solution compelling. At very least, it's worth thinking about, in the context of the First Amendment, when a religious symbol communicates a religious message, and when it does not, and why.

Dec 2, 2013

Can you give without God? Yes, but religion makes a difference

Religious people give. They give more, they give a lot, and they give frequently. They give because they're religious.

Kind of.

The give "because they're religious" if one understand that to mean something other than whether or not they hold to certain beliefs. If religiousness is measured as individuals assenting to propositional statements, then religiousness has little to nothing to do with charitable giving in America. Religious people give more because they're religious only if that is understood to mean that, in their lives, being "religious" means being connected to a community.

A new study, the National Study of American Religious Giving, reconfirms that there's a significant correlation between the importance of religion in your life and the likelihood you give money. About 40 percent of Americans said religion was very important to them. Of those, 74 percent gave to charity. About 25 percent said religion was somewhat important. Of those, 60 percent gave. There are also about 22 percent of Americans who say they're neither spiritual nor religious. Less than half of those -- 42 percent -- give to charity.

The study noted an even sharper break if they measured for frequent religious attendance, instead of self-ascribed religiousness. Among those who infrequently attend a religious service, 49 percent give. Among those who frequently attend religious services, on the other hand, 75 percent give. This includes 60 percent who give to organizations without religious affiliations.

The study suggests this tendency for the religious to give more is not due to beliefs, though. It's a combination of opportunity and social pressure.

Nov 25, 2013

Disestablishment means no clerical privledges

"Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility. It is important to remember that the establishment clause protects the religious and nonreligious alike."

-- U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb, ruling ruled last week that tax-exempt housing for clergy violates the U.S. Constitution. The IRS exemption dates back to 1921. Crabb's ruling will most likely be appealed and reversed by the appeals court.

Nov 23, 2013

Rich people are stingy

Increased wealth does not correlate to increased giving, despite what one might think. Generally, actually, the more people earn, the less they give. Not in total dollars, of course, but in proportion to what they earn. 

While many, as Jesus said, "have of their abundance cast into the offerings," rich Americans are much less generous in casting abundance than are the those who have less to cast.

Crouch notes that this is why people are never able to "afford" giving more than they already do.

Nov 19, 2013

The vanishing middle ground in the 'inerrancy' wars

Molly Worthen argues in Apostles of Reason that there were diverse approaches to scripture among conservative Protestants and a variety of acceptable theoretical accounts of the Bible. Then the modernist-fundamentalist controversies happened. Then there was only one way to read the Bible.

Hermeneutics became a heavily patrolled border.

Worthen writes:
Later fundamentalists ... became polemicists rather than apologists. The difference is subtle but crucial. Winning the war against modernism became more important than illuminating orthodoxy. Inerrancy came to represent not only a set of beliefs about creation or the reality of Jesus' miracles, but the pledge that human reason must always bow to the Bible. As fear of modernist theology and new science began to infect a wide range of Protestant churches, this new variety of fundamentalist deployed inerrancy as a simple shibboleth to separate the sheep from the goats. It was no longer a doctrine with historical roots or an ongoing debate among theologians ... Inerrantists intellectuals considered themselves something like Protestant Marines, a warrior corps whose confidence in the authority of scripture -- and commitment to taking the principle of God's sovereignty to its logical extreme -- anointed them as the Bible's shock troops, favorite sons, and truest defenders. (24)
Partly, at least, this seems right. The struggle against the evils (as American fundamentalists saw them) of the Tübingen school and Schleiermacher made many stretches of middle ground impossible.

Nov 17, 2013

Homeschool advocacy group calls for prayer in asylum case

The Home School Legal Defense Association has asked for prayer and fasting for a German family seeking asylum in America. The Romeike family's case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, and the HSLDA, Uwe and Hannelore Romeike and their family and supporters are awaiting the court's decision on whether or not it will hear the case.

"We are asking the Supreme Court to uphold America as a place of refuge for those who are persecuted for their faith," wrote Michael Farris, president of HSLDA. "I feel good about our argument, but we must all recognize that the Supreme Court takes a very limited number of cases -- so please pray that the Court will agree to hear our appeal."

The Supreme Court hears about 75 or 80 out of every 10,000 petitions. The HSLDA could also take its argument to the US Congress, attempting to get the asylum law changed. They decided to pursue a test case, though.

"Our thought," wrote Michael Donnelly, an HSLDA lawyer, "was that this test case, if successful, could pave the way for an American asylum claim as well as start the process for creating public awareness [for homeschooling rights] in Germany."

Nov 16, 2013

Nov 13, 2013

Ex-evangelicals don't think your evangelical jokes are funny

There's a difference between critical outsiders and critical-outsiders-who-used-to-be-insiders-and-still-value-some-of-the-insidery-stuff. A subtle difference, maybe, but a difference still.

From Newsweek, the story of a support group for ex-evangelicals. "Beyond Faith" is an organization for "happy godless heathens," but specifically "heathens" who are ex-evangelicals who are tired and frustrated by their secular friends' misunderstandings of evangelicalism. 

It's like they're not even trying to understand:
Roth, a 24-year-old queer artist and activist who was raised in a Maryland megachurch and once proudly wore a purity ring to symbolize sexual abstinence, says it's difficult to relate to New Yorkers who see evangelicals as nothing more than a punchline. 'Being an ex-Christian can be so isolating, even in a liberal open-minded progressive city,' Roth explains. 'It's true that I was raised in a bubble -- my church was my entire life, and I've let it go -- but it was fulfilling and meaningful, and everyone here thinks I was, like, in a cult.' 
Socially, there is a bit of space in America for those who were raised extremely religiously, but who aren't religious anymore, to trash the faith of their youth. It's much more difficult, though, for them to find ways to talk about what they valued and what it meant to them while maintaining, still, the distance of their current disbelief.

Nov 11, 2013

How Kurt Vonnegut lost his faith

Kurt Vonnegut would have been 91 today. He died in 2007. 

Nov 7, 2013

'A lonely arena in the depths of your heart'

Billy Graham turns 95 today. 

From one of his many, many sermons, at a crusade in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1986: 
Oh yes. There's pleasure in sin for a short time. But it's soon over. The hangover comes. And there's nothing you can do about it. It's going to be there. 
Choose Christ, and there'll never be a hangover except joy and peace.
And it's an urgent decision, because to delay makes the right decision harder. Indecision in itself is a choice. 
Not to decide is to decide not to.  
If you have a ticket for a flight to Atlanta tonight and can't decide whether to go or not, if you wait past the departure time, the choice will have been made. The plane will take off without you. Decisions are made whether we make them or not.  
Time decides if you will not. 
And Time always decides against you.  
There's a lonely arena in the depths of your heart where the greatest battle of life must be fought alone. That's your decision about Christ. Your parents can't make it for you. The church can't make it for you. Your friends can't make it for you. Your girlfriend, your boyfriend can't make it for you. You have to make it yourself. 
And you must decide tonight.

Nov 6, 2013

White evangelical's opinions on the civil rights of gays and lesbians

Polling shows a significant number of self-identified white evangelicals dissent from what the most prominent leaders have said is the biblical Christian position on marriage. Among white evangelicals, there's a minority that supports legal recognition of same-sex relationships:
  • 26 percent support same-sex marriage
  • 23 percent think Americans should be able to sponsor same-sex spouses for citizenship
  • 30 percent think the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages
This is not a minority opinion if one looks at white evangelicals under 35. Among that younger cohort, 51 percent support same-sex marriage.

Nov 5, 2013

In the besen

Bill Blatty would just as soon you leave him alone

William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, at 85:
Every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil ... And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I'm dead. Nobody has had the guts -- or the kindness -- to tell me which it is.

Nov 4, 2013

Good news for the poor

There's no type of Christianity quite as despised in America as that of the prosperity gospel. That message of health and wealth and divine promises evokes a loathing that few other really popular religious messages do.

Many see it as a placebo, tricking the masses into not demanding real solutions to their problems, either political solutions or personal ones. The prosperity gospel message that faith activates victory is seen as a substitute for real work and responsibility. For actual change.

Some don't like the prosperity gospel because of what it does to the orthodox Christian message. Jesus, in this telling, doesn't save you from your sins like your Baptist grandmother might have said, but rather died so you could have a Rolex and a Rolls. The eternal streets of gold have been substituted with more temporal versions of the same thing.

Some don't like it, too, just because it seems gauche. It's embarrassing, above all. Improper. Impolite.

All that may well be true. And yet many many Americans are turning and have turned to one or another form of the prosperity gospel, and it's worth noting the very basic religious reason for that: hope. Good news. The message these believers wake up with every day is that something could be different, something will be better soon. The world -- their world -- is being transformed. Despite what they see, despite what they have seen, they know hope.

Critiques of this message do not often offer alternative ways to hope.

Looking at social inequality and the stubborn reality of poverty in America, CNN's John D. Sutter wrote of this good news in the life of the poor last week. Profiling one woman in Lake Providence, La., where income inequality is greatest in America, he accompanied Delores Gilmore to church.

This is what he saw:
Gilmore's Ford Taurus, filled with seven people, pulled up to the church about 30 minutes after the two-hour service started. There are a few dozen churches in the parish. That's no coincidence, especially south of the lake. Folks turn to God when the world around them becomes too much to bear. For Gilmore, it's a place of solace.
The family piled into pews in the back and watched as the Rev. Michael Owens, the storeowner who rarely sees customers, delivered a sermon about the economy.

It was far more than a sermon, really. Owens pressed his mouth up against a microphone and ran all over the front of the sanctuary as he half-yelled, half-sang a series of parables and proverbs about getting by in the modern world.

'I wonder if I have a WITNESS in here!?'

'Yes pastor!' said Gilmore. 
They went back and forth like that seven times.

'We got people that are desperate for jobs,' Owens shouted, eventually becoming so worked up that he wiped his head with a towel. Sweat seeped through his pink tuxedo vest.

'The Lord said, "I will supply all of your needs according to my riches and gold." He did NOT SAY he would supply your wants for ya.'

'All right pastor!' Gilmore said.

Nov 3, 2013

Faith for astronauts

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, recently back from a mission commanding the International Space Station, says the experience strengthened his religious faith.

Religion is a big topic of discussion on the space station, he told Terry Gross in an interview last week. It's something the astronauts think about and talk about as they orbit earth.

Picture yourself separated from the other six and a half, seven billion people where you can see them all from a distance. You know, every 90 minutes you go around and the world turns underneath you like a big jewel. And you have left all of them and you're looking at -- it's almost like a god-like view of the world, right? At least our limited human understanding of what that god-like view might be, looking down almost paternally on everybody. 
And so it really makes you think. 
And the world, you look at it, it just can't be random, looking at it. I mean, it's so different than the vast emptiness that is everything else

Nov 2, 2013

Correlation, causation, families and poverty

It's not really possible to support nuclear families and support public policies that support nuclear family stability without, it seems, being really stupid about the difference between correlation and causation. It should be possible. It really seems like it should be possible. It is not necessary that pro-family public policies be based on illiterate, illogical claims.

And yet.

A recent example: At the Atlantic, W. Bradford Wilcox reports on his research on connections between family structures and children's future success. He shows a connection, but then claims that connection means more than he shows.

He writes,
My own research using individual-level data from the Add Health dataset for the Home Economics Project, a new joint initiative between the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, indicates that adolescents raised in intact, married homes are significantly more likely to succeed educationally and financially.
Wilcox calls this the "marriage bump," and cites some interesting numbers that seem to show this connection. In no case, though, does he show that that connection is causal. Instead, he shows that people whose parents were married are 44 percent more likely to go to college. People whose parents are married generally (though not always) earn more money. Yet are those outcomes produced by the parents' marriages, or is there another factor at work, which results in both the family stability and the child's success? Wilcox assumes correlation implies causation and doesn't seem to know why one would ask that question. But the question is still there: where's the proof that one thing causes the other?

It's entirely plausible that family stability has the effects that Wilcox and those like Wilcox say it does. The "bump" may well bump. It has to be shown, though. Wilcox is just wiggling his eyebrows and calling it proof.

That shouldn't be good enough.

Oct 30, 2013

The Great Commission and the state of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Longietti, a Democrat from Mercer County, recently spoke on his religious reasons for opposing posting "In God We Trust" signs prominently in public schools: 
I have an obligation as a Christian to evangelize. The Great Commission tells me to go and make disciples. But it doesn't tell me to use the government to do that and I think the reason that my faith is that way is because that's not very effective. It really doesn’t change hearts. What changes hearts is one somebody on a personal level shares their faith … 
I think when we do things like this, even though it's talked about from a historical perspective, we create the false impression that somehow we have done our duty in that we have accomplished what we, if we are Christian as I am, are called to do and, really, we've abrogated our duty.
Longietti is a Baptist. He has been a member of his Baptist church since 1976, according to his official bio. He also leads worship at the church and teaches Sunday School.

The bill to require the phrase "In God We Trust" to be displayed in schools passed the Pennsylvania House's education committee last week. It will go up for a vote by the whole house this session, most likely. Longietti's argument was not the main argument against the measure, though it's an interesting one, which shows why the matter of a religiously neutral state is not simply a fight between the religious and the secular. Hemant Mehta reviews the arguments for and defenses of the "National Motto Display Act" raised by the Pennsylvania education committee.

Oct 29, 2013

When I went to a hell house

The man in this picture is a Georgia Baptist, doing his best impersonation of a demon in hell:

Baptist Satan

Such scenes are reenacted every year, about this time, at evangelical churches across America. I visited a hell house in Oct., 2008, while working as a reporter for a small metro Atlanta paper. The story I wrote had the headline, "'Going through hell' at Corinth Baptist": 
When Satan stomps onto the stage, a cowering and scowling demon says, 'Your master plan is still disguised as world peace.'  
Satan shouts 'Yeah!' at every account of Earthly iniquity, opening his mouth and exhaling, 'ha ha ha ha!' He raises his hands in victory when he hears how people were gunned down in church and there are gangs in even the 'hoity-toity' malls, and he yells out, 'Yes!'  

Oct 28, 2013

Economic crisis continues to hurt Protestant churches

It's bad news for the religious real estate market. From the November issue of Christianity Today: 
Hundreds of congregations have filed for bankruptcy or defaulted on loans. University of Illinois law professor Pamela Foohey, who tracks church bankruptcies, says more than 500 congregations filed Chapter 11 between 2006 and 2011-- and the pace hasn't slowed since. About 90 congregations filed for bankruptcy in 2012 ... 
These numbers should be kept in perspective. Ninety congregations isn't that many when there are more than 300,000 in the US. Since the financial crisis, there has been a spike in foreclosures on houses of worship, but anecdotal reporting makes this seem more significant than it is. During the worst year, the banks repossessed 138 churches. Even at that point, though, only one congregation out of every 2,500 was defaulting on loans.

Still, continued defaults and bankruptcies are not good signs.

Add that data to all the other signs, and it seems the financial crisis of 2008 has had serious impact on the economics of American religious institutions, possibly with effects we can not yet fully calculate. The news of real estate problems, for example, follows reports that giving to Protestant churches has declined for four straight years.

Oct 27, 2013

Public prayers like these

The Supreme Court is going to take up the issue of public prayer in the near future, in the case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway. Specifically, it will take up the issue of the constitutionality of prayers opening up government meetings.

More specifically, the issue of the legality of these prayers and prayers like these:

Videos of a number of the prayers at the heart of this case are available online. When the question of First Amendment law -- discrimination, endorsement, coercion, "respecting an establishment of religion" and all the rest -- gets too abstract, it's worthwhile to return to the actual acts being disputed. 

The question is about the place of religion in the public square. The question is about the relationship between a government and a public, quasi-official religious act, and what it should be, and how to know when it is or isn't as it should be. The issue is also very concrete, though, and very specific. Did these prayers said by these ministers in this context serve, effectively, as demonstrations of government endorsements of Christianity, in violation of the Constitution's prohibition on respecting an establishment of religion?

Watch the videos for yourself.

The court's scheduled to decide the issue this term. 

Oct 25, 2013

Churches' redistribution of wealth

"It is allowed to pass as an unquestioned doctrine in regard to social class that 'the rich' ought to 'care for the poor'; that Churches especially ought to collect capital from the rich and spend it for the poor; that parishes ought to be clusters of institutions by means of which one social class should perform its duty to another; and that clergymen, economist, and social philosophers have a technical and professional duty to devise schemes for 'helping the poor.'"

-- William Graham Sumner, "What Social Classes Owe to Each Other," 1883

Oct 23, 2013

Missing the point of snake handling

In 1976, one old snake-handling pentecostal recalled what may have been the first time that someone died of snake handling. It was more than 50 years before. It was, he wrote, a surprise. Mostly because the snake handler had been bitten so much, and it'd never been lethal before.

"One man," wrote James Benton Ellis, "who had been bitten 230 times without harm, was finally bitten one time and died within 30 minutes."

Sometimes people talk about snake-handlers as if they don't get bitten, assuming they don't get bitten. They speculate about what the trick is. How do they do it? Maybe the music hypnotizes the snakes. Maybe the snakes are tame? Maybe they feed the snakes before. Or don't at all? There's a whole history of such speculation, starting from the pretty obviously false assumption that snake handlers escape harm.

NPR is the most recent example of this. NPR suggests it may be science not the supernatural that keeps snake-handling Christians from getting bit. According to John Burnett, the whole thing can perhaps be demystified by snake experts. He writes:
Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal? 
After the story aired, NPR was contacted by snake experts who strongly suggest that a snake's reluctance to bite a religious serpent handler may have more to do with the creature's poor health than with supernatural intervention.
There are two problems with this, one scientific, one theological.

First, snake handlers are bitten so rarely compared to what?

Oct 21, 2013

Why church-state lawsuits happen in the fall

The Freedom From Religion Foundation currently has 12 First Amendment lawsuits underway, each attempting to make American government more religiously neutral, more secular. According to P.J. Slinger at The Capitol Times in Wisconsin, "Fighting legal battles over the separation of church and state keeps the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation busy. Very busy."

When is the busiest of the very busy times for those fighting for church-state separation? Fall.

It's the time when the leaves change, football starts, pumpkins ripen, and lawsuits are filed fighting over the place of religion in public life in America.

From Slinger's interview with FFRF co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor:
Slinger: Are you currently cramped in your building now, or are you hiring more employees that you will need more space?
Gaylor: It’s both. We can’t expand any more. We’re just sitting in each others' laps. It’s our busiest time of the year in the fall. We just hired a fifth staff attorney to join at the end of the month. So he knows there won’t be a real office for him yet. The attorneys have offices in the library, reception room, so they really don’t have real offices. I have to share my office.  
Slinger: Why is fall your busiest season? 
Gaylor: State-church complaints. Because school's begun, we go from football prayer complaints then to the nativity scene complaints and Christmas-related violations, both in schools and every governmental office. 
The group plans to quadruple their square footage in 2014. FFRF has 13 permanent staff positions, and last year received 2,500 requests for help and sent 1,000 letters of complaint to government agencies. Gaylor says "There's going to be a lot more this year."

For comparison, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defends religious practice against government restriction, has 31 current cases, including one where the FFRF is a named party. The Becket Fund has 13 lawyers and a staff of 27.

Oct 20, 2013

'10,000 Reasons' wins Dove awards

"10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)" dominated the Gospel Music Association's 44th annual Christian music awards, winning song of the year, pop song of the year, worship song of the year and songwriter of the year awards for Matt Redman

Redman, a British evangelical, helped found Soul Survivor in the UK in the 1990s and worked with Louie Giglio and Chris Tomlin of Passion City Church in Atlanta from 2008 to 2010. Along with Tomlin, Reman's voice, sensibilities and style serve to shape much of evangelical worship today. His songs have been among the most played in evangelical churches in the last decade. Since October 2004, at least one of his songs has been in the top 10 most-played in US churches every single reporting period. In recent years, Redman's name has appeared on the list of most-played worship music two, three or four times per period, and his 2011 album topped Christian music charts.  

At the Dove Awards this year, he won six trophies, including those for "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)." The song also won a Grammy for best Christian music earlier this year. The Dove Awards took place on Oct. 15, and will be aired on UP TV Monday night. 

TobyMac, who also won at the Dove Awards, told Billboard that the awards show was a good representation of how relevant Christian music is today. "We flexed our muscles tonight," he said, "and we showed the world that Christian music isn't stodgy. It's filled with life, not only in the lyrics we sing,  but in the style of music that we make."

Oct 17, 2013

'I'm sorry. I don't believe you.'

Madalyn Murray O'Hair debates Phil Donahue, on Donahue's show, circa 1967(?), and answers audience members and callers. Some of them raise unusual arguments: 

Oct 16, 2013

How the moved are moved

It's easy to forget, I find, how people are moved by faith. In faith, by faith, people can sometimes experience the world as totally transformed, as in a moment the most true true thing of all of existence feels revealed in a transfiguration that envelopes and embraces. And is beautiful.

Whatever else a religion does, whatever else it is, culturally, historically, dogmatically, it is for many most essentially this.

One reason I return to conversion stories is to hear about that moment. To remind myself of how that happens and how the faithful, the moved, are so moved.

From Rod Dreher, one such conversion story:
It was in the midst of that crowd, in the midst of the terror, the death, the destruction, that I heard, not in the way you would hear a voice, but inside my head, 'My love is all that matters. And this is who I am.'

I've had God in my head before, twice during times of solitary prayer in masjids, and it is terrifying, overwhelming, engulfing.

I almost never say this publicly, because there are so few people I share this story with. I feel grateful that I was there, at the WTC on that day. I lived in a world where I could have flown an airplane into a tall building and called it righteousness. I was that angry. And there I was, in the midst of someone else’s violent vengeance fantasy, being forced to look hard into the very face of the kinds of things I used the believe ...

It is no small thing to hear, and to say, in a violent and brutal world, in a world where many easily use others for pleasure and profit, 'God is love.'
Do read the whole thing.

Oct 14, 2013

Christian Reconstructionism and the right today

A pretty unhinged and unhelpful analysis of America's rightwing right now:
It's no coincidence that in my new book And God Said, “Billy!”  that I have my character 'Billy' masturbating while he listens to his godly wife read out loud from a book by the guru of all evangelical Dominionist/Reconstructionists -- Rousas Rushdoony. The evangelical world has been metaphorically jacking off to the Rushdoony/Ted Cruz/Koch brothers' political God-hates-everybody-but-us-chosen-few porn for over forty years. Now with the government shutdown they have finally achieved political orgasm.
It's one thing to balance rage and frustration with analysis. It's another to trade the former for the latter. Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, knows something about the religious right and Christian Reconstructionism, but his slap-dash, connect-the-dots allegations aren't designed for or helpful for anyone trying to understand things. Putting slashes between the name of RJ Rushdoony and the junior senator from Texas and the wealthy libertarians who have funded many rightwing organizations isn't the same as showing that they have anything to do with each other.

How and where and in what way Rushdoony and other Reconstructionists have influenced American politics is a question I'm quite interested in. There is an influence to be studied. But it's simply not the case that
the Reconstructionist movement is a distilled essence of the more mainstream Evangelical version of an exclusionary theology that divides American into the 'Real America' (as the Far Right claims only it is) and the rest of us 'Sinners.' It is also the base of the Koch brothers financed war on our democracy.
That's just crazy talk. As are the fact-free allegations connecting Ted Cruz's father and "legions" of his financial supporters to Christian Reconstructionism.

Actual Reconstructionists' position on the government shutdown are not difficult to find, and are not as neatly political or neatly Republican as one might imagine. They're critical of those who put their faith in politicians, Republicans especially. They're critical, even more, about those who put too much focus on politics at all. That is a large part of what it means to be a Reconstructionist.

A helpful and, by contrast, very grounded argument about America's rightwing right now:
what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really is your grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party. Half a century ago, the type was much more evenly distributed between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans, an equitable division of loonies that would begin to end after J.F.K.’s death.
As interesting as I find the religious right in all its permutations, any account of the present situation that seriously proposes a Calvinist think tank in Vallecito, California is more relevant than the John Birth Society and the broad, loud anti-Communist movement of the '50s and '60s doesn't know what they're talking about. Or they're lying.

It's like the old saying about two wrongs. Raving about ravings doesn't make you reasonable.

Oct 12, 2013

'For Christ's sake, let's ride'

From the documentary collection, Meet Me Here

The filmmaker's report that for these East Texans, 
Motorcycles might be the first entry point ... but it seems the larger bond is to community. Quite a few people we met had somewhat troubled pasts. Our sense is that finding such a welcoming, non-judgmental group must be very appealing. And being part of the church seemed to give them a greater purpose when out on the open road.
According to the Atlantic, there are 20 biker churches in the United States, and an additional 1,000 Christian biker clubs. There's also at least one Jewish biker group, the King David Bikers.

The group strikes me as, in many ways, paradigmatic of much of contemporary American religion, spirituality, and culture generally. Though they're of course their own unique thing, why and how they're that thing speaks also to the present condition in which we all live and move.

Oct 11, 2013

Protestants turn to the poor

Since the financial crisis, Protestant pastors have turned their attention to poverty, a new study finds
According to a series of telephone surveys conducted by LifeWay Research between 2008 and 2012, there is a growing awareness of and involvement in social justice ministries among Protestant churches in the United States, aimed at caring for the forgotten, disenfranchised, and oppressed. 
Almost all -- 95 percent -- of the 1,000 or more Protestant senior pastors we surveyed agreed that caring for the poor is mandated by the gospel. When pastors believe this, their churches tend to care more about social justice issues. Studies show the percentage of churches engaged in care for the poor has increased over the past four years.
About a year after the financial crisis, poverty had even outpaced hot-button social issues as the "most important issue facing our country" for Protestant pastors:

It's probably worth noting, though, that for many Protestants, particularly conservative evangelicals, there's no connection between a Biblical mandate to care for the poor and support for government programs to care for the poor. Increasing attention to the "social gospel" does not directly connect to support for or advocacy for political policies that benefit the poor or reform the economic systems producing poverty. It connects rather to charities and church-supported programs. 

Much of what's here being called the "social gospel" (though by no means all of it) could also correctly be called compassionate conservatism.

Oct 10, 2013

Billy Graham's big ads

The latter days of Billy Graham's long career as "America's Pastor" may well be remembered with words and images such as this:

This is a full-age ad that ran in the New York Times late last month. It calls attention to the case of Calvary Chapel pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American convert to Christianity who was arrested in Iran in 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison. His lawyers say Abedini was building an orphanage. Iran says he was undermining national security, specifically through his evangelistic efforts. Abedini's cause has been important to evangelicals since his arrest a year ago, and has been taken up by the US State Department as well. When President Obama spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a historic phone conversation in September, Abedini's fate was one of the things they talked about. 

Graham's ad ran on Sept. 26, the anniversary of Abedini's arrest, two days before Obama's conversation with Rouhani. According to the Ashville, North Carolina Citizen Times (Graham's hometown paper), Graham's message was sent to the Iranian president in a letter and published at the same time as a paid advertisement.

The evangelist's involvement in this issue isn't particularly controversial and hasn't stirred too much conversation. As the North Carolina paper notes, though, this is something of a new thing for Graham, taking public stances on big political issues, putting his weight behind causes in this way. 

Reporter John Boyle writes:
Graham has been in poor health in recent years but remains mentally alert and up on world affairs, according to his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ... 
While the elder Graham has always been politically connected, counseling numerous American presidents, he has typically not spoken out in advertisements or via letter on hot-button political issues. That leads some observers to suggest Franklin Graham is pushing the issues, not his father.
The ad is actually the third featuring the now-94-year-old evangelist since the spring of 2012. This is the third time he's intervened in this way into politics, foreign and domestic, lending his name, his reputation, and his authority to a cause. Each of these ads are similar in style, prominently featuring the iconic visage of the elder preacher -- somber and strong and determined -- along with a political message from Graham and his signature.

This is how his image is being presented and how his ministry represented in his latter days.

Oct 9, 2013

Evangelical arguments against the death penalty

Marvin Olasky, a significant conservative evangelical gatekeeper, has a long, series-launching piece in World Magazine this month questioning the death penalty.

Olasky, who is editor-in-cheif at World, doesn't question the death penalty in principle, but in practice. The argument of the piece is that "The Bible sets a very high bar for capital punishment, and the American legal system today rarely reaches it."

Oct 5, 2013

Religious liberty, in theory

"We believe that a theory whose weak point is the potential inclusion of highly improbable hypothetical cases is preferable by far to one that excludes core beliefs and values on the pretext that they do not sufficiently resemble paradigmatic core religious or secular convictions."

-- Jocelyn MacLure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience

Oct 4, 2013

Snake handling and the First Amendment

Jamie Coots, a snake-handling Pentecostal who has recently been featured on a reality TV show, is taking his moment of fame to defend the constitutional right of his religious practice. Religious liberty, he says, should extend even to the little, peculiar sects.

In the Wall Street Journal, he writes:
As pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a Pentecostal church in Middlesboro, Ky., I and my congregants regularly handle venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes as part of our services. This might seem strange, but it's no less worthy of legal protection than the more common traditions observed by Jews, Muslims and mainstream Christians. In fact, as members of a small and unpopular religious minority, congregants of serpent-handling churches are precisely the sort of worshipers that the Constitution was designed to protect.
Snake handling, though recognized as a religious act since at least 1910, is against the law is most states. Coots has been arrested and fined a number of times for possessing poisonous snakes -- in one case 74 of them. "Practicing my faith," he writes, "remains a crime across the country ... While the risk of arrest hasn't weakened my religious conviction, it has forced me to question America's commitment to religious liberty."

As far as I know, this is the first time a snake handler has written an op-ed for a major American paper. Coots, along with some other young snake handlers, have been using media differently than generations past, including, now, participating in the national debate over religious liberty and the meaning of the First Amendment's promise about "free exercise thereof."

Chuck Smith, 1927 - 2013

Christianity Today:
Chuck Smith, the evangelical pastor whose outreach to hippies in the 1960s helped transform worship styles in American Christianity and fueled the rise of the Calvary Chapel movement, died Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 86.
Smith was one of the truly transformational figures in contemporary American evangelicalism, and one who has been mostly overlooked by journalists and academics. He never attracted the attention of a Jerry Falwell or a Billy Graham or even a Rick Warren. But like each of those men, he was an influential force felt by faithful evangelicals across America. As Ed Stetzer says, he helped to remap American evangelicalism.

In the 1970s, Smith was one of the first to open church doors to the burgeoning Jesus People movement. He was, at the time, the pastor of an independent pentecostal church of conservative suburbanites in Orange County, California. After meeting several beach hippies who had converted to Christianity, Smith decided to change his church so that it would be open and welcoming to these new Christians.

He ended up changing a lot.

Famously, when his parishioners complained about the dirty hippies ruining the church's new carpet, Smith threatened to rip the carpet out rather than turn anyone away.

That was, effectively, the start of "seeker-sensitive" services.

In the definitive work on the Jesus People movement, God's Forever Family, Larry Eskridge writes that Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa's tnansformation involved a new style of music and different dress standards -- "as the kids came to the church in patched blue jeans, T-shifts, football jerseys, peasant dresses, bare feet, sandals, and sneakers" -- but it also "went beyond matters of style." Under Smith, Calvary Chapel also saw the birth of contemporary Christian praise-and-worship music, and he popularized verse-by-verse expository Bible preaching.

Greg Laurie, a famous and influential pastor in his own right, recalls that preaching changing everything for him. He says the first time he went to the beach church, it was filled with hippies and then "Pastor Chuck," an old guy, came up front:
He sat on this little stool and he just opened up his Bible and I remember his smile. He just sort of beamed when he smiled and I thought, he seems like a pretty happy guy for an old guy, you know? And then he began to teach the Bible. And what amazed me was, I understood what he was saying.
The "Calvary Chapel style," as it has been called, emphasized two core beliefs of American evangelicalism: that anyone can, if they will only accept it, have a moving personal experience with God, and two, that the Bible is God's word and is relevant and applicable to contemporary individual's daily life.

The style was successful and has been widely adopted, though not without controversy. It can be seen now, though, as a hallmark of American evangelicalism. Many had that same experience Laurie had, and experience of recognition, of understanding, of feeling moved by the message of Christ delivered in this style and feeling like they understood, perhaps for the first time, why it mattered.

Oct 3, 2013

The stunts of televangelist Gene Scott

One of the more peculiar characters in the history of televangelism was California's Gene Scott. Televangelism has never attracted the staid and conventional, but Scott was peculiar even in that rarefied company.

Like, for example, when he decided his television ministry needed an equestrian team. Describing the decision in the LA Times in 1994, Glenn F. Bunting writes:
To attract new viewers, Scott ... decided that his church needed a TV sports franchise, something comparable to Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves. Enter the equestrian team. 'There are so many horses' asses on television that I wanted to show the world what a whole horse looked like,' Scott is fond of saying.

Using proceeds from the sale of his art prints, Dr. Gene Scott Inc. acquired the Silver Oaks Ranch in Bradbury, valued at $11 million in 1989, and a stable of more than 100 show horses that are now believed to be worth millions.

First-time viewers 'stop to see the horses because they are a class act,' Scott told viewers in January. 'And before they know it, this cigar-smokin' preacher is talkin' about something a little different than a rantin'-and-ravin', hellfire-and-brimstone hypocrite preacher. And they stop to see the horses and end up hooked on the teachin'. That's it. All you get on this network is me and the horses and the music. Clear?'

'Clear!' his volunteers shouted obediently from behind studio phone banks.

'Just thought I'd say that. Get on the telephone!'
The horses were a stunt, but a stunt that cost a lot of money and was, in the end, also deeply connected with the idea of the show and the presentation of the man himself. The same was probably true of his trademark cigar, the dancing girls, the wacky hats, and the odd worship songs such as "Kill a Pissant for Jesus." They seem to signify nothing and, also, a lot.

They seem to be evidence of a man unhinged, but also of a man who knows exactly what he's doing.

Or maybe it's just a certain kind of off-kilterness. In 1981, Werner Herzog -- himself a connoisseur of off-kilterness -- did a documentary on Scott. It originally aired in West Germany with the title Glaube und Wärhung, "Belief and Currency." In the US, it was retitled God's Angry Man. Though the documentary is from before the hats and horses, Scott's peculiarity is on full display.

If nothing else, the man had the incredible skill of making fund raising suspenseful.

Oct 2, 2013

Leonard J. Kerpelman, 1925 - 2013

Leonard J. Kerpelman, a lawyer who won a landmark Supreme Court case over Bible recitation in public schools, has died in Baltimore. He was 88. 

Kerpelman was an eccentric figure, an iconoclast fond of unpopular cases and causes.

"A wallflower, Kerpelman never was," wrote Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker in 1993. "You want to talk unpopular, this man was unpopular. And uncaring about it. He kept taking on clients and causes nobody else wanted."

Upon news of Kerpelman's death, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley agreed that was a common view, but not the only one. "Some found him irascible and cantankerous," O'Malley said. "He appeared to me to be a relentless and principled advocate. I admired the fearlessness and the nonchalant courage with which he took on authority and convention."

Kerpelman first attracted national attention in the early 1950s, when he represented a Freethought group suing to end religious tax exemptions. He told the Associated Press that he himself was an Orthodox Jew and that his decision to take the case had offended some of his Jewish friends. But, he claimed, "there's no place in the Bible that says churches have to spend this much money looking good." The legal question wasn't about religious liberty but about the right relationship of church and state.

It was Kerpelman's advocacy for one answer to that question that earned him his place in history.

Oct 1, 2013

Atheist outreach

A different sort of atheist outreach is happening at some American universities, this week: It's Hug an Atheist Week.

With one Hug-an-Atheist tent, a secular student group at the University of Illinois, Champaign, raised $110 in one afternoon, last year, at $1 a hug. The money went to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Organized through the Foundation Beyond Belief, similar groups across the country, all together, raised $430,000 for medical research to cure Leukemia and Lymphoma. 

As one Iron Maiden fan from Illinois explains, though, the goal is also to change people's perspectives on atheists:

There is also a documentary out with the same name. The two efforts do not appear to be directly related, though similarly motivated.

Hug an Atheist Week runs from Oct. 1 to 7.

Sep 30, 2013

Writers Jerry Jenkins likes

Only a few writers are praised by Jerry B. Jenkins in Jenkins' book on writing, Writing for the Soul. In order of appearance, they are:

Dean Koontz
Rick Bragg, author of All Over but the Shouting
Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain
Stephen King
William Nack, author of Secretariat
J.K. Rowling

Interestingly, he doesn't mention by name any authors who write for evangelical publishers, though he does, in reference to inspirational romance, say he has "many beloved colleagues who are more than successful in this field."

Sep 26, 2013

Why snake handlers go on TV

American evangelicals, as has been noted, have historically been very adept at making use of media. There have also always been concerns about new technologies, about how messages might be compromised by a particular medium, but those are generally put aside, as evangelical media pioneers push forward. With every advance of communication -- print or radio, TV or twitter -- the same argument gets made: the priority is reaching the lost, spreading the word, preaching the gospel.

The potential for evangelism trumps concerns about the corrupting influences and compromises.

Andrew Hamblin, one of the pentecostal preachers who is the star of a new reality TV show, makes exactly this classic argument when asked why he participated in the series:
If people do ... believe in it, begin to believe it, that's wonderful, that's good and so forth. My only reason for participating in 'Snake Salvation' was to spread the gospel to the whole country, to the world if you will, to tell somebody that they can be saved. They don't have to believe like me, they don't have to dress like me, they don't have to handle snakes like me. But to let them know that the blood of Christ still saves and he is still real.

... My goal has been reached. I've had hundreds upon hundreds of people call me, message me different things like, 'Pastor, we might not ever believe alike, but watching this, it restored my faith in God.' I've had atheists write me and say, 'We watched this, we did not believe that there was a God. We didn't believe in no kind of a supernatural being or anything, but after watching this show there has to be a God.' Then I've had people write me and say, 'Pastor, we're Pentecostal believers and we want to learn more about this, we feel the Lord is dealing with us to do this.'

It has amazed me. I had really and honestly thought that it'd be a flop so to speak, and people would look down on us even worse.
There doesn't seem to be any ratings information available for the show. Some viewers have responded differently than Hamblin's correspondents, however. Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani, for example, writes that she could only get through two episodes.
That my snake-handling brothers and sisters in Christ have fixated on a few obscure passages of Scripture doesn’t bother me nearly as much as those damned snakes .... 
Watching scenes of the pastors and their faithful companions hunting for snakes -- poisonous snakes are pricey and these folks are usually a bit short on cash -- I became completely unglued and started shouting at the screen
That reaction's probably to be expected. It doesn't preclude the one Hamblin's hoping for, though.

It's a dynamic, curiously, as old as evangelicals and media. Whether it's evangelical publishers or televangelists, Rob Bell going on Oprah or a Christian hair metal band, this is pretty much exactly what happens every time.