Jan 30, 2014

Impacting the culture

A staple self-criticism of evangelicals, cited from pulpits and in casual conversations, is that divorce rates among believers are basically the same as with everyone else. That, as sociologist Bradley Wright has shown, turns out to not be true. Or, at least, it turns out to be complicated by where one draws the line between "believers" and "everyone else."

A new study indicates there are other complications, too, when considering American evangelicals' relationship to divorce. According to Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, in an American Journal of Sociology article titled, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates," practicing evangelicals have lower rates of divorce. But -- kicker -- those around practicing evangelicals have higher rates.

It turns out one of the strongest predictive factors of divorce is concentrations of evangelicals.

Explaining this is tricky, but it seems that evangelical culture protects and fosters marriages while, at the same time, making marriage harder for those who aren't part of a religious support network.

At Christian Higher Education, John W. Hawthorne says that, if nothing else, this could serve as a sociological warning for Christians who want to "impact the culture":
The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways . . . We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals.

Jan 29, 2014

Recruiting Bible salesmen in 1956

An ad from the very first issue of Christianity Today, published on Oct. 15, 1956:

The first issue was delivered free-of-charge to nearly 200,000 Protestant pastors. George W. Noble, one presumes, was thinking some of them might be looking for additional work and a second salary.

A similar ad, published a year later on Oct. 14, 1957 for Evangel Press in Nappanee, Ind., suggested that prospective Bible salesmen would not only be doing Christian work but could "EARN EXTRA MONEY," as the ad copy put it.

Jan 28, 2014

$12.5 million verdict holds Baptists responsible for pedophile pastors

Douglas W. Myers left his church in Maryland after it came out that he had inappropriately touched middle school boys in the Southern Baptist church and school where he worked. He apologized and left the state.

At his church in Alabama, he surrounded himself with boys between the ages of 10 and 12. He liked to take them swimming in the hot summers, and made a rule that they couldn't wear clothes. The church split over allegations of inappropriate conduct. Myers then left that church and that state too.

In Florida, he started two new churches in the mid- to late-2000s. There were boys there also. He molested one for a period of six months. He drove the boy to school and gave him money. He told him being touched was part of being mentored, part of growing up, something the Baptist pastor had done with "plenty of other kids at other churches."

In Maryland, Alabama, and Florida, children called him "Pastor Doug."

When he was sentenced to seven years in prison for hurting the Lake County, Fla., child, the boy's mother wrote Myers a letter. The prosecutor read it at the sentencing hearing.

"You used the church and God both," she wrote, "for your sick and perverted ways."

There's no question that Myers is a pedophile who used churches and his position as a pastor to gain access to children. His case has raised the issue, though, of those churches and the associations of churches' legal responsibility and liability in letting themselves be used in such "sick and perverted ways." This month, apparently for the first time ever, a jury set a dollar amount on the damage done by a state Southern Baptist convention in failing to prevent a pastor from abusing children.

The state convention could have prevented sexual abuse from happening to one Lake County boy and didn't, according to the unanimous Florida jury. The convention -- which has almost 3,000 congregations in the state, and about 1 million members -- is to be held accountable. Among other failures, despite running a criminal check, credit check and driving-record check, no one at the state convention contacted the Alabama and Maryland churches where Myers had previously worked to ask about his time there.

Now, the Florida Baptists are being ordered to pay $12.5 million.

Jan 23, 2014

Jan 22, 2014

Jan 20, 2014

The evangelical masculinity of ... Allen Ginsberg?

American evangelical concern about the manliness of men is not new. To contrast themselves to the Victorian image of effeminate clerics, evangelicals celebrated stories of circuit riders, who were basically rough-and-tumble cowboys for the gospel. Billy Sunday and Billy Graham both, despite their diminutive names, found lots of opportunities to mention their athletic prowess. Modern evangelicals such as Tim LaHaye have long argued that social problems start and end with the actions taken by men to be, or not to be, really truly men.

Among the modern Reformed, this may be even more pronounced. Doctrines of grace are presented, along with a taste for beer and a strong preference for beards and the writings of Puritans, as the man's man alternative to feminized Christianity.

For New Calvinists like Mark Driscoll, it sometimes seems like being a "sissy" is a heresy. Maybe it's even the heresy, since orthodoxy is presented, again and again, as a matter of manliness and manning up. 

One gets the sense that the real trouble with the modern American church is most fundamentally an issue of testosterone.

It's not surprising, then, that Darrin Patrick, a pastor and church planter with Acts 29, a group that Driscoll founded and which considers itself both evangelical and Reformed, would write a book about manliness. Nor is it surprising, really, that the book would address itself not to the faithful, but to "dudes."

What is perhaps a bit surprising is how the cover image of the book seems to invoke neither an evangelical nor a Reformed hero, but the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. 

See for yourself:

Jan 13, 2014

He is Coming Soon

The market for Bibles never ends

"Just when we thought scholars had translated all of the Bibles that could be translated and Bible publishers had developed all of the styles and editions that could be possibly developed, the '90s showed that there's no limit where God's Word is concerned. There's always room for more, because there are always people who haven't yet cracked a Bible or learned to apply what they've learned.
-- Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, His Time, His Way: The CBA Story: 1950-1999

Fifteen percent of American adults buy a Bible in a given year, according to the Barna Group. Eighty-eight percent of Americans have a Bible in their homes. Among those Bible owners, 26 percent of Bible owners own five or six Bibles, and 24 percent own six or more. Seventy-four percent of Americans say they have read the Bible.

The most popular version is still the King James.

Jan 12, 2014

Snake-handler avoids charges, Tenn. avoids First Amendment fight

The law is pretty clear about poisonous snakes in Tennessee.

It's not legal to "display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such manner as to endanger the life or health of any person." This means handling snakes as an act of worship is strictly forbidden. In fact, even owning poisonous snakes that could be displayed, exhibited, or handled in a religious exercise is illegal. Tennessee law prohibits possession of "Class I wildlife," which includes "all poisonous snakes" along with rhinos, hippos, alligators, baboons, and lions.

Possessing a poisonous snake in Tennessee is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Nevertheless, a Tennessee grand jury has decided not to indict Andrew Hamblin on charges of snake possession. Hamblin, 22, is pastor of a snake-handling pentecostal church in East Tennessee, and is now widely known as a snake handler because of his openness and eagerness to share his faith with the media. Last November, after Hamblin and his church were featured on a reality show called "Snake Salvation," the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided his church and seized 53 poisonous snakes.

By his own account, Hamblin was the only one with the keys to the locked room of the church where the snakes were kept. By his account, too, they were being kept for the purposes of handling in church.

The grand jury dropped the case against Hamblin anyway.

Jan 10, 2014

Anglican Province in America, Jonesboro, Ga.

Anglican Province in America, Jonesboro, Ga.

Jan 9, 2014

Therapy's a synonym for 'sanctification': Thursday links

Defending the Wesleyan tradition of therapeutic Christianity:
There is the problem of Smith's and Denton's use of the adjective therapeutic to describe modern spirituality. Within the Wesleyan tradition, the accent has been on the transformation that occurs in sanctification rather than justification. This is not to say that a doctrine of justification is absent, but the emphasis is on the therapeutic effects of sanctifying grace, which heals the disordered emotion and desire of the soul through the union with Christ the Spirit brings about. The primary focus of Christ's atoning activity is the sinful condition from which humans must be delivered rather than the guilt that invariably emerges from such a condition. Hence the focus on perfect love ruling all the tempers, as Wesley would say . . . In other words, there is a strong tradition of therapeutic Christianity within Christian tradition (First Things).
Goin' to church movies:
By the 1920s, Protestant church leaders, pointing to films such as Cecil B. DeMille's bedroom dramas, were saying that Hollywood was 'antagonistic to the faith' and 'spreading a moral blight across America.' Churches began to install projection equipment and show wholesome films to parishioners at church, hoping that 'sold-out sanctuaries would persuade Hollywood that churchgoers were a ready market for inspirational and biblical movies.' Romanowski explains that 'church-oriented films . . . had an unimpressive track record,' but the effort resurfaced over and over (Christianity Today).
Christian ethics, vaccinations and a blood-donation lie:
While the healthy unvaccinated children of wealthy parents may well survive the mumps, measles, or rubella, their infant siblings, elderly grandparents, immunocompromised relatives and pregnant neighbors may not be so lucky. It is never for the young and vigorous that we sit still for the needle; it's for the mother who works too many hours for too little pay to shuttle her child to doctor's visits for booster shots, or for the gentleman sharing the subway handrail with us who happens to have a weakened immune system. 
It's for that same reason that I lied (The Nervous Breakdown). 
Towards a politics of kindness:
Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as there was at the crucifixion and has been before and since. This mob violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.

Kindness is not a word much at home in current political and religious speech, but it is a rich word and a necessary one . . . In the Gospels the sinfulness of all humans is assumed. It is neediness that is exceptional, and in Jesus’ ministry need clearly takes a certain precedence over sin (Christian Century).
Problems with conservative Christian arguments against the minimum wage:
Obviously, this is radically oversimplified, but the overall structure of our economy looks something like this: increasing profitability has gone almost entirely to increased compensation at the higher levels of income over the last few decades, while wages have stagnated at the low end, with income inequality approaching its highest levels in a century. Were there the sense of justice and the will to do so, wages could be adjusted (The Sword and the Ploughshare).
Dinesh D'Souza, disgraced president of The King's College, hawking fake Christmas trees:

Jan 8, 2014

'Tales, tales, interminable tales':
On secularity and the practice of fiction reading

In the years before the Civil War, Virginia clergyman Charles Wesley Andrews was worried about America. Things were falling apart. Christian truths were being abandoned, communities broken. People were being changed, radically, on the level of consciousness, without even being aware of what was happening.

What brought this scourge upon the land? This pestilence?


"Our stores," Andrews wrote, "railroad cars, offices, shops, counting rooms, parlors, nurseries, nay, our very bedchambers, were infested with books, magazines and papers of every form filled with tales, tales, interminable tales."

He wasn't alone in his horror. Though many devout conservative Christians of the time loved novels, especially Sir Walter Scott's, there were those who, like this Southern clergyman, were appalled.

From his position, the world was being remade by novels, and not in a good way. Novels changed those who read them -- and not in a good way. The practice of reading fiction opened up within the reader what we might call a life of fantasy. People preferred fantasy to the "plain, well-defined, and pointed doctrinal teaching" that Andrews believed undergirded Christianity's firm grasp on reality. A devotional author, summarizing this argument, claimed the definitions of "fiction" and "Christian" made the two mutually exclusive: "If it's Christian," he said, "it's true; if it's fiction, it’s false."

Andrews observed two effects of fiction reading. First, it changed relationships to reality. Through engagements with fiction, readers found they preferred imagination, preferred entertaining romantic realities and enrapturing experiences of suspended disbelief. Second, through their engagement with fiction, readers were detached from their surrounding community. Opening this inner life, fiction isolated individuals, and they experienced themselves as discrete selves. They were, in a way, disembedded by the experience, to use philosopher Charles Taylor's terminology, and buffered. Fiction turned people into readers, and, it was observed, readers "shrink away up in a corner of the room," where they cry "rivers of sentimental tears, and caverns full of isolated sighs." This was far from ideal, as the burgeoning field of evangelical antebellum instructional literature on reading repeatedly pointed out. The right way to read, as recommended, for example, in the nineteenth-century classic, How to Read a Book in the Best Way, was aloud. One should read in community, in ways that furthered connections to reality.

As America was flooded with fiction in the mid-1800s, Andrews was possessed by this fear: a fear of fiction, of fiction readers, and what it would mean to live a world of consciousnesses thus formed. It's easy enough to laugh, but the case can be made that, in an important way, he was right.

Read the full paper online at the Claremont Journal of Religion: 
The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction.

Jan 7, 2014

When Bill Nye's wedding was performed by Rick Warren

Here's peculiar moment in recent history of science and religion, a meeting of one of America's most prominent evangelical pastors and a pop icon advocate for science education.

A photo:

On the left, Rick Warren. On the right, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Between them stands Blair Tindall, a concert oboist and author with her back to the camera. The occasion is Nye and Tindall's 2006 wedding, which Warren, of all people, performed.

Jan 6, 2014

Junk bonds raise questions about Answers in Genesis' finances

The dream was to build a 510-foot replica of the Bible boat that saved righteous Noah, his family, and representatives of all the animals. The dream was of a Kentucky theme park called "Ark Encounter," where millions would learn the Bible's stories of salvation, then and now, and how Jesus is the ark for the flood to come.

The reality may be a financial boondoggle.

Despite about $13 million in donations and more than $26 million in investments, this latest endeavor of one of the leading Creationist organizations appears to be headed for financial failure. An offering of junk bonds failed to raise the estimated $73 million needed to capitalize the project. Now, Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham is pleading with supporters to buy up the nearly $29 million of unrated, unsecured municipal bonds that remain unsold. Without that infusion of capital, the "Ark Encounter" project is expected to founder.

If investors don't flock to this risky venture in the next month, Answers in Genesis loses the money already invested, Bloomberg New's Brian Chappatta has reported.

The wild, unorthodox way of raising funds might have been seen as brilliant, if it had worked. It doesn't look like it will, though, and now raises questions about the financial stability of Answers in Genesis. 

Can a group this reckless be financially sound? 

Can a non-profit whose plan for raising money is this fanciful really be responsible in the rest of its fiscal dealings?

A review of tax records shows signs Answers in Genesis may not be stable. Selling junk bonds is new, but not completely inconsistent with the group's recent financial history.

Jan 4, 2014

Non-denominational church, Lanett, Ala.

Non-denominational church, Lanett, Ala.

Jan 3, 2014

The decline of gospel tracts

Good News Publishers has seen quite a change in the volume of tract production over the last 70 years. A leading producer of American gospel tracts and an institution critical to the emergence of neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s and '50s and the religious right in the 1980s, it now publishes less than one third the volume it published during World War II. 

The group published 50 thousand tracts annually in the middle of the war, but then that dropped dramatically afterwards. Volumes were down to about 14.5 million in the early '60s.

According to the publisher's house history, Where There is a Vision, the WWII years were the most prolific because of the tracts purchased and distributed to and by U.S. soldiers. It's also the case that after the war, some of the company's attention shifted from conversion literature to literature for the converted. Many of the tracts that were printed were also more expensive to print because they were in full-color, produced with the latest reproduction technology. 

There was, additionally, a push overseas, notably into post-war Europe and Africa, where separate presses were established to print gospel tracts for those cultures.

There was a rebound of American tract publication in the '80s, with 26 million printed by Good News Publishers in '88. In the era of televangelism, there was a renewed interest in tracts, that old fashioned media of gospel distribution. The publisher reported in '88 that:
Literature evangelism, rather than being centered on a few media personalities who have no personal contact with their audience, involves thousands of individuals sharing the gospel in a personal way on a one-to-one basis. In addition, mass media broadcasts are much less permanent than printed literature. Once the broadcast is over, the message is lost in the airwaves rather than being something permanent that a person can read over and over again. 
Tract publication rates have, nonetheless, declined again in the 21st century. The group's website says they now publish 16 million annually. That's down 10 million since the late '80s, and less than a third of the tracts produced in '43.

There has been some serious debate among evangelicals in recent years about the value of gospel tracts. Some worry they're not effective means of communication or, worse, communicate the wrong things. Good News continues to print and distribute tracts, just not as many as it once did.