I needed to be in Scottsdale for a few days a couple of weeks ago, and my wife was kind enough to extend our visit long enough for us to visit Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church (PRBC). This is the first of several posts from that visit.
There was a church within walking distance of our hotel in Scottsdale, the oddly-named Mountain Valley Church [link], but I wanted to visit PRBC, a twenty-minute drive away, mostly because it’s the church where James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries [link] is an elder.
I am naturally inclined to take a dim view of anyone who hangs out his shingle as an apologist, especially someone with no professional affiliation supporting their claim to being an apologist. The people you meet on the apologetics circuit fall into one of the following categories:
- Former pastors who have turned pro
- Seminary faculty
- Retired pastors
White sort of falls into two categories: he was for a while adjunct faculty at a branch campus of Golden Gate Theological Seminary, but now he’s more in the “Other” category, since he is an elder at PRBC and occasionally preaches but isn’t so far as I know ordained or paid by the church.
“Apologist” is a title anyone can claim, and I’m always leery of anyone who calls himself an apologist. There’s sort of a taxonomy of apologists from credentialed, accountable people who are on a speaking circuit and support themselves and their families by speaking and selling books on down to the online discernment (ODM) crowd and the local preacher who takes off a Sunday or two a year to debate someone or some group safely out of sight of his congregation. And then there are of course the miscellaneous muckrakers, bloggers, gadflies, cultists, name-callers, theological ambulance chasers, grumblers, hobbyists, and the mixed multitude. I am not entirely sure how one would go about arranging all of them sensibly; I’m pretty sure they’re all the children or grandchildren of (say) Walter Martin somehow, but not all of them would do him proud. I’m tempted to arrange them by dollars earned, or publishing record, or business of schedule, but what I would really want is an objective measure of breadth and depth of quality work. The former measures are really just apologetics Q scores [link]; the latter is mostly unavailable without lots of work.
I mean if you had to arrange Josh McDowell, James White, Hank Hanegraaf, David Cloud, Fred Phelps, Chris Rosebrough, and Ken Silva on a single line how would you do it? Alphabetically?
During the recent Ergun Caner flap the question of White’s actual accountability (namely, how accountable could he be if he’s the only elder at his church?) was raised as part of the counterattack, and just out of curiosity I looked up the church he attends and looked at it using well-known online software that provides a street view of an address. I was a bit disturbed to note that the parking lot only had room for 12-15 cars, and the building seemed quite small, so I was concerned that PRBC was some sort of separatist group, single-extended-family church or even a cult. So when I got a chance to visit I jumped at it, hoping to catch PRBC on a Sunday when White would be preaching, and hoping they’d be friendlier than some other small churches I’ve visited. In particular, I was hoping we’d get in the door without someone wanting to search our diaper bag.
For reasons I won’t go into I ended up looking at this clip from Harrisburg, PA’s own Bishop Larry Harris:
There’s a lot about this clip that’s interesting, most of which I won’t comment on for fear of causing offense. As a white Southerner I’m always a little apprehensive about commenting on black church services. The history’s just too complicated and too unpleasant.
That being said, I’m surprised to see three flags on the platform off to the speaker’s right: the American Flag, the Christian Flag [link], and the Pennsylvania state flag; not the first and last so much as the one in the center. I’m accustomed to the symbolism having not just troublesome Dominionist overtones, but also racial overtones.
I guess I’ve got a lot to learn about the black church.
A couple of weeks ago the Chronicle of Higher Education published a medium-length article [link] written by a man using the pseudonym Ed Dante who worked for a “custom essay service,” a company that offers term papers on spec for a fee; the author claims
In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines.
And that he has received $66,000 in compensation for his effort. There are various comments on the article that run the numbers, analyzing what he got paid per word or per hour, whether it is physically possible for someone to write that many pages, etc. I won’t repeat the analysis here; I’ve read more than one article in the Chronicle over the years that made for a gripping read but that probably in the final analysis wasn’t entirely true. It isn’t really the Chronicle’s job to be historically accurate; it’s a trade publication.
But this one little quote did jump out at me:
I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.
I don’t really have much to add here; I’m guessing if the courses really are about “walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow” Mr Dante must be writing for students at liberal seminaries. Yeah. Which makes the next sentence about passionate condemnations seem out of place. Certainly there is an industry manufacturing talking points about abortion etc. but I’d be surprised if it needed a lot of custom essays. And of course there’s the whole liberal-conservative thing; I’d expect papers for students at conservative seminaries to either be about things too obscure for a custom essay service, or to be about things like “leadership” and “church growth methodology” that don’t fit either of the categories he describes.
Here’s a live video of Soul Coughing doing Moon Sammy, a song off their debut full-length Ruby Vroom:
About 2:29 there’s a verse that goes
Babylon mystery // Mother of harlots // and all these abominations of the earth // that sits on many waters // drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus // and I wondered // with great admiration.
Which is just a slight gloss on the King James Version of Revelation 17:5-6:
And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration. [link]
I have to admit that of all the Scripture passages a crowd could dance to this is one of the strangest.
I may or may not get back to Mike Doughty’s use of Scripture again; he repurposed Scripture passages (always from The Revelation, I think) on several occasions. He also went through a recovery period after Soul Coughing when some redemption themes leaked into his lyrics. I’m sorry Doughty didn’t become a Christian; I’m hoping when his memoir (promised for mid-2011) finally appears it will shed some light on what happened to him instead.
So last weekend Joe Brown, the pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC retired [link]; the congregation was informed via video. So far as I can tell the video is not available on the Internet; it certainly isn’t available at the church’s Vimeo page [link].
I have to admit I initially thought the following paragraph was a bit odd:
Joe Brown, 62, told members of Hickory Grove Baptist Church by video that he is stepping down at the end of the year. Because he is currently preaching out of town, however, he said he will not speak again at Hickory Grove as pastor.
I mean, what sort of pastor is out of the pulpit from mid-November through the end of the year? And subsequent paragraphs didn’t strike me any less odd:
“Being the senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church that past 26 years has not only been my calling, it was my destiny,” Brown said, noting he was baptized as a 6-year-old boy on the same Sunday Hickory Grove met for the first time in a barn in 1955.
Brown said that “under God’s guidance” he believes it is time for him to step aside. “However, let me be clear, this is not a retirement from the calling God has placed on my life to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “If I may use an old naval term, it is a redeployment to different ports of call where I will continue to faithfully deposit His precious cargo.”
My cynical side is tempted to translate the Christianese above into English as something unflattering, something like “I’m still God’s man, and don’t you forget I’m special; I have arranged a large but unassailable severance package, etc.” I’m afraid I’ve heard too many departure announcements that include phrases like “spend more time with my family” that actually meant “I’m getting a divorce” that any such announcement that isn’t chock-full of detail automatically leads me to suspect a cover-up of some kind. A pastor who is leaving one position without having another arranged too often is either fleeing a scandal or has serious health problems.
What makes the Hickory Grove situation different is the fact that they’ve had a successor in waiting for ten months:
Brown’s announcement came 10 months after the congregation called its first co-pastor in view of taking over as senior pastor when Brown retired. Clint Pressley, 41, is a native of Charlotte who attended Hickory Grove as a teenager. He returned to the congregation after six years as pastor at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., taking over pulpit duties right away and then assuming administrative responsibility over time.
There’s more detail in a Tim Funk/Charlotte Observer article from February announcing Pressley’s appointment [link]:
But the Rev. Clint Pressley, 40, a Charlotte native who made his debut Sunday in the newly created job of co-pastor, will now be the one in the pulpit during some of Hickory Grove Baptist’s most popular Sunday services. Increasingly, Pressley will take charge of running the megachurch’s daily operations.
And eventually, if all goes according to plan, he’ll become the senior pastor.
“Some folks think that I’m retiring; I think I’m just shifting gears,” Brown said Sunday. “I’m going into the last third of my life and I think the biggest thing for me right now is to empower the people. Rather than do it (myself), teach others to do it.”
So in this context this looks like a relatively healthy transition, Christianese and all. For the sake of the folks who attend Hickory Grove (all 16,000 of them, spread out over two campuses) I certainly hope so.
So the term “atheist fundamentalist” followed Richard Dawkins around for a while, and even surfaced in an AlterNet interview with Dawkins himself nearly four years ago:
TM: People finally say, “What’s it to you? Why not be an atheist if that’s what works for you, and leave the rest of us to be as religious as we wish?” This, I believe, is offered as a challenge to your open-mindedness or your respect for others. You’re being called “an atheist fundamentalist.”
RD: “Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense. [link]
Dawkins doesn’t discuss other senses in which one could be a fundamentalist; interviewer Terrence McNally doesn’t delve. And it’s a shame, because I think it’s reasonable if not helpful to call Dawkins a fundamentalist of a type, but not in the sense he describes. It’s not helpful because it’s such an emotional accusation, creates a false equivalence between two positions that really aren’t all that similar, etc. On the other hand, a formulation of fundamentalism Dawkins offers is pretty helpful: a fundamentalist takes a doctrinal position as fundamental and says everything else needs to find its place relative to that fixed point. I have to point out, though, that that’s not what people mean when they call Dawkins a fundamentalist; they mean that he’s insisting on setting the terms of the discussion.
Which brings me to a recent section of an episode of The Dividing Line [link, mp3 (see about 21:00-36:00)] where James White responds to Jackie Alnor, who has taken him to task (if I understand correctly) for engaging in debates that are too academic or deal with points that are too obscure, or something like that. It is fair to call White a fundamentalist in a sense since he holds to the “five essentials” [link], which was the original formulation of what it meant to be a fundamentalist. The same could be said of Alnor. But White takes Alnor (and by matter of course, tract-maker Jack Chick) to task for arguing poorly, resorting to
- Shallow argumentation
- Lack of fidelity to the truth
- Inaccurate presentation of what one’s opponent or target says
- Intentionally dealing in half-truths
These points aren’t entirely distinct from one another, but they’re fine as far as they go. I think I would argue that when people talk about Dawkins being a fundamentalist (or White distinguishing himself from e.g. Alnor or Chick as being something other than a fundamentalist) this is what they’re talking about: a tendency on the part of fundamentalists to deal in caricatures, etc. and not fight fair. Or to behave like a fundamentalist more than actually be a fundamentalist.
There seem to be at least three flavors of this kind of argumentation:
- “Your tradition or point of view is monolithic; my tradition or point of view is a vast diverse mosaic”
- “You only disagree with me because you are ignorant; if you’d read enough (of X, for instance) you’d agree with me”
- “Your position/tradition isn’t worth knowing”
Dawkins tends to indulge in this last flavor when he says there’s no point in knowing the arguments of historical theology, etc. And it sounds to me like Alnor is doing the same here in the clip White cites.
For the record, it seems to me like James White puts too much stock in what a debate does (or can do), but that’s another topic for another day. I tend to think that for whatever reason he’s of a transitional tribe of people who think less fundamentalist than many of their peers but more so than they realize. I’m not sure it’s possible to be presuppositionalist without being fundamentalist to some degree.
Update: I swear I hadn’t heard the 11/24 episode of The Dividing Line [link] when I wrote the above, and I had no idea White was about to hold forth on Dawkins. Please listen to White’s description of Dawkins in religious terms; I’ll restate what I said above: I don’t think this is helpful. Dawkins is a jerk, etc. but I’m not sure White gets anywhere with his analysis.
The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time recently devoted an episode to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [link] that’s well worth a listen. The assembled experts discuss Foxe and the English Reformation in their historical context, then praise Foxe for his careful attention to historical accuracy.
It is apparently very difficult to find a complete copy of Foxe’s book; if I heard correctly, the second edition was 2300 folio pages, literally millions of words, and the fourth edition was four times the length of the Bible itself [link]. I’ve only seen abridgments; e.g. [link].
A lot of it makes for unpleasant reading. If read in one sitting the various burnings tend to blend together, and the total effect can be kind of numbing. On the other hand, Foxe does a good job of portraying the underlying practical theological differences — the centrality of the Mass, loyalty to the Pope, availability of the Scripture in English — so that they stand out from the details of the individual martyrs, who was responsible for their deaths, the manner of torture and execution, etc.
I don’t know if anyone reads this book nowadays; it is my understanding that it’s the second- or third-most-important book in American Protestantism, after the Bible and maybe Pilgrim’s Progress, and it deals with issues that were central to how we understood ourselves as Christians say a hundred years ago: the centrality of Scripture as the written Word of God, actual personal Bible-reading as central to spiritual practice (as opposed to rituals or good works), the corrupting influence of the state in religious affairs or of state religion (depending on one’s point of view), the willingness to die for the truth, the historical continuity of a modern suffering Church with the ancient suffering Church, etc. I suppose there’s even some support here (in the way we understand this book) for our historical Baptist position as historical dissenters from the Anglican Church.
It is interesting to hear the scholarly take on this book presented by Melvyn Bragg’s guests. They circle back repeatedly to two very valid questions that modern believers may not think about very often:
- If one gets to Heaven via the Church, what does it mean when one church displaces another?
- Where was this Protestant Church before the Reformation?
I think as fundamentalists and evangelicals (and again as Americans and individuals) we’ve sort of ignored both of these questions by telling ourselves that we’re a kind of remnant or restoration of the True Church, without any historical connection to intermediate church bodies between about 100AD, when the last of the New Testament books was written, and oh about 1909, when the first Scofield Reference Bible was published. Questions about continuity with the historical church don’t bother us much, and we have no interest in federal headship and all it implies (including state churches) whatsoever.
As I’ve said before, it’s a perilous thing to visit someone else’s church, and it’s doubly perilous to talk about it in public. I tend to visit churches when I travel, partly to see what’s going on in the Church Universal, partly because I’m not entirely happy with the church I attend most regularly, and partly because I sometimes visit a church looking for something in particular. One of the grave dangers in visiting a church is to have in one’s head a picture of how everything should go, and to criticize everything that doesn’t measure up to that standard. Another grave danger is to decide that whatever a group of people who call themselves Christians want to do is okay and there’s nothing left to do but describe what group X is doing.
It turns out there aren’t lots of guides online to visiting churches. There are some interesting points from the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper columns [link], but they seem to be most appropriate for people with Anglican or UK Catholic expectations. There’s a guide for visiting Episcopal Churches for non-Episcopalians [link], courtesy of a real estate company in Tennessee. There’s a list of ten tips courtesy of a layman of the United Church of Canada [link]. And there’s David Cloud’s 2003 visit to Saddleback [link]. And that’s about it, so far as I can tell.
It’s my general impression that in a random church most of the people there would be somewhere else if they knew where to go. So it’s not fair to wonder why, after visiting a particular church, to wonder why anyone puts up with what I’ve just seen week after week. It’s because they don’t know what else to do. Or they’re afraid to leave. Or they’re resigned to staying. Or they have some commitment to the church that keeps them there. People who actually love their church and look forward to going back week after week are rare.
It’s important to remember when visiting a church that there are things that are essential and things that are not essential, and it’s important to keep the distinction between the two clear. For example, I don’t particularly like contemporary music; I was raised on a series of Baptist hymnals, and I’m accustomed to four-part harmony pitched so I can sing along, with verse-chorus distinctions. And I don’t think it’s necessary to sing every verse of a given song; sometimes the most beautiful words in the English language are “third verse as the last.” But I have to remember e.g. that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with guitars in church, and repetition, while occasionally tedious, isn’t actually evil.
Finally, every church has something weird going on, something unhealthy or wrong-headed, and there’s nothing innately wrong with pointing it out. It’s just vital to do so gently and without scorn. And it’s helpful to do so without Christianese if possible: i.e. no “they shame the Word of God with their lack of attention to its teachings” when “the sermon was only ten minutes long” would do.
The Archbishop of Santa Fe used to be a big deal; if you’ve ever read or heard of Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, that’s Archbishop Lamy, who was at the time Archbishop of Santa Fe, and for whom the nearby town of Lamy is named. The town of Santa Fe still looks very Roman Catholic, but isn’t as Catholic as it used to be: St Catherine’s Indian School closed years ago and sits decaying on the northeastern side of town waiting for a buyer, the Cathedral School at the St Francis Cathedral has closed and been replaced by yet another arts school, and the former Church-run hospital closed years ago; last year when the archdiocese wanted to tear it down the city told it no, the hospital building is of historical significance. So it sits idle waiting for a new occupant too.
The current archbishop is Michael Sheehan, and he’s been at his post since 1993 [link]. He makes fairly frequent appearances on the local Immaculate Heart Radio station, but I’ve heard him only rarely. Most of what he’s had to say is fairly straightforward Catholic party line, except when he talks about Evangelicals. On the basis of his comments I gather that there have been a fair number of local Catholics who have left the Roman Catholic Church for Evangelical churches.
Archbishop Sheehan made the paper recently for his comments on cremation [link], where in an official press release [PDF] he reminded faithful Catholics that they should be sent off with a Burial Mass and at the very least entombed in a Catholic cemetery:
From ancient times, the heart of the funeral of a Christian has been the celebration of the Eucharist for the departed, with the earthly remains of the deceased present whenever possible. This is the Mass of Christian Burial.
I urge the use of our Catholic Cemeteries if possible and the burial of our deceased loved ones in consecrated ground. This provides a sacred place where loved ones may visit and pray.
I have a certain sympathy for Archbishop Sheehan here; after all, it’s his job to mind the budget of the archdiocese, and if he doesn’t do stuff like this occasionally a great many programs and buildings will fall into disrepair. On the other hand, it’s hard not to see what he’s doing here as self-serving; he isn’t just reminding parishioners that services are available, and that their time in Purgatory may be extended if they don’t avail themselves of them, he’s also creating and sustaining jobs for Church employees.
In the handful of conversations I’ve had with lapsed Catholics over the years, especially the ones who became born-again Christians, there was typically some story involving money that caused them to leave the Catholic Church some time before they became Evangelicals, or born-agains, or what-have-you. The priest wanted too much money to marry them, or did a less-than-workmanlike job of burying some family member, or made it entirely too clear that Church services were necessary for the salvation of one’s soul, but only available for a fee.
I have been surprised how often a person’s conversion story was as much a social story (“I fell in with X and his friends…”) as a theological story (“I gradually realized the Gospel must be true…”) and I’m equally surprised how often someone’s apostasy story is as much a social story as a loss-of-faith story.
So I won’t say there are lots of decaying unoccupied Catholic buildings here because the Church has a bad attitude about money, because all I’ve got to go on is a handful of anecdotes. But I would say that other churches would do well to be careful when making spending decisions the messages about priorities these decisions suggest.
In October 1983 R.E.M. appeared on the then relatively new Late Night with David Letterman and played two songs: Radio Free Europe and the then-untitled So. Central Rain. Here’s the clip from the second song, complete with a somewhat awkward stand-up interview between Dave, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills:
At about 2:44 there’s the line “the wise man built his works upon the rocks but I’m not bound to follow suit,” which is a take on the Sunday School song The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock, which in turn comes from the Sermon on the Mount.
To my knowledge this is the closest you’ll come to finding a Scripture quotation in an R.E.M. song, and I’m guessing it’s a byproduct of Michael Stipe’s association with various folk artists in the Athens, Georgia area, including Rev. Howard Finster.