I took my entourage back to City of Faith for my second visit. My primary traveling companion would like to give the church an extended try.
So for the duration I will not be blogging about City of Faith.
I am not a big fan of Robert Jeffress; I don’t know a lot about him, but he came to my attention during the fundraising campaign for his downtown Dallas campus a couple of years ago. At the time I thought he was a pretty good example of what’s wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention: he’s a strong personality, has a board that apparently agrees with him on everything, doesn’t mind saying or doing controversial things that have nothing to do with the Gospel, etc. If I had a “big-name conservative pastor dead pool,” a list of guys I expect to blow up or break down within the next five years, I suspect Jeffress would be on it.
I’d rather be wrong, of course. As always I’d much rather learn I’ve misunderstood someone, or see someone who is being reckless have a change of heart and learn to moderate their behavior, or whatever. And some recent posts by Tom Rich at his FBC Jax Watchdog blog [e.g. link] suggest that perhaps Jeffress isn’t just another loose cannon in the pulpit.
Still, I am inclined to see Jeffress’s recent “Mormonism is a cult” comments much the same way a lot of secular commentators have seen them: as just an uncomfortable religious/political favor done by a high-profile pastor for the high-profile governor of his state. In this case, a favor done by Jeffress for Texas governor Rick Perry.
I was interested to see that National Public Radio went to Richard Land for comment on the Jeffress flap [link], and I would love to hear Land’s unedited comments. Land is right: “cult” is a term with a bunch of meanings, and Mormonism’s relationship with little-oh orthodox Christianity is complicated. And I’m not surprised to see Land here lumping where Jeffress is splitting: despite Land’s apparent position as someone who advocates on behalf of a religious group with political organizations, I would argue that what he really does is sell Republican Party decisions to Southern Baptists. So the Jeffress flap puts Land in a difficult position, since Land will be stuck selling Romney to Southern Baptists if and when Romney is the Republican nominee.
It would take a lot for me to vote for Romney; I tend to see second-generation political figures who switch their position on abortion midlife (or midcareer) as not being solidly pro-life and not likely to do much to deliver on pro-life campaign promises, and as a former Massachusetts governor I just don’t see Romney as being all that conservative. I won’t say I’d vote for Obama over Romney necessarily, but I’m going to take some convincing to vote for Romney.
I tend to see Romney as being in that Bush Sr/Dole/McCain mold, an establishment Republican that evangelical opinion leaders sell at their peril. I’d be willing to guess that in his heart of hearts Richard Land wishes he had a better candidate to sell. Or at least that Robert Jeffress would shut up.
Here are a couple of articles that are part of ongoing trends, and while they’re not especially exciting in and of themselves they’re worth checking out because of the big narrative they’re part of.
- Secret Service, IRS investigating Eddie Long’s church [link]. For political speech? No, for scamming people out of their retirement money. I guess it goes without saying: if your church starts holding wealth-building seminars it’s time to find another church. Just saying.
- A megachurch in Alabama has taken over another failing small local church and made it a campus church [link]. Kudos to reporter Greg Garrison for not mentioning the recession.
Regarding the second story: there probably are churches that are failing due to the recession, but by and large I would be tempted to ascribe the consolidation in the church business as part of a demographic shift rather than blaming tough economic times. I think it’s due to smaller congregations getting older and aging out of their prime giving years. I’d be tempted to say that if the recession were hitting churches hard then we’d be seeing the megachurch collapse everybody swears is coming.
A while back Issues Etc. re-ran a 1999 series on interpreting parables in the original cultural context featuring author Ken Bailey. The five-part series can currently be found on the Issues Etc. archive page for Ken Bailey [link].
I love this sort of in-depth study; it really makes the text come alive.
At the same time I can’t help wondering how much of this sort of thing is necessary to be a theologically orthodox Christian. I come out of a tradition that values the plain meaning of the text in translation and prefers to ignore any questions regarding accuracy of translation, the difficulty of being certain when attempting to add anything to the plain meaning of the text.
Anyway, in this case Bailey assembles an interpretive framework for the parables in Luke 15 that makes them seem less foreign by appealing to his description of the culture in which they were originally spoken. It’s fascinating stuff; I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide just how Lutheran the results are.
One of the many perils of visiting someone else’s church, compounded when only visiting a church once, is the hazard of being (in a metaphorical sense, mind you) one of the pagans on Mars Hill, endlessly classifying, never engaging, and always wanting to hear something new. It’s a pitfall, and one I try to always be aware of. Most of the time I hear familiar passages of Scripture interpreted in familiar ways, and I sometimes waste the opportunity to hear a sermon trying to predict which of a small number of standard interpretations a preacher is going to use.
So I have to admit I was blown away when I went to church this past Sunday and I heard something that hit me where I live. We were in Lynchburg for Liberty University’s Homecoming weekend, and on the invitation of an old family friend we visited One Community Church [link], a relatively young church that shares a building with a ballet school on Kemper St, in one of the older and less fashionable parts of downtown. And I was blown away when the pastor started his sermon on 1 John 1:8-2:2 thus:
The Word of God will not change your life unless you are willing to confess.
I come from a tradition that takes the assurance of salvation so seriously that we are light on confession (and rarely repent). And one of my great crises of faith can probably be best stated like this: I don’t understand how someone who has been a dedicated, active Christian for a long time, who may even be a professional Christian of some sort, and spends lots of time and effort reading and studying Scripture, can still be a cold/hard/heartless/petty/flat-out evil person. I don’t understand how someone who is supposedly Spirit-filled and has an active prayer life could remain unconvicted about a pattern of sin that causes great and probably permanent damage to other people. And the pull quote above is as good as any I’ve heard so far; confession/repentance is a habit and has to be cultivated.
Because the church is located in a willfully funky downtown location and is stuffed to the rafters with college students, many of them sporting a grunge look, some of them still wearing sock caps in the heat of a Central Virginia Indian Summer, I was expecting some variety of hipster Christianity, for better or worse. Hipsters, lest we forget, tend to be post-ironic authenticity-seekers. They’re a funny mix of studied earnestness and referential irony; and I have a real soft spot for them.
The music was loud but the lyrics were surprisingly unrepetitive and theologically sound. The sermon was thoughtful, practical, and sound. It followed a basic Law-and-Gospel pattern but it didn’t make it sound like algebra. There was a community involvement segment, a music video that fit the sermon thematically, and Communion by intincture.
I really liked this church, and I wish the folks there all the best. It’s tough to sustain a church full of Liberty students, as many of them have been churched to death; they have no money; and they are in town for roughly twenty-eight weeks a year for four years and then they’re gone. So this church more than most will probably face a serious Pareto problem, with a very small fraction of the people contributing the overwhelming majority of the time, effort, and money required to keep the church afloat.
If I ever find myself back in Lynchburg on a Sunday I’d love to visit again; I’d be curious to see where and what they are a year or more from now.
A reader was kind enough to point me to a recent Washington Post profile by religion writer Michelle Boorstein of Liberty University vice president, campus pastor, political operative, and first-time author Johnnie Moore [link]. Readers with memories longer than a year may remember Boorstein’s article on Ergun Caner’s demotion [link] that more or less served as the official history of the Caner situation outside the community of interested parties.
I am inclined to read the Moore profile as a sort of birth announcement for Moore’s political career, mostly as an idea leader or vote-deliverer for the young evangelical vote. It also appears to be part of the publicity push for Moore’s book Honestly.
Here are a few pull quotes:
From this lofty perch, he has come to two conclusions about American evangelicals.
The first is that they have become too callous[...] Moore says evangelicals have cared too much in recent decades about building massive megachurches for the upper-middle class and too little about getting their hands dirty serving the poor.
His second conclusion is more Falwell-esque: Evangelicals are becoming too liberal about their faith. To Moore, if you say you believe in the Bible as literal truth, but privately believe it’s a metaphor, you’re a phony.
Moore sees his fellow young evangelicals as highly emotional and “entitled” — but idealistic. They don’t trust organizations or traditional political activism (which is why he thinks they don’t identify with the tea party), but they want to be a part of causes (which he believes Obama convinced them they were).
[Rev. Samuel] Rodriguez, the Latino evangelical leader, says evangelicals like Moore will eventually merge in America with ethnic minorities and be a massive force.
“Some of these other groups have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about their Christianity; it’s sort of clandestine, they kind of dilute it. But Johnnie would say: Why can’t we be both sold out to Christ and addressing issues like sex trafficking?”
There are bits and pieces of this that give me hope; I’m always hopeful that those of us who share the legacy of the Moral Majority will someday acquire a social conscience that is expressed in more than just a handful of issue check boxes. On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that Moore represents just another generation of sellouts who express mature, high-sounding personal values while helping persuade young conservative Christian voters to vote for candidates who ultimately don’t share those values, much less express them as policy. I guess we’ll see.
Over the summer Liberty University announced that it is terminating some 50 programs of study in favor of 23 new programs, reducing the number of programs from 290 to 263 [link]; I don’t really have an opinion on this: universities do this from time to time, etc. and I can’t guess whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing without a list of the programs that have been eliminated. Unfortunately the Liz Barry article at the link above doesn’t include lists; doing so in the print edition of the News-Advance would be something of a typesetter’s nightmare anyway.
While looking for the lists of new and sunset majors I stumbled across a press release from Liberty meant to set the record straight on a number of things, including how much public money it receives and what it does with it [link]. This quote jumped out at me:
Liberty has also built a unique artificial ski slope – the only one of its kind in North America – that is used by Liberty students as well as ski enthusiasts from Central Virginia and around the country.
This is a reference to the Snowflex Centre [link]. It dominates the peak of Candler’s Mountain, and is visible from almost anywhere in Lynchburg; if you’re in the neighborhood I’d recommend seeing it from a connector road called Simon’s Run, near Wards Ferry Road, where you can see it framed by woods on both sides. Sadly I didn’t have time on my most recent visit to snap a picture for posterity.
When Liberty installed the Monogram [link] several years ago I didn’t think anything could be more hideous. The monogram isn’t just gaudy; it’s lopsided, and if my eyes don’t deceive me it isn’t aging well; its white background appears to be turning beige, meaning that at some point in the future it will need to be repainted or Liberty will need to change its colors to red, beige, and blue. But I digress.
I realize lots of universities have big ugly things on their grounds, and they’re treated with a mixture of kindness, nostalgia, embarrassment, and contempt, but I am tempted to suggest that the Monogram and the Snowflex Centre are the sorts of things Charles Foster Kane might have had at Xanadu [link] if he’d had less time, less money, and less taste.
I was in Lynchburg over the weekend for Liberty’s Homecoming weekend. I was traveling with a toddler, so I didn’t do much in the way of Homecoming events: I caught up with some professors, I ran the Deep Hollow 5k, which goes from Camp Hydaway to the Snowflex parking lot and back, and I took in part of Friday’s Convocation. When I was an undergraduate, attending football games required a hike over to City Stadium, and even then I considered the football team something to be ashamed of rather than something to be prized, so I rarely made the trip. Needless to say this weekend I didn’t do the alumni tailgate or go to the game, where Liberty beat Coastal Carolina.
Visiting with family and friends I got another take on the Asa Chapman situation, one that makes sense even if it doesn’t cast Liberty in a very pleasant light. It goes a little something like this: Chapman is the only Liberty player with even the slightest chance of being drafted in the 2012 NFL draft. Preseason he was sometimes projected as a late 7th-rounder [e.g. link]; I have no idea where ESPN draft experts project Chapman as their mock drafts are behind the ESPN paywall.
Lest we forget, Chapman has been charged with possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana. He initially plead not guilty and got his hearing scheduled for December, well after Liberty’s season will have ended [link], even if they manage to make the NCAA FCS playoffs and win a game. My source suggested that Chapman will plead guilty, get probation and/or community service, and will be done with this career-threatening episode in his life in time for the NFL Scouting Combine in February 2012, where teams will in principle be able to discount this arrest as part of their assessment of Chapman. Well, provided he stands out in the tests and evaluations and has a clean drug screen.
It’s an interesting if cynical theory. If it’s true, and Chapman gets drafted, it will suggest that Liberty is an attractive option for borderline football talents with other-than-clean police records and relatively minor (by NFL standards) character issues. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader whether this is on balance a good thing or a bad thing for any Christian university.
I recently caught big chunks of the Showtime documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, and I find the whole thing fascinating.
Some swearing, some brief nudity, some drug use. And that’s just the trailer.
If you don’t already know, Kings of Leon are a rock band from Oklahoma; three brothers and a cousin, all named Followill [link]. The three brothers are sons of former United Pentecostal Church preacher Ivan Leon Followill, whose use of alcohol ended his ministry and his marriage, and brought at least one of the brothers to a crisis of faith while at the same time providing an opening for the brothers to leave the church music circuit for the secular music industry.
The documentary combines archival footage from home movies, stock footage, interviews, and concert footage. There is no third-party narrator; all the voiceovers are from extended interviews, especially with Betty Ann Followill, their mother. This means there’s nobody to translate any Pentecostal Christianese, and there’s a fair amount of it. I’d almost argue that you have to understand Betty Ann’s argot to make sense of what you’re seeing; without it much of the movie comes off as stock portrayal of ignorant hillfolk. I suspect that’s why some of the crucial scenes are intercut with stock footage of snake-handlers and holy rollers.
Anyway, I found the film fascinating, but I’m willing to admit it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Joe Bob says check it out.
As I mentioned before Fisher Humphreys’s 1994 book The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology has Changed and What it Means to Us All is an attempt on Humphreys’s part to situate the conservative-moderate conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention as a conflict between a majority tradition of mainstream Baptists and one of the SBC’s minority traditions. To do this he needs to establish what is historically uniquely Baptist and what isn’t.
Humphreys spends a chapter locating Baptists as Protestants, sort of. Which I guess he has to do; Baptists are only sort-of Protestants: they were dissenters from Anglicanism, not Roman Catholicism, and identified themselves as Baptists about 1608, two or three generations too late for the Reformation. Still, Humphreys identifies five beliefs Baptists share with historical Protestants:
- The Church must always seek to be reformed.
- The Bible alone is the written Word of God
- Justification is by grace through faith alone
- All believers are secure in their salvation
- All believers are priests of God
I’m going to mostly focus on the last item here because it was the distinctive the moderates wielded against the conservatives in the Eighties and apparently still do. The term took on its specific modern Baptist meaning around 1908, where theologian E. Y. Mullins elaborated it into the concept of “soul competency,” meaning that each individual must stand before God himself or herself, rather than being constituted under some religious or political federal head. From it is derived the Baptist distinctive of “a free church in a free country,” meaning they do not support established churches, etc.
By the Eighties the moderates within the SBC were also citing this as support for the ordination of women (the priesthood of the believer being interpreted as having no regard for gender) and for academic freedom in seminaries, including various interpretations of Scripture using the historical-critical method. The conservatives, of course, interpreted this point more narrowly, or as subordinate to various plain readings of Scripture, or whatever. In the accounts I have read of the controversy in the SBC, the two sides rarely actually engage with the others’ points, but instead just restate their own in ever-increasing intensity, usually wrapped in metaphors and accusations.
I don’t know that there’s an obvious way out of this problem: after a few years of discussion the controversy in the SBC became more a political fight than a theological disagreement, with more attention paid to numbers than to ideas.
Still, I am given to wonder if at least part of this question isn’t still with us, when we ask whether every Christian has the right and responsibility to learn and interpret Scripture himself, or whether he has an obligation to pick an existing tradition and stick with it. Or, similarly, whether academic theology matters, or practical theology, or so-called folk theology.