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.
As even the most casual reader of this blog is well aware I am a graduate of Liberty University. I first became aware of Johnnie Moore during the Ergun Caner episode, where Moore was responsible for press relations as a University spokesman during the period of time that it was becoming clear that Caner had misrepresented his personal story as a convert to Christianity from a Muslim background [e.g. link]. That’s probably the most polite way I can put what happened and Moore’s role in the controversy. A less gracious way to put it would be to say that Caner lied, Liberty prevaricated, and Moore was on occasion the public face of that prevarication.
So let’s just take it as read that I connected the dots here between Moore’s involvement in the Caner situation and the title of his new book.
Moore is the campus pastor at Liberty. It’s a difficult job to be a campus pastor anywhere and not many people do it well. This is Moore’s first full academic year in the position; he replaces Dwayne Carson, who left in the spring to be an assistant pastor at a church in Ohio. I honestly couldn’t tell you who the campus pastor was during my time as an undergraduate there in the late Eighties; he might have been Gary Aldridge; I’m not sure. I worked most Sundays and rarely attended church on campus, and we had so many guest speakers at church and at chapel it would have been difficult for anyone to have engaged in real pulpit ministry in the position at the time. I’m hoping that in the interim there have been changes, etc.
I have to admit that I’ve got pretty modest expectations for Moore’s book. Here’s the bio from his Amazon page [link]:
Johnnie Moore is a twenty-something Christian who is also the vice president and campus pastor of Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian university (with more than 70,000 students). He is a popular speaker, a professor of religion, a communication advisor to educators, preachers, and politicians. He is on the board of trustees of World Help, leads North America’s largest weekly gathering of Christian young people (10,000 students) and has led hundreds of students on humanitarian and missionary excursions to more than 20 nations.
Turns out Moore is 28. If he graduated college at 22 that means he’s been in the workforce for 6 years; it looks like he’s spent most of that time communicating, advising, and speaking. Perhaps he’s been on some sort of arduous spiritual journey that doesn’t show up in the blurb above; perhaps he’s wise beyond his years; perhaps God has singled him out for some sort of special purpose I can’t imagine. All these things are possible; I might humbly suggest they’re all unlikely.
Regardless, the book is currently reasonably priced as a Kindle e-book at only $2.51. At that price I’m willing to give it a try.
Arlington Baptist College yesterday announced that Ergun Caner will be joining their faculty as Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs [link]. As a graduate of Liberty University I can only say I’m glad he’s no longer affiliated with my alma mater.
The press release is mostly standard press release boilerplate sprinkled with occasional Christianese; Caner’s biography has been trimmed down to just the following:
Raised as the son of a devout Muslim, Caner converted to Christianity along with his two brothers. His younger brother, Dr. Emir Caner, is president of the Truett-McConnell Baptist College in Cleveland, Georgia.
Please note that Caner no longer claims to have been raised a devout Sunni Muslim himself, but rather is now claiming to have been raised the son of a devout Muslim. Perhaps the first sentence here is the final revised version of Caner’s once-sensational conversion story. I hope some day he will set the record straight once and for all.
I wish the folks at Arlington Baptist College well; I hope for their sake Caner won’t be dealing with any issues regarding academic fraud.
So as I mentioned earlier I recently took the plunge and picked up Kindle editions of three Rob Bell books: Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I’ve read the first and I’m about halfway through the second. The experience has left me thinking more about standards and practices of interpreting Scripture more than anything Bell is saying.
In Chapter 5 (“Dust”) of Velvet Elvis Bell is attempting to make sense of the rabbi-disciple relationship in Second Temple Judaism as context for the relationship between Jesus and His disciples, and he tells us that in Jesus’s time a rabbi (by which he means Jesus or any other itinerant teacher) would have been through two levels of education: Bet Sefer (“House of the Book”) and Bet Talmud (“House of Learning”) by which time he would have memorized the Pentateuch (Bet Sefer) and the rest of the Old Testament (Bet Talmud). All by the age of fourteen. It’s a mind-boggling image; Bell suggests that Jesus would have known the entire Old Testament by heart, and His disciples and much of His audience would have had huge chunks of Scripture memorized as well, on some sort of sliding scale according to how long they went to or stayed in school.
It’s a fascinating concept, and Bell uses it to interpret Jesus’s references to His own education, in e.g. John 15:15. I think I had always interpreted His use of the verb “to learn” to mean something involving divine revelation, or informal education, or maybe practical knowledge, but this piece of historical detail changes the way we might read the text substantially.
This sort of interpretive machinery brings new problems to replace the ones it solves; among other things it moves the foundation on which we understand Scripture from a plain reading of the text to some sort of consensus among historians, or of individual specialists, or in Bell’s case the novelist Milton Steinberg. That’s not to say that one authority is necessarily normative and others deviant; it’s just important to remember when using one framework or another what its hazards and shortcomings are.
I have to admit that I don’t know anyone who has memorized the entire Old Testament, so it seems like a superhuman feat to me. I mean, it’s something like 23,000 verses, meaning that if you memorized ten verses a day you’d need more than six years to memorize the whole thing. By way of contrast the New Testament has about 8,000 verses, and the Koran about 6,300. We know there are people today who memorize the entire Koran; there are enough of them that there’s a word for them: hafiz [link]. And memorization of the Koran, in the original Arabic, with the appropriate intonation, etc. is one of the two courses of study in a madrasah [link]. Which brings me to Ergun Caner.
Ergun Caner is still making speaking appearances at churches [link], including one in a couple of weeks at Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX. Here’s the blurb he’s using for this appearance:
Ergun Caner is a Professor & Apologist at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School in Lynchburg, Virginia. Raised as a devout Sunni Muslim along with his two brothers, Caner converted in high school. After his conversion, he pursued his call to the ministry and education. He has a Masters degree from The Criswell College, a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of of Theology from the University of South Africa. He has written numerous books with his brother, Dr. Emil Caner, who is the President of Truett-McConnell College, a Baptist college in Georgia.
This biographical sketch no longer refers to his having been a jihadi, educated in a madrasah, or whatever. I honestly don’t remember what his sketch used to say before questions were raised about his background. Still, I am led to wonder, since Caner was raised as “a devout Sunni Muslim” how much of the Koran he can recite, in Arabic or otherwise. I’d pay a whole dollar to see him reciting one of the longer suras on stage at Calvary Baptist. That’s the sort of thing that might convince me that the bio above is accurate as presented. Just saying.
I wonder if Calvary pastor Brian Loveless will ask him about this while he’s in town.
This post is a pale follow-up to the prior article about the article of the same name at The Chronicle Review [link].
The comments are, as they are almost anywhere, a mixed bag, but a couple of them caught my eye: one because it suggests an appropriation of the redemptive theory of history; the other because it suggests that the Reformed Resurgence (or whatever you want to call it) has been overlooked by the mainstream press. Here’s part of the first (#16), talking about Francis Schaeffer:
But, it’s foundational to the Evangelical worldview, which itself rests on a quasi-mythological structure that everything must begin with an initial paradise, followed by a fall, then an increasing degradation, then a final redemption. This is how Schaeffer sees the world, though he thinks the world begins with the Renaissance, presumably because that’s the period where his favorite paintings come from. This is also how Evangelicals see the world (note their fundamentalist understanding of America and its constitution: the US begins as a paradise (the “Founders”), there’s a fall (FDR?), followed by degredation (the 60s), then comes the redemption (the Christian Right).
I think as fundamentalists we would have to plead guilty to seeing history on the pattern of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: one age gradually giving way to the next, each grand in its own way but lesser somehow, until some sort of cataclysm of external origin destroys history itself. I’m not sure this view of history is necessarily redemptive; Dispensationalism is linear, not cyclical. The rest I’m not so sure about; I think Schaeffer had a better argument for the relevance of the Renaissance than just his preference for one kind of art over another. And finally, I don’t know many evangelicals see the Christian Right as any redemption of or restoration of the actual Founding Fathers; they just consider the Constitution a contract, and the definition of who we are as Americans. Because as much as it pains me to say it, I think we tend to like the Founders as symbols but we tend to ignore them as people, etc.
The second comment (#25) starts off well and gets strange right away:
I read Michelle Goldberg’s _Kingdom Coming_ and she missed the entire Calvinist/Reformed/neo-Calvinist movement that is threatening to tear the Southern Baptist Convention apart.
I would have to agree that there is some sort of ongoing Reformed Resurgence somewhere. If it is “threatening to tear the SBC apart” I haven’t heard anything about it. The stories I’ve seen (see e.g. [link]) suggest that the SBC is suffering more strain from tension between its megachurches and the rest of the SBC than anything else.
Much of this neo-Calvinist movement is disseminated by home schooling networks and materials, now including lots of blogs. Several prominent Southern Baptist seminaries are headed by adherents of this neo-Calvinist movement and the Baptists are just trying to keep it from taking Baylor and Liberty (as far as I know.) Falwell, supposedly, before he died, said “Liberty will never go Calvinist.” Or something like that. Patrick Henry College, too, had some kind of blowup over St. Augustine who is one of the darlings of the neo-Calvinists. Liberty just got rid of the main guy standing against Liberty going to this movement, Ergun Caner. Forgive me if I get some of this wrong–I would LOVE to read ALL about it accurately, but even the Michelle Goldbergs and Jeff Sharlets miss this whole movement. I am convinced this is why Kenneth Starr, a non-Baptist at the time, was made head of Baylor. The Baptists didn’t want Baylor to go the way of Southwestern and Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries (I THINK.)
At the heart of this movement is, as someone else pointed out, a strong desire to undo the 1960′s, especially feminism. Many in this movement teach that women shouldn’t go to college. I thought that would get y’all’s attention. Mark Driscoll, a “four-point Calvinist” who heads a very popular megachurch in Seattle, preaches that women shouldn’t “waste money” going to college. Patriarchs in the neo-patriarchal movement (just a step to the right of the “Complementarian” movement in Baptist and Neo-Calvinist circles) say that no unmarried daughter should live out from under her father’s roof, even to go to college. Google “Visionary Daughters” to see about this movement.
I hate to admit it, but I initially read “neo-Calvinist” as some sort of neologism that’s meant to be scary; it has three of the markers of a scare word:
- It has a prefix (“neo”) suggesting that the concept is related to something the reader might understand and dislike, but is different and worse somehow
- The dread hyphen
- It ends in -ism, -ist, or -ology; this is often a sign that the speaker is going to wrap up a bundle of concepts into a term, show that the described has some of them, and then criticize the described for having the others; see e.g. modern uses of “Gnosticism” to describe people who aren’t Gnostics; also “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
But as the kids say nowadays “Neo-Calvinism is a thing” [link]. It’s a term used to describe people who read and and influenced by Abraham Kuyper [link]. This would of course include Schaeffer and by implication the Evangelicals, so I’m not sure this is what the author means. I think he means something else here, some other kind of new Calvinists: evangelicals who for whatever reason move from an Arminian or third (neither Calvinist nor Arminian) perspective to a Calvinist perspective, with the usual pitfalls.
I really had no idea that Calvinism was prevalent among Christian home-schoolers; if this is true it doesn’t include any of the home-schooling families I know.
The passing mention of Mark Driscoll is not surprising, but the author’s take on Complementarianism strikes me as odd: I’m more accustomed to hearing Driscoll’s views on gender roles described as liberal (e.g. not conservative Pauline) rather than authoritarian. But maybe that’s more a byproduct of the company I keep.
But the author’s suggestion that Ergun Caner was “the main guy standing against [neo-Calvinism]” at Liberty is an interesting take on Caner’s demotion: Caner was demoted, he did tangle with at least one Calvinist, but he was demoted because of his repeated mischaracterizations of his personal story while representing Liberty during speaking engagements, not for failing to be sufficiently Calvinist.
I could be wrong; Caner’s demotion could have been the final act of some Calvinist coup. I guess we’ll have to wait to see whether Liberty starts e.g. observing Reformation Day in say 2011 or 2012. Hint: I wouldn’t hold my breath.
A couple of weeks ago an article by Timothy Beal titled “Among the Evangelicals: Inside a fractured movement” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s publication The Chronicle Review [link]. It’s a neatly-written survey article, laying out the main strands of evangelicalism within American Christianity, discusses some of the history of the study of evangelicalism by academic writers, and provides a pretty good reading list. I recommend it with a couple of clarifications (and maybe corrections), and I’d like to point out something from the comments section that made my head spin.
Beal breaks down evangelicalism into “revivalist, fundamentalist, and charismatic movements that feed into contemporary evangelical Christianity” and that’s as good a set of distinctions as any, since it gets the revivalist and fundamentalist movements before what we know as evangelicalism and positions the charismatics as different but still part of the movement. Because I come out of a background with elements mostly of the first two and almost none of the latter I tend to think of charismatics by turns as “not one of us; probably not Christians” and “second-rate interlopers,” neither of which is likely fair or accurate.
Beal points out that evangelicals are typically ahistorical, having no sense of their own history and little of anyone else’s; this is a fair criticism but as it’s a byproduct of our tendency to think of ourselves as being just two generations removed from Pentecost (okay three if you count the English Reformation) and at most one generation from the Rapture it’s probably not going anywhere. It does as much to explain why we think e.g. the Founding Fathers would have been at home in Eisenhower America as anything else. Anyway, if I understand him correctly it’s the fact that evangelicals have gotten rich, together, and politically involved that we’ve come to the attention of second-generation academic researchers (e.g. not Balmer, Carpenter, or Noll).
I think Beal makes a mistake by lumping Jeff Sharlet’s book in with Kevin Roose’s; those people Sharlet studied for the most part aren’t theologically Christian and their behavior is almost entirely political. I’d offer his portrayal of Senator Sam Brownback as being typical. On the other hand Beal gets kudos for mentioning Ned Flanders.
The article devotes a substantial section to books published in 2009, including a study by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke of various megachurch leaders as savvy innovators in a religious marketplace, a book by Johnathan L. Walton on “the ethics and aesthetics of black televangelism,” and one by anthropologist James Bielo which is a field study of interpretive practices in small-group Bible studies. Of these three the first two make me wince just to think of them and the latter sounds fascinating. Here are the numbers:
Bielo observed 324 Bible-study meetings of 19 groups of evangelicals over more than a year and a half. Within those meetings, he often noticed tensions among different readings of particular biblical passages, as well as different understandings of the Bible itself, that potentially threatened group identity and coherence.
There’s a lot there: imagine attending 300+ Bible studies with nearly 20 different groups. Imagine the worst of the browbeating behavior you’ve ever seen in a Bible study multiplied over numbers like that. “We don’t interpret the Bible; the Bible interprets us” indeed.
There are also paragraphs devoted to home-schooling and pro-life activism (but surprisingly no mention of the Quiverfull movement); unfortunately it seems like any discussion of evangelicalism nowadays starts and ends with politics, as if evangelicalism had no internal narrative of its own, but only makes sense in terms of its politics. Beal also doesn’t really mention evangelical alternative (not to say derivative) culture; maybe there haven’t been enough serious treatments of it to merit mention. I don’t know.
I will have to come back to the comments on this article in a later post; hint: they mention Mark Driscoll and Ergun Caner.
Intelligence Squared sponsored a dial-in debate between journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and “megachurch and leadership expert” Dave Travis [blog] on the premise “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” [link, free registration required]. The introduction for the debate doesn’t look promising; apart from some soundbites (Robert Schuller, Eddie Long, George W. Bush, Ted Haggard) there’s this definition:
The evangelical movement has a globally influential role, and the megachurches are an important element of it. They have huge congregations with inspirational, charismatic pastors. They are run like businesses and, it might seem, often with rather business-like objectives of raising funds and satisfying customers.
Hemingway gets off on the wrong foot from the start:
Most notably, the size and charisma aspects affect the relationship of the pastor to his congregation. These features require for lowest common denominator preaching; it becomes based on ‘You’, rather than Christ.. Equally, sacramental worship is not feasible with a congregation of 2,000 people. In small congregation churches, members are active. In megachurches, the audience is passive, consuming rather than engaging with gospel entertainment.
Yes, there are problems when the relationship between the preacher and church is out of whack, but she trots out the “big/passive, small/active” red herring: neither of these is necessarily true. And while her point about “gospel entertainment,” whatever that is, is probably apt, she’s made the mistake of making the conservative Lutheran method of worship standard so everything else is deviant.
The problem of America’s churches is that they’re market driven, but megachurches are market driven on steroids.
I have no idea what “market driven on steroids” means; this sounds like a fancy way of saying “very market driven” or “very very market driven.” And of course it begs the question “market driven as opposed to what?”
Hemingway is offering the usual talking points here, as if the alternatives in the megachurch debate were the LCMS standard on one side and Joel Osteen on the other. Briefly: not everyone outside a megachurch is looking to “receive sacraments for the forgiveness of sins” and not everyone in a megachurch is looking for “your best life now.” I’m disappointed in her presentation and don’t think it was effective, especially once she conceded that church size isn’t the problem.
Dave Travis on the other hand offers a fairly standard set of church growth arguments: “we took a survey, here are some results, lo and behold they support our model of church.”
Here’s part of his opening argument:
People are moving from small to big institutions in every sector of America’s society. In the church, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a healthy relationship with Christ; it just creates a different one. Yes, in megachurches, preaching is simpler in approach than smaller churches, but accessibility to doctrine does not make it un-challenging. In fact, megachurches preach what is relevant to the congregation.
I’m not sure how the first two sentences are related to one another; if there’s a causal connection between other institutions getting bigger and churches getting bigger I don’t see it. He concedes that megachurch preaching is simple and includes mention of the relevance of the text to the believer, but doesn’t point out any differences between sermons that are relevant to the believer and sermons that are consumer-centered. It’s a weak presentation, but Travis is mostly stuck responding to the moderators’ opening comments and Hemingway’s opening comments.
Travis doesn’t handle a question about pastoral accountability well; he answers a poorly-presented question about congregants in a small church engaging in question and answers with the pastor by saying megachurch pastors take feedback via websites and response cards. He also interacts poorly with a question about authoritarian preachers.
Hemingway responds to the same question by presenting the same lousy argument “churches should be defined by creeds and sacraments, not market research” and equivocates between creeds and sacraments on the one hand and Scripture on the other. I don’t know what if anything Hemingway can say about churches that are neither focused on creeds and sacraments nor driven by market research.
I think Travis misses an obvious knock-out punch that goes like this: The Hartford Institute, which provides definitions and lists for American megachurches, lists 1408 churches that meet its criteria. Of these seven are part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [link]; does Hemingway’s analysis apply to these? If so then all her bluster about creeds and sacraments is nonsense; if not then her distinction she’s making above is invalid.
I hate to say it, but I don’t see a winner here; neither party actually interacts with the premise. Hemingway’s argument is just special pleading, and she grows increasingly shrill as the discussion progresses. Travis comes closer to interacting with the premise by relating survey results about church attenders’ impressions of their relationship with God, but never suggests that there’s any way to close the gap between those results and an actual God. Hemingway can’t seem to see past her tradition. It’s a mess.
On the whole I’m left wondering if there is any common ground between the two sides, and whether this is an issue a debate can resolve. I would recommend listening to this debate anyway; 25 minutes isn’t very long to sort out issues like this, but it’s helpful to hear where the discussion is now (nowhere, mostly). As I said several months ago, this still sounds like a dialog between a dead church and a dying church to me.
In other news, Dee at The Wartburg Watch offered a take on Cruise With A Cause 2011 a couple of weeks ago [link]; her comments cover some of the same ground I covered [link], from a different angle and somewhat more pointedly. She also points out that the online biography for Ergun Caner appears to mix in elements of his brother Emir’s biography.
And finally: I found myself awake between 1:30AM and 2:30AM and ended up taking a peek at the KAZQ [link] overnight offerings. They offer GOD TV [link] as a second OTA digital signal (Digital channel 32.2) and on their primary signal in the wee hours. I got to sample the late Barry Smith’s program Mystery Babylon [link, link]; it caught my interest when I saw the word “Weishaupt” on the whiteboard behind Smith and heard his Kiwi accent. His presentation was a fairly typical fast-and-loose “Freemasons are apostate; Freemasons run the English-speaking world” presentation. Highlights included
- Smith’s claim that floor tiles in contrasting colors, especially in black and white, in public buildings, are a secret Freemason symbol
- Smith’s claim that certain hand gestures require Masonic judges to free Masonic criminals
- A dissection of the symbols on the back of a one-dollar bill that sounded even stranger with a Kiwi accent
GOD TV currently offers two or three episodes of Barry Smith programming a night and another in the afternoon; Joe Bob says check it out.
So here’s my last post about this visit to PRBC; I wanted to close the loop and write a little bit about PRBC and James White.
First of all as everybody knows James White is an elder at his church; he was until fairly recently one of three, but at the moment he’s one of two. He takes a prominent role in the church, and from some of Donald Fry’s comments he apparently has the blessing of his pastor and by implication his church for his various activities: writing books, traveling as part of his apologist activities, his Web presence, etc. Regarding the latter, he produces so much content in a typical week I rather doubt that his pastor reads, watches, and hears every word he produces, but that would hardly be expected unless he’d done something to merit scrutiny, etc.
Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, unlike some churches I’ll mention in a later post, doesn’t appear to be a church in name only; it isn’t a cult, a protest group, a paper church, whatever.
One of the questions that arose during the Ergun Caner flap was whether White is accountable to his church in the way he was calling for Caner to be accountable to his (Caner’s) church. I’m inclined to think that this was just a rhetorical point raised for the purpose of either a) trying to turn the White-Caner situation into an intermural feud between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, or b) trying to establish some sort of moral equivalence between Caner and White on the basis of superficially similar questions of character.
I honestly couldn’t tell you how accountable White is to his church; accountability is a funny thing. So often it’s like an insurance policy: you can’t tell the good from the bad, or the real from the fake, until something goes wrong. And even in churches where something has gone wrong it’s often next to impossible for a casual visitor to pick up on what’s gone wrong in a single given Sunday.
So I wish White and the folks at PRBC well and I’ll look forward to visiting them again the next time I’m in the Phoenix area.
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.
So here’s an interesting piece of Christian pop culture: Cruise With A Cause (CWAC) 2011, a Christian cruise/short-term mission trip/Christian entertainment something-or-other [link]. Entertainment headliners include Casting Crowns, NewSong, and various permutations of the Crabb family; speakers include Josh McDowell, Johnny Hunt, Ergun Caner, John Hagee, his son Matthew Hagee, and Jentezen Franklin. It really is a vast and varied cast; I’m not sure I can do it justice.
The very idea of a Christian cruise makes me a bit uneasy, but given how popular and varied the offerings are (Catholic Answers, Christian Research Institute, and various Reformed ministries [link] all do them) I suppose they’re just another sign of American Christianity becoming wealthier, having more disposable income, and being interested in seeing and hearing e.g. Hank Hanegraaff or Steve Camp daily for four days running.
I have to admit that little of what I believe to be true about cruises generally comes from first-hand experience and much of it comes from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Harper’s article “Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” [PDF] which successfully portrays his experience on a Celebrity Cruise seven-nighter as a vulgar, exploitative, gluttonous, numbing, spiritually deadening affair. There’s probably no good reason to believe that Cruise With A Cause 2011 will be anything similar. After all, CWAC is using a Carnival ship and their cruise is six days long.
Cruise With A Cause is run by PraiseFest Ministries; a cursory glance at their 2007 IRS Form 990 [PDF] and 2006 IRS Form 990 [PDF] suggests that they spend $2 million running this cruise each year, and nothing else they report to the IRS is a significant line item, including whatever salaries they pay. How president Matthew Dunaway feeds his family spending 24-38 hours in a typical week running PraiseFest while taking no salary is something a mystery.
Finally, here’s my favorite excerpt from the CWAC 2011 advertising, for a personality with the stage name Nikita Koloff:
Having traveled all over the world as a top athlete in professional wrestling, Nikita was one of the baddest. A Russian guy who spoke not a word of English, a superior athlete who came off the boat from the Soviet Union to the United States. In reality “I was just a guy from the projects of Minneapolis, who grew up on welfare. I lived the part of a Russian.” The hoax worked. It is still one of the most talked about events in wrestling history. Nikita was named Inspirational Wrestler of the Year in ’87 and at the height of his career, retired from professional athletics in ’93.
Yeah. I’m guessing Mr Koloff is the only person on this cruise with a history of misrepresenting himself.