Listening to The Dividing Line lately has been excruciating. James White, the host, is usually interesting to listen to, but lately he’s just been repeating himself and using an increasing number of cliches and buzzwords and fewer and fewer facts, especially regarding gay marriage. I have to admit that for the last couple of weeks if I hear him start in on Islam or gay marriage I will typically fast-forward until he moves on to the next topic. Listeners who skip him altogether missed a fascinating discussion of the primacy of Peter last week, but not much else.
One of tropes he’s been flogging lately has been the difference between the “culture of life” (in the Christian community) and the “culture of death” (in the broader culture). I’m accustomed to hearing “culture of life” meaning at least political (if not organizational) opposition to abortion and euthanasia; sometimes opposition to war; rarely any mention of support for say good nutrition or limits on pollution; almost never any references to homosexuality.
I’ll say just as an aside that claims to a “culture of life” are harder for modern evangelicals to make in the wake of the Iraq War, but that’s another topic for another day.
White repeatedly refers to gay men having shorter lifespans than their heterosexual counterparts; he sometimes goes on to suggest that any kind of legal marriage-like arrangement won’t lengthen gay men’s lives the way marriage does straight men’s lives. So I went looking for some data.
Back in June, Sean Gorman of the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch published a “Politifact Virginia” analyzing similar comments by Delegate Bob Marshall claiming that homosexual men live twenty years less than their straight counterparts [link]. Here’s the takeaway: there was a study conducted in Canada, looking at how HIV changed life expectancy among gay men in Vancouver over the period 1987-1992, and they had a life expectancy of about 20 years less than the baseline.
This was during a period of time that deaths due to HIV were rising substantially each year; these peaked in the US about 1995 [link]. Here’s Gorman’s quote:
In the United States, figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that the rate of HIV deaths per 100,000 people peaked at 36.3 deaths in 1995 and fell to 2.7 in 2010, the latest year data is available.
So far as I can tell there have been no substantial studies on the life expectancy of gay men since then, so if you’re willing to connect the dots the way Gorman does it’s reasonable to conclude that gay men in the United States are living longer today than their late Eighties counterparts in Vancouver, so their life expectancy is no longer twenty years less than their straight counterparts.
The truth of course is more complicated; gay men die of causes other than HIV/AIDS; they apparently have a cancer rate that is roughly double that of straight men [link]; during adolescence they attempt suicide at higher rates than their straight counterparts [link]; etc. But so far as I can tell nobody has updated the Canadian life expectancy numbers in a way that would substantiate the kind of claim Marshall makes above.
I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether White’s “culture of death” claims are as strong as he makes them sound.
On The Dividing Line James White has been responding to Matthew Vines regarding gays in the church for what seems like forever. Vines doesn’t talk about gay marriage in particular; he’s giving what sounds like a senior thesis on liberal arguments in support of gays in the church. If you’ve seen For the Bible Tells Me So [link] or Fish Out of Water [link] you’ve heard most of what Vines says already; his presentation seems to be targeted at people in liberal churches and assumes a certain level of literacy. I’m not sure who the target audience is for the films listed above.
I’m grateful for White’s response to Vines’s handling of Scripture; I think it’s a pretty good presentation of the conservative position in response to a particular liberal position, and I don’t get to see those very often: liberals tend to offer a response to a generic conservative position, and vice versa, and this is a cut above in my humble opinion.
That being said, I don’t understand why White does some of the things he does; like a lot of conservative speakers he jumps too quickly to slippery slope arguments, and doesn’t spend enough time talking about the continuity between the current discussion of gay marriage vs. older discussions of polygamy, age of consent laws, divorce and remarriage, cousin marriages, etc. And I have to admit I am really tired of hearing arguments of the moral equivalence between gay marriage and bestiality, etc.
This isn’t a topic I want to dig into too deeply at the moment; I have to admit that it seems to me like gay marriage is a subject that gains currency at a certain point in the election cycle, and I have to wonder whether this is just a coincidence.
That being said, interested listeners might find the recent documentary from the ABC Radio National 360 series, Kissing Cousins [link]. Yes, it’s about sexual relationships between cousins. And yes, it’s a sympathetic portrayal. And no, so far as I know, Scripture doesn’t prohibit marriages between first cousins.
I have been looking forward to the annual apologetics conference at Calvary Santa Fe, which usually happens in the middle of September, but I haven’t seen the announcement for Discern 2011. Last I heard plans were in the works [link], but I haven’t heard anything more. Here’s the quote:
Things are already in the works for Discern 2011! Speakers confirmed so far include James White, Bruce Ware, and Joe Dallas. Safe to say, it’s gonna be awesome.
I was surprised when James White visited there in June [link], but I figured it meant he’d be visiting twice this year.
If anyone has any information I’d be grateful to know.
I am traveling again and posting here will be light this week. I’m just back from traveling, too, and I’m still catching up on various pieces of Christian media. Oh and comment moderation; I’ve got a couple of items in the queue I need to follow up on, where people have called me on things (where I am probably in the wrong) and I need to figure out how to respond, etc.
But let me direct your attention to a three-week-old episode of The Dividing Line [link], where host James White calls in from Alaska, where he’s hanging out with Phil Johnson of Grace To You and Pyromaniacs [link].
Someone with judgment as poor and a heart as dark as mine should take great care before accusing someone else of sins, especially a sin as slippery as gossip, but I am not sure I can tell the difference between the story White tells about his long-time adversary Norm Geisler in the first half of this episode. It’s a pretty unpleasant portrayal of Geisler; it’s rather personal; and it involves appeals to sources unavailable. I suppose the thing to do is to call the person he quotes and ask them whether the story as White relates it is literally true.
Because of course nothing true is gossip. Right?
I have to admit I had completely missed the fact that Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s radio show Grace to You, is not only much more than a radio-friendly voice. He’s an ordained minister, a book editor, and a grandfather. And just before the 33:00 mark White mentions that he founded the Pyromaniacs blog. Which I guess goes to show that I can miss even the most obvious of connections.
He (Johnson) says he picked Frank Turk for the Pyromaniacs blog because he admired Turk’s “wit.” I can’t imagine what this is. And I don’t know what it says about Johnson that he thinks Turk is “clever and cute” full of “grace and good humor.” Perhaps I just keep catching Turk on a bad day.
And finally, it turns out Pyromaniacs was started as a response to Johnson being “pilloried” on Michael Spencer’s iMonk blog, and got his comment deleted. He also says that the Internet Monk blog hasn’t allow comments since. Is this the same blog I visited today [link]? Hmm. That blog seems to allow comments, so there must be a different one.
Regardless, I’d love to see the original article; Johnson says it was (wait for it) his response to Spencer’s take on his take on an article by N. T. Wright on the New Perspective on Paul. I’d love to see what that was all about.
A few weeks ago school ended and we had family visiting, and we took them about an hour and a half north to visit Taos, NM, home of the Taos Hum [link], some of the scenes in Easy Rider (1969), and KTAO, which has the largest broadcast area of any solar-powered radio station in the world [link]. Taos is also situated in the Southern Rockies mining area, and Chevron still has an active facility north of Questa on what is locally called The Enchanted Circle.
We were passing through a canyon near the Chevron facility when one of the visitors announced that the buckled strata we could see in the road cut was “clear evidence of The Flood,” by which he meant Noah’s Flood. We were then treated to a recitation of the ways in which a collapsing water canopy along with the rupture of underground water features could have produced the broken striations we saw in the rock faces around us.
I couldn’t bring myself to point out that while a flood may have produced some of the features we could see in the rocks there was no reason to believe that it was a particular flood, let alone Noah’s flood. It is my understanding that there’s evidence that New Mexico has been under water multiple times [link]; there are even mountains down south made mostly of coral. I have no idea how this sort of thing gets sorted out, and how people know when they’re correct, but I’d be willing to wager that there’s no good reason to point to a particular rock cleft and say it has any definite connection to Noah.
And this is one of the difficulties of growing up fundamentalist and becoming some sort of modern. There’s great value in having a simple faith, in prizing simplicity itself as a virtue, but I’m not sure this is what the Scriptures are meant to do, namely, to provide us with easy answers and to give us fixed opinions about things we otherwise know nothing about.
This is more or less what James White was talking about during a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link] regarding “being of two minds,” except he was dealing with the question from the other side, suggesting that science doesn’t offer answers to particular kinds of questions regarding purpose and meaning in the face of natural disasters. I’d encourage readers to give the episode a listen: I don’t think he asks the right questions, so as a result I can’t say he comes to the right answers.
As somebody who lives more or less with one foot in each world (a premodern world and a modern world) I think I have to argue that the Scriptures as we understand them answer one kind of question and Science as we understand it offers us answers to a different kind of question, and on close examination the two don’t really meet as neatly as we’d like. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the scientific method to produce answers to e.g. moral questions, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the Bible to tell us why a road cut looks the way it does. And of course that’s just scratching the surface; there are plenty of questions left even if we have answers for those.
James White recently devoted all or part of several episodes of his podcast The Dividing Line to Michael Brown and his new book A Queer Thing Happened to America [e.g. link] and during the episode linked mentioned as a matter of course that Harvey Milk, the late San Francisco Supervisor and gay political icon, was a child molester. A little research suggests that this is taken as fact among conservative Christians, and fits into a broader narrative in conservative Christian circles that has shaped our relationship with the homosexual community since the Seventies, namely that gay men molest boys as a matter of course.
I am not entirely sure why we frame the discussion this way; maybe it’s because of the way we interpret 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 relative to its historical context and draw from it instructions for our own time. I don’t know. It’s worth noting that this narrative is showing some wear; it’s similarly received in the gay community that child molesters are more likely (both in total numbers and as a proportion of their communities) to be heterosexual. I really don’t know either way; the handful of child molesters I’ve known personally or by trustworthy anecdote were all heterosexual, but I don’t, as they say, know enough to know.
But the allegations regarding Milk apparently stem from his relationship with Jack Galen McKinley [link]. According to Randy Shilts, author of The Mayor of Castro Street [link], Milk was 33 and McKinley 16 when they began their relationship; it continued for several years and ended when Milk moved to San Francisco from New York and then McKinley took a role in a New York-based production of the musical Hair. The age of consent in New York is 17 today [link]; I have to assume it was the same in the early Seventies.
I am a big fan of Shilts’s 1987 book And The Band Played On, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic; it’s a monumental piece of investigative journalism; it’s well-written; it has well-drawn characters; and it tells a sad and painful story well. I respect Shilts for arguing that city officials should have made more of an effort to stop the spread of AIDS in San Francisco; I think in retrospect he was probably harder on the scientific community and the Reagan Administration than the facts support. Still, I wish every 600-page nonfiction book about a difficult subject was written this well.
The Mayor of Castro Street, on the other hand, is an earlier piece of hagiography by Shilts, is written in a racier style, etc. He is honest about McKinley’s age, but frames the Milk-McKinley story as a by-the-numbers early-Seventies gay love story. He notes that McKinley was a runaway from Maryland, was living on the streets in New York City, and was making ends meet by “hustling:” by having sex with older men for money and other means of support. This is not really the point of Shilts’s description of this part of Milk’s life; he focuses more on the treatment of men in the gay cruising scene in the parks in Greenwich Village in the pre-Stonewall era, rather than whether Milk’s treatment of McKinley would qualify as statutory rape. Let’s just note that all of this gets summarized away in e.g. Milk’s Wikipedia entry [link]; McKinley is important in Milk’s story, but the details are somewhat inconvenient. It’s worth noting that Shilts mentions Milk having relationships with a handful of younger men, of which McKinley is the only one who was underage at the time. It is my understanding that the typical child molester abuses more than 100 children; I have no idea how solid that number is.
If I had to make a contemporary heterosexual comparison here, and I’m not sure it’s fair, I’d suggest looking at former NFL star Lawrence Taylor, who was sentenced in March to probation for sexual misconduct and having sex with an underage prostitute [
I’ve been running short on blogging material recently, not because there’s nothing to blog about, but because so little of it has really crystallized for me. We’ve had a houseguest lately who has been talking about art in the Church; I’ve been reading Rob Bell and revisiting a lot of Emerging Church themes; some local churches are going through contortions; and I’ve been struggling with today’s topic.
If I had to make a list of interesting (not to say troubling, necessarily) trends in the American church today, I’d probably have to list the following, in pretty much this order:
- The decline of foreign missions
- Prosperity theology
- The perils of political engagement
- The megachurch phenomenon
- The decline of the Baby Boom generation and the rise of second-generation big-ministry leadership
- The Reformed resurgence
- The Emerging Church
So I guess I’d argue that what I have to talk about today isn’t the most interesting thing going on right now, but it is sometimes one of the easiest to see.
When I attended a Calvary Chapel I saw people come and go, but there were identifiable trends in the ways people entered the church and the ways people left. There were some new converts coming in; some of them had a by-the-numbers saved-from-sin born again experience; some of them left the Roman Catholic Church. There were also people who had stopped off somewhere else that offered simpler teaching and/or a more structured environment; we had a lot of people who had attended Potter’s House or had been through the mill at various local 12-step programs.
But people tended to leave Calvary because they were looking for one of two things: either they were looking for a more experiential Christianity, and they left for some sort of Third Wave Pentecostal or TBN-like church, or they moved in a more Reformed direction. At the time I credited the former to Calvary’s mild Charismatic leanings and familial relationship with Vineyard Christian Fellowships; the latter to the otherwise inexplicable presence of John MacArthur on the Calvary radio station in Albuquerque (KNKT). The truth is probably more complicated.
But the pattern then, and the pattern I see now as the Reformed resurgence progresses, was pretty predictable: people became Christians in an evangelical church, then eventually migrated to a more Calvinist church. Or as is the case here locally, people became Christians in evangelical churches, and then the churches themselves gradually moved in a more Reformed direction.
The thing that strikes me odd nowadays, though, is that when I meet someone nowadays, online or in person, who self-identifies as Reformed, they invariably have an “I used to be evangelical too” story. I have yet to meet anyone who became a Christian in a Reformed church unless they were raised there.
This question surfaced in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link], where the ongoing feud between James White and George Bryson of Calvary Chapel Church Planting Mission (CCCPM) finally reached this question. Of course Bryson frames it his way and White frames it his way, and I’m not sure either of them offer more light than heat. Bryson incorrectly equivocates between all of Reformed theology and the Five Points of Calvinism; White objects but doesn’t clarify how exactly conversion (not to say salvation) happens in Calvinism.
I don’t have a soundbite here; it’s entirely possible that the world is fairly awash in Calvinists who are newly-converted Christians and I’ve just never met any of them, I suppose.
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.
So the sermon I heard at PRBC [link] is at this writing the 18th in a series of 20 (so far) on the book of Romans. The series appears to be literally verse-by-verse, meaning that Fry covers a verse each sermon, more or less. There are roughly 430 verses in the book of Romans, so it’s probably reasonable to expect that Fry will still be in the book of Romans five years from now and it’s not unthinkable that he might still be there ten years from now. So it may or may not be fair to expect that the sermon I heard is representative of anything, even of this series.
That being said, this appears to be a fairly workmanlike example of a single-verse sermon: an opening illustration; a reading of the verse in context; three points, each with an accompanying story or illustration; and a closing illustration. Fry never says “here’s my outline in three points,” (and thank goodness) and he doesn’t phrase the three points the same way twice, but on the other hand he doesn’t really seem to be preaching to the outline and the three points don’t alliterate or rhyme (again, thank goodness). There’s always a risk when using a formal structure like this that the Scripture used and the points drawn from it will be overshadowed by the points or the illustrations. I think it’s fairly safe to say that doesn’t happen in this case. This is a fairly solid Reformed sermon based on a Reformed proof text.
I am a big fan of expository teaching; in fact, when I sermon starts I’m typically fidgety from the moment the preacher starts talking until he starts reading Scripture. I’m always looking for the foundation of the sermon, and I’m wary of sermons that appear to be founded on stories, illustrations, the authority of the pulpit, tradition, etc. The down side to expository teaching is that so many Scripture passages are thorny things, with phrases that do not appear to contribute to the passage’s plain meaning, and when a preacher sets about using a short text he faces three problems:
- Presenting the passage in the context of the whole of Scripture
- Presenting the passage so it fits the surrounding greater text
- Dealing with these troublesome phrases
For many Reformed preachers the book of Romans is the whole of Scripture, so I’ll give Fry a pass here. And he did read the verse in the context of the surrounding verses, so I’ll note that he did that. The problem, though, is that there are three thorny problems with this passage:
- What is the righteousness of God? Is it something He gives? Something He has but no one else does? Etc.
- What does Paul mean by “from faith to faith?”
- Why Habakkuk? How does Paul’s understanding and portrayal of the quote [KJV] fit its original context? Are Paul and Habakkuk saying the same thing? If so how and if not why not?
Fry namechecks the first two but doesn’t dig into them, and he mentions Habakkuk but doesn’t go back to the original context; it’s as if he considers Paul’s reading (or maybe the 16th century understanding of the quote) to be normative and doesn’t consider the continuity (or the contrast) between the original meaning and later understandings at all. I realize this is a high standard, but I think it’s appropriate for someone doing a verse a sermon.
Fry also tends to leave important terms (“righteousness,” “gospel,” and to a lesser degree “justice”) undefined. This is a pitfall of anyone who prizes “strong doctrine” at the expense of other values; it’s possible to start on a firm foundation and end on a firm foundation but leave the audience with things that can only be understood and believed theoretically. And I’m afraid that’s what happens here.
Finally, there’s Fry’s delivery. Fry is a shouter. Or a dramatic reader. Or something like that. I suspect this is more or less the delivery he learned in seminary, probably at a time when seminary professors had less practice using microphones, etc. and Fry has never seriously reconsidered his delivery. I suspect this because his volume rises at odd times, on phrases that don’t necessarily need emphasis, and he did not seem to be getting worked up emotionally in a way that corresponded with his tone of voice. Preachers shout for many reasons (see e.g. [link]), and I have a hard time pigeonholing Fry’s delivery against the popular explanations.
I choose to believe that shouting is something of a generational thing, as younger preachers (e.g. 50 and younger) are less likely to shout than older preachers. I have to hope that good acoustic spaces and inexpensive amplification will eventually make this a rare phenomenon. It’s one of the remaining rhetorical tricks still in wide use (anaphora being another) that I think distracts from the message rather than contributing to it or supporting it.
Whenever I visit a church I wonder why the people who are there stay there. My best guess in the case of PRBC is that the people there want to hear Reformed doctrine affirmed, like the conservative music, and appreciate the linear, straightforward presentation, so they’re willing to tolerate a little shouting. I hope for their sake it’s not just because they e.g. like being around James White.
Ah yes James White. I think there’s one more post left in this series, and I’m hoping to get back to him in it.
Someone from PRBC was kind enough to contact me with some clarifications and corrections. Here’s the promised follow-up:
I wrote earlier [link]
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.
The church property extends along 12th from Indianola to Clarendon and the lot on Indianola is complemented by a comparable amount of parking on the Clarendon side. We parked on the street, off church property; I’d guess with overflow there’s parking for maybe 50 cars. I’d refer kind readers to the original post for context for the “even a cult” part.
The person who contacted me was kind enough to let me know that the church property is paid for. My congratulations to PRBC for that; I wish all churches were debt-free.
Second, in the earlier post I wrote
since he is an elder at PRBC and occasionally preaches but isn’t so far as I know ordained or paid by the church.
The person who contacted me was kind enough to tell me that James White “has a regular preaching schedule, is ordained, and is paid by the church.”
For reference sake the church’s website [link] mentions in its frame header that both Fry and White are elders. So far as I’ve seen it doesn’t elaborate on what this means, and casual readers may be confused as a result. It mentions [link] that the New Testament mentions both deacons and elders, and that in RB churches they are distinct offices. If there are any deacons at PRBC I can’t find them on the website. Nor can I find any language to suggest that elders are ordained and paid.
I haven’t been able to find a constitution, by-laws, indication of an affiliation with an association, etc. I’d appreciate any and all assistance here.
To my knowledge in the churches I’ve attended deacons and elders are rarely paid, and they aren’t ordained. I’ve seen the occasional Brethren church that just has elders, with a position of “teaching elder” that is an unpaid rotating position, but I rarely see any other churches where elders preach. I’m accustomed to “pastors preach, elders teach” distinctions, where pastors are professionals and elders are amateurs, for lack of a better word, and elders teach Sunday School or Bible studies but never step behind the pulpit. This strikes me as a situation where Scripture says something, different groups interpret it differently, and there’s plenty of discussion as a result.
Anyway, for the record PRBC apparently has one elder who is also a pastor and one who is not; both preach regularly and both are paid.