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.
I have a soft spot in my heart for locally-produced religious programming, whether it’s good or bad, and I tend to seek it out wherever I can find it. Unfortunately in the age of TBN, saturation syndication of folks like Creflo Dollar, Pat Robertson, and Kenneth Copeland it’s getting hard to find. And that’s a shame. You’ll hear themes and topics on these small-market shows you just won’t hear anywhere else.
CTN is a smallish network based in Florida [link] with I think thirteen affiliates, only one west of the Mississippi. Their programming mostly consists of second-tier health-and-wealth folks; think TBN without the Crouches. Instead their marquee program is a telethon-style show called The Great Awakening, which I think I’ve mentioned before.
I have been picking up their programming on KFXB, their only K-callsign affiliate, based in Dubuque. Right now they run local ministers in their 9:30PM timeslot four nights a week, and they’re a mixed bag [link]: a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and (wait for it) a graduate of Liberty University.
Let me refer interested viewers to the KFXB YouTube feed [link]. It isn’t easy to find half-hour videos on YouTube with zero views, but you may find one or more linked there. So far I’ve managed to catch Rhonda Wink, she of the hot pink blazers and lime green set, and Jeff Pedersen, whose production values predate the invention of chroma key. At a passing glance the casual viewer may be forgiven for thinking Wink’s show is a children’s show. Or that she just might be Suze Orman with dark hair.
I caught about twenty minutes of Pedersen tonight; I have no idea what his text was, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a preacher call out playing slot machines as a sin. Joe Bob says check it out.
A few months ago I finally sat down (on an airplane, turns out) and read George Marsden’s 1991 book Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [link, link]. I wish I’d done this a year or so ago, since he covers (much better) some of the ground I’ve covered here regarding the historical relationship(s) between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. One of the puzzles Marsden tries to solve is why some fundamentalists adapt so readily to some aspects of modernity and not to others. In particular Marsden is puzzled why fundamentalists readily take up mass communications and modern transportation when fundamentalism itself is anti-modern.
This is something that puzzles me, too; but I’ll get to that later.
This led me to look for a definition of modernity, both in contrast to what it replaced and what is gradually replacing it. We tend to think of modernity as being characterized by
- A general if occasionally vague or fuzzy faith in human progress
- Gradual but inexorable empowerment of the individual [link]
That’s the shorter less precise definition I’m more or less familiar with, and the one I heard as a kind of straw man back in the Eighties when I first encountered this stuff. More detailed definitions tend to identify aspects of modernity as if they were separable:
- A post-traditional or post-medieval outlook
- Displacement of feudalism in favor of capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, and the nation-state [link]
These are interlocking pieces: to a degree secularization is the banishment of religion; capitalism and industrialization went hand in hand; capitalism more or less shaped the modern nation-state and industrialization gave it its power, etc. Some pieces are harder to fit together, though: while it’s easy to see how rationalization aided industrial progress, and undermined religion, it’s harder to see that industrialization and secularization should necessarily coincide.
And that’s an aspect of Marsden’s puzzle in a nutshell. Some people lose their faith as they become rich; others don’t. Some people believe in the power of science and technology exclusive of their belief in God; others don’t.
Still, much of the history of American Christianity can be described in terms of accommodation or rejection of modernity. The Amish more or less reject it outright; various theological innovations have been overt accommodations of modernism (e.g. liberation theology). And I think I’d be tempted to lay out the various aspects of conservative Christianity according to what aspects of modernity it accommodates: some merely accommodate modern technology; others technology and optimism; others capitalism and/or the politics of the modern nation-state. The last, of course, being the primary point of difference in the late Seventies between fundamentalists and evangelicals. And the adoption of business management practices as church management being the big controversy within e.g. the LCMS.
I think I would even argue that differences in preaching style could be framed this way: some preachers appeal to our emotions and traditions and so doing are premodern or early modern; others appeal to our reason or even ask us to calculate, and so are (more) modern [link].
Marsden wrote this particular essay back in the late Eighties; I wonder what he would say if he were writing the same essay today. After all, the megachurch per se wasn’t yet a well-formed concept until at least 1992 [link].
I recommend Marsden’s book whole-heartedly. If anything I wish it were longer and more detailed, with more data and less story; that being said, nobody else that I’ve found said what he says as clearly as he does or looks at modern church history this way. It’s a pretty useful model; Joe Bob says check it out.
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.