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Archive for September, 2010

denominationalism as a solution for rogue preachers

September 30, 2010 6 comments

I’m an Evangelical Christian; I’m willing to admit that Evangelicalism may be a failed experiment.

A generation or so ago my family left mainstream Christianity for independent fundamentalism, then for Evangelicalism, mostly because of a liberal/modernist drift within the professional Christians (church hierarchy, church-affiliated universities, publishing houses, etc.) in our denomination. Unfortunately fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and independent churches have their problems, too, and I’m always curious to hear second-generation refugees tell their stories of how they dealt with these problems and their consequences.

Jeri Massi is a Bob Jones refugee who has found refuge in a Reformed church and has written about her experiences in her book Schizophrenic Christianity [link]. This is not a great book, but I recommend reading it anyway, mostly because I think she has identified some of the symptoms of what’s wrong with fundamentalism correctly, although I’m not sure her diagnosis of the underlying disease makes any sense. She basically says that preachers who molest children get away with it because their churches aren’t part of a denomination, and a strong denominational framework would prevent sociopaths from reaching the pulpit and/or detect and discipline them effectively when needed.

This seems to be a popular theme among people who flee dysfunctional independent churches for denominational churches. Another example surfaced recently when Terry Mattingly visited Issues Etc. [mp3] to discuss Terry Jones, the independent pastor in Gainesville, Florida who made the news recently for his church’s plan to burn copies of the Koran, etc. Mattingly has something of a complicated religious background; if I remember correctly he grew up Baptist in Texas, attended Baylor, taught at Milligan, a Church of Christ school in Tennessee, was a Lutheran of some stripe for a while, and is now Eastern Orthodox [link]. Anyway, his appearance on Issues Etc. is pretty much by-the-numbers Mattingly for a while, as he touches on his usual talking points:

  • The importance, credentials, and authority of Terry Mattingly
  • The importance of and dearth of good religion reporting
  • The relative stupidity of fundamentalists vs. mainline/mainstream Christians

And it was on this last point that his discussion with host Todd Wilken really got going, as they agreed that one of the problems with Mr Jones is that there was nobody “who could call him and tell him to stop.” The implication being, of course, that someone like Mr Jones, no matter how hot his temper, would certainly obey his denominational authority.

This sort of argument sounds pale coming from Wilken, given that when his show was canceled by his denomination [e.g. link, link] he left the LCMS umbrella and went independent, yet he continues to comment on LCMS organizational issues from outside the denominational structure. That’s my understanding, at least; if Wilken is still accountable to the LCMS for the content of his show I hope someone will point me to the appropriate evidence.

The argument sounds doubly pale given the recent NALC/ELCA split [link]. While I realize that this split was the result of many months of discussions and centered around the question of the ordination of gay clergy in the ELCA, I don’t see a qualitative difference between a bunch of pastors banding together to leave a denomination en masse and a single pastor doing something confrontational and headline-grabbing regardless of what his imagined denominational authority would have told him to do. My expectation would be that, had Mr Jones had a denomination to answer to, and they’d forbidden him to burn a bunch of Korans, he would have accused his denomination of being apostate (and universalist, or secretly Muslim, or some such), had his fifteen minutes of fame, been subject to discipline, and gone independent if he’d been defrocked by his denomination.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I don’t believe a denomination would have stopped Mr Jones from burning Korans any more than it stopped Mr Wilken from running a radio show. And of course I think it’s telling that Mr Jones was convinced to call off his Koran-burning not on the basis of his identity in Christ, but on the basis of his identity as an American. But that’s another topic for another day.

new James White videos

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Last week I posted links and some comments regarding James White’s debate at Calvary Santa Fe with Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis regarding predestination. White has posted video of just the cross-examination from this debate:

I don’t know why he’s just posted the cross-examination, and I don’t know why he’s titled it “Free Will?” when the original title of the debate was “Predestination” [link]. As I mentioned in my earlier post I think the debate was close but that Sungenis won narrowly, even though I’m more sympathetic to White’s position and thought he had a stronger opening argument.

The platform at Calvary Santa Fe looks nice in this video, though, doesn’t it? See what I meant when I said the place was well-lit? The floods visible in the upper part of the frame are hidden from most seats in the sanctuary. Also, that cross is what’s left from the more complicated cross-fish-dove logo [link] that replaced the older, simpler Calvary Chapel dove logo a few years ago. I’m sure there’s some deep symbolism in the church’s decision to remove part of the old logo and leave part, but I’m not going to dare to guess what it signifies.

Also, White has released a video commenting on Ergun Caner’s appearance in Bristol (and I suppose, other things; I haven’t watched the whole thing):

Here’s the description, from the video page:

A mountain of factual information has been produced demonstrating Ergun Caner has engaged in gross dishonesty in his self-promoting claims. Yet, now that he has “cover” from the likes of Norman Geisler, Caner is back to his old ways, mocking his critics and spinning a tale.

Can you see what’s wrong with that first sentence? That’s right! There are two nouns in that sentence (“mountain,” “Ergun Caner”) that, since they lack modifiers, look totally naked and out of place. Etc.

Caner: “3 of 4” Muslims in America are “running from Islam.”

September 29, 2010 2 comments

One little nugget from Ergun Caner’s appearance in Bristol really stuck out for me, I guess because unlike most everything else in the article it’s something I hadn’t heard before [link]:

Caner, who has written 17 books, including four about Islam, claims “3 of 4” Muslims in America are “running from Islam.”

“Our problem is the 1 out of 4,” Caner said. “They don’t understand religious freedom. They don’t understand freedom of speech. They say, ‘Stop saying we’re violent or we’ll kill you.’ Really? Did you just hear yourself say that?”

There are several interesting things about the “3 out of 4” part of this quote. First of all, I’d never heard it before. I don’t know how Caner could know this; perhaps he’s done some original research on Muslims in America. I don’t know how I’d go about fact-checking something like this; I don’t know what qualifies as “running from Islam.” Second, it’s a more conciliatory position than most Christian commentators I hear take; most of them basically say there’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim, the Koran is an innately violent book, etc. I’d be surprised, for example, Robert Spencer [mp3], Pamela Geller [mp3], or Brigitte Gabriel [mp3], all fairly recent guests on Issues Etc., would agree with Caner’s characterization.

On the other hand, given that there’s no accurate number for how many Muslims there are in America [link], with counts from various usually reputable sources varying by a factor of more than 4 between the high and low over a six-year period, I’m more inclined to suspect that Ergun Caner doesn’t actually have a fact to offer here and is instead engaging in a little fact-inventing when something innocuous like “most Muslims are perfectly nice people” would have sufficed.

I mean after all, if 75% of Americas estimated 7 million Muslims were “running from Islam” (that’s 5,250,000 people, more than live in Los Angeles [link]) wouldn’t that have some impact on how the media treats domestic Islam?

Ergun Caner in Bristol

September 28, 2010 2 comments

Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ergun Caner put in an appearance at a prayer breakfast in Bristol, VA on Friday morning, and managed to make the local paper [link]. Bristol straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, and the combined city had about 40,000 people in the 2000 census. Perhaps the prayer breakfast scene there is livelier than it is here in Santa Fe, but 500 people turning out on a Friday morning in a town that size sounds huge to me; a proportional crowd would be about 900 here. The quantity of percolated coffee alone required to power a prayer breakfast that size boggles the mind.

The Bristol Herald Courier apparently sent reporter David McGee, who mostly covers motor sports [link]; I am not familiar with Mr McGee’s writing, so I can’t say for sure whether the article is a hash because of Caner or because of McGee, or even because of some uncredited stringer. I get the impression that Caner is casting the controversy surrounding him as honest mistakes that were blown out of proportion by malevolent third parties, for which he has apologized but not yet set the record straight.

“The school said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Fine, investigate me.’ But the controversy alone, you pay the price for the controversy. You pay the price for the attention and the bad publicity,” Caner said. “Every pastor in America, ask them if you can go through 200-odd hours of your sermons. Would they find where you said your kids names wrong or dates wrong? Yeah of course. You just smile and move on.”

This is a great quote for several reasons: one because if I understand correctly Caner is saying he was given a choice as to whether they would investigate him or not. I wonder what his other choice was. Two, because 200 hours is a vast amount of pulpit time; if a pastor spends a half-hour speaking twice a week (Sunday morning and Sunday night, or Sunday morning and Wednesday night; churches where the pastor delivers three different full sermons a week are sadly rare these days), fifty weeks a year, that’s two full years of sermons. For most pastors that would be even more; for my current church that would be four years or more. At Thomas Road it would probably be three or four, given the number of men who man that pulpit in a typical week. Regardless, it’s an interesting number; I’d be interested to see if 200 hours of Caner’s talk s and sermons are available online, and whether his misstatements fit the example he’s suggesting here.

“You learn to live with adversity. You learn through adversity. And it takes more than edited videos to knock me down,” Caner said.

This is an interesting quote, too; I’d encourage anyone interested to be sure to track down the unedited versions of videos whenever possible. For example, when I first saw the YouTube video where Caner claims to have been born in Istanbul my first thought was that he must be the victim of a malevolent edit. So when a link to the unedited video [link] turned up I was surprised to find that he said the same thing there too. I will leave it as an exercise for the viewer to decide whether saying “Istanbul” instead of “Sweden” fits the pattern of getting kids’ names wrong.

Born in Sweden to Turkish parents and raised as a Sunni Muslim, Caner converted to Christianity after his family moved to Ohio.

This was the discrepancy that did it for me; this was the thing that convinced me Caner was actually deceiving his audience rather than just misspeaking in the heat of the moment. I’m still waiting to hear some clarification regarding his past in “Islamic youth jihad” and how that happened while he was growing up in Ohio. I haven’t yet seen any evidence that Caner spent any time in Turkey, much less any time in a Turkish militant Islamic youth organization.

I’d be inclined to drop the whole matter if Caner weren’t still doing pretty much the same thing he was doing before he was demoted; the rest of the article makes it clear he was invited to Bristol to talk about Islam, not about apologetics, or cults and sects, or the Crusades, or any of the other myriad things about which he is expert, and about which no questions have been raised regarding his qualifications.

The McGee article was syndicated in the Lynchburg paper [link] under a different title. I’d love to know the last time the Lynchburg paper carried an article on a prayer breakfast at another town in Virginia.

dirty money

September 27, 2010 1 comment

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy [link] put in an appearance on Issues Etc. [mp3] back in August pushing his article at The Weekly Standard [link] titled “George Soros’s Evangelicals,” an expose on how money from atheist Soros ended up in the pockets of left-leaning Evangelicals Richard Cizik (former National Association of Evangelicals head) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners fame):

[Cizik] has created a left-leaning New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Initially after his NAE departure Cizik was affiliated with Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation. Then he became a fellow at George Soros’s Open Society Institute, concurrent to his creating the new liberal evangelical group.

Tooley doesn’t say how much money Cizik got from these affiliations. He gives more detail about Wallis:

Until recently, the Open Society Institute’s website openly listed its grants to [Sojourners]: $200,000 grant in 2004, $25,000 in 2006, and $100,000 in 2007.

This would be about $108,000 on average against an annual budget that in 2009 was $5.5 million [link], so we can call this 2-3% of primary revenue. It’s a substantial amount of money (roughly half the size of their 2009 budget shortfall), but small enough that I have to wonder why a billionaire like Soros would bother.

The Wallis section of the article is just a summary of an article by Marvin Olasky [link]. Olasky, because of his Dominionist leanings and his history with the Fieldstead Institute [link], is someone I look out for as being a sign of trouble. His appearance in this little discussion makes it seem like not much more than partisans doing what partisans do.

Regardless, it brings up the unpleasant question of dirty money: money that comes from an unpleasant or even evil source, but that if it comes with no strings attached spends just as well as any other money and is hard to turn down. I’ve already mentioned the taint of Moon money in the Falwell camp; it’s left Falwell open to charges that Moon bought influence in the ministry, or being in league with a cultist, or something-I’m-not-sure-what. Christopher Hitchens made a big deal of Mother Teresa taking money from the Duvaliers and Charles Keating [link]; I really have no idea who cares about that. But people who turn down dirty money are rare, so far as we know. I can only find one church on record that turned down lottery winnings: First Baptist Orange Park, 2008 [link].

I don’t know where the line is here; it’s clearly the influence the money may buy we worry about rather than the money, most of the time. After all, we can see what the money does, but it’s harder to see the strings, unless the recipient makes some gesture or gives a quid pro quo, like a board membership or a building name. And frankly sometimes it’s hard to tell dirty money from clean; not every legitimate businessman gets rich by giving his customers the best deal.

Fallwell Jr supports ABC privatization plan

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

As the Lynchburg News-Advance reported earlier this week, Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr supports Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s plan to privatize the state’s liquor stores [link].

Folks outside Virginia may not know this, but in Virginia beer and wine are sold in grocery stores, but hard liquor can only be purchased through state-run Alcohol Beverage Control Board (ABC) stores. The current governor is proposing to sell off these stores; as best I can tell this is entirely a search for revenue on the governor’s part and is being proposed without regard to any social impact the sale might have. My recollection growing up in Virginia was that there was some sort of stigma attached to entering an ABC store, and if that’s still the case I suppose this would remove that stigma.

Honestly I don’t understand Jerry Jr’s argument:

“In my view, Virginia’s private sector, its families, churches and businesses will be better served and protected by eliminating government-sanctioned monopolies.”

How Virginia’s families and churches would benefit from privately-run neighborhood package stores I can’t imagine. Unless of course they were the families running the stores. If there’s a silver lining for Virginia churches here I can’t imagine what it is; I can’t picture a preacher wanting a liquor store in his neighborhood. The same article quotes Jerry Jr’s brother Jonathan:

“I have no position on whether ABC sales in Virginia are private or public, my hope would be that we could shut all liquor sales down,” Jonathan Falwell said.

I suspect reporter Ray Reed took the right tack here, and this is just a political favor Falwell Jr is doing Governor McDonnell.

I really have no idea what other reason Jerry Jr would have to speak up regarding liquor stores; Liberty students aren’t supposed to be consuming alcohol at all. I suppose we’ll see this episode reach its moment of highest irony if ABC stores are privatized and one of the new private stores opens within easy walking distance of the proposed Canders Road walkover from the Liberty campus. Or when the university’s endowment invests in a chain of liquor stores.

Chuck Swindoll, postmodernism, and all that

September 25, 2010 1 comment

Earlier this week I got an e-mail advertisement from Christianity Today for a forthcoming book by Chuck Swindoll [link].

I love Christianity Today, sometimes more out of habit than out of desire. I appreciate their historical stance as an alternative to The Christian Century, as a magazine documenting and informing an evangelical culture as an alternative to American mainline Protestant Christianity. I also understand that getting advertisements from them is part of the price I pay for their otherwise free Web content. And I appreciate that Chuck Swindoll is an important historical figure in American Evangelical Christianity, as an Evangelical Free Church pastor and head of the primary Dispensationalist seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary. I also understand that he’s a book-a-year man, and these books are part of the price we pay for having Swindoll around; chances are slim Swindoll has said anything new, or even interesting, but he’s written more than his fair share of profound and helpful things, etc.

Here’s the blurb from the link above:

In THE CHURCH AWAKENING, Charles Swindoll discusses the challenges, struggles, and priorities of the church in the twenty-first century. He reveals the problems inherent in the entertainment-based postmodern church and shows how a return to biblical teaching will restore its strength and impact. Now being replaced by a feel-good message instead of what Christians need to know to stand strong in a world that’s lost its way–Swindoll exposes the problems of–and solutions for–the postmodern evangelical church.

This seems to be a fairly common theme nowadays: that belief in a Gospel expressed in modern, absolute, propositional language and received from a reputable authority is a refuge from a decadent postmodern church that has become too much like the decadent postmodern world in which it lives. The only odd thing about this phrasing of this refrain is that the word “evangelical” modifies only the bad church, not the good one Swindoll proposes as the remedy. I might almost expect this blurb for a book by Michael Horton or any of his ex-Evangelical now-Reformed brethren.

I’m afraid I’ve heard this “I am modern; they are postmodern” dichotomy so often that my inner warning lights flash whenever I sense it. I don’t think any of us think the Church should be a place where we go to be entertained, or where we go to hear “feel-good messages,” whatever those are. But this underlying message that the Gospel is first and foremost a set of propositions to be agreed to gets the cart before the horse, and it’s important to remember that Jesus did not call us to adhere first and foremost to Absolute Truth; He called us to repent and believe the Good News, and to follow Him. He didn’t call us to forsake postmodernism for modernism. The American Church isn’t in the mess it’s in because people want to be entertained or want to feel good; it’s in this mess because it has failed to be the Church. Some time in the last generation it got rich, moved to the suburbs, and joined the Republican Party, but it was already a mess before it did that. And calling out postmodernism, etc. isn’t going to fix it.