Archive for March, 2011

Bishop: The Big Sort

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of years ago a friend of ours popped a CD of praise music into the CD player at her moms group meeting, and one of the other moms responded with something like

Oh let’s not listen to that; we wouldn’t want anyone to think we support the war in Iraq.

At the time the connection struck me as odd; I mean, I don’t especially like contemporary praise and worship music, and I don’t and never have supported the Iraq War, but I didn’t see the two as related. I mean, “Here I Am To Worship” dates from December 2001 [link] and the Iraq War didn’t begin until March 2003 [link]. Etc.

The link came to mind repeatedly as I read Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart [link]. Credit where due: I first heard about this book on Brian Daugherty’s blog [link]; see also [link]. Bishop’s main thesis is that there are basically two kinds of voters in the United States, and they tend to live in homogeneous communities consisting of exactly one kind of people: those who vote the way they do.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but then Bishop is engaging in a vast oversimplification. For some reason the 2000 Presidential election separates the past, loosely defined, from the current era, loosely defined, in the minds of many people, and Bishop is one of those people. He talks confidently about Red States (states whose Electoral College votes were casts for George W. Bush in 2000) and Blue States (similarly Al Gore) and suggests that the people who cast their votes for Bush or Gore live in increasingly separate worlds; not just Red or Blue counties, but Red or Blue precincts, neighborhoods, social circles, and churches.

It is of course the last part (Red Churches, Blue Churches) that interests me, and I think it’s worth a post of its own. But that’s not this one.

Reading Bishop’s book I wondered why he chose the method he chose; why 2000? Why Presidential voting results? Because after all not many people actually take their primary identity from this distinction. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the pastor at the church I attend tends to vote for Democrats or Republicans. When we had two the prevailing rumor was that one voted one way, the other the other. I never found out which was which.

I am tempted to conclude that this is because

  1. The data is available, more or less. The 2000 campaign was national and was much more data-driven than the 1996 campaign.
  2. Elected offices are very important prizes to modern people. They’re not just positions of power, influence, and indirect wealth; they represent our faith in the modern nation-state if not modernity itself.
  3. In many areas in 2000 the Republicans did a very good job of exploiting existing affinity groups. This was apparently part of the genius of Karl Rove.

So when we learn for example that Republicans were able to sniff out religious conservative voters by asking questions about land use and property rights (page 231) maybe it’s reasonable to conclude that the story above about praise music and war support isn’t so strange; it’s just a matter of an amateur doing the same thing for free a professional does for money. Or votes.


two sermon reviews from Issues Etc.

March 30, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago over at Phoenix Preacher in one of his Linkathon postings Brian Daugherty asked why we don’t see more “Why I Am Not A Calvinist” or “Why I Am Not Reformed” postings on various blogs. It’s a fair question, and one that has been much on my mind.

It isn’t a subject I want to wade into very deeply now, but I think if I had to I might start with something like “because I would go out of my mind hearing a sermon out of Romans every Sunday.” But that’s hardly an adequate answer, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.

If instead I had to put together a list of reasons why I’m not a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I might start with a couple of recent sermon reviews from Issues Etc.:

  • A review of what appears to be a sermon from Saddleback Church on “The Daniel Plan” diet program [mp3], featuring Chris Rosebrough
  • A review of a sermon by Brent Kuhlman on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [mp3, link]

I’ll give you a clue up front: Wilken and Rosebrough hate the first sermon, while Wilken doesn’t just love the second sermon, but recommends it as a pattern for every sermon.

The first sermon (if you can call it that) is a discussion by Rosebrough and Wilken of Rick Warren’s endorsement of a diet plan based on the story of Daniel and his fellow captives and their choice not to eat the king’s food, but to eat only vegetables and drink only water (Daniel 1). Let me be clear: I think it would be a great idea for many of my fellow Christians (including myself) to get a grip on their calorie intake, be mindful eaters, etc. I think it’s a great spiritual discipline, and a defense against the sin of gluttony. That being said, I can’t agree with Warren’s approach here. I don’t think this is appropriate use of the pulpit, and I’m embarrassed for Warren and Saddleback.

But I can’t take the tack Rosebrough and Wilken take here; I don’t hear Warren suggesting that losing weight gets a person into Heaven, and that’s what they say he’s saying by responding to this with the neat soundbite “there are lots of skinny people in Hell.” They’re right to call Warren out for connecting God’s blessings with our “blessability,” or whatever, but their analysis is all wrong. I think they’ve misunderstood what he’s saying, so their response is unhelpful. Fleeing various sins is part of the process of sanctification, not a part of salvation, and I’m surprised to hear them responding to this as if Warren were saying it is.

I hesitate to mention that when Wilken has a Roman Catholic guest on Issues Etc. he doesn’t cover this same ground, where it would seem to be more appropriate. But I digress.

By way of contrast, Wilken highly recommends Kuhlman’s sermon. The core of the text is Paul’s quote that when he was in Corinth he was “determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified.” Wilken interprets this to mean that every sermon should be about Jesus’s death on the Cross as the sufficient sacrifice for our sins. This is apparently orthodox Lutheran teaching, at least in the LCMS. I tend to understand this text as being a description of Paul’s description of his intent when he was visiting the young, vulnerable, worldly, etc. Corinthian church and not as a basis for a universal directive applicable to all believers at all times in all places. It’s indicative, not imperative. Also, I think this reading is contrary to the spirit and intent of Paul’s letter; I consider his letter to be a sermon, since it was meant to be read openly before the church, and Paul deals with many issues in addition to soteriology.

Beyond that, Kuhlman’s sermon makes me cringe. He trots out straw men, and lousy ones at that. He belabors familiar and accepted points in a funny voice. And Wilken’s analysis of Kuhlman’s sermon compounds the problem by drawing a false dichotomy between Kuhlman and straw men of his own. I have to suggest that when Wilken suggests that the only choices for preaching style are either what he and Kuhlman have to offer and ear-tickling consumer-driven pablum he’s at best oversimplifying and at worst condemning other Christians on the basis of the teaching of men.

I have to admit that if I had to sit through a sermon like this every Sunday I would go out of my mind. The only rationale I can imagine for doing this week after week would be the mistaken (and I dare say mystical) belief that simply hearing Scripture read is a means of grace, and the text itself doesn’t matter, etc. Wilken suggests that he has been accused (conveniently by unnamed accusers) of creating fat, lazy, spoiled Christians by preaching the same sermon every Sunday. Let me be one of them: I believe preaching the same thing every Sunday dulls the soul and stunts spiritual growth. I can’t imagine why anyone else can’t see this too.


James O’Keefe, Sam Negus, and the defunding of National Public Radio

March 29, 2011 Leave a comment

So I waited for NPR On The Media to complete their series on bias in news coverage at NPR [link, link, link] before I got back to this, but the series at On The Media ended with more of a whimper than a bang. I would still encourage readers to check out the various segments spanning those three shows that deal with the basic question, but I have to admit the results were rather less than satisfactory. I am not sure what the real problem is here; I think it’s partly that the folks at OTM discuss this in political Left/Right terms without really defining either one. They raise some interesting questions regarding what the purpose of NPR should be, but then settle into comfortable but unhelpful answers about how nobody is entirely unbiased, how particular examples can be contextualized as anecdotal, etc. and then suggest that because they can find media experts who think NPR is too far to the left or too far to the right that somehow the question has no meaning (or words to that effect). I have to wonder if the big surprise here is that there are people who listen to NPR who are self-described conservatives.

But enough about that. I’d encourage readers to have a look (or a listen) at the exchange between self-described “a libertarian evangelical Christian who listens to a lot of public radio” and This American Life host Ira Glass [link]. Why Glass is on On The Media defending bias in NPR news coverage isn’t entirely clear, but it’s really beside the point. Here are the things Negus picks out as being examples of “liberal bias:”

  1. Coverage of labor issues in Wisconsin
  2. Coverage of the 2006 midterm elections
  3. An appearance by members of The Jesus Seminar on Fresh Air with Terry Gross

Of course it’s the last point that I found most interesting, not least because I don’t think Glass’s response was sufficient and it’s close to what bugs me about NPR. Here are the pull quotes:

Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air was on and her guest was a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar. And the Jesus Seminar, for anyone who isn’t familiar, the short version of what they believe that’s offensive to me as an evangelical Christian is that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead as a bodily historical fact but that that’s a kind of spiritual metaphor. Now, he can believe that. That’s fine. I’m not about forcing anyone to believe anything. The point was that a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar was on that show, on a national platform for a solid hour, unopposed. It wasn’t a panel. That sent a message to me.

And I think the thing that I said in my email, and maybe this is what stuck out to you, Ira, 99.99 percent, almost everybody in the world and everybody in the history of the world since the time of Christ to now who would identify themselves as a Christian would be deeply offended and upset by this, by this perspective, and moreover, wouldn’t consider this person to be a Christian.

Christ himself said, you want to know who I am? The resurrection is who I am. I’m going to be killed, I’ll be in the grave and then I will rise again. That’s the heart of my religion, which is the heart of my being. It’s, it’s everything I am.And I don’t mind that that person was on NPR. But I’ve listened to NPR for years and I’ve heard many, many religious shows, and I have not once got to the end of the show and thought, man, I am so glad that that guy was on there. He said exactly what I wanted him to say.

And Glass responds by redirecting the discussion from what Negus is talking about to something more comfortable for NPR, possibly, but an odd direction for Glass to take:

So, so I understand that you’re saying that there’s this question of tone that you’ve, that you hear all the time on all the shows, the news shows and the non-news shows, the, the – more the – more the talk shows. But do you think the information that you’re getting by and large is reliable?

This is an odd thing for Glass to do given that the objection he’s gotten from Negus is basically two-fold: he doesn’t hear a voice like his on NPR, and he doesn’t like NPR’s editorial tone. It doesn’t matter whether the programming is “news” or “non-news” if the editorial tone is biased; the question is whether it should be publicly funded.

Negus reappears in the third episode, but he’s talking about NPR coverage of immigration policy in Arizona and Utah; it’s not an especially interesting question, but it fits more into an inside-the-Beltway, left vs. right narrative than his Jesus Seminary question above.

I am much more interested in NPR’s coverage of religious issues generally; I’d encourage readers to take a look at the news stories NPR lists as being about “religion” [link] themselves. NPR generally doesn’t do religion stories; they mostly do “religion in society” or “religion in politics” stories, and needless to say they rarely if ever have anything nice to say about conservative Christians. I’d encourage readers to listen to a recent story about sexuality and the Bible [link] and a story on Lent [link] and then try to find a balancing story on a similar topic at NPR from a conservative perspective.

But back to Ira Glass. I don’t understand why he was on On The Media to talk about bias, but I do think it’s worth looking at his show (This American Life) and asking where the conservative Christian voices are there. To my recollection there have been only two shows that have given significant coverage to issues of even remote interest to conservative Christians:

  • Episode 77: Pray [link], in which Alix Spiegel visits Ted Haggard’s church
  • Episode 304: Heretics [link], their coverage of Carlton Pearson

In the latter episode Glass seems surprised that in these modern times anyone thinks anyone is actually heretical, and actually suggests that the very concept is medieval.

This American Life ran several episodes from ex-fundamentalist David Ellis Dickerson [link], and he’s about as close as TAL has ever gotten to having an authentic conservative Christian voice. And of course most of his contributions are about how he outgrew his faith and learned to embrace, well, whatever he is now.

And that’s it. Granted I’m several episodes behind on my TAL listening, and maybe they’ve featured a great story with a voice I find familiar in the meantime, but I rather doubt it. TAL has recently featured a couple of stories with Mormon voices, but of course they’re ex-Mormon (Jack Mormon) voices. And they’ve featured one story on Rumspringa. But the basic story line is basically the same: “I grew up some sort of religious conservative; I went through a crisis of faith; I gave up my faith; and now if I’m not happy it’s my former community’s fault.” Well, except for the Alix Spiegel story.

I wonder if Ira Glass has any idea why this is problematic.

Why doesn’t Ed Dobson do something about Rob Bell?

March 26, 2011 2 comments

I have a very short list of spiritual heroes. Ed Dobson is one of them. Sources close to me who know this sent me a link to this rarely-watched YouTube clip promoting a movie by/about Dobson:

And I thought “Man that video looks really familiar. What does that remind me of?” It’s not just the color palette; the scene composition, the camera angles, the beats, the story-telling choices, etc. It’s almost as if the same person shot, produced, and edited another video I’ve seen recently.

I know what it was; it was the promo for that Rob Bell book everybody and his brother can’t stop talking about. If you haven’t already seen it I’ll spare you; if you have then you know what I’m talking about regarding the style.

I love Ed Dobson and there’s nothing he could do that would ever change that. I am grateful to him for being the pulpit speaker he was my first couple of years at Liberty University, and for having the good sense to leave Moral Majority and go back to the pulpit. I sorely missed him after he left. As most people know, Dobson left Liberty for Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, MI, and served there for about twenty years, until his condition (arterial lateral sclerosis) made it impossible for him to continue. During that time Calvary participated in the planting of Mars Hill Bible Church, now pastored by Rob Bell. Bell is the author of four books, is one of the public faces of the Emerging/Emergent Church movement, and may or may not be a universalist.

I have been puzzled why Ed Dobson has done some of the things he has done; his 2008 appearance on Good Morning America not least among them:

And I don’t understand why someone as solidly theologically conservative as Dobson, as close to Bell as he must be, and as special (for lack of a better term) as he has become during his illness doesn’t confront Bell in the manner appropriate: private, with witnesses, and if need be publicly, in that order. Perhaps his ongoing struggle with ALS makes that difficult-to-impossible. I don’t know.

The two are clearly close enough to use the same video producer, after all.

There are lots of things I can’t know about Dobson and Bell, obviously. But I am led to wonder if perhaps James White’s approach to Bell in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link] isn’t close to the mark. White’s analysis, basically, is that Bell, having escaped from the fundamentalist fold, doesn’t know what to do exactly with his new-found freedom and in the process of taking it for a test drive has misapplied the theological concept of grace, etc. and ended up in the universalist ditch. I don’t know; I don’t much care; but it’s a helpful and cautionary explanation nonetheless.

This is a common problem; see e.g. Jason Hood’s recent analysis of grace misunderstood as antinomianism [link].

Regardless, I wish Dobson would take some of the precious time he has left and devote it to Bell. I’d hate to think he’d wandered off in a universalist direction too.

James O’Keefe, Sam Negus, and the defunding of National Public Radio

March 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a regular National Public Radio (NPR) listener; I do not contribute to the funding of National Public Radio. As I’ve mentioned here before I listen to several NPR podcasts (Technology, Religion, Business Story of the Day, World Story of the Day, and Planet Money) as well as some podcasts that are or have been partly funded through NPR (This American Life, On The Media). I believe they engage in behavior during election cycles that falls into the same gray area as voter guides and church issue advocacy, and so I think it is appropriate that they come under scrutiny every time the Republicans come into power in Washington. I also believe that the current push to defund NPR is stuff and nonsense like the recurring attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts: the amount of money is relatively small, the interests that depend on the money are clever and entrenched, so the furor surrounding defunding attempts is a sort of media-friendly theater meant to sharpen distinctions between political constituencies on the left and right. But that’s another topic for another day.

I don’t give money to my local station because their locally-produced programming does not reflect my values; I do not hear an editorial voice there that sounds familiar or shares my values in any way shape or form. And the syndicated programming they offer, which is really what’s at the center of the current discussion, doesn’t either.

The current discussion started when James O’Keefe of Project Veritas fame posed as a potential Muslim donor to NPR and got fundraiser Ron Schiller to say some stupid things. O’Keefe released an edited version of the tape, then later the full tape, and Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned. This played into an ongoing narrative on the part of the Tea Party element within the Republican Party and led to a vote to deny federal funding to NPR [link].

While I tend to think that NPR should not be getting federal money and I think it’s reasonable for NPR to become a political football every few years, this is not the way I would have wanted this to happen. I’m not a fan of O’Keefe; I think he’s more like Michael Moore than say Eighties-era Mike Wallace, and tends to muddy the issues he touches in a way that lowers the level of the debate, etc. Let me put this another way: I wish he could find a way to ask the same questions he’s asking without debasing the discussion with cheap tricks.

But the response from NPR has been interesting and enlightening, and as a result I think I have more specific reasons for wanting it defunded or at least reconsidered than I did before. Here is the typical response from NPR, more or less:

NPR receives only about two percent of its income directly from the [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. Federal funding mostly goes to stations that pay dues to NPR for programs. It provides roughly 10 percent of the public radio economy, but for small stations that percentage can be a lot higher. In rural communities it can run as high as 30 sometimes 50 percent… [link]

The argument basically goes like this: federal funding goes to stations, which in turn pay for programs. The content of the programs, which is what people like me actually hear, isn’t funded (directly) by federal money, so neener neener, or words to that effect. The content gets funded by multiple tax-exempt foundations, corporations, and of course NPR stations, so if you want to do something about the NPR editorial point of view, take it up with them.

Fair enough. What this means to me is that rather than defunding NPR, Congress should have someone take a look at its qualifications for tax-exempt status, and ask questions about whether its political speech is appropriate for its tax status. Hint: I do not think this is ever going to happen.

That’s enough for today. In the next post I will actually mention Sam Negus. I promise.

Word of Faith International Christian Center, Jackson MS

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

An item showed up on my megachurch Google Alert this morning regarding the court-appointed reorganization of Word of Faith International Christian Center in Jackson Mississippi:

A Jackson lawyer will oversee pretrial proceedings in a case pitting a Jackson megachurch against its former general manager over ownership of the beleaguered Mississippi Basketball and Athletics complex.Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Sweet Owens on Friday named James Henley as special master in the legal imbroglio involving Word of Faith Christian Center church and Jeffery Lewis, who is currently operating the church’s former foundation, court records show.

Special masters are officers of the court who serve in a quasi-judicial capacity. [link]

The foundation here is not strictly speaking part of the church. It’s complicated.

Founding bishop Kevin Wright stepped down in September of last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct and mismanagement of funds. It was subsequently discovered that

the MBA Center, which was paid for by the WOF Foundation but placed in Wright’s name. According to sources, Butler ordered it closed. The price tag for the MBA Center was estimated at $2 million. [link]

A later article clarifies and corrects some of the accusations and figures [link] but doesn’t correct the earlier statement that the MBA was paid for by the church but technically owned by Wright. How it came to be owned by the church foundation and into the control of Lewis isn’t clear.

That’s not the only thing that isn’t clear; the church is listed in more than one article as being a 4000+-member megachurch, but somehow missed the Hartford Institute list [link].

This basic pattern, however, is familiar: a church grows from being small to being large in a single generation; there’s financial stress and sexual misconduct; and business practices that weren’t worth mentioning when the church had nothing of value became important when the church was big, handling lots of money, and suddenly having shall we say organizational issues.

What’s the takeaway here? Well, I’d be tempted to put it this way: if a church or a parachurch organization is a single generation old (that is, if the founder is still on staff in any capacity) I’d suggest finding out who legally owns and controls the church, its property, and its finances. This is especially true if there is a second entity (an integrated auxiliary, if you will) such as a school, radio station, television station, publishing or production company, or sports complex that appears to be under the ministry’s organizational umbrella.

This is one more reason to suggest that if a church has a second entity like this the whole ministry should file the IRS Form 990 and disclose its assets.

please bear with me while I pick nits

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Joe Carter at First Things comments on a recent update on the size of America’s largest megachurches [link] and gets nearly everything wrong. First of all he quotes a secondary source [link] rather than the primary source [link]. Then in an attempt to be cute he refers to the largest churches as “gigachurches.” I hesitate to mention here that the prefix mega- has an actual meaning [link], meaning a million of something. So far as I know there’s only one church that claims to have a million members [link] and it isn’t in the United States. The term megachurch refers to a Protestant church self-reporting 2000 in regular attendance, so it’s a coinage that doesn’t admit upscaling the way Carter does here. Even if it did a church running self-reporting 4000 in attendance wouldn’t be a gigachurch, since the prefix giga- has a literal meaning too [link]. It would be a neat trick to have a billion people show up for church one Sunday morning. I believe it could be done within the city limits of a moderate-sized American city, if they sat close together, but parking and similar logistics would be well nigh impossible.

Second, he misstates the content of the original article; the 100 largest churches didn’t double in size between 2000 and 2010. The churches listed 100th in the survey doubled in size, from roughly 4000 to roughly 8000. There are 12 of them.

The original source notes that there are 1.2 million people reported to attend the 103 churches in the top 100. This should be 1.176 million in 100, but you get the idea. The total for the top 100 in 2000 isn’t given, so the conclusion Carter draws can’t be drawn from the data given. Then again, at least one of the conclusion the original author draws:

Church lists are a trust and a living record of God’s mighty acts in our generation.

Can’t necessarily be drawn either.