Archive for May, 2011

Scottsdale Bible Church

This is the last post in my little series on this visit to Scottsdale Bible Church. I have been sitting on the fence about posting this at all, as my impression of SBC was mostly positive and most of what I have to say here is negative. And it’s not a criticism of SBC or Jamie Rasmussen in particular, but more the way we as conservative, Bible-believing and -quoting Christians go about exegesis.

The tagline for this sermon was Rasmussen’s encouragement to us to develop “a mindset that leads to a biblical worldview of the struggles of life.” This was sort of its premise and its conclusion: Rasmussen took us from this as a statement of a goal to be reached, then to various Scripture verses with commentary, and back here to this conclusion again. Let’s for the moment ignore the question of whether terms like “mindset” and “worldview” are native to Scripture or whether they’re modern concepts that have to be imported into a text. For Rasmussen this boils down to a simple (not to say easy) matter of switching our focus from our personal struggles to “the glory of God.” This consumes most of the sermon, and it’s not until the end that he explains what he more or less means by the latter term, and it turns out to mean the pursuit and perfection of various spiritual disciplines: more prayer, more Bible reading, etc.

I’m going to call this a bait and switch, because that’s what I think it is. It’s not that our problems are real and God’s glory is imaginary, but rather that our problems are concrete and specific, while the glory of God is often abstract, general, and nebulous. We have a sense of God’s glory in the grand sweep of redemptive history, and we know God is glorified in specific acts of worship, but generally the terms here can’t be fairly compared. Either God is glorified by the fact that we suffer (and that’s not what Rasmussen is claiming) or He isn’t; if the former we’ve got an apples-to-apples comparison here; if the latter we don’t.

Rasmussen also sets up and knocks over a straw man that is familiar in conservative circles: he appeals to unnamed TV preachers who claim God will deliver us from trouble if we pray enough and are faithful enough, if we buy “prayer cloths” and “combine your faith with my faith by giving to my ministry.” I don’t know who if anyone on television actually says these things, especially the latter about combining faith. I don’t think the conservative community is well-served by this sort of characterization. Preachers who do this should either name names and give concrete examples (which would be my preference) or stop dealing in these terms. It’s sloppy and cowardly.

Finally Rasmussen closed with this quote from Spurgeon:

There are experiences of the children of God which are full of spiritual darkness and I am most persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favored have nevertheless suffered more times of darkness than others.

I continue to be surprised that otherwise careful people offer up such bland nonsense as true just because it was said by somebody famous. To my recollection Scripture offers no such sentiment; I’d pay a whole dollar for a reasonable counterexample. I think it’s more likely that this is comfort Spurgeon, who it is widely believed today suffered from some form of depression, offered himself, but on the basis of his own opinion, and it should be treated as such, rather than as the closing citation in a sermon otherwise founded more or less on Scripture.




Liberty University integration into the community brings compromise

Anybody who reads this blog knows how the various Falwell ministries made the transition from fundamentalist to evangelical, and how I tend to think of evangelicals of a certain stripe as being basically fundamentalist, but without the separatist bent. Fundamentalists are right to warn us about compromise on cultural signifiers as we engaged with the broader culture: that engagement in politics would lead us away from simply proclaiming the Gospel (and it has); and that starting universities would cause us to seek the approval of the broader culture and undermine the authority of Scripture (results have been mixed here).

But one of the things I don’t remember them warning us about was how becoming rich would cause us to compromise. I suppose either it never occurred to our mid-century fundamentalist friends that we’d become affluent, or possibly the fundamentalist position on wealth and influence generally at mid-century was already so compromised that they didn’t know to warn us.

So it was with some interest that I noticed a recent article from the Danville, VA paper regarding the purchase of a Cray supercomputer by the Virginia Tobacco Commission [link]. Danville is a formerly important industrial and agricultural center; it was also briefly the capitol of the Confederacy. But changes in wage scales and easy availability of overseas labor have ended most of the textile jobs in the Danville area and changes in the regulatory environment for tobacco have put significant pressure on agriculture as well. As a result Danville is a shadow of its former self and is in danger of becoming a suburb of Lynchburg, just an hour away on US 29.

The article linked above is a by-the-numbers “public spending creates jobs” story; a publicly funded tobacco organization is buying something, and there’s a promise that doing so will create real jobs in the Danville area. That much isn’t interesting; there will probably not be a follow-up story to see whether jobs were actually created, whether they are held by people from the Danville area who would otherwise by unemployed, etc. The current article is a rewritten press release (and making these is cheap); the follow-up would require investigative journalism (and doing that is expensive).

What’s interesting about this from my point of view is the fact that this meeting took place at Liberty University. I’m inclined to think of this as part of the ongoing integration of Liberty into the local economy, allowing its space to be rented etc. for various functions. But of course there are two problems here: one is that tobacco is a net social evil and an part of a culture of socially acceptable addiction. Second, it seems strange for a publicly-funded group to be holding meetings on campus and passing tax dollars back to Liberty University as payment for use of the space.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is or should be illegal; its just that Liberty University and the Virginia Tobacco Commission are strange bedfellows. I wonder if Liberty would be happy to host a meeting of Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control executives. Never mind what they’d do if marijuana were legalized and controlled by the state of Virginia.

Harvey Milk: Child Molester?

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 [link]. It’s worth noting that the prostitute in this case was also 16 at the time of Lawrence’s arrest. And while Lawrence is now a registered as a sex offender and is regarded as a tragic figure and a cautionary tale I do not hear him commonly called a child molester.

I have no idea if the world Shilts describes still exists, or if it collapsed under the weight of HIV/AIDS; as White and Brown discussed, cultural attitudes toward homosexuality and behavior in the homosexual community have changed a lot in the last generation or so. I have no idea if corresponding behaviors have changed, too, or if e.g. McKinley’s behavior is typical for a young urban gay male today.

Is Conservative “the new cool?”

Back in the late Eighties Liberty University graduates who went on to law school were few and far between; I knew literally a handful (three? five?) during my time there, and they were typically really sharp kids with interdisciplinary skills: Philosophy or Political Science majors who picked up a pre-law minor or cadged together a grab-bag of classes that prepared them for the rigors of law school. One was even an Accounting major who spent some time as a CPA before acing the LSAT and going on to the University of Virginia Law School.

Nowadays, though, Liberty has its own law school, and I wonder if it is attracting the same caliber of student as the ones I knew way back when. Not because I’ve actually met any Liberty-minted lawyers in the wild, mind you, but because so much of what I hear from Liberty law school faculty makes me ashamed to be a Liberty graduate.

Take for instance this recent blog post [link] from law professor Matt Barber [link]. It’s his encouragement for the children of left-leaning parents (“hippies,” “progressives,” etc.) to take a turn to the right. Here’s a sample:

So what is a young person — brimming over with that instinctive, defiant impulse to rebel against “the man” — to do?

Well, in this up-is-down, spend-money-to-save-money world, conservatives have become the contemporary nonconformists. Today’s rebellious youth are telling the progressive establishment to put its moral-relativist, redistributionist party-line pig swill in its well-used chamber pipe and smoke it.

That’s pretty much the flavor: our political enemies are awful people, certainly their children know better, the kids should come join us, etc. I guess it’s pretty ordinary political rah-rah stuff; I just wonder whether it’s really meant to reach out to its purported audience or whether it’s meant to suggest to young conservatives that they’re the vanguard of some demographic revolution, etc. In Barber’s terminology I wonder how many twenty-something future Joe Wiegand’s there really are. The article is mostly fact-free; I’d encourage careful readers to look for numbers in it that aren’t results of surveys. There aren’t many.

Kids: Really want to get under your obnoxiously “tolerant,” Volvo-driving, MSNBC-watching folks’ skin? Try this: Go to church, abstain from premarital sex, join the Young America’s Foundation, attend a Tea Party rally, enroll at Liberty University, listen to Rush Limbaugh and vote Republican.

You’ll have them writhing in their Birkenstocks.

I have to admit to being more message-cynical than most, but this sort of “let me appeal to your baser instincts for the benefit of some higher purpose” stuff always leaves me cold. It’s not just that they have all the vim of a public service announcement for say green vegetables; it’s also that the speaker doesn’t even seem to notice the oxymoronic quality of the concept of a conservative avant-garde. Etc.

But there’s also the problem that the things he cites above as being counter-countercultural or whatever are a complete grab-bag. Does the Tea Party crowd have an abstinence plank in their platform? What denomination are they? Are they even Christian? Libertarians, to my recollection, tend to be great for talking about cutting taxes and shrinking government, but in reality they’re pro-choice, big fans of legalized drugs, gun rights supporters, and favor government-funded health care as part of their drug-legalization plans. They’re not exactly Christian conservatives.

And where does Young America’s Foundation [link] fit into all this? As best I can tell it’s an organization devoted to the veneration of Ronald Reagan. Haven’t there been two Republican Presidents since 1988? Why aren’t they the big draw for young Alex Keatons?

Rush Limbaugh? He of the three divorces? Really? He hasn’t had anything interesting to say since the end of the Clinton Administration.

And finally: is this what a Christian university does nowadays? Would someone please read through Barber’s piece and find the fruits of the Spirit in it? I can’t find them anywhere. I wonder what happened to my alma mater; it used to at least pay lip service to training “champions for Christ.” I don’t see Jesus in this mess anywhere.

Scottsdale Bible Church

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if we had to move to the Phoenix area we’d be sorely tempted to make Scottsdale Bible Church our home church. We understand why our Navigators friends decided to settle here. And let’s be frank: anyone who has been part of a healthy parachurch community often has a hard time finding a church.

That being said, I’m more inclined to scrutinize a church I’d consider moving to than a church I’m just visiting like a tourist. So let’s do the rundown. This is an independent church; unlike some churches with names like “X Bible Church,” SBC is not affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches or the Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches, or any denomination, for that matter. They have a history intertwined with Fellowship Bible Church in Chagrin Falls, OH, but that’s it. This can be a good thing; it can be a bad thing. Denominations are good for providing infrastructure and accountability, but they also tend to have their own direction and inertia; see e.g. the SBC in the Seventies and the Nineties, the Anglican communion and the ELCA today, for example.

But with independent churches there’s often nobody providing backup when things go wrong. There are no written policies for emergencies, there’s no contingency planning, and there may be nobody in leadership who has ever been through a serious crisis before. They may or may not be on guard against embezzlement, leadership appropriation or misuse of ministry property, or people who prey on children. And oddly, while the former categories are rarely newsworthy, the latter often is; take for example the recent coverage of the arrest of Alvaro Daniel Guzman for inappropriately touching a boy while working at Lakewood Church in Houston.

This is an especially difficult problem for churches: media coverage tends to be long on accusation and short on verdicts; the church rarely has a chance to clear its name; the person arrested, as is the case for Guzaman, sometimes has no prior criminal record; and even simple criminal background checks are sufficient to scare off potential volunteers, so churches tend not to require them as part of routine volunteer screening. This appears to be the case at SBC: volunteers are subject to interview by church staff, but so far as I can tell no background checks are required.

I don’t know what the right answer is here; people with nothing to hide often resent being required to submit to a background check; background checks often fail to find future offenders in advance; etc. But churches really need to take precautions against predators in their midst; I’d consider it a warning sign that a church doesn’t vet volunteers. Independent churches, especially, are often tempted to cover up anything that might lead to a scandal that would harm revenues, as they’ve got no denominational backup in the event of a crisis. So I’d consider the lack of background checks, combined with the self-contained accountability structure something of a warning sign. Not a warning sign of inappropriate activity, but a warning sign that the church may not respond well when something goes wrong.

Let’s just take is as read that I mentioned C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries here; I don’t know if the people who go by the pseudonyms “Wallace” and “Happymom” are credible or not, but their accusations against SGM Fairfax give me pause, and the story they tell should serve as a warning of how things can go wrong when churches have crises that may not be their fault but that they nevertheless handle poorly.

Scottsdale Bible Church

Scottsdale Bible Church gives every indication of being a well-organized church. The bulletin lists phone numbers and/or email addresses for the elder board, senior pastor, executive pastor, the leads for various efforts that aren’t strictly speaking pastoral but are apparently paid staff, the pastoral care coordinator and the pastor emeritus. There’s a substantial schedule of activities with dates, times, locations and contact numbers. There’s the usual contact card and executive summary for first-time visitors. And there’s a summary of financial information for the fiscal year to date, showing that giving is up very slightly, and they’re running a smallĀ  (1.5%) budget surplus through 45 weeks.

This is no mean feat given that the Phoenix area is one of the places worst-hit by the collapse in housing prices. It is reasonable to expect that people who attend SBC have as they say participated fully in the current recession. I think their budget/attendance numbers bear this out.

If I focus on the people who carry the ministry I end up with something like an 80/20 model, where I assume that 20% of the people give 80% of the money. If I project the 45-week giving number ($7,672,601) to a full 52-week year that’s $8,866,116 for nominally 6000 people. If we extract the 80/20 number that’s about $5900. If for comparison’s sake we do the same with the Mars Hill Church 2010 annual report, which covers a different but overlapping period of time, the comparable number is more like $7500, or 27% more. In other words, Scottsdale Bible Church may appear to be a church full of rich people, but it isn’t necessarily a rich church.

This may be due partly to the fact that it is chock-full of retirees as well. I’d say roughly half of the people attending the 8AM service had gray hair; I rather doubt that’s the case at any of the services at any of the Mars Hill campus churches.

But I digress; I wanted to be sure to mention something that’s been on my mind regarding churches and the current recession. I had expected that there would be lots of foreclosures and bankruptcies; instead I’ve seen churches selling their buildings to formerly renting churches (this has happened twice that I know of here in Santa Fe alone) or merging with financially healthier churches. See e.g. the new arrangement between Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA and its new satellite Airlee Court Baptist Church in Roanoke, an hour away [link]. While I’m not overly thrilled at the idea of satellite churches or campus churches, where they gather to watch television and have at best a local assistant pastor, I have to admit this is better than an established church going dark altogether.

Regardless, I appreciate this minimal amount of apparent disclosure regarding money on the part of SBC. I wish this were the norm among independent churches; in my experience it is not.

Ergun Caner joins Arlington Baptist College

May 18, 2011 1 comment

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.