Posts Tagged ‘Christianity Today’

Mitt Romney, graduation speaker

May 24, 2012 1 comment

I’m a graduate of Liberty University; I did not agree with the university’s decision to invite Mitt Romney as commencement speaker.

Tobin Grant did some analysis at Christianity Today [link] and noted that as a graduation speaker Romney’s not out of line with lots of graduation speakers. He mentions John McCain (2006), George H. w. Bush (1990), Newt Gingrich (1991, 2007), Ben Stein (2009), and Glenn Beck (2010). He didn’t mention Oliver North (1988), who subsequently ran as a Republican for Senate in Virginia, Bill Armstrong (1985), Donald Hodel (1986), Pat Buchanan (1992), Phil Gramm (1995), or Clarence Thomas (1996). He fairly notes that Romney isn’t even the first Mormon, and that Stein is Jewish; he doesn’t delve into which speakers are Roman Catholic (Gingrich; Thomas) and which proclaim no religion affiliation whatsoever (Rove).

I have to admit that I’m disappointed in the choice of Romney, for a couple of reasons. One is that I think it sends a message that someone should be held in high esteem by Liberty graduates regardless of their religion so long as they’re Republican. Here Liberty seems to be following the trend we see at other historically Christian but practically secular universities, where the religious or spiritual speaker speaks at baccalaureate and the aspirational speaker speaks at graduation. I think it’s more a question of “isn’t there someone from within our movement, whatever it is, who is worth inviting to speak?” rather than “why are we paying a Mormon to speak at our graduation?”

And finally, I have to admit that I don’t think this bodes well for Romney’s chances in the fall; with Santorum and Gingrich having suspended their campaigns Romney is as they say the presumptive nominee, so by now he should have solidified his popularity with the traditional Republican base and “moving to the center” to court the 20-40% of so-called undecideds. The fact that he’s speaking at Liberty suggests he hasn’t won over his base yet. This reminds me of 2008, where John McCain got almost to the party convention without having won over the so-called values voters, and we all know how that ended.


Am I missing something re: Mark Driscoll?

July 15, 2011 1 comment

I read the commentary by Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Christianity Today [link], and went back and re-read what is mooted as “Driscoll dealing with the issue” at his blog [link]. Am I missing something, or did Driscoll respond to an opportunity for repentance by

  1. reiterating that he’s only responsible to his elders and
  2. plugging a forthcoming book?


What’s a congregation worth?

No April Fools from me today; just a link to an infographic from Christianity Today [link, PDF]. Penn Social Policy Dean Ram Cnaan has released a refined set of numbers from a study of 12 historic Philadelphia congregations, focusing on what you and I might call what they give back to the community and what Cnaan calls “the yearly contribution that an urban congregation makes to its city’s economy.”

A longer, better article from Matthew Petrillo at Voice of America is also available [link], an earlier article by David O’Reilly at the Philadelphia Inquirer [link] and  what appears to be Cnaan et al’s full (62 page) paper [PDF]. Cnaan is attempting to answer the question of the social value of a church as weighed against its cost as a tax-exempt entity:

Moreover, because congregations are tax-exempt, many mayors, city managers, and local councilpersons see them as lost income, and debates about taxing congregations often arise when local governments are short of funding. [from the Introduction]

I’d expect to see more of this sort of thing, and as the dollar value of e.g. an avoided divorce is hard to grasp intuitively:

According to the study, preventing a suicide is worth about $20,000 while counseling that saves a marriage has a value of $18,000. [VOA]

and thus open to much discussion and interpretation. I mean, after all, what’s the dollar value of saving an abusive marriage? I’d expect to see a wide range of numbers from various studies; it’s not as if there’s a liquid secondary market for these social goods.

I’d especially expect further, divergent studies when Cnaan values one of the churches in his study as giving back to the community roughly ten times its annual operating budget, and another as having a negative value (mostly because of tax issues). Stay tuned for similar studies with comparisons of mainline vs. evangelical, small vs. large, shouting vs. nonshouting churches and of course the inevitable headline stating that exurban megachurches are worse than investment banks, etc.

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.

How Evangelicals Give

February 2, 2011 1 comment

The most fascinating article I’ve read recently (on a per-word/per-number basis) appeared in Monday’s Christianity Today web feed; it’s a little infographic called How Evangelicals Give [link, PDF]. It’s a presentation of three collections of data: one from the Chronicle of Philanthropy/Giving USA [link], underlining the importance of religious charitable contributions as a portion of overall charitable giving (hint: religious charities are the most popular at 33%, followed by education charities at 13%, and ten other categories; the study included criteria that classified e.g. World Vision as International Affairs and Catholic Charities as Human Services; equally good criteria would produce different pie charts), and one from something called Empty Tomb Inc [link] on how different denominations fund overseas missions. The numbers on historical trends in individual giving came from Empty Tomb Inc as best I can tell.

From what I can read of the Empty Tomb Inc report, they calculated individual percentages based on disposable (after-tax) income using published government figures; this part of their analysis was included in the Amazon preview of their $34 report. This number is harder to grasp for a given church member (we can look at our paycheck and figure what 10% of the gross is, or even 10% of the takehome, but neither of these is necessarily the number the report uses), but more meaningful in an economic sense. They do inflation adjustments as well, so they’re effectively talking about transfer of buying power from donor to church.

The bottom line: well, they distinguish regular giving from special offerings, and say that in 2008 (their most recent year) church people gave 0.35% of their income to churches as special offerings, 2.07% as regular giving. This is a pretty useful distinction: regular giving usually forms the basis of a church’s annual budget, while special offerings are one-time items that may not contribute to the financial health of the church. They may go into a reserve fund, they may be spent immediately on a special project, or they may be one of the “love offerings” that featured so prominently in the recently concluded Grassley investigation.

Disposable income is just household income (the number you see in e.g. census figures) minus taxes; that’s income tax, not property tax, sales tax, etc. So if your household income is $42,000 your disposable income would be your total less your real tax rate (federal, state, and city, as applicable), not your marginal tax rate, or say $31,500 at 25% total tax. In yesterday’s hypothetical church example, an average family would at the 2.45% level give their church $31,500 x 0.0245 or $772 annually. At 3 people per family that’s $257 per person per year; scaled to 150 people that’s less than $40,000 a year, or about 15% of a hypothetical $230,000 annual budget.

There are a bunch of assumptions here, but if I picked different values from their various ranges (slightly higher giving levels, slightly larger or smaller families, slightly more affluent typical families, etc.) it’s hard to make the numbers sensibly double.

At first glance I think this suggests what anyone who has spent time in a smaller, older, mature church suspects: a handful of donors give most of the money, and most of the people who attend church give very little. I guess it’s no surprise, then, that the same handful of people end up in positions of authority year after year, making most of the spending decisions.



December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been catching a lot of search hits where people appear to be looking for articles mentioning Chuck Swindoll and ghostwriting, so I went to see if there was some sort of scandal that I had missed. I usually catch enough articles on unfolding scandals with the Google Alert “megachurch,” I guess partly because only scandals involving big churches are sufficiently newsworthy most of the time. That would be sufficient if something went wrong for Swindoll, since his current church draws some 4000 per Sunday [link], so it qualifies as a megachurch.

I did, however, discover a reprint of an old article about ghostwriting by Larry Witham [link] from the defunct magazine Insight on the News [link] with the title “Ghostwriting Haunts Christian Publishing.” It’s from August 2000, so it’s 10 1/2 years old, but a fair amount of the article is still worth reading:

For years, top ghostwriters in the industry have penned works that fill the evangelical best-seller firmament — unknown professional writers have penned books by Pat Robertson, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels and marriage guru Gary Smalley. Insiders estimate that 85 percent of the Rev. Billy Graham’s books have been ghostwritten.

It would of course be helpful to know who the insiders are here, and whether the Graham quote refers to total books or total pages.

Yet pangs of conscience have struck Christian publishing since the early 1980s, when the evangelical monthly Christianity Today decried the practice. Masking true authorship, the magazine held in an editorial, “is a canny but this-worldly approach to life, a playing of all the angles, a cunning attempt to skirt the edge of moral forthrightness.”

This latter quote I think brings the issue into focus: Christians are supposed to be different from the world around them, and that goes for Christian leaders, too, no matter how pressed they are for time.

The issue was highlighted again in a 1993 World magazine expose by Edward E. Plowman, a veteran news writer for Christian publications. Nearly every form of Christian writing is “grist for ghosts, grinding away for people long on reputation but short on time, self-discipline, or writing ability,” he wrote. But Christian publishers will continue to use celebrities as “marketing gadgets” until readers kick the celebrity habit, he predicted correctly. “There are gifted but lesser known writers out there with something important to say” he added. The article raised some dust in publishing circles, Plowman recalls, and did change things slightly. “More publishers are willing to use `and’ or `with’ on book covers to credit the ghost-writer,” he says.

Christian publishers often view ghostwritten projects as “team writing” — helping the well-known minister package books, his “original thoughts” so readers may benefit. Yet the day may come when a Christian work “is a celebrity preacher’s ghostwritten book of ghostwritten sermons bearing a ghostwritten foreword by another celebrity and ghostwritten endorsement blurbs on the dust jacket by still more celebrities, none of whom has read the book” complains Plowman.

This latter quote from Plowman is standard-issue scare story passed off as example, but it opens up the question of ghostwriting to include sermons and blurbs.

I honestly don’t know how widespread the practice of high-profile preachers delivering ghostwritten sermons is; there was a persistent rumor at Liberty that Harold Willmington wrote Jerry Falwell’s sermons, but I have no way of knowing if that was actually true. Jerry did use Mel White as a ghostwriter for his book If I Die Before I Wake, and I suspect lived to regret it, but for other reasons.

A few best-selling Christian authors write their own books, including Philip Yancey, a Colorado-based essayist and stylist. “He writes every word” says Cryderman. “To us, that’s the ideal.” The Rev. Charles Swindoll, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, has crafted best-selling books from his sermons and has felt the need to defend their authenticity. “I have no writing staff or team of researchers who provide me with historical and illustrative material or serve as my `ghostwriters,'” he asserted in his 1992 book, The Grace Awakening. “Every word comes from my own pen through the age-old process most authors still use: blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights, lengthy stares at blank sheets of paper, unproductive days when everything gets dumped into the trash, and periodic moments when inspiration and insight flow.”

Clashes over who truly shed sweat and tears — and got paid accordingly — sometimes erupt after a best-seller climbs the CBA charts. In the early 1990s, Colorado radio minister Bob Larson, whose name is on a novel trilogy that began with Dead Air, sued a woman who broke confidence by claiming she was the real author. The top-selling Christianity in Crisis by radio host and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff ended in a lawsuit by a ministry staffer who claimed to have done much of the work.

Articles like this aren’t complete without lists of good guys and bad guys, and this one has them: Yancey and Swindoll good, Larson and Hanegraaff bad.

I don’t know what to say about ghostwriting of books generally; I spent enough time in academic circles to know that authoring of some books is as much an administrative effort as a creative effort, and it often pays to beware “instant books” and read acknowledgments very closely. I tend to think that if a Christian is such a celebrity that you can’t go see them and get a sense of what sort of person they are, etc. you’re better off holding their books at arms’ length no matter how well-recommended they are.


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.