Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Christianity [For Sale] Today

The New York Times tells us about another Hollywood outreach to evangelical wallets (HT). This time it's the movie Evan Almighty, apparently the sequel to the irreverent if not blasphemous Bruce Almighty, in which Jim Carrey trades places with God and promptly makes a mess of things.

So it appears that Evan Almighty doesn't contain any humans acting as God, which is probably good, but I think it's safe to say that making a comedy out of a biblical story is something less than prudent. But then we're talking about Hollywood, and if they can keep from sensationalizing the Noah-getting-drunk episode, we might as well be grateful.

One might expect a little more discernment from Christianity Today, but if one were to do that one would be disappointed. The latest issue, which I saw last week, is wrapped in a faux cover that serves as a full two-page advertisement for Evan Almighty. It's one of the more appalling things I've seen in a while.

John Carney summarizes the story of this sellout on his blog. I've been searching for an online image of the magazine cover ad, but apparently no one has scanned it yet. If you really want to get a taste, this page of "ArkAlmighty" downloads might give you a very small sense of what we're talking about, but you really should browse your local bookstore to get the full effect.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

When Religious Intolerance Hits Close to Home

Last week Keith Hamblen, pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Lima, Ohio, offered the prayer that opened the day's proceedings in the Ohio House of Representatives. Hamblen had been invited to offer this prayer by Matt Huffman, the Representative from Lima. Hamblen was the principal of the Christian school I attended throughout my childhood, and after I left for college he succeeded his father as the pastor of the church I had attended throughout my teen years.

I'd encourage you to watch Huffman's introduction and Hamblen's prayer. Hamblen makes three errors that politicians and journalists found heinous. First, he named Jesus. Second, he gave thanks for the freedom to operate a Christian school that is not chartered by the state. Third, he prayed that the legislators would have wisdom during their debate over three issues that day. He compounded this mistake by naming the issues, some if not all of which had clear moral components (though Hamblen in no way implied how the legislators ought to vote).

Two legislators bravely walked out in protest, and the legislator who invited Hamblen and said amen at the end of his prayer promptly threw him under the bus in his comments to the press.

The Columbus Dispatch picked up on the story and published an editoral the following week. Now I like the Dispatch for its Ohio State football and basketball coverage, but this editorial demonstrates about as much muddled thinking as I have ever read in an editorial not written by Ted Rall. The editorial may be right to point out that the House needs to enforce its policy requiring all prayers to be submitted 72 hours in advance for review. It's never wise to have policies you don't intend to enforce. But its suggestion that this non-sectarian prayer policy ensures that "invocations are required to speak to Ohioans of all beliefs" is one of the most ignorant and asinine ideas I can imagine.

The simple fact is that a prayer that speaks to people of all beliefs in reality only speaks to people with no beliefs. Isn't a belief something you are convinced is true? But this policy insists that those who pray must hold their personal convictions of what is true so lightly that they are willing to say words that are inconsistent with what they believe is true in order to propagate a sham. This sham creates the illusion that some god—any god—actually matters in our public policy process. It's a comical attempt to delude ourselves into thinking that we can appease whatever god/gods is/are out there even though we don't have the fortitude to pick one. Shouldn't even an agnostic be perceptive enough to recognize that if there is a god out there, he isn't going to be too impressed by this kind of contented ignorance or cowardly reluctance?

A prayer offered to every god is a prayer to no god at all. Our tolerance for public displays of "religion" has reached the point that the only people permitted to pray publicly are the people who are willing to pray to a god of our own imagination.

In addition to the Dispatch's editorial, they also published a report on the day's events. Fortunately, a couple people quoted in the article got it right.

One of them said, ""Our country is based on freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion. Clergy of any religion should have freedom to say the opening prayer of their wish." Another said, "Our country is based on freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion. Clergy of any religion should have freedom to say the opening prayer of their wish." So who are these bastions of evangelical religious liberty? One is a Jewish legislator, and the other is pastor of the "Journey of Faith Fellowship."

I really wouldn't be too disappointed if the Ohio House suspended this program. I wouldn't be bothered much at all if every courtroom in the country removed its display of the Ten Commandments. I certainly wouldn't mind if politicians stopped inserting biblical language and imagery into their speeches in a cynical attempt to curry favor with certain voting blocs. There would be a certain honesty in that. We would at least be admitting that we're a long way from the days when God actually mattered.

Most importantly, in a very ironic way, our public violation of the third commandment as a nation would finally come to an end. I simply can't think of any more egregious way to take God's name in vain than to invoke his name regularly, but only in a way that ensures his name means nothing whatsoever to anyone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"If you don't believe the scripture, why did you bring it to us in the first place?"

At some point not too far away I hope to read Philip Jenkins' first book on the changing geographic center of historic, orthodox, Bible-believing Christianity. The title question to this post refers to a statement from an African Anglican bishop to an American Episcopalian bishop, and it illustrates the ironic reversal in attitudes toward biblical Christianity between the denominational leadership of these two continents. It also illustrates the thesis of Jenkins' book.

For a free introduction to the kinds of trends and concepts Jenkins is addressing, check out this (lengthy but worth a good skim) excerpt from his new book, which seems to focus more on the attitudes toward Scripture in particular among the evangelicals of the Global South.

Six Flags over Billy Graham?

Just remember, friends, I didn't write this. Christianity Today did. Here's a sample:
A 40-foot glass cross built into the front of the library is the first sign that the Grahams mean evangelical business. So does the theater that ends the tour, featuring a montage of Billy Graham sermons through the years, inviting people to commit their lives to Christ. The younger Graham said he hopes people will watch his father's old messages, then come forward to talk with trained counselors about their faith.

But in between the cross and the closing invitation, the library blends sober history and theme-park fun. If you want serious, visit the museum of evangelism at the Billy Graham Center at his alma mater, Wheaton College, near Chicago. But if you want to laugh, check out the mechanical talking cow that greets visitors at the entrance here — part of the dairy farm theme that continues throughout the library.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Live, Online, God-Focused Youth Pastor Training--Right Now

Check out Positive Action's live feed to today's (5/22) Youth Leader's Café here. The link to the video feed is in the left column.

When we first started talking about these kinds of online training ideas three years or so ago, we could only imagine live chat and perhaps audio at some point. Now the technology makes possible not only a live video stream, but also integration of the lead teacher with audience interaction and PowerPoint presentation.

I had to jump through the technical hoops to paste the URL directly into QuickTime (as the instructions at the link describe), but it wasn't too difficult. Sounds like some browsers link better to QuickTime than others.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Your Fundamentalist Presidential Candidate

Mike Huckabee separates from liberal Baptists (but not over theology).

Although he did say . . .
Had I spoken (at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration) they would have heard a very conservative message which would be unapologetically pro-life, pro-family and by some definitions, fundamentalist in theology [emphasis added]. But I'm a conservative who's not mad at anyone else and would not want to knowingly participate in a program if the focus was to tear down others instead of to lift Christ up.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Should Churches Care for the Poor?

Earlier this spring the pastors of my church distributed a document they had produced on the church's approach to caring for the poor. You can download the whole thing through the link at the bottom of this page.

It's obviously not inerrant, but it's been quite helpful to me in laying out the biblical data and raising some questions I hadn't considered. I don't expect everyone to agree with it completely. I do expect anyone who needs a good resource and is willing to take the time to find it helpful. Though it's impossible to summarize this 36-page document in any concise way, the two paragraphs quoted below more or less provide the fulcrum—the pivot point between pastors' conclusions about the biblical data and the specific application of it to the life of the congregation as a whole and as individual believers:
So to summarize, we are not saying that we understand Scripture to teach the regulative principle in such a way that denies our right or ability as a church to care for the physical needs of non-Christians in our area. Nor do we understand the teaching of Scripture to require our congregation to alleviate the physical needs of non-Christians in our community. Rather our conclusion is that congregations have a call to preach, display, model, and express the good news of Jesus Christ. And in obedience to that call we have both the liberty and responsibility to prudently take such initiatives in our community.

While Capitol Hill Baptist Church does have the freedom and prerogative to give financially to help the poor outside of the church if it is deemed wise and prudent to do so, we understand that the best way to help the poor is to teach them the gospel. The best way to fix their situation is to tell them of Jesus. As a local church devoted to Christ, we understand that spiritual needs have priority over physical needs. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you tell him the gospel, you could be used by God to save his life for eternity.
(pg. 26)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Read Cal Thomas on Jerry Falwell's Legacy

The rest of this post will make little sense unless you check out Cal Thomas' On Faith post first. It's a worthy read.

When the Moral Majority organized in 1979, I was just old enough to realize that Jimmy Carter was a horrible president—not quite savvy enough to have any awareness of the ramifications of Jerry Falwell's new movement. But from what I can tell from reading various accounts over the years and several today, Falwell's great genius was his ability to convince isolated fundamentalists to engage politically.

For his tactics of cobelligerence with non-separatist evangelicals, Falwell was excoriated by separatist fundamentalists. But Falwell still won. Almost 30 years later, a great irony is the fact that some separatist fundamentalists are politically engaged as well, often as cobelligerents with the heirs of Falwell's coalition of evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

The other irony is that though Falwell recognized the unhealthy disengagement from the world on the part of the separatist fundamentalists, he re-engaged Christians in for what I believe were the wrong objectives. No matter whether evangelicals have found or will at some point find political success (even what has arguably been accomplished is pretty sparse at best for 30 years of work), such success will be minimal and brief apart from a transformation of American culture that results from the work of the gospel.

History will judge, but on this day, as we remember one man's sincere and influential labor and legacy, I think we'd be foolish not to consider what legacy we want to leave for those who come behind us. Cal Thomas instructs us well. Let's labor for the world that employs "tactics and tools that [can] change lives."

P.S. If you want some encouragement, read some of the other On Faith posts and comments that spew venom about Falwell. Why is this encouragement? Well, it seems like these folks who despise all moral absolutes finally found a man they're convinced represented absolute moral evil. I'm not sure whether that's a silver lining, or just more sad irony.

Kinda on a Little Politics Roll Here--Check Out This Video

I was thinking about a post on this article from the Washington Times that suggests "the fix is in" and the Christian Right has settled on Fred Thompson as their candidate for the '08 GOP nomination. But then I stumbled (ok, Josh S. pushed me) onto something related but way more interesting . . .

My distaste for all the announced candidates for President may only be exceeded by my disdain for Michael Moore. Today he released a letter to prospective candidate Fred Thompson accusing him of hypocrisy and challenging him to a debate. Make sure you read the letter before you watch the video. I'm not endorsing a candidate, and I don't expect to. But if I were a candidate, this is the kind of candidate I think I'd want to be.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

If Only Christian Leaders Read the Wall Street Journal for Their Theology

Friday op-ed's to the Wall Street Journal opinion page have contained some great articles on religion lately. Last Friday's entry, "Christianity Without Salvation," discusses the legacy of the social gospel. It's not at all difficult to see the vestiges of this legacy in the political agenda of many ecclesiastical entities within evangelicalism-fundamentalism. But with the rise of the evangelical political left, we're seeing a renewed manifestation of the social gospel, just with different core issues.

It's the same old warmed-over agenda of the noted leader of theological liberalism and social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, who's quoted in the op-ed as saying:
"If society continues to disintegrate and decay, the Church will be carried down with it. If the Church can rally such moral forces that injustice will be overcome . . . it will itself rise to higher liberty and life."
Kudos to the editors of the Journal for possessing what so many contemporary evangelical leaders lack—the theological discernment to consider the fact that "it is hard to see . . . how Rauschenbusch's theology could be called Christian in any meaningful sense of the term."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ian Paisley, the Political Ecumenical?

I'm sure I don't understand anything at all about the politics of Northern Ireland, but this is about enough to make me a Postmillennialist.

Just after being elected to lead a power-sharing coalition that includes former members of the Irish Republican Army . . .
Paisley, 81, immediately affirmed an oath pledging to cooperate with Catholics and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland -- moves that the evangelical firebrand had long denounced as surrender.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

So Who Is Really Serious About Faith and Worship?

If this graphic seems ridiculous to you, there's a reason why. Some men who have been repeatedly skewered by fundamentalists for not taking theology seriously enough have clearly demonstrated that they take theology far more seriously than many elements of the fundamentalist movement.

There may have been a day when fundamentalists as a movement were serious about communicating serious ideas in a serious manner. I have my doubts, but I'll admit it's possible.

This is no longer that day.

I'm not sure any evangelicals would have come up with anything quite this theologically hokey, but many of them surely display the same mentality in their publishing and conference marketing hoopla.

We need to remember that some of the theological leaders of fundamentalism find the Majesty Music brochure to be beyond ridiculous (at least I have to believe they do--perhaps we'll find out). As "Dave" recently commented on Greg Linscott's blog, "The differences are deeper than the brochure." Amen to that. Here's hoping the theological leaders of fundamentalism successfully expose and correct these differences, just as some evangelical leaders are working to do. It is about more than the brochure. It's also about the church, the gospel, and what we believe about God's very person and work. Perhaps it wouldn't be entirely bad if people who agree about these big ideas find ways to influence, encourage, and sharpen one another.

[Graphic credit: Shannon Brown]

Monday, May 07, 2007

"Fundamentalist Worship Stars"

Check out mild-mannered Greg Linscott's post on "Fundamentalist Fantasy Camp."

Although it would surely be unfair to indict all the participants for the way the host organization chose to market this spectacle, it would just as surely be unwise to ignore how many will no longer look for leadership or fellowship among those who see this as serious Christianity.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sometimes Fundamentalist College Presidents Lie

Yep, it's true. And sometimes they make astoundingly racist statements. Sometimes they get divorced. Sometimes they get drunk. Sometimes they even preach really bad sermons.

Please tell me none of that made anyone fall out of a chair.

That's one reason I'm not really buying into anyone's assertions that so-and-so owes such-and-such an apology, or the preposterous suggestions that we ought to trust Joe [or maybe I should go with Jack so as not to create confusion] College Administrator because he's been such a great guy for so long. That's the same kind of argument that caused pastors to preach sermons while they wore their "I'm 100% for Jack Hyles" buttons years ago.

All the stuff in my first paragraph is public or published (if you know where to look) knowledge easily accessible to just about anyone who could be interested. The point isn't to dredge up bad memories, but to make the point that by now I think we've all seen enough to know that we shouldn't trust any human being implicitly. And I'm not throwing stones from a glass house. After all, counting the title and the first paragraph, I've done three of the five myself. In other words, by all means don't trust me either.

So I don't know who owes whom an apology in the situation that's set fundamentalist blogs abuzz. Frankly, I don't care. As others have wisely observed, the personalities really don't matter, unless, I suppose, you're wrestling with where to send your college students or your donations.

I know this much. No matter whether or how badly someone has been wronged, joining a movement that has consistently and willfully diluted and obscured the gospel is not a justifiable response. Should former campers or students or acquaintances of an individual be influenced to abandon their heritage solely because of this man's experience, they reveal nothing more than their own weak minds and/or the weak teaching they have received in their home churches.

If you really want to know more about Willow Creek or the seeker movement in general, I'd recommend two books. For something scathing and dogmatic, pick up John MacArthur's Ashamed of the Gospel. For something that's perhaps even more persuasive, read Willow Creek Seeker Services. This book is powerful since it's written from a fairly sympathetic perspective by someone who spent a substantial amount of time in the church to analyze and evaluate it systematically. Despite the largely sympathetic perspective, it had a similar effect on me to reading George Marsden's history of Fuller Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism. Sometimes the most damning accounts are those that were intended to praise.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

And You Thought It Was Bad When a Fundamentalist Left for Willow Creek

The ETS President, Frances Beckwith, has resigned after returning to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The story appears to have broken publicly when evangelical apologist James White published this post. Beckwith tells his own story here. Apparently he feels he can still affirm the notoriously mimimalistic ETS doctrinal statement and intends to retain his membership in the organization.

I have to believe (and hope) that a failure to expel Beckwith will be the last straw for independent fundamentalist and Southern Baptist participation in ETS. I remember hearing several years ago that serious discussion about withdrawal was taking place within elements of both camps who remained in the organization despite the failure of the membership to expel proponents of open theism, despite the recommendation of the executive committee to that end.