About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

MADDIE ASKS:

What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A item treated ancient Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto and Taoism, which have survived into the 21st Century but with radically diminished status. Maddie wonders why ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies died out and Zoroastrianism has nearly disappeared while Judaism and Hinduism didn’t vanish like other ancient creeds. She asks, did the younger proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam simply “push out” the dead creeds?

All very intriguing.

There’s ample mystery here and The Guy is a journalist, not an expert on the history of world religions. But we can scan some common theories. Of course believers in an ancient faith that survived presumably attribute this to divine intervention.

Does dynamism explain the expansion of Christianity and Islam? Or rather, did internal weaknesses of other faiths doom them? Perhaps both. Islam has always had global ambitions and expanded through evangelism (“dawah,” Arabic for “invite”) and also political, social and military pressures. Christianity is equally evangelistic but in modern times mostly gains adherents without political or military force.

Zoroastrianism has at least survived while many other ancient creeds did not. This great faith was formulated by Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) around the 6th Century B.C.E., the same remarkable spiritual epoch that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Mahavira, and major prophets in the Bible. It long dominated its homeland of Persia (present-day Iran). But Muslim forces invaded in a 7th Century C.E. conquest and over time used this control to almost totally supplant the older religion. Unlike Islam, Zoroastrianism has not utilized evangelism or political-military tactics. Today it survives among some few Iranians who haven’t emigrated along with perhaps 200,000 “Parsis,” descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India. Today’s tiny numbers appear destined to shrink even further due to a low birth rate.

Zoroaster shared with Judaism the worship of one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”) and some propose that monotheism is the key to perpetuating a faith. Perhaps so in some cases, but that cannot explain the long lifespan and impact of Hinduism, with a multitude of gods, or of Buddhism, which doesn’t necessarily worship gods at all.

Another theory that seems to better fit the historical evidence is that long-term success requires a definitive body of holy writings with captivating messages in poetry and prose. Such are the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Rig Veda, a hymn collection that’s the earliest and most important of Hinduism’s four central scriptures. Tradition says the Hindu text dates back countless thousands of years; western experts believe that at minimum it originated prior to Moses, the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books.

Similarly, the remarkable survival of Judaism despite oppression could be attributed to its incomparable Tanakh (Christians’ “Old Testament”). As Simon Schama’s new book The Story of the Jews says, the Hebrew Bible provided “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.” With the Bible came articulated belief in the one God, developed scriptural moral codes and laws, and bookish intellectual rigor growing from biblical study and commentary, all resulting in strong ethnic solidarity.

Today’s world Jewish population is 15 million. Though Judaism has survived, like Zoroastrianism it seems destined to gradually fade as secularized Jews defect from belief in God and study and practice of their ancestral faith, alongside higher intermarriage and lower birth rates.

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Pod people: To the end of the secular universe and beyond!

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Imagine that you are caught in the middle of the following puzzle.

You are a journalist who works for a mainstream newspaper, broadcast network or wire service. According to decades of tradition about your craft, you are supposed to write news copy that ordinary Americans — some say middle-school level readers — can read and understand.

So you are sent to cover a story that is linked to a very complicated scientific event that, in order to understand it, would require people to grasp bites of scientific data as well as a complex concept or two. Now, the problem is that very, very few of the experts involved in explaining this scientific breakthrough speak ordinary English (or whatever language is spoken in the land in which this event is taking place).

Instead, they keep using terms that are very hard for journalists to quote, without bulking up their stories with lengthy explanations of what those terms mean. This assumes, of course, that the journalists can find qualified scientists who can provide said explanations without blurring the specifics to the point that the core scientists will consider the news report shallow or, even worse, inaccurate.

So the goal, here, is to produce news copy that is accurate enough to be granted a passing grade by elite scientists at Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet also can be understood by ordinary Americans reading a newspaper or, Lord help us, glancing at some version of the story on their smartphones.

Good luck with that.

Now, let’s raise the bar on that journalistic challenge — way high. We will get to the second part of this puzzle in a moment. It involves theology.

This is precisely the double-edged scenario that host Todd Wilken and I contemplated in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen), which focused — among other things — on the Washington Post daily story about that massive breakthrough, maybe, in Big Bang theory. It’s the story that started like this:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

The universe created “transformed itself”?

As I wrote in the GetReligion post that launched the podcast:

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Mea culpa: Houston, this time the problem was me

I screwed up.

In a post Tuesday, I reported wrongly that the Houston Chronicle managed only 262 words of coverage on a major religion story in its own city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “A glorified news brief,” I disparagingly referred to it.

In fact, the Chronicle devoted more than 800 words to Sunday’s vote and gave the decision front-page play.

I apologize to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson, who handled the story. Neither deserved the negative treatment I gave them.

“No news outlet gave this matter more coverage than the Chronicle,” Tolson said in an email pointing out my “glaring error.”

My original post suggested — erroneously — that The Texas Tribune gave three times more space to the story than the Chronicle. 

How did I mess up so badly? I’ll attempt to explain. But first, more from Tolson:

What Mr. Ross saw, obviously, (were) the quick few paragraphs we put up on our website shortly after the results were known. News outlets that publish every day often will quickly update their websites with breaking news, then come back later with lengthier articles. The Texas Tribune put out a lengthier story quicker than we did, including background material that we had already put in our earlier stories. On Sunday, we waited to speak with Pastor (Jim) Birchfield and a leader of the opposition before going up with the longer piece. I would have thought your reporter would have made at least a cursory effort to see if the Chronicle had published anything else but those few paragraphs.

I encourage Mr. Ross to do a bit of research before he slams a news organization for all but ignoring a local issue of significance.

Here’s what happened: Matt Curry, a former colleague from my days with The Associated Press in Dallas and now a Presbyterian pastor in Waxahachie, Texas, posted a link to the Tribune story on his Facebook page. When I Googled for other coverage of the decision, the short Chronicle report was the only one that showed up.

In the past, we at GetReligion have had trouble reading Chronicle stories because they’re typically buried behind a paywall. As our editor Terry Mattingly notes, “Clearly, we cannot pay the fees for every newspaper in the country. Often, readers send us a full text and then we write about that text — while clearly noting to readers that the product is firewall protected.”

In this case, I saw that the Chronicle story was dated Sunday, Feb. 23 — with a note that it had been updated at 6:23 a.m. Monday, Feb. 24 — so I assumed that it was the version that appeared in the paper. We all know bad things happen when a journalist “assumes.” I did a few other quick searches to see if perhaps the Houston paper had produced more in-depth coverage in advance, but those searches turned up nothing. In retrospect, that’s probably because the excellent work that Tolson did previewing the vote was hidden behind a paywall.

In fact, a week before the Presbyterian vote, Tolson and the Chronicle produced a gigantic Sunday takeout — roughly 2,800 words starting on the front page. The piece outlined the key issues and players involved. Since the link probably will take you to a single paragraph with a note that you will need to be a digital subscriber to keep reading, here’s a snippet:

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Houston, we have a Presbyterian ‘evangelist’ problem (correction)

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Correction: The Houston Chronicle’s coverage was much more extensive than reported below. Read our apology to the Chronicle and senior reporter Mike Tolson.

In her recent “State of the Godbeat 2014″ report for GetReligion, Julia Duin noted that the Houston Chronicle once had two full-time religion writers. These days, that big Texas paper has one writer covering religion, along with some other beats, Duin reported.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a major religion news story in the nation’s fourth-largest city — the narrow decision by the First Presbyterian Church of Houston to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — generated 262 words in the Chronicle. That’s a glorified news brief, folks.

I was pleased to see that The Texas Tribune gave about three times that much space to the story, although I found the headline and lede paragraph a bit misleading.

The Tribune’s headline:

Houston Church Opts Not to Defect From Denomination

The lede:

HOUSTON — An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body. The vote stands in marked contrast to a slate of wealthy Texas congregations that have left the denomination over a disagreement about biblical interpretation and homosexuality.

Here’s my question: At this point, wouldn’t most readers assume that a majority of members voted to stay in the denomination?

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that we learn otherwise:

The results were tight. Of the 1,681 members voting, 1,085 cast ballots in favor of leaving PCUSA. That was just 36 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds to align with the new evangelical denomination.

So, in other words, 65 percent of the church supported leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the total fell just shy of the supermajority. Yes, that’s far below the 89 percent of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas members who voted last fall to leave the denomination. Still, the actual vote breakdown is a crucial detail that belongs in the first sentence, not the fourth, if you ask me. To the Chronicle’s credit, its short report did just that:

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Concerning all those ‘fake baptisms’ at Elevation Church

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Long, long, ago I covered several Billy Graham crusades or other evangelistic efforts linked to his organization. In the days before these giant events, the pros doing press relations went out of their way to explain many of the fine details of what was happening and why.

For example, they noted that after Graham extended his invitation for people to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or to rededicate their lives as Christians, many of the first people who came forward were actually trained counselors who would be greeting these seekers and helping to answer their questions. The counselors sat all over the stadium rather than clogging up the front rows in front of the podium.

Did this give the appearance that many people were streaming forward to make decisions, thus helping “break the ice” for those who might hesitate? That way have been a secondary affect. The key was that the counselors immediately went to work at the front of the stadium doing what they were supposed to do — work with the seekers who were coming forward. (For example, during the Colorado crusade in 1987, one of my stories focused on the cooperation between the Denver Catholic Archdiocese and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to find and train Catholic counselors to work with Catholics who came forward to make decisions.)

In other words, it was a valid question to ask about the visual effect of the counselors streaming forward. The Graham people heard the question, validated it and then provided an answer.

So how does my Graham story relate to the NBC Charlotte investigation into the the baptismal practices being used at the massive Elevation Church?

First of all, the story opens — for some strange reason — with a piece of news that really isn’t news, for anyone who has been following megachurch trends.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You wouldn’t know it by the name, but Elevation Church is Southern Baptist. Its Pastor Steven Furtick graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. Elevation was planted with seed money from Southern Baptists. And Elevation gives money to Southern Baptist missions.

But you won’t find the Baptist name on Elevation. Instead its campuses are marked with Elevation’s trademarked name and brand — the orange circle with the “up arrow” chevron shape inside. There’s not even the traditional cross on the outside of Elevation buildings.

So what else is new? Skilled religion-beat specialists have been covering this generic megachurch trend for a decade or more. Can you say Saddleback Community Church? I thought so.

No, the key to this report is the claim that many of the people who rush forward to take part in Elevation Church’s trademark mass baptism services are not really newcomers to the faith. They are plants used to create emotional scenes that promote inflated numbers. Readers are told:

Elevation Church keeps an exact count of its thousands of baptisms, all part of its laser like focus on numbers. But those numbers have spiked and dipped from year to year according to a confidential internal report obtained by the NBC Charlotte I-Team — from 289 in 2010 to 2,410 in 2011, from 689 in 2012 to 3,519 for the first eight months of last year.

To get those thousands of baptisms takes a lot of planning.

And Elevation produced a document to show other churches how they could do likewise. It’s titled “Spontaneous Baptisms — A How-To Guide” and the church
shared it freely on the Sun Stand Still website.

But parts of the mass baptism guide have drawn sharp criticism — from other Christians. Page one shows that the first people instructed to respond to Pastor
Steven’s call to baptism were not converts suddenly inspired but Elevation volunteers carefully planted in the crowd.

The guide instructs, “Fifteen people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.”

So, in the words of one critic, these 15 people are faking people out, they are in fact “shilling” for the church’s leaders.

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: hymns and happy hour?

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“Beer with Jesus” might have fallen off the country music charts, but the trend has legs — er, foam — apparently.

You may remember the other half of our resident husband-wife team, GetReligionista Bobby Ross Jr., writing a post in November on the subject.  In summary, he looked at reports on churches offering services in pubs and bars and the successes and failures in each.

We have a new twist to the story now, and it comes to us from the country music capital of the world, Nashville Tenn. It also involves music, but not of the hometown variety.

The Tennessean invites us to pull up a barstool and join the Beer and Hymn Sing Group in this report:

They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.

Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.

The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.

“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”

This story isn’t just throwing one back with the regulars. It does justice to all sides, including religious experts, historians and visitors who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke. We’re also invited to explore the Bible for Scripture related to drinking and consider the temptations of excess imbibing.

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UK journo’s ‘General’ Salvation Army confusion

London’s Telegraph newspaper generally does a serviceable job when reporting on religion, but a recent commentary news article contrasting the beliefs of The Salvation Army (they prefer the article capitalized) with those of the rest of Protestantism and those of the Roman Catholic Church, titled, “The Pope and the Salvation Army,” accomplishes nothing, in my view, as much as muddying the waters. One wonders what Pope Francis (shown above greeting General Linda Bond, who retired in June 2013 as the movement’s international leader) or General André Cox, the Army’s current chief executive, would make of it all.

First, there’s the confusion — in my mind, at least — as to whether this is a news article or a commentary. It’s labeled as “news” on the Telegraph’s website, but perhaps the word “commentary” or “analysis” or “opinion” appears in the printed version. It may well be intended as a commentary, but it’s not presented that way.

But either as a news story or a commentary, the piece, written by Christopher Howse, a Catholic journalist who did a stint at Britain’s Tablet magazine, fails on several levels in relation to the Army, its beliefs and its reasoning. (Disclosure: I can speak with some authority here, having been a Salvation Army lay church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1999. I also married a Salvation Army officer, or pastor, and wrote for several Army publications, including their annual yearbook in 1997.)

There’s little to suggest a hard news angle as the story begins, however:

What is the difference between the General of the Salvation Army and the Pope? Less than I presumed a week ago. Both, of course, care about the poor, which has ever been a mark of the Church.

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life,” declared St John Chrysostom 1,600 years ago. “The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

Until last week, I’d thought the Salvation Army was Calvinist. That is no crime. But the Army, I find, believes that the “saved” can backslide. “We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.” That is No 8 in the 11 succinct doctrines of the Salvation Army. As William Booth put it in 1879: “We are a salvation people – this is our speciality – getting saved and keeping saved, and then getting somebody else saved, and then getting saved ourselves more and more.” One hostile commentator on the internet characterises such a belief as “demonic works-salvation”.

It’s only three paragraphs later that we come to the startling revelation that William Booth, the Founder and first General of The Salvation Army was — wait for it — a Wesleyan Methodist. That, if you can believe it, is why Booth and his Army weren’t Calvinist, because John Wesley wasn’t one. Phew! That was a close one! (And, yes, there’s a bit of snark here, which I’ll explain in a moment.)

Howse then goes on to chastise the Army for being non-sacramental, performing neither baptism nor celebrating the Eucharist:

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