Don’t get Left Behind? Evangelical views of eschatology

In a recent obituary for Russell S. Doughten Jr., an “Iowa filmmaker who made post-rapture evangelical movie series,” the Associated Press attempts to explain the evangelical view on the End Times:

Evangelicals think true believers will ascend to heaven and those left behind will fight a war between Jesus and the Antichrist.

While it is true that some evangelicals believe that (sort of), that’s not the only – or even the historical – view held by evangelicals.

It’s hard to blame journalists for not understanding this doctrine since there are few areas of Christian theology more contentious or confusing than eschatology, the study of the end times. To help clear up some of the confusion — or at least show that it’s more confusing than most journalists realize — I’ve compiled a primer on the four general points of agreement and the four general perspectives on eschatology within evangelicalism.

The four points of agreement are:

1. Jesus Christ will physically return to earth one day.

2. There will be a bodily resurrection of all people who have ever lived.

3. Satan will be defeated and constrained forever.

4. There will be a final judgment in which believers join Christ for eternity while nonbelievers are separated from God’s presence.

How this occurs, though, is an issue of great debate. One of the central issues involves the millennium, the thousand-year period during which Christ is said to rule the world. (Revelation 20:1-10). The four most popular views in evangelicalism are dispensational premillenialism, historical premillenialism, amillenialism, and postmillennialism.

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The Boston Globe shows how to write about church planters

Earlier this month I called a story about a church planter in Brooklyn the worst religion story of the year. I don’t like to write harsh critiques (really, I don’t) but it’s frustrating to have an interesting story mangled by shoddy reporting. While reading that terrible Daily News piece I wondered, “What could this article have done right?”

To my surprise, the Boston Globe recently provided an answer. While their feature is about a group of church planters in Boston, rather than in Brooklyn, the similarities are close enough to show “what could have been.”

Most everything about the Globe article is praiseworthy so let’s begin with the biggest flaw, the lazily provocative title: “On a mission to save godless Massachusetts.” The headline is not only unfair to religious believers in an area once nicknamed “The Puritan State,” it’s unfair to the reporter and the subjects being written about in the article. Many readers will begin the story assuming the Evangelical Christians mentioned in the subhead claim the state is “godless,” when that is nowhere mentioned in the story.

What is claimed, and adequately defended by the reporter, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is not that the state is godless but that it has a low level of religiosity:

Once upon a time, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

Throughout the article, Fitzgerald not only does a good job of providing context for why “church planters are eyeing the region” but he also explains why a trend that has been going on for decades (urban church planting) is worthy of a renewed attention:

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Guess which sin makes church discipline newsworthy?

Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).

The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.

So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>

Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:

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762 Messiahs or Why Slow News is good news

You’ve probably heard of some variation of the Slow Movement, a trend which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. There are subcultures devoted to Slow Food, Slow Gardening, Slow Travel — even Slow Church. But what we really need, especially in religion reporting, is Slow News.

While “slow news” day is generally something to be dreaded by news junkies, I think Slow News could help solve one of the media’s biggest problems: the diminishment of context. As the historian C. John Sommerville wrote in an article titled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution.

In many ways, information technology has made it faster and easier for reporters put news story into a broader context. Yet the speed at which news is published by most media outlets makes it nearly impossible for journalists to do even the most basic of contextual research. Take, for example, the “Messiah” born in Tennessee story that Bobby Ross mentioned last week.

A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.” The AP was among the first to report on the story on August 12. That article was rather bare-boned, but later that day they put out a more in-depth feature.

A more detailed version, as Bobby pointed out, was produced by Godbeat pro Bob Smietana, who explained that baby Martin is just one of hundreds of Messiahs: 762 were born in 2012. Admittedly, the first AP story noted that “Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012.” But taking the time, as Smietana did, to actually nail down a number (762!) helps to put the story in a broader context. It also helps to show that the real story is not about unusual religion-themed baby names but about the religious freedom to give your baby such a name.

The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer took an additional four days to weigh-in — an extensive delay in our second-by-second news culture — which seems to have given him the time not only to explore the religious freedom angle in more depth, but to provide some cultural context:
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Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on

As a famous religious figure once said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Sometimes even we media critics get what we ask for. Last month I asked for more – and deeper – coverage of hipster churches, and then this week veteran Godbeat reporter Michelle Boorstein fulfills my request (at least partially).

Last Sunday the Church at Clarendon, a self-professed “diverse urban church” in Washington, D.C. held an “experimental service called Church Remixed, which featured music by a DJ rather than live musicians” and Boorstein was on hand to report for the Washington Post. The superb story begins with a wonderfully obscure, hipster-friendly headline: Deuteronomy meets Deadmau5 as church DJs seek exaltation*

When you’re DJing a Baptist church service, is it more appropriate to mix electronic music by Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim as congregants are being ushered in or as they exit?

Such were the choreographic and theological questions at play Sunday at the 104-year-old high-steepled Church at Clarendon, which for the day replaced its usual eight-piece band and singers on the pulpit with an Atlanta wedding DJ who has hipster glasses, a table of music-mixing technology and a tendency to fist-pump while playing.

“Okay, let’s get going!” said Hans Daniels (whose DJ handle is Hans Solo) after being introduced at the start of the service, cranking up the beat — and volume — and eliciting a whoop that filled the bright, airy sanctuary. “Blessed Be Your Name” quickly became “B-B-Blessed Be Your Name,” and congregants started cha-cha dancing in their seats.

Boorstein does an excellent job of finding sources that help put this “experiment” in historical context. For example,

Tony Lee, pastor at the 3,000-member Community of Hope, noted that what we now call classic gospel — practically the soundtrack of contemporary black Christianity — came out of jazz and originally was seen as “too worldly” for church. Thirty years ago, drums were seen as outrageous, and then liturgical dance. Of course, there are still some faith communities that forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing.

I’d have preferred to hear which faith communities “forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing” but that’s a minor quibble.

In providing the counter-perspective, Boorstein sought out a source that helpfully frames the concerns many Christians might have about a church DJ:

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The missing faith angle in the Catholic charity story

Having grown up in a large Catholic family that volunteered at her church, a former tech executive leaves her job at a large philanthropic foundation to take a job at a small charity founded by a Jesuit priest and named after a Biblical character.

Do you think there might be some faith-related angle to this story?

NPR doesn’t seem to think so. In their profile of Patty Stonesifer, CEO of Martha’s Table, NPR overlooks any hints that religion might be a motive:

One of nine children, Stonesifer grew up in Indianapolis, the daughter of a car salesman and a physical therapist. Giving back to the community was understood in their home. “I didn’t know the word, or I didn’t recognize that we were volunteering, but whether it was putting new missals in the pews at the church, or riding the bus to pick up the deaf children to bring them to Mass, or working in the soup kitchen on Sundays, it was just part of who we were,” she tells Block. “It was just part of what it meant to be part of my family.”

NPR also seems to miss the significance of the charity’s name. Two months ago, when New York Times‘ columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Stonesifer, she included that tidbit along with other faith-related details not uncovered by NPR. For example:

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Remember when Jesus went to Assiut? (Yeah, me neither.)

“Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries,” says the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. “Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters.”

Berger is probably right — which is cause for optimism. The condition of being “less informed on religious matters” is not only much easier to fix than anti-religious bias, it is often self-correcting. In my experience, when it’s pointed out to journalists that they are missing a “big story” they are quick to correct their oversight. Sometimes they have to be browbeaten into doing their jobs (e.g., Gosnell), but usually their natural curiosity about the world is enough to provoke them into seeking out what they’ve missed.

A prime example of this type of media self-correction can be found in recent articles about the Middle East. Many mainstream outlets that had previously missed or underplayed the persecution angle have, within the past few weeks, done a commendable job of reporting on the plight of Christians in Egypt. For example, the AP had a particularly good story yesterday titled, “Egypt’s Coup Puts Fearful Christians in a Corner.”

Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said.

A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.

Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.

In such an well-reported article, it feels unseemly to pick nits. But Bible-related gaffes are irresistible to us GetReligionistas, so I have to comment on this one:

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The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times

In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Silver Blaze, the clue that led to identifying the criminal was a dog that didn’t bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” ask the Chief of Police.

“Yes—to the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes, “Ah—that was the curious incident.”

In the media’s coverage of religion, we often stumble upon these “curious incidents” when something that should have happened doesn’t happen—and shapes an entire story.

Consider, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner.” The teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by the school “after he married his partner of 10 years” and the photos of the ceremony were published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Bencomo doesn’t comment in the story, but allows his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, to speak on his behalf.

Take a look at this section and see if you notice anything unusual:

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events.
In a statement released through an attorney, the school said it is “a community of faith for those who wish to express, practice and adhere to values in education based on the Roman Catholic tradition.”

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

Bencomo hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he has not ruled out filing a lawsuit, McGarrigle said.

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Is there any point, dear reader, to which I would wish to draw your attention? Indeed, to the curious incident of the omission of the reporter in reporting the “contractual obligations.”
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