A preacher’s-kid story, writ large

FrequentlyAvoidedChristopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times has told the pathos-laden story of conflicts between pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and his namesake son, pastor of Capo Beach Calvary.

Goffard’s story touches on a theme that deserves long-form treatment somewhere: The often awkward role of young people — sons, usually — who inherit the weighty mantle of a celebrity preacher.

The two Chuck Smiths embody so many of the conflicts in contemporary church life, including:

• traditional vs. emergent congregations (emergent guru Brian McLaren endorsed Smith’s wittily titled Frequently Avoided Questions);

• doctrinal watchdogs vs. a man’s loyalty to his son (the younger Smith’s church still appears under the calvarychapel.com domain);

• decades of preaching and waiting for an imminent Rapture of the church vs. a sense that “the Gospels’ core message was real-world compassion, not preparation for the afterlife”;

• the minefield of sexuality debates, which bring so many smiles and hugs and feelings of unity, whether at a church convention or around the family dinner table.

Unlike the story of Billy and Franklin Graham, the account of the Smiths follows the more familiar script of the uptight old man versus the nuanced son who acknowledges murky reality:

From his pulpit in Santa Ana, Chuck Smith’s voice thunders with certainty. He denounces homosexuality as a “perverted lifestyle,” finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.

If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the ruddy good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known a day’s doubt or despair.

From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father’s church, Chuck Smith Jr.’s voice trembles with vulnerability and grapples with ambiguity. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a “conversation” rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as “The Simpsons” for messages, and aims to reach “generations of the post-modern age” that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.

But Goffard also shows that father and son express affection for one another:

Reminded of the memo he issued cracking down on his son’s views, the father replies, calmly and amiably, that he and his son are just aiming for different audiences, and he doesn’t want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.

“I don’t feel that he’s an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned.”

. . . His relationship with his father, he agrees, is tighter than ever. He will even write his dad’s biography some day. His challenge, he says, is extricating himself from his dad’s fundamentalist evangelical community without traumatizing his parents.

“It’s like the parents whose child comes out to them and says, ‘I’m gay,’” Smith said. “Hopefully they come around and say, ‘You are our son and we will always love you.’ My parents are no less loving than that.”

Goffard closes his story by referring to a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, who helped the elder Smith welcome hippies into his congregation in the 1970s and died of complications from AIDS in 1993. I’ve been eager to see Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher since OC Weekly placed it on my radar in April 2005.

Happy news for anyone else who is waiting: Director David Di Sabatino wrote in a recent email that his film will appear on KQED on Nov. 19. On the same day, Di Sabatino will begin selling DVDs of the documentary and The Making of Frisbee through lonniefrisbee.com.

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Digging deep on the beat

confessionNeela Banerjee highlighted a fascinating evangelical phenomenon in a New York Times article. The article shows that Banerjee is really going out of her way to cover a wide variety of folks on her religion beat:

On a Web site called mysecret.tv, there is the writer who was molested years ago by her baby sitter and who still cannot forgive herself for failing to protect her younger siblings from the same abuse.

There is the happy father, businessman and churchgoer who is having a sexual relationship with another man in his church. There is the young woman who shot an abusive boyfriend when she was high on methamphetamine.

. . . About a month ago, LifeChurch, an evangelical network with nine locations and based in Edmond, Okla., set up mysecret.tv as a forum for people to confess anonymously on the Internet.

Drama! A nine-church network with an open, anonymous confessional booth. Private confession and absolution are common — or at least offered — in historic Christian churches. The manner in which they are administered varies, of course. In Roman Catholic churches, priests hand out tasks for reconciliation as part of the absolution. In Lutheran churches, there is no private booth and tasks are not assigned during the absolution.

Evangelical Protestant churches long ago shunned confession as part of a larger movement against creeds, documented confessions of faith and rigorously trained clergy. American Protestantism has favored personal piety, conversions that were demonstrated in improved personal behavior, testimonials, and solutions to temporal life problems. Could this be a move back toward a more sacramental view of absolution?:

The LifeChurch founder, the Rev. Craig Groeschel, said that after 16 years in the ministry he knew that the smiles and eager handshakes that greeted him each week often masked a lot of pain. But the accounts of anguish and guilt that have poured into mysecret.tv have stunned him, Mr. Groeschel said, and affirmed his belief in the need for confession.

“We confess to God for forgiveness but to each other for healing,” Mr. Groeschel said. “Secrets isolate you, and keep you away from God, from those people closest to you.”

. . . Absolution is not part of the bargain, just the beginning of release.

“There’s no magic in confessing on a Web site,” Mr. Groeschel said. “My biggest fear is that someone would think that and would go on with life. This is just Step 1.”

Because the site is anonymous, the staff at LifeChurch cannot reach out to those who are in danger of harming themselves or others, Mr. Groeschel said.

Looks like it’s a thoroughly Protestant understanding. I’m surprised that Groeschel is surprised by the sins and anguish that are being revealed. I’m sure that a pastor or priest who regularly hears confession would not be so shocked at what is afflicting the flock. In fact, I would think that confession-hearing pastors get an insight into the life of the congregation that non-confession-hearing pastors are oblivious to. I’m also interested to read that Groeschel believes healing comes from confessing to other people. Oprah would certainly agree.

An open, anonymous confession site has interesting implications. On the one hand, assuming that there is any truth to these claims, the pastor can better preach to the flock. On the other hand, given that these confessions are coming in from at least nine separate congregations as well as, well, the rest of the world, then how useful is it to hear the confession in terms of more focused preaching?

In historic Christian churches, confession is heard so that it may be absolved. The pastor or priest directly pronounces God’s forgiveness for the penitent. Here, the confession is heard but the forgiveness is not directly applied. It’s something the penitent must find himself by knowing about God’s nature. I’m not arguing about which method is desired — but just pointing out that there are monumental differences between historic confession and what’s going on here.

LifeChurch, which is 10 years old, tries to draw back those who may have left the faith, Mr. Groeschel said. The church hews to a conservative theology on homosexuality and abortion.

Clarke Smith, the reader who pointed us to the article, thought that last line curious:

The pastor never refers to the church’s positions on those issues but it felt like an attempt to marginalize the church (or at least categorize it) in the midst of what I thought was a very cool and thoughtful article otherwise.

I think the line serves a useful purpose. Many of the confessions are about the ultimate secret act — abortion. And others are about homosexual behavior. Knowing that the church considers abortion and homosexual behavior sinful is not without merit.

I agree that the article is very cool and thoughtful. I think a further exploration of individual confession and absolution would be interesting as well.

Photo via Volubis on Flickr.

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Things have changed?

WailingWallRightWingBob sounds the alarm today about an unsourced and unfounded aside in an otherwise routine profile of Bob Dylan in The Christian Science Monitor:

Dylan, who declined to comment for this article, remains, as ever, an enigma. (Three years ago, he called himself “a 62-year-old Jewish atheist.”) But he’s more open than he’s ever been about his past, even opening himself to interviews for [Martin] Scorsese.

RightWingBob is on the scent that should be readily apparent to even armchair Dylan fans who care about his worldview:

The quote is self-evidently bogus.

It immediately reminded me of a quote attributed to Jerry Wexler — co-producer of Slow Train Coming and Saved — which is referred to in many places (try this Google search).

My friend and fellow Dylan fan Scott Marshall nails down the context in his book Restless Pilgrim:

Full of zeal, Dylan tried to interest his other producer, Jerry Wexler, in the New Testament. Wexler responded, “I’m a sixty-two-year-old card-carrying Jewish atheist.” According to Wexler, that was the end of the discussion.

Tip to Monitor editors: Wexler will, God willing, turn 90 in January. And at last report he’s still a card-carrying Jewish atheist. A most informative feature would center on which agency distributes the cards, and how often.

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Revisiting that nasty Sunday-school fight

boxing glove velcro 1 colourAfter looking back over the comments from last week’s post on the disastrous news articles on the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher in upstate New York, I feel it’s necessary to make a couple of points very clear.

It is possible for the media to do an adequate job covering religion and sometimes they even excel at it. And, yes, it is also necessary for the media to cover religion.

The whole situation is quite sordid thanks to the confusing nature of church politics, but it’s clear that both the Associated Press and Dan Harris of ABC News fumbled the coverage. But that does not mean that everyone failed or that reporters should not cover the story.

Thanks to a link provided by GetReligion reader Jeff, check out the local news coverage in the Watertown Daily Times of the church’s controversies. Staff writer Drew Mangione does a very thorough job covering the developments in the church that led to Sunday school teacher Mary Lambert being dismissed:

The Rev. Timothy R. LaBouf was named pastor almost two years ago, and in his tenure, attendance at the Sunday service has gone from fewer than 40 to more than 150. He estimated that weekly giving has gone from about $900 under the interim pastor who preceded him to about $2,500 now.

“First Baptist was on a continual decline until two years ago, when we began to see growth,” the pastor said. “It’s all about relevancy. That’s what the American Baptist (Churches) wants for its churches — to be relevant in the 21st century.”

However, some longtime members are upset their pastor is leading them away from their doctrinally moderate tradition and toward fundamentalist beliefs.

“I can’t even begin to express the frustration of the established members of the church, the people who have been here for a long time and who hired him as the pastor,” said Mary F. Lambert, a past church moderator, who chaired the pulpit committee that chose the Rev. Mr. LaBouf.

She and about a dozen other members have compiled a list of grievances, alleging that church items are missing and that their pastor doesn’t follow church procedures. At the core of their displeasure, however, is his conservative approach to Christianity. Mrs. Lambert has hired Watertown attorney Eric T. Swartz to explore their options, which could include an attempt to oust the minister.

Things are not as simple as Lambert being upset at LaBouf for being a conservative preacher. It runs much deeper than that. And it’s darn confusing.

At one point of the article, Lambert is upset over the resignation of the moderator of the church’s deacon board, Robert Fleming. Apparently Fleming owns an adult video store and promised that if anyone hesitated to join the church because of this, he would step down. He stepped down, but Lambert and her supporters believe it was over a disagreement with LaBouf. What does Fleming say? He supports the pastor:

However, the businessman said he regularly attends services, tithes and continues to support the pastor, who accepted him into the church on the premise that Jesus’s message is for sinners, not saints.

Mr. Fleming said that Mrs. Lambert’s efforts can only hurt the church and that he believes the dissenters are upset because they have been marginalized by the growing congregation.

“They’re not happy because they can’t keep control of the church,” Mr. Fleming said. “They want 100 percent control and for the pastor to say what they say, when Tim follows the Bible.”

This is only one angle in the story, but one worth highlighting because it draws out the tangled web of tales, he-said, she-saids and allegations that a reporter must be willing to uncover.

There may, in fact, be an overarching conservative vs. liberal theme to the story. However, as you dig into the weeds that whole paradigm starts falling apart and what you have is a wonderful opportunity to explore the inner workings of a changing community.

As Mangione demonstrated, it is possible to do that. It’s complicated, but it’s possible.

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That Baptist shoe drops in Palm Beach

pod1The other shoe has dropped in West Palm Beach.

As I noted the other day, the leaders of the First Baptist Church of Palm Beach elected to try to stonewall reporter Jane Musgrave of the Palm Beach Post. Why? She was checking into rumors, reports and documents that suggested that the Rev. Steven Flockhart — the congregation’s new minister and a nationally known pulpit star — had some financial skeletons in his closet. That led to a lengthy report that, to my amazement, did a good job of quoting the young minister’s many admirers, as well as his critics.

However, I also predicted that this lock-it-down approach to media relations would backfire.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious.

Thus, Musgrave went back to the well and there was plenty to write about. As it turns out, Flockhart — whose evangelism website has now gone offline — seems to have done preliminary studies at the Pat Robertson School of Resume Writing. Actually, that may not be fair. The resume (the Post put in online as a PDF) is tiny and vague, as opposed to packed and padded.

Thus, the news from Palm Beach County is that Flockhart has resigned. There is no need to review all of the details in the newspaper’s lengthy second investigative piece that focused on Flockhart’s educational background. The bottom line is that the evangelist’s degrees came from the online Covington Seminary, a school that does not have much going for it on formal accreditation.

“This is one of those schools I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to,” said Rick Walston, author of Walston’s Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally.

Covington’s Web site says it is accredited by Accrediting Commission International. Once known as the International Accrediting Commission, it changed its name and moved to Beebee, Ark., after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to an article by John Bear, who has collaborated with Walston and has served as an expert witness on diploma mills and fake degrees.

The school’s downfall proved to be a sting operation in which it accredited a school set up by a Missouri assistant attorney general. To make his fake school as outrageous as possible, the state lawyer listed the Three Stooges and other TV characters as faculty members. The school motto, when translated from Latin, was: “Education is only for the birds.”

2005best 01So what happens now? This is certainly a tragic story for Flockhart and his family, although it seems that he has powerful friends who may be able to help him earn a real seminary degree and then return to the pulpit in one of the thousands of independent or almost independent Baptist churches in America.

But what happens now at the newspaper? Do not be surprised if Musgrave and her editors are already digging again, looking for more information about people with ties to Covington Seminary.

Why? There is a hint in the story, a hint about Flockhart’s powerful mentor — the Rev. Johnny M. Hunt, a leader on the Southern Baptist Convention’s right flank. The Post notes that Hunt recently withdrew from the race to be the next president of America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

That leads to this section of the story:

Flockhart said he was “licensed to preach” in 1986 by Rev. Hunt and ordained by Hunt in 1990. Hunt appeared via videotape at Flockhart’s first service at First Baptist last month and gave a ringing endorsement of his protege. Like Flockhart, he also lists a degree from Covington on his resume. It says he holds an honorary doctorate from the school.

An honorary degree means little or nothing. But stay tuned anyway, because this story may not be over yet.

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What would Jesus wear?

Sunday Best 2I really liked this Peggy Fletcher Stack piece in the Salt Lake Tribune. It’s not groundbreaking, but it nicely surveys a variety of churches in the Salt Lake region about an issue that’s somewhat universal.

It happens every summer. A Catholic priest stands at the pulpit and laments the arrival of tank tops, flip-flops and shorts. Modesty and respect are on the decline, he moans. This is God’s house and you are dressing for the golf course or, worse, the beach. Then comes the retort: God doesn’t care a fig about suits and skirts. He sees only the heart.

The what-not-to-wear-to-church debate divides old and young, rich and poor, clergy and lay members, black and white, Americans and others. Like all such divisions, it can cause tension even among those who share a common theology.

Where Christians end up reflects cultural biases about what God expects from human worship. Is God a king to be worshipped and revered or an everyday presence who is with us in the ordinariness of our lives?

Fletcher Stack says the question of how to dress in church first arose in the 1960s. Ah, the 1960s.

One Utah Catholic priest in the 1970s posted a sign in his church’s vestibule: “Must wear shoes, no shorts, no bare shoulders.”

This may seem like a trivial subject to cover, but I learned recently how important it is. At my church, we all dress up and nobody seems to have a problem with it. But when I told some of my friends and family that I have to cover my shoulders at my wedding, many of them flipped out. Apparently the most important thing at a wedding is that the bride be dressed sexily.

Fletcher Stack talks to women who wear hats to church and reports that Mormons have an unwritten rule against women wearing pants.

I thought this was an interesting exchange, too:

Catholic educator Dan John was getting ready for church on a recent Sunday and put on a pair of sandals.

One of his teenage daughters at first queried, “Sandals at church, Dad?” and then answered her own question: “Well, Jesus wore sandals.”

Dan John then put his tunic and rope belt on and walked to the local church.

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Too many Bible verses in those texts?

bibleHere is a story from last weekend that I have been thinking about most of the week. The story is not new, but there has been a major development.

This is complicated stuff and, it seems to me, reporter Marla Jo Fisher has most of the major voices featured in her report for The Orange County Register.

Here is the opening of the story:

How much Christianity is too much for the University of California?

That’s a question being asked these days, in a federal lawsuit that has pitted Christian schools against admissions officials at UC who decide which high school courses are eligible to be college prerequisites.

The issue revolves around decisions by the University of California to reject three Christian-themed courses at a high school in Murrieta and several textbooks by two well-known Christian textbook publishers. The move came in the wake of a 2002 decision by the UC to look more closely at school accreditation and quality issues.

“These textbooks had already been used by many, many schools,” said Robert Tyler, attorney for plaintiff Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, along with the Association of Christian Schools International and five students. “It’s a fundamental shift. They were acceptable in the years past.”

Now, here is the key question and, at this point, there does not seem to be a clear answer. But this is the angle that the newspaper must pursue to nail this story down — before it heads into higher and higher courts.

In the past, Christian schools have been judged harshly on the basis of what they do not have their students read and the viewpoints to which their students are not exposed. In other words, they fail to cover basic territory that state universities expect students to have covered before admission.

But Fisher does a fine job of pointing out that this may not be the case this time around. There is evidence, this time, that the students are being punished for the Christian concepts and readings that are being included in the classes, not for a failure to cover basic territory.

What we have here is new territory — maybe. That is what the newspaper has to find out. For example, we have yet another vague use of the “creationism” term. We do not know what the schools are teaching in science classes, whether it’s seven-day creationism, a concept of gradual change over time that denies that creation is random and unguided or some other mix of theories. We do not know if the students are reading a wide variety of materials about evolutionary theory, or not. “Creationism” is too vague a word. We need facts.

The goal, in a fine Christian school, is to actually hold debates that you may not be able to hold on a secular campus, to read more points of view — not less. Note this passage in the story:

Included in the lawsuit and among the courses proposed by Calvary Chapel school in Murrieta and rejected by UC: Christianity’s Influence in American History, Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic and Christianity and Morality in American Literature.

“Unfortunately, this course, while it has an interesting reading list, does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter,” the rejection letter for the literature class read.

Lawyers for the Christian schools argue that these proposals should not have been rejected when other schools have approved courses such as Western Civilization: The Jewish Experience, and Intro to Buddhism.

Were the reading lists for the classes too weak? Some said that was not the problem. Were the students graduating from the controversial schools academically weak and unprepared? Apparently not.

Stay tuned.

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Pew gaps about the pew gap

WDobsonIt’s time for another round of “Name That Newspaper.”

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have released another large chunk of their annual blast of data about the state of religion and public life. In newspapers this translates into religion and politics and, this close to an election, that translates into headlines about who is headed up, with God, and who is headed down.

In that spirit, GetReligion readers are asked to guess which of the following two headlines and leads come from The New York Times and which comes from The Washington Times.

Brace yourselves, because this will be really hard.

Few see Democrats as friendly to religion

Liberal or progressive Christians, who make up 34 percent of the population, are disunified on key issues, and only one out of four Americans considers the Democratic Party friendly to religion, a Pew poll shows.

And now, here is our second lead covering the same study:

In Poll, G.O.P. Slips as a Friend of Religion

A new poll shows that fewer Americans view the Republican Party as “friendly to religion” than a year ago, with the decline particularly steep among Catholics and white evangelical Protestants — constituencies at the core of the Republicans’ conservative Christian voting bloc.

And there you have it. If you could not figure out that story No. 1 comes from The Washington Times and that story No. 2 is from The New York Times then, honestly, I don’t know what we can do for you.

But please let me stress that I do not intend this exercise as a criticism of either Julia Duin or Laurie Goodstein, the veteran Godbeat reporters who wrote these news stories. After a quick glance at some of the survey materials, it seems to me that both of these stories are accurate and, frankly, both are pretty obvious to anyone who follows the news or this weblog.

Yes, there are quite a few conservative religious believers in quite a few conservative pews who are not very happy with the Republican Party at the moment.

Meanwhile, the “religious left” has been getting lots and lots of ink in recent months — as well it should. There is quite a bit of evidence that the Democratic Party is, in large part, led by a coalition of people who are either secular or very active in liberal denominations that are defined, in large part, by their opposition to the traditional religious views of believers on the traditional side of the aisle.

kerry communionHowever, the “religious left” itself is rather small when it comes to real people sitting in real pews. It tends to hail from religious groups that are aging and shrinking. Click here for a controversial essay in the Los Angeles Times on that topic.

So, it is one thing to say that the GOP has reason to fear that people in pews may not be all that fired up. It is something else to say this means these core voters will switch to the other side of the social-issues aisle. And, as always, this means that voters in Catholic pews are the great swing factor — as they have been for ages and ages. Amen.

This leads me back to another Pew study that was released a few weeks ago that focused on how Americans feel about social issues. The big lead on this story was that Americans are confused and/or diverse on social issues and, thus, it is wrong to talk about “culture wars.” However, the numbers had not changed that much. Click here to go to that study and, if you wish, click here for the Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote about it.

Once again, it isn’t all that shocking to find out what core Republican voters believe about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. What I found interesting in that previous Pew report was the information about my fellow Democrats, especially those of us who are opposed to abortion. Here is part of my column, drawing on an interview with veteran pollster John C. Green. These are some wild numbers.

As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats. Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

“Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

But this does not mean that all of those Democrats are going to vote Republican. The poll numbers are more complex than that.

So if you are really interested in these topics, it pays to read several different reports about the same research and, if you have the time, scan the poll numbers for yourself. These days, it will almost always be available with a few clicks of a mouse.

UPDATE: Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a lengthy post up at Beliefnet on this new Pew poll. Check it out.

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