Yet another painful Calvary Chapel story

When I first saw this story, I blanked out and said to myself, “Surely this must be a follow-up story on that San Bernardino Sun item that Ted Olsen at the Christianity Today blog wrote up. It must be strange for the Los Angeles Times to have to chase a story like that.”

Then I noticed that the names were all different, even though some of the facts and themes about the Calvary Chapel world seemed somewhat similar. This is, in fact, a whole new story full of all kinds of painful twists and turns for the charismatic superstar Chuck Smith and the 1,100 or so independent congregations that grew out of his Jesus People revivals so long ago in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

So is there is some kind of virus making the rounds these days in the world of hyper-independent charismatic superchurches in Southern California? What is the bigger story here, something deeper than all the painful human details of “he said,” “they said,” “he denied”?

Here is where reporters Roy Rivenburg (a friend of mine, I should note) and Donna Horowitz begin to focus on a larger question: What kind of oversight exists in all of these independent congregations, which operate from sea to shining sea as one of the most powerful change elements in modern American Protestantism? Who is supposed to come to the aid of Pastor Joe Sabolick and his estranged older brother, Pastor George Sabolick, and all of the sheep who are loyal to one or the other? Who is in charge?

That would seem to be the police, the lawyers and, like it or not, Chuck Smith. Is that the reality woven into this sad tale?

. . . Smith didn’t let his protege entirely off the hook. Sabolick showed “perhaps a carelessness in finances,” Smith said. He cited two examples: In one, Sabolick used a church credit card to buy boots and clothes for a visiting Australian singer whose shoes were held together with duct tape.

In another, while trying to help a young girl, he “gave her things and it was misinterpreted as a romantic gesture. Joe is a very giving person, but you’ve got to keep better records on spending.”

Sabolick’s touchy-feely manner didn’t help, Smith said. When asked if he advised Sabolick to curb displays of physical affection, Smith replied: “Oh my, yes. Billy Graham says don’t touch the money and don’t touch the girls.”

But Smith saw no reason to bar Sabolick from the ministry. In recent weeks, the Calvary patriarch has tried to broker a settlement of the lawsuit. The only sticking point Smith sees is calculating how much the Laguna church owes Sabolick for severance pay and unreturned personal items versus how much Joe owes the church for funds borrowed for “some projects,” Smith said.

But hammering out a compromise might not be so simple, despite Smith’s hopes.

Millions of Americans love their totally independent congregations that form around charismatic leaders who can unleash fire in the pulpit. But if things go wrong, what then? This is the upside-down, mirror-image story to the Roman Catholic scandals, where people are turning up the heat — rightly so — on the bishops. Well, what do you do when you have no bishops?

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Once more into the “religion test” gap

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times has a helpful commentary up today, returning to the issue of whether Judge John G. Roberts Jr. has to shed his Catholic beliefs in order to enter the sacred doors of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two passages stand out for me, the first a chunk of content-analysis that gives a hint of just how nervous many newspaper people are about this whole “religion test” issue:

Friday, in reporting the contents of the most recently released cache of documents from the young Roberts’ service as a legal advisor to President Reagan, the Washington Post chose to emphasize his opposition to legally expanding women’s rights. At one point, the Post noted in its opening paragraph, Roberts wrote a memo wondering “whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good.” The phrase, “common good,” is a bedrock fixture of Catholic social thinking. So, is the sentiment an expression of his religious faith?

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times’ reporters looked at the same memoranda and felt they portrayed Roberts as a remarkably steadfast opponent of commercializing or in any way cheapening the presidency, even when the pressure to do so came from Reagan’s friends. At one point, Roberts urged deletion from a campaign speech of a line that called the United States “the greatest nation God ever created.” The young lawyer dryly noted, “According to Genesis, God creates things like the heavens and the earth, and the birds and the fishes, but not nations.” In our piety-besotted times, that common sense seems a breath of fresh air. Was it a consequence of his Catholic faith?

The missing link here, of course, is that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith and it has, like it or not, had a major impact on Western (and Eastern) culture. So Civil Rights leaders (and junior senators from Illinois) can quote the Bible left and right but judges cannot?

But all of this is, really, beside the point. What reporters want to know is whether this Catholic layman is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. They want to know if he is a Scalia Catholic or a Kennedy Catholic. They want to know if he is SAFE.

Dr. James Dobson and his camp, of course, want to know precisely the same thing. Only one side’s good is the other’s bad.

So what about the Vatican? Rutten wades into this, briefly. It is clear that Catholics are allowed to be strategic in their thinking. They are allowed to choose the lesser of evils.

But it is also clear what the church believes is evil. This whole battle, you see, is over whether it is even possible — under Roe — to compromise on abortion at all. Will a strict abortion-on-demand regime hold?

The issue is whether Roberts is the man who casts a vote that allows compromise to begin. Here is Rutten again:

UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who writes about Catholic social thought with great precision, recently noted that the Vatican document most relevant to the questions that have arisen concerning Roberts is its “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” When it comes to both the political and judicial spheres, Bainbridge wrote in his blog (, “the Church distinguishes between formal and material cooperation with evil.”

Formal cooperation, as the doctrinal note defines it, occurs when a person “gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor.” Material cooperation occurs when “a cooperator performs an action that itself is not evil, but in so doing helps the actor perform another evil action. The moral quality of material cooperation depends upon how close the act of the cooperator is to the evil action, and whether there is a proportionate reason for performing the action.”

A little more than a year ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, elaborated on the note by writing, “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

As Bainbridge — whose personal politics are conservative, generally Republican — wrote, “Judicial decision making, even with respect to issues like abortion and euthanasia that raise moral questions under Church teaching, does not per se constitute formal cooperation with evil.”

So here is the question: Is the Vatican more flexible on the issue of abortion, more interested in compromise, than American newspapers?

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Of ducks & zealotry

DucksEarlier this month, GetReligion mentioned that Stephen Meyer of the intelligent design movement had published an essay in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, mentioning only briefly the indignation that Meyer’s article caused.

Today’s Washington Post describes how the fury about that article has affected the life of Richard Sternberg, the editor who decided to publish it:

Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution — which has helped fund and run the journal — lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.

“They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists,” said Steinberg, 42, who is a Smithsonian research associate. “I was basically run out of there.”

An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a “creationist.”

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists and noted that “retaliation came in many forms . . . misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false.”

In one amusing detail, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education takes Michael Behe’s “If it walks like a duck” argument and subjects it to a non-evolutionary adaptation:

An e-mail stated, falsely, that Sternberg had “training as an orthodox priest.” Another labeled him a “Young Earth Creationist,” meaning a person who believes God created the world in the past 10,000 years.

This latter accusation is a reference to Sternberg’s service on the board of the Baraminology Study Group, a “young Earth” group. Sternberg insists he does not believe in creationism. “I was rather strong in my criticism of them,” he said. “But I agreed to work as a friendly but critical outsider.”

Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg’s religious beliefs. “They don’t care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist,” Scott said. “Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry.”

Hats off to the Post for not ducking out on a story of intrigue.

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Religion explosion in the L.A. Times

The Los Angeles Times dropped a splurge of religious stories yesterday. The articles are not directly connected to one another, but all have ties to one another. It’s one of those things that the editor probably didn’t realize until looking over the paper the next day.

Leading of was this story on a terrorism investigation, relying primarily on anonymous sources, of potential terrorists who seemed to live normal lives.

As the midday call to prayer was sung out, members of an Inglewood mosque said Wednesday that they were shocked to hear that three of their fellow worshipers were under investigation for a possible plot to shoot up National Guard recruitment centers and synagogues.

Members of the mostly South Asian mosque described the trio — two African American Muslims and a Pakistani national — as “friendly, devout” adherents and said that they had been unaware of any dangers the men might have posed.

“They said their prayers on time and were known to myself on a first-name basis,” said Imam Junaid Kharsany, the clerical leader of Jamat-E-Masijidul Islam mosque. “We had no reason to believe that these men were criminals with bad intentions.”

Yes, Imam Junaid, I’m sure these guys were nice people to your community, but so were the London bombers.

The key issue that journalists covering these situations must remember is the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” The reporters and editors must be especially careful in a case like this when indictments have yet to be issued. Remember, these people are just under investigation.

Exactly what standards did the Times use in deciding to publish this report? Its lawyers must not have been able to sleep, because if this investigation fails to pan out, the anonymous sources used in this report could find themselves hit with some hefty lawsuits.

On a side note, the shooting spree that investigators believe these men were planning is exactly the type of terrorist attack Americans should dread the most. Put two pairs of heavily armed gunners at the ends of four typical American malls and say Go. Hundreds would be dead in communities across the country and many more wounded. American commercialism, at least in malls, would grind to a halt for fear of repeated attacks. And stock soars.

In a related story, the Times focuses on the education of young Muslims in Pakistan, and the news is not encouraging.

Since joining the U.S. as an ally in its “war on terror” four years ago, Musharraf has urged Pakistanis to shun radical Islam and pursue “enlightened moderation.”

Musharraf and U.S. officials say education reforms are crucial to defeating extremism in Pakistan, the only Islamic nation armed with nuclear weapons. Yet reformers who study the country’s education system say public school lessons still promote hatred against non-Muslims and urge jihad, or holy war.

The story delves into a debate over the meaning of jihad. Some believe that the concept, taught to children throughout Pakistan, can mean peaceful struggle or refer to an inner struggle in a person’s soul. Reminds me of objections I heard in college to the name of the Christian group “Campus Crusade.” But the Crusades ended centuries ago. Extremist Muslims are carrying out their violent jihad in Iraq today.

And in an unrelated story, the Times explores a Jewish shopping mall that people say is dying.

Hemmed in on one side by glitz and on the other by glamour, Los Angeles’ best-known Jewish business district is feeling the squeeze.

Longtime merchants say investors are buying up modest Fairfax Avenue storefronts that for half a century have housed kosher bakeries, butcher shops and bookstores and are imposing rent increases that are forcing mom-and-pop ventures out of business.

The shops that have formed the heart of the city’s Jewish commercial core are being replaced by flashy boutiques more likely to be stocked with designer tees and jeans than lox and bagels.

Two things stand out in this story. First is the clear connection the reader makes with the Gaza evacuation, but the reporter fails to touch. Second is the clear sadness the writer expresses in the decline of the district. The reason the author makes no mention of the Gaza situation is likely because there is no direct connection in the events — one is a political situation, the other, economic. But the image is there nonetheless. The author does drop an optimistic note in the story, at the very end:

“The sadness is you lose the culture when neighborhoods change,” Charet said. “The upside is America is open enough to embrace this culture and others as well.”

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A pastor in the lobby of hell

So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.

You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.

Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.

Film at 11. And here is the news:

Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.

Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.

“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.

That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.

So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?

There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.

Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.

“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”

This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.

Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?

I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.

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Update: separation of coven and state

wiccaI’m from the great Hoosier state and I can’t say I was too proud to see earlier this year that a county judge from our largest city — Indianapolis — barred a couple of parents from exposing their children to “non-mainstream religion beliefs and rituals,” particularly Wicca.

Well, an appeals court panel reversed the ruling yesterday and found the first judge out of bounds. Michele McNeil writes in The Indianapolis Star:

The Indiana Court of Appeals today upheld the rights of parents to expose their children to Wicca, a contemporary pagan religion.

In its unanimous ruling, the court declared that a Marion County judge was out of bounds in approving a divorce decree that also directed the parents to shelter their 10 year old son from non mainstream religious beliefs and rituals.

For more information on Wicca, go here, and you will see that the reporter’s characterization is fairly accurate, at least according to the Wikipedia, despite the debate around its origins.

As Terry aptly stated earlier this year, this case is important because it deals with any religious parent’s ability to teach and instruct religion values.

Religious liberty is only as strong as the rights of minorities. Take away the rights of parents to advocate their own faith to their children and the next thing you know you’ll have evangelical kids forced to sit in school classes that openly attack the faith taught in their homes. Wait, that’s happening already, isn’t it?

But the point remains the same. Parents have a right to pray with their kids and even preach to them. If Christians — even very conservative ones — want that right they should defend that right for others.

All I really have to say about the first ruling is . . . Oh, Indiana, and let’s be thankful for appeals courts.

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A strangely violent death for a gentle saint

BrotherRogerBook2The perfectly bizarre story of Brother Roger’s murder at Taizé, the religious community he founded in 1940, has caused a humble ripple today on the Godbeat. Most of the stories are competent summaries of Brother Roger’s life and ministry.

So far, though, the most moving reflection on Brother Roger comes from Ruth Gledhill of the Times of London. The piece’s headline, “Murdered Taizé leader was new age pioneer,” speaks more to his musical than to his theological influence.

Gledhill writes:

Given all the current controversies surrounding so many religious leaders, Brother Roger was the last for whom any would have predicted a violent death. His rule, if he had one, was: “Love, and express that with your life.”

. . . Music and song are the keys to understanding the Taizé phenomenon. A classically-trained musician, Brother Roger introduced the form of meditative chant that came to characterise Taizé and which has been taken up by churches worldwide.

Many churches today hold regular Taizé services using the community’s music, for which Brother Roger never took any personal credit, but which has always born his indelible numinous imprint.

Few are aware of the extent to which the soft, rhythmic harmonic chants of Taizé influenced the development of the new age and ambient genres that have moved into the secular mainstream.

. . . The Taizé songbook states: “Song is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short chants, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words, they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind.”

Christians worldwide will be praying that Brother Roger’s death will not silence his song of reconciliation, beauty and peace.

About the art: God Is Love Alone is available from GIA Publications of Chicago.

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Con man, fake priest, sinner

If there are any screenwriters out there who want a bizarre real-life story about original sin, look no further than this amazing (and oh so depressing) Los Angeles Times feature story by Tonya Alanez about the life and times of con man Federiqkoe DiBritto III.

Where to begin? He just wants to do good, even if he can’t straighten out his own life. And the money was just there for the taking.

And what about the times he managed to convince people that he was a priest?

“Emotionally and spiritually, he did real damage to people here in Phoenix,” said Father David Sanfilippo, vicar general of the Phoenix diocese. “To find out that it was an impostor celebrating these sacraments was very hurtful.”

Brito said he regrets fooling the Arizona parishioners, but he sees things differently.

“When I worked in the parish, I gave my heart,” he said. “When I spoke at the Masses, they applauded.”

Brito describes himself as “very” religious and dedicated to fulfilling the needs of others. “I probably would have made a great priest, a great elected official, a great human being,” Brito said. “But I screwed it up.”

He said he prays for forgiveness.

“God came to heal sinners, not perfect people, and I am one of them,” he said.

So who plays this guy in the DreamWorks movie? This guy gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “born again.” Wow. My only knock on this story is that it really cries out for theological insights. No, I mean it. DiBritto is messed up — in a very specific way. The spiritual element of this story cannot be denied. What do Catholic authorities have to say about his angels and demons?

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