World Vision’s gay firestorm and A.D. 2064

PAUL ASKS:

(Regarding the World Vision relief agency deciding U.S. employees can live in same-sex marriages): What does the Religion Guy think?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was prompted by that dramatic policy change by a prominent Christian organization, but a mere two days later World Vision restored its limit of employees’ relationships to male-female marriage. A news reporter’s job isn’t to tell agencies what to do but to analyze what’s going on, and The Guy thinks these neck-snapping events say much about U.S. Protestantism during, oh, the next 50 years.

Why only Protestants? There’s little chance this sexual teaching will be open to reconsideration among the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, independent churches in the developing world, Mormonism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam. With the World Vision furor the irresistible force of cultural evolution met the immoveable object of Bible traditionalism. “Parachurch” agencies like World Vision with backing from all sorts of churches are especially vulnerable. This U.S. Protestant culture war is perhaps as divisive and intense as any since slavery, fortunately minus bullets this time.

No matter what secular laws say, it’s now obvious that there’s no middle ground on whether Christianity should approve same-sex unions and marriages. Mennonite seminarian Benjamin Corey sees “the death of Evangelical Christianity in America as it once was,” namely a big-tent amalgam of moderates and conservatives. The dispute harms everybody. Those who in conscience uphold church tradition are portrayed as hard-hearted bigots who blindly refuse to accept changing reality. Churches that advocate change on grounds of compassion and justice can appear confused if not unprincipled by shedding a belief they so long preached (and they’ve lost members).

Consider the verbal arrows shot through cyberspace, including patheos.com. Episcopal priest David Henson denounced “the vile theology spewed” by evangelicals, said to “have a hate problem.” Author Rachel Held Evans declared, “I have never in my life been more angry at the Church or more embarrassed to be a Christian.” Feminist Libby Anne said conservatives appear “akin to racists.” And youth ministry guru Jonathan McKee said “Christians come out looking like idiots.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma state legislator Rebecca Hamilton said World Vision flirted with “public apostasy” so she now wonders “can we trust them?” Radio host Michael Brown denounced “a betrayal of the Lord.” The social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention (with 45,000 local congregations) said “the gospel of Jesus Christ” is at stake and called the change “devilish.” Before the reversal, the Assemblies of God (12,500 local congregations) asked its flock to gradually shift charity donations elsewhere.

It’s crucial to understand that since 1950, World Vision, a massive international service provider, has become a pride of the evangelical movement, yet also with large non-evangelical support.

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Seeking “Help!” on five venerable world religions

JAEDE ASKS:

I need to know the founder, area of the world it’s in, what their holy book is called and their holidays, for Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Jaede headlined this item “Help!!” and was probably sweating over some school exam or term paper so this comes too late. Nonetheless, a sketch of these five Asian creeds might be informative since they’re lesser-known than the much larger Hinduism and Buddhism. The Guy is grateful that Jaede didn’t ask about their complex belief systems and practices! And after some research The Guy failed in attempts to summarize their many regional and local holidays. Much more could be said but here are a few basics.

The five are listed below in order of adherents as of 2010, estimated by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell seminary, a standard data source.

Such numbers are controversial, and aspects of these faiths influence much broader populations, reflected in higher numbers from such sources as www.patheos.com/Library.html. Apart from the statistics, The Guy relied especially on The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987). Conventional years and centuries are designated here by the multifaith B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the familiar B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “Year of the Lord”).

SIKHISM (10,678,000 adherents) was founded in India by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) and developed by a series of nine authoritative successors through 1708 C.E. Its center is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, near today’s border with Pakistan. Most Sikhs live in India but the faith has spread to Sikh communities worldwide (where the men stand out by wearing obligatory turbans). Though a distinct world religion, Sikhism shares some concepts with Hinduism (e.g. reincarnation and the law of karma) and Islam (worship of one all-powerful God). Its scripture is the Adi Granth (“First Book”), also called the Granth Sahib, collected hymns and poems of the Guru and others. This is supplemented by collected life stories about the Guru as well as manuals of conduct.

Further info at www.thesikhencyclopedia.com.

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The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!

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KENNETH ASKS:

With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even weather.com joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

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Keeping Lent: Not once a year but four times

TERRY (YES, that TERRY) ASKS:

Whatever happened to the Lenten disciplines that used to be part of Advent, in the weeks before Nativity? How do they differ from the season of Lent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

As Christendom nears the annual season of Lent, this refers to the Orthodox Church’s little-known practice of not just one but four seasons each year of Lenten-type fasting. “Great Lent” leading up to Easter is familiar. But traditionally, Orthodoxy also observes a Nativity Fast from mid-November (or later) through Christmas Eve, and two other seasons of abstinence from specified food and drink.

As the question indicates, average Eastern Orthodox members in western nations often ignore the traditional disciplines except for Great Lent. And Bishop Timothy Ware of Oxford, England, a British convert to Orthodoxy who became a bishop, remarks that the customary regimen “will astonish and even appall many western Christians.” In other words, these ancient traditions tend to be practiced even less in Western churches, including among Roman Catholics.

Father Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary (and a high school friend of The Guy) explains the Orthodox concept.

First, why fast at all? Simply because Jesus taught this Jewish practice to his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast,” indicating it’s a regular aspect of the life of faith. Jesus also said fasting should be a private matter without showing off one’s piety (Matthew 6:16-18).

The purpose is not to afflict oneself, Hopko insists. “God has no pleasure in the discomfort of his people.” Nor does it somehow pay for one’s sins, which can only occur through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Salvation is a ‘free gift of God’ which no works of man can accomplish of merit” (citing the biblical Romans 5:15-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

Rather, fasting is meant “to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God,” to facilitate prayer, and to empower the soul to avoid sin.

These disciplines originated with monks early in Orthodox history but came to be recommended for all parishioners. Fasting is entirely a voluntary choice. The ill, the aged, the very young and nursing mothers are not asked to abstain. Newcomers to fasting may be advised to ease into the practices rather than following the full regimen. Rules are quite complex and vary by season and jurisdiction, but here’s a customary routine for Great Lent:

“Meatfare Sunday” (February 23 this year) is the last day till Easter when those keeping the fast eat meat, poultry or fish (with backbones; other seafood is often permitted). “Cheesefare Sunday” (March 2) is the last day when dairy products and eggs are consumed. Great Lent begins the following day with a total fast from food and drink except for a little water.

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Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?

GENE ASKS:

What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Forced to pick just “one factor” among many, The Guy says fading cultural respect — for committed Christians, for Christian churches and for Christianity.

Begin with some hard data.

As Religion Q and A analyzed last Oct. 19, the collective membership of America’s moderate to liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations has gradually fallen by a third since the mid-1960s, an unprecedented slide. These churches were once at the center of the culture.

During that era the Catholic Church continued to grow (thanks substantially to immigrants) as did groups of conservative and “Evangelical” Protestants, who now outnumber “Mainliners.”

But let’s take a closer look inside those trends.

On paper, U.S. Catholicism claims 77.7 million adherents, 22 percent of the population. However, that counts all those baptized as infants, many no longer active. A 2008 Georgetown University survey found that only 55 percent of those calling themselves Catholic say they practice the faith.

The largest U.S. Protestant body, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, enjoyed years of expansion while the Mainline churches declined. But as of 2012 the S.B.C. reported its sixth straight year of slight membership decline (to 15.9 million). Worse, average worship attendance was down 3 percent in just one year (to just under 6 million). Baptisms of youths and adults declined in six of the past eight years; the 2012 total (314,956) was the lowest since 1948.

Other conservative groups still gain but that suggests future problems beyond just the S.B.C.

(Though Gene asks about churches, a 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jews showed only a third belong to a synagogue, 23 percent don’t believe in God, and 62 percent say being Jewish is mostly about ancestry and culture vs. only 15 percent who think it’s largely a matter of religious belief.)

Accumulating cultural currents deserve more attention. On Sundays, pro football commands TV devotion while local athletics and other diversions that have become socially prominent compete with worship attendance. The once-protected name of God is repeatedly uttered “in vain” (as the Ten Commandments phrase it) on radio and TV talk shows, whether conservative or liberal. Entertainment media ridicule cherished beliefs. (The Guy distinguishes that from lampooning religious figures’ follies.)

Not to be partisan, but years ago we couldn’t imagine the federal administration legally opposing employment freedom at a Lutheran school (a unanimous Supreme Court backed the Lutherans) or enforcing a healthcare funding rule that violates the conscience of Catholic agencies and some Protestants. Clearly the ground is moving.

Tobin Grant of Southern Illinois University developed an “aggregate religiosity” index that combines 60 years of data from 400 U.S. surveys on things like worship attendance, church membership, personal prayer and feelings about religion. In an essay for Religion News Service he writes in that Americans’ religiosity began to weaken starting in the 1960s, leveled off for two decades, but since 1995 has undergone a steady falloff that’s twice as severe as the earlier one. Grant calls this “The Great Decline.”

And what about Gallup?

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Women and men and the Bible and the church

PARK ASKS:

What are the major scriptural passages [and interpretations] relative to a complementarian and egalitarian approach to gender roles in the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is a big one.

First, about that lingo:

“Egalitarians” say the Bible teaches across-the-board equality without regard to gender. Period. Nevertheless, this supposedly “liberal” view is held by many people who are commonly called “conservatives.”

“Complementarians” — note that it’s “complement,” not “compliment” — say the Bible establishes different roles for men and women in the church and, most add, in the home. For instance, no female pastors. Obviously not a politically-correct stance but in conscience they believe the Bible is clear about this.

These two terms are used almost exclusively in the ongoing debate among U.S. Evangelical Protestants. Though some Evangelical denominations have ordained women since the 19th Century, influential theologians like the Rev. J.I. Packer, an Anglican, say the Bible rules out female clergy. Meanwhile, there’s no dispute in U.S. “Mainline” Protestant churches that began ordaining women in the 1950s through the 1970s. Of course, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have always barred women from the priesthood (with parallels among non-Christian faiths).

While other Christians rely more upon church tradition and hierarchical decrees, Protestants follow “scripture alone” in setting policy. Both of the Evangelical camps maintain they’re being faithful to the Bible and agree on the spiritual equality of both sexes as taught in Genesis 1:27 (“in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”) and Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). Egalitarians say those verses require full equality; complementarians say they don’t rule out a division of labor and gifts based on gender.

America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention with 46,000 local congregations, has officially gone complementarian. The SBC rewrote its doctrinal platform, the Baptist Faith and Message, to specify that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” and that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” (Local Baptist congregations are, of course, free to disagree.)

Per Park’s question, The Guy will look only at the church aspect, sidestepping the intriguing relationship between husbands and wives in the home.

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A Christmas question: Did the baby Jesus cry?

MARY (an appropriate name for this particular question) ASKS:

Did the infant Jesus cry?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Good one. A beloved Christmas carol says “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” which would have been a tiny miracle.

But the New Testament, which has the only early accounts of Jesus’ Nativity, tells us nothing about his infancy, or even his youth except for teaching in the Jerusalem Temple at age 12.

If pondered in terms of what Christianity has always thought there’d be every reason to assume the Babe of Bethlehem cried just like all other infants do, for the same physiological and emotional reasons. That’s a solid inference from the faith’s central and mysterious belief that Jesus was God incarnate and at the same time fully a human being (“yet without sin”). The New Testament reports that just like everyone else the adult Jesus could be tired, hungry, sorrowful and perturbed, and that he experienced pain and death.

In other words, truly human, not inhuman.

New Testament writings from the 1st Century began the process of defining Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. For instance: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

The Nicene Creed of A.D. 381, recited by multitudes each Sunday to this day, states that Jesus was “true God of true God” who “for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Many favorite Christmas carols say the same.

You get the impression that early Christianity had more trouble convincing people that Jesus was fully human than that he was fully divine. This is evident in the “pseudepigrapha” that some liberal scholars emphasize instead of focusing just on the four New Testament Gospels that the early church judged to be authentic and worthy of scriptural status. For one thing, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John originated much earlier than those non-biblical writings.

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