Chris Rice and the Conversation We Can’t Not Have

Chris Rice and the Conversation We Can’t Not Have June 25, 2022

I’m writing this piece on June 24, heading into a weekend when it is all but guaranteed to get lost in the crush of takes on SCOTUS’s historic overturn of Roe vs. Wade. For those who would like my take on that momentous occasion, head on over to my Substack. And consider subscribing, if newsletters are your thing! My Patheos writing has dropped off in large part because I have shifted much of my commentary to the much cleaner, more widely read Substack platform. However, I’ve tried to keep this space up with the occasional post, particularly on topics that will be of special interest to an evangelical audience.

Sadly, one such ugly topic happened to hit the news cycle on the same day so many of us were celebrating this pro-life victory. After an 18-month delay, GRACE finally released the results of its third-party investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations against erstwhile CCM star Chris Rice. This is the longest delay between initial announcement and full report that I can remember for this sort of case, a delay for which GRACE takes full responsibility in their introduction.

When the first headline dropped in the way back, my eyes popped. It just seemed so random. “Chris Rice? The Come-to-Jesus-Go-Light-Your-World-What-If-Cartoons-Got-Saved Guy? Really??” Like many who grew up with his music, I was concerned, but I wanted much more information before I could start drawing conclusions. So far, I knew the incidents had allegedly taken place in a youth ministry/camp setting, where, as anyone who’s worked with young guys can attest, all kinds of horseplay can materialize that may be awkward but not intended sexually. I then saw at least one public figure imply that the allegations must be true after the bare announcement that they existed. That is never appropriate. Meanwhile, I had my reservations about GRACE and Boz Tchividjian based on their handling of previous cases.

However, having now carefully read this report in full, I think they handled this particular probe fairly. With the full allegations finally on the table for the public to make their own assessment, I’m willing to give mine. And, well…this does look bad. Not as bad as it could have been. But still. Bad enough.

That said, please take my opinion for what it is: my opinion. I do feel competent to have one as both a writer and an educator, specifically an educator who has worked in a high school setting. But if you care enough to be reading about this, I strongly recommend you read the report yourself and draw your own conclusions. I still believe in due process, and nothing I say here should be read in tension with that. Nevertheless, I do have thoughts not only about this story, but about bigger conversations that need to happen in the wake of cases like it—conversations that I worry too many people are afraid to have out loud. Naturally, that has never stopped me from saying things out loud before. So, here we go…

First, some additional background is helpful to understand the setting for these allegations. This investigation was launched in the wake of misconduct allegations against another pastor, Brad Waller, with whom Rice was co-leading and teaching at the same youth camp twenty-some years ago. It then emerged that Rice may also have behaved inappropriately around attendees at that camp. By all the campers’ recollection, the environment fostered close same-sex bonding, intimate conversations, and physical touch among campers and leaders. In particular, it was recalled that “massages” were normalized among the young male campers. This was a “top-down” normalization perpetuated by Waller and Rice in their capacity as ministry leaders. Waller specifically became notorious for foot massages, which he later confessed as a sexual fetish. Rice developed a reputation for back massages, both given and received.

The worst allegations against Rice are mostly concentrated in one case, referred to as “Alan Doe,” while more minor but dove-tailing allegations are presented by “Brent” Doe. Other sources are said to have confirmed various circumstantial details and confirmed that Rice knew both boys, though they claim no knowledge of inappropriate behavior. (These sources are distinguished from several anonymous respondents who checked “Yes,” they did have such knowledge in a poll question, but then declined to make contact with GRACE.) The report notes that GRACE attempted to make contact with Rice himself, but that Rice declined through his lawyer.

The fact that Rice’s accusers won’t name themselves may put people off right out of the gate. I understand the preference that accusers take the risk of naming themselves. All I can say is that as I read and compare, they sound credible to me. They seem earnest, concerned with details, honest where their memory is unclear, and sincerely motivated to give a true account for the truth’s sake. Their stories also don’t sound sensationalized. To the contrary, they sound odd, awkward, sometimes even darkly comical. And, importantly, the men are careful to clarify exactly which lines allegedly were and weren’t crossed at which points in time, to the best of their recollection. Sometimes, Alan admits that he doesn’t remember precisely which incidents occurred before and which after his coming of age.

I particularly appreciate the report’s extensive verbatim quoting from both men (mostly in footnotes), which allows people to examine the texture of their testimony more closely than a summary. The partial transcripts read pretty much like what you would expect from two grown-up Christian youth camp bros remembering how they got felt up by that one creepy counselor in high school. They don’t over-exaggerate their trauma, though they do sound unsettled, nervous, and relieved in hindsight that they don’t have anything more traumatic to report. Because Rice has a youthful face, it was also difficult for students to gauge his precise age at the time, which made the realization of his actual age (late 30s, hence old enough to be their father) something of a delayed shock.

The report emphasizes that the two boys didn’t know each other at all well while they were attending the camp, and Brent had never heard Alan’s story before. On the one hand, this strengthens the independence of his account. On the other hand, it implies that GRACE told Brent Alan’s story. I do question this as a point of investigative wisdom. I would certainly hope they only did so after Brent had given his own account. Still, the way Alan and Brent speak has the mark of organically independent witnesses: substantial similarity with circumstantial variety, where Rice’s character emerges as consistently (and rather pathetically) unified.

In both cases, Rice allegedly tested the boundaries of physical touch to the point of “weirdness,” sometimes framing it with elaborate explanations that he was fascinated with human muscle anatomy and/or had a relative who studied physical therapy. For Alan, this was bound up with a years-long high school to college mentoring relationship where he repeatedly visited Rice’s home and came to feel singled out for inappropriate physical and emotional intimacy, even as he looked up to Rice as a “spiritual father.” As Rice gained Alan’s trust, he allegedly elicited a confession that Alan struggled with p0rn addiction, then volunteered that he had the same struggle. He then offered to be Alan’s accountability partner, mailing him Covenant Eyes-like software and arranging it so that Alan would need to call him for the password…all without ever informing Alan’s parents of this “arrangement.”

Alan claims he had expected they would spend some of their extensive “mentoring” sessions discussing his own possible future in CCM. He would tell Rice, “I thought you were going to help me think about music. I thought we’re going to talk about songwriting or something like that.” But “that just never happened ever. Literally ever. I would bring it up he was like, ‘Eh.'” Instead, the time was filled with watching animated movies, camping, and discussing Alan’s personal life. And, allegedly, nightly massages.

Over the years, Alan alleges there was a frog in the pot-style escalation of physical contact. When he visited, they would allegedly share Rice’s bed. He’d roomed with Rice on camp retreats, which was typical in the camp culture, but sharing a bed seemed strange, particularly when other students came to visit and slept elsewhere in the house. On a one-on-one camping trip, Rice unsuccessfully tried to pressure Alan into sharing a sleeping bag in the nude (because “it would be warmer”), then retreated into a mysterious stony silence all the next day.

Finally, Alan claims that the touching boiled over in an explicit groping attempt. Alan claims he resisted vocally and finally got Rice to back off. After that incident, he cut off the relationship, put the whole thing “in a box,” and moved on. But he claims he finally felt emboldened to come forward after the Waller investigation. He says he feels a duty to get the truth out, because now that Rice’s alleged pattern of conduct has clicked in place for him as a subtle predation process, he wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone else. He no longer has any desire to listen to Rice’s music, which saddens him.

Brent Doe recalls being starstruck by Rice when they first met, stumbling through an emotional thanks for how Rice’s music had touched him. Rice offered a hug and took Brent for an ice cream run, where Brent opened up about unspecified “personal struggles” that Rice said he also shared. (This naturally interlocks with Alan’s account, even though Brent didn’t say specifically whether his conversation centered on p0rn.) Brent appreciated the attention, but he also felt self-conscious that people noticed the two of them talking at length in Rice’s car when they returned. Later, Rice invited him to spend a week at the Nashville house. The fact of this visit was separately confirmed, though the third party knew nothing about what took place there. Brent recalls being driven around to see famous people’s homes, having dinner at another CCM artist’s house, and sharing a crude joke walking out of a sermon that compared marital relations to prayer. He remembers laughing “like dumb little kids.”

At home with Rice, they slept in sleeping bags in a tent that was supposedly being “aired out” after a trip. It was on one of these nights that Rice allegedly invited mutual massaging, with accompanying muscular anatomy lecture. On another occasion, he allegedly seemed inordinately fascinated with the muscles of Brent’s knee and thigh. All this made Brent suspicious, together with the fact that “he hugged me a lot. Quantitatively, a lot.” Rice also seemed oddly “interested in who I was interested in” among the other campers. Brent became tense and uncomfortable, on the lookout for “something weird.” But the week came and went, and nothing ever “happened.” After Rice drove him home, they never saw each other again. Brent conjectured this was probably a pattern for Rice, and that for kids who were sufficiently “sad or damaged,” these sorts of initial explorations would blossom into a more “nurturing” relationship. Brent could only conclude he wasn’t “special.” One thing was for sure: He didn’t want to talk about any of it, with anyone, until now.

The only other source reporting a hint of something that might be read as inappropriate, whom the report calls “Cole,” simply recalls that Rice gave him lots of “extra time” and once fell asleep on top of him on a late-night bus ride. That’s all. But Cole now feels that “in light of the allegations,” if they were true, he could look back and see there was “grooming” in his case too. While it’s understandable that Cole would say this when presented with the other cases, again I’m a bit bothered by the flavor of cross-contamination here. The focus should be on whether or not Cole felt “groomed” by what Rice actually concretely did in his case, not what he speculates it might have meant in light of hearing about other stories. In and of itself, giving a student extra time and attention can be a completely innocuous and natural thing. Anyone who’s ever taught or ministered to kids knows that some students will stand out as students who could benefit from more quality time. I say this not so much to deny that Cole might have in fact “stood out” in another way for Rice, given the cumulative case against him from Alan and Brent’s testimony. I’m more bothered on behalf of non-predatory youth leaders by the potential takeaway from this case that any sign of partiality is an earmark of a predator.

The report concludes with fifteen recommended measures for Tates Creek Presbyterian Church going forward. The first recommendation is that they consult outside experts to “advise” on, among other things, how same-sex attraction is addressed. This, to me, stands out as the main uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the aftermath of both the Rice and the Waller case. Although Waller is married and Rice is not, it seems clear that both men struggled with a persistent strong attraction to young men and boys, and were consequently tempted to create an environment that enabled them to play with physical and relational boundaries. If the allegations against Rice are true, his behavior seems to have stemmed in no small part from a deep-seated immature loneliness, craving a younger male companion with whom he could share time and conversation…and, perhaps, something more. This sadly typifies many unhappy same-sex attracted men.

Let me be clear here that I do not at all intend to accuse all same-sex attracted men of latent predatory tendencies. I would no more do so for them than I would do it for all straight women. I would, however, recommend that at minimum, we normalize parallel boundaries for leader-male student interaction. I think most churches and Christian schools would take it for granted that a woman should not room with boys on retreats, hug and touch boys freely, host a lone boy in her home for days on end (if she’s not doing so with a spouse and/or family), or appoint herself to be a boy’s sexual accountability partner. All of the same standards should automatically obtain for men who are same-sex attracted. There needs to be an assumption in these sorts of close male bonding contexts that sexuality is just a non-issue, so that leaders and students can room together, be physical with each other, and establish sexual accountability. In short, so they can do all the innocent bonding things that it sounds like Chris Rice wanted to do, minus all the weird things he allegedly couldn’t restrain himself from also doing.

Here it might be objected that a man won’t necessarily be forthcoming about his sexual attractions when he applies for a job, especially if he is expressly hoping to explore that sexuality in a predatory way. After all, the Catholic Church “officially” isn’t supposed to ordain men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” and we can all enjoy a hollow laugh at how that’s worked out. And in cases like Brad Waller’s, some men have even hidden these tendencies behind a straight marriage. The answer to this objection is that no screening process is going to filter out every bad actor. Obviously. And, conversely, men can obviously admit homosexual tendencies without being bad actors.

But this isn’t solely about catching bad actors. It’s also about protecting students’ privacy, removing causes for temptation, and reducing the risk that a leader could be nailed with a plausible-sounding false accusation. Once again: All of this is just as true for straight women as it is for same-sex attracted men. And, for men, there is a particular urgency in at least trying to implement this sort of filter when it comes to any kind of intensive ministerial work. Though Chris Rice wasn’t a pastor, he clearly saw himself in a pastoral kind of role, attempting to take on the identity of a mentor and a father figure for these young men. And if Rice had been unencumbered by same-sex attraction, that would have been only natural and right. But for men who carry that particular cross, things are not always so uncomplicated. I have long proposed that we need to be willing to say the quiet part out loud here, compassionately but simply: that for these men, this cross might just intrinsically close off certain vocational avenues. This is the conversation we can’t not have. (The PCA may be hovering on the cusp of this conversation, if this past week’s proceedings are any indication, but that’s for another post.)

Of course, this inevitably raises questions for men who, like Rice, might be exceptionally gifted, desirous to serve the Church, and wondering where they’re supposed to put those gifts. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer. Some might be musicians. Others might be scholars. Others might teach Sunday school or create curriculum. Others might find roles working with younger children. Individual church bodies must make such assessments on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that it is a good thing to notice and develop people’s gifts to the fullest extent possible. Yet there should be an understanding that not every gift or earnest desire is necessarily going to find maximal fulfillment, just as a woman with a heart for men’s ministry will never be able to step into the kind of mentoring role she might otherwise be suited for.

These are hard things. Stories like this are dispiriting stories. When credible, they expose corners of the Church that we would rather not think about. They put a finger on festering wounds. They raise deeply painful, thorny questions—questions about how to protect the vulnerable and catch predators, but also about how to address all the things that inevitably surround all sexual weakness and brokenness.

In this case, as in all cases like this, I pray for justice, clarity, and closure. I lament that such a beloved Christian artist is at the center of such shamefully sad allegations. I think about how a graduate’s sister sang “Go Light Your World” at my high school students’ commencement ceremony, and how even as I sat wincing slightly, I was moved once again by the lyric. I think about my sheet music book full of Rice’s piano hymn arrangements and wonder if I’ll ever look at it the same way again. And yet, when I ask myself if I could still sit down and play something out of it, I think that I could. Maybe I could even still sing one of his songs. Chris Rice wrote them, but I think there’s some profound sense in which Chris Rice doesn’t own them. They no longer exist only in the mind of Chris Rice.

That may still not be enough, in future, to keep them from being yanked out of special music and high school graduations and little church talent shows. Yet they will go on existing. And, strangely and wonderfully, they will go on being true.

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