Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

There is no record that political pollsters in ancient Rome even knew that Jesus of Nazareth told a Jewish leader named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born again" in order see the Kingdom of God.

Germans in the Protestant Reformation embraced that "born again" image and called themselves the "evangelisch." Then in 1807, English poet Robert Southey was one of the first writers to turn the adjective "evangelical" -- think "evangelical" preaching -- into a plural noun "evangelicals." There was no earthquake in European politics.

But America changed forever when Bible Belt Democrat Jimmy Carter shocked journalists by saying that he had been "born again." That firestorm led Newsweek editors to grab a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaim 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical." Lots of politicos noticed, including a rising Republican star named Ronald Reagan.

The rest is a long story. 

"The news media and polling agencies realized that the 'born again' vote was a seminal political factor," noted historian Thomas Kidd, in a recent address at Wheaton College, the alma mater of the late evangelist Billy Graham.

"The Gallup organization," he added, "began asking people whether they had been 'born again.' The emergence of EVANGELICAL as a common term in news coverage of politics was a major landmark in the development of the contemporary evangelical crisis. … The media's frequent use of 'born again' and 'evangelical' connected those terms to political behavior."

More some evangelical insiders relished this attention, while denominational leaders and other mainstream evangelicals failed to realize that "they were losing control of the public's perception of their movement," said the scholar from Baylor University.

But one thing would become crystal clear, according to Kidd's new book, "Who is An Evangelical?" His bottom line: "The gospel did not make news. But politics did."

Union seminary holds another interfaith rite, causing an explosion that rocked Twitter-verse

Union seminary holds another interfaith rite, causing an explosion that rocked Twitter-verse

When describing the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, his admirers -- environmentalists as well as theologians -- usually quote his "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon."

It begins with the Catholic mystic stressing that to God alone belong "all glory, all honor and all blessings."

Then St. Francis, who died in 1226, proclaims: "Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun. … Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air."

This famous hymn teaches that God is Creator and that Francis is thankful for all of creation -- rain, wind, fire, plants, humanity and even "Sister Death."

That wasn't the doctrinal equation many Twitter users saw in a recent message from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary tweet described a chapel service linked to a class -- "Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response" -- taught by the Rev. Claudio Carvalhaes, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) theologian from Brazil.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," said the seminary statement. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?" The tweet showed a student facing potted ferns, palms, cattails, a lily and other houseplants.

"The prayers were said to the plants," confirmed Carvalhaes, reached by telephone. "The way we understand this, we are not praying to the plants as God. … We were seeing the plants in a way that the indigenous peoples see them -- as living things with lives of their own. …

"We were speaking to the plants as part of the 'we' of God. We are all part of God's creation -- both mankind and the rest of creation."

The Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heard a different message. "If you do not worship the Creator, you will inevitably worship the creation, in one way or another. That is the primal form of idolatry," he said, in a podcast from the Louisville campus, which has 1,731 full-time students.

The Union rite created a furor because of this seminary's fame as a center for progressive theology and its academic association with nearby Columbia University on Manhattan's West Side.

Are many religious flocks simply too afraid to help depressed, suffering people?

Are many religious flocks simply too afraid to help depressed, suffering people?

Week after week, the Rev. Todd Peperkorn listens as pastors talk -- in private -- about people wrestling with loneliness, depression and urges to commit suicide.

Most ministers believe they know their own people and their struggles. Then things start happening that reveal dark secrets and pain in the lives of members of their parishes, said Peperkorn, senior pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Rocklin, Calif.

"What I hear pastors saying is, 'I didn't know. I didn't see it. Now I see it everywhere and I can't stop seeing it,' " he said. "Pastors want to help. They want to do the right thing. Most of all, they are scared that they will do something wrong and make a situation worse. …

"At some point, you can get so involved in the details of people's problems and their needs that you feel like you don't have the time or the energy to pray for them and carry on with all the other things that pastors need to do."

There's a reason that Peperkorn ends up on the other side of these conversations over coffee or on the telephone. He has openly discussed his own experiences as a patient diagnosed with clinical depression.

A decade ago, he shared what he has learned in a book entitled "I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression." Here's one unforgettable image from his story: During one busy Holy Week, he found himself writing an Easter sermon -- while, at the same time, pondering how he could commit suicide.

Right now, many pastors -- especially evangelical Protestants -- have been shaken by the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, associate pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurch in Riverside, Calif. He was best known as the co-founder of Anthem of Hope, a mental-health ministry dedicated to helping people struggling with depression, addiction and suicide.

On Sept. 9, Wilson appealed to his Twitter followers for prayer as he prepared to lead the funeral of a "Jesus-Loving Woman" who took her own life. A few hours after that service, Wilson sent out a poignant tweet.

"Loving Jesus Doesn't Always Cure Suicidal Thoughts.

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good that between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.

If a church's attendance is larger than 250 -- especially if it's 1,000-plus -- visitors will usually see pop-rock "praise musicians" on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics. 

But here's a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the "worship wars." According to a LifeWay Research survey, there's evidence of a "truce" between the "contemporary" and "traditional" worship forces. Then again, it's possible that church leaders have made up their minds and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.

"We're not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease fire," said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. "What I've seen happen in the 20 years that I've been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. … People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other."

This survey (.pdf here) was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.

A key finding was that only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was "navigating the varying preferences of members." A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.

When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don't contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or "praise team" that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents -- not church tradition -- help shape a local congregation's worship "style."

Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said. "We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don't have anyone who is talented on guitar and we don't have a drummer."

There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical "style" questions are linked to church size.

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Journalism professors at Christian colleges and universities know the drill all too well.

Semi-official reports spread that something terrible has happened on or near campus. It may be an accident that was said to have involved alcohol and a student driver. It may be rumors about a sexual assault. It may be a suicide or attempted suicide.

At the student newspaper, students are sure they know what happened and want to run the story. When they contact administrators -- as they should -- they are told that no one can comment because, first and foremost, this is a private school, student-discipline issues are involved and officials cannot comment because of privacy laws.

What next? After decades in Christian higher education, here is the question that I teach students to ask: Did this event lead to a public police report?

The goal is to get past the "everyone knows what happened" stage. Rumors are not enough. Gossip is not more Christian than journalism.

Truth is, journalism educators have to understand that concerns about privacy laws are very real for leaders at private schools and universities. And if administrators cannot comment about campus discipline issues -- including faculty cases -- then it's hard for students to provide accurate, balanced, fair reports about these stories. 

At the moment, debates about journalism and faith have been stirred up -- yet again -- by a Washington Post essay by Will Young, former editor of the student newspaper at Liberty University. 

Readers should focus on this passage: "In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion ... our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I'd noticed that our evangelical school's police department didn't publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. ... Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley -- for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn't happen again, because she'd keep a better eye on me."

It's safe to assume -- during the President Donald Trump era -- that there are other journalism-related conflicts at Liberty.

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

When it comes to mainstream journalism, it's hard to imagine a stronger brand than The New Yorker.

This prestigious magazine is, of course, also known for humor and cartoons. A recent satire feature proclaimed: "Chick-fil-A Introduces New Hate Sauce."

"Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce," wrote Andy Borowitz.

"Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. 'It's so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it's on fire -- like a gay couple in hell,' said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando."

Could readers see a short Facebook item about that feature and think it was real? 

How about this headline? "House Democrats Draft Legislation That Would Make It A Hate Crime To Eat At Chick-fil-A."

Is that Babylon Bee bulletin fake news or satire? Then there was this headline at that same Christian satire website: "Trump Announces He Was Born Of A Virgin And Will Bring Balance To The Force."

Babylon Bee writers could -- day after day -- grab "low-hanging fruit" offered by President Donald Trump, noted publisher Seth Dillon, who bought the Bee in 2018.

"All this stuff keeps happening that is soooo outrageous that we just couldn't make it up," he said. "People keep seeing headlines that make them stop and say, 'Wait a minute. Did that really happen?' "

Bizarre twists in the news inspired this recent Bee headline: "Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire."

That was also a shot at claims by Snopes.com researchers that The Babylon Bee was linked to numerous "fake news" claims in which readers confused satire with reality. They said the Bee's work was more problematic than The Onion, a secular satire site. The Bee calls itself, "Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire." The Onion's motto is, "America's Finest News Source" -- without the word "satire."

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.