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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."

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.

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

While finishing her book, "On Reading Well," Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature's less celebrated heroines -- Anne Elliot of Jane Austen's final novel, "Persuasion."

The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word "patient," as in someone who is under medical care.

"Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age," wrote Prior. "It's certainly not something I do well. … Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances."

Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.

This wasn't a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis -- now steadied by a large titanium screw.

But the point of "On Reading Well" -- including her meditation on patience and suffering -- is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life's twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are "cardinal" virtues, while faith, hope and love are "theological" virtues. Finally, there are the seven "heavenly" virtues -- charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

"Reading well adds to our life -- not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life," she wrote, but "in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever."

This is why Prior remains convinced that -- in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance -- it's more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books.

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Va., near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country, "The Place That Wants Donald Trump Most."

But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn't fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."

 "Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence," he wrote. "Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews."

But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire's rise -- that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?

"There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don't actually have any greatly held morality," noted Carney, in a recent telephone interview. "The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political -- not religious."

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry.

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

It isn't every day that a University of Toronto psychology professor is asked to perform a wedding.

Then again, Jordan Peterson has outgrown the role of bookish academic, evolving into a digital-culture guru whose fame is measured in millions of online clicks.

The logical thing to do was hit the Internet and get ordained. Within minutes, the author of the bestseller "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" was the "metropolitan" of his own church -- with a one-doctrine creed.

"If you are a member of my church, you cannot follow stupid rules. That's a good rule, because it's an anti-rule rule," said Peterson, during an Orthodox School of Theology forum at Toronto's Trinity College.

This 2017 event -- "Resurrection of Logos: The Divine, the Individual and Finding Our Bearings in a Postmodern World" -- offered the scholar's unusual mix of science, art and theology. What matters to online seekers is that it's on YouTube, where debates about ultimate issues never end.

Not all rules are stupid, stressed Peterson. Consider this one: Don't tell lies.

"You certainly know when you lie, and you know how to stop doing that. So, I would say … stop lying. Try it for a year and see what happens," he said. "It also means that you have to not act in a way that you wouldn't speak truthfully about it."

Attempting to live a good life, he stressed, will force many people to realize that they are not inherently good.

"You cannot conceive of how good a human being might be until you can conceive how evil a human being can and will be," he said. "The pathway to Paradise is through hell. … If you don't go there voluntarily, you'll go there accidentally. So, it's better to go there voluntarily, because you can go with hope."

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

The YouTube seekers are out there, hundreds of thousands of them, clicking on links to philosophical and even theological debates that would shock those who believe cyberspace is about Donald Trump, cat videos and that's that.

These videos feature real people -- some famous and some only Internet-famous. The superstars can sell out civic auditoriums while discussing theism and atheism, the search for absolute truth and what it means to be a mature person living in a world awash in information, opinion, beauty and noise.

At the center of lots of these debates sits University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose career built on hundreds of academic papers has veered into the digital marketplace of ideas. That happens when a professor's latest book, "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" sells 2 million copies, while he has 922,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.

Critics are sure to ask faith questions when a professor constantly discusses how troubled souls -- especially Millennial generation men -- can make decisions that change their lives, noted Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and a popular Catholic online apologist.

Peterson is a "depth psychologist," not a theologian, stressed Barron, and he has sent complex, mixed signals about the Bible and Christianity.

Nevertheless, it's impossible to avoid the moral content of his work. Consider this pithy Peterson advice: "Start to stop doing, right now, what you know to be wrong."

"He is, somewhat, assuming the mantle of spiritual father and he's speaking, especially, to younger people about -- you know -- rules. Life is not just a matter of self-expression and I make it up as I go along," said Barron, in an online video commentary about Peterson's work. "There are these rules that are grounded in our psychological and physical structure that you can see, up and down the centuries of tradition. Peterson kind of moves boldly into that space of spiritual teacher."