Al Mohler

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.

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

During her years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April C. Armstrong kept a journal of her experiences as one of the few women earning a Master of Arts in Theology.

There were scary moments with a Master of Divinity student who was preparing for ordination as a youth minister. When she rebuffed his advances, he claimed that, as part of the security team, he had keys to all doors on the Fort Worth campus. He added, "I know where you live."

Armstrong was at Southwestern from 2004-2007 and, during that time, saw the last female professor exit the School of Theology. In one class, a male student quipped that "sophia" -- Greek for "wisdom" -- shouldn't be a feminine word because "no woman is wise." Then there was the chapel service in which a young woman sang a solo, inspiring President Paige Patterson to note that it was good that her skirt went to her ankles, since that would help men avoid the temptation of staring at her body.

"I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed NO ONE was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career," she wrote, at her #SBCToo website.

Armstrong, who later earned a Princeton University doctorate, added: "The best thing SWBTS did for me ... was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger."

Anger is timely, along with grief, as waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo messages about sexual abuse and domestic violence have triggered a series of stunning headlines. Most have been linked to the work of Patterson, a hero on the right because of his leadership in the conservative blitz that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Now, Patterson has been pushed into retirement, and beyond, after news about sermons in which he critiqued a teen-aged girl's body and, on another occasion, knocked female seminary students who weren't striving hard enough to be attractive. An old recording from 2000 -- when Patterson led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary -- led to renewed debate about his advice to an abused wife to stay with her husband, offering prayer and submission rather than seeking legal help.

Finally, The Washington Post reported that a Southeastern student claimed she had been raped by a seminarian, but Patterson advised her not to report this to police.

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.

"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product -- on sale at the end of June 2007 -- combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."

At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."

To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."

One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.

"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.

"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."

There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast -- yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones -- he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.

Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.

The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.

But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.

"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."

It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.

At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online.

The quest for safe, generic, 'ceremonial' prayers

As the members of the Town of Greece Board prepared for business, a local Catholic priest rose to offer a short prayer. "Heavenly Father, you guide and govern everything with order and love," said Father John Forni, of St. John the Evangelist parish. "Look upon this assembly of our town leaders. ... May they always act in accordance with your will, and may their decision be for the well being of all. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace. Amen."

Perhaps it was the "Father" God reference, or even that final trinity of blessings, but this 2004 prayer was listed (.pdf) among those considered too "sectarian" during the Town of Greece v. Galloway case that recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most religious conservatives cheered the high court's 5-4 ruling, which said local leaders could continue to allow volunteers from different faiths to open meetings with "ceremonial" prayers that included explicit doctrinal references to their traditions, even references to Jesus Christ. The court majority also said it was crucial that one faith not dominate others and that prayers must not be allowed to "denigrate" other viewpoints, to "threaten damnation" or to "preach conversion."

However, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted for the majority: "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact."

Kennedy's bottom line: "It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer."

Even among church-state analysts who disagreed on the decision, this theme -- that the state must be denied the power to determine which prayers are generic or safe enough -- emerged as crucial common ground.

"Put bluntly, government has no right to declare that the only God welcome in public is a 'generic God,' " noted the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in online commentary. "That is a profoundly important constitutional argument. For Christians, this is also a profoundly important theological argument. We do not believe that any 'generic God' exists, nor can we allow that some reference to a 'generic God' is a reference to the God of the Bible."

On the liberal side of Baptist life, Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest School of Divinity openly challenged the belief that the state should have the power to determine when prayers cross the line and become oppressive. "What government official," he asked, "will judge when one person's prayerful 'conviction' becomes another's 'damnation?' "

Labeling his perspective that of an "old-timey Baptist," Leonard said the big question is why so many rush to embrace "ceremonial" prayers in the first place.

"There may be government-centered ceremonies where the deity is addressed in various forms, but let's not stoop to calling it prayer," he said, in online analysis. "Prayer is talking to God, not to the Emperor, the President, the Congress, political parties, county commissioners or people gathered for hearings about potholes, zoning or sanitation. They may all need prayer, but certainly not the ceremonial kind.

"Prayer is anything but ceremonial; it burns in the soul, dances in the feet, erupts from the gut. ... No, no, Mr. Justice. Government use of prayer to tout privileged 'religious leaders' or their 'institutions' trivializes faith's most wondrous connection: a confrontation with the Divine."

This complex debate is packed with political and religious ironies, noted Francis Beckwith, who teaches philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

Many liberals, especially unbelievers, would like to ban public prayer altogether, yet accept non-sectarian prayers as "their own kind of don't ask, don't tell policy," he said. Meanwhile, some conservatives feel "so squeezed out of everything" and "so under attack" that they grudgingly accept watered-down expressions of public faith.

In the end, he added, "Christians -- on the left or the right -- should worry about representatives of the state trying to co-opt their leaders and their symbols and their language to serve some particular political cause or movement. ... That temptation is always out there."