Baylor

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Like all historic private universities, Baylor University -- chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas -- has its share of beloved traditions.

One of them is that public prayers during graduation ceremonies are given by Baylor staff members, faculty and, when possible, ministers who are the parents of graduating seniors. That's why the Rev. Dan Freemyer of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth stepped to the microphone on May 18 to deliver the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites.

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

It's crucial to know that Freemyer serves as the "missional engagement" pastor at Broadway Baptist, a progressive congregation that in 2010 voted to leave the Baptist General Convention of Texas in a dispute over the moral status of homosexual behavior. Baylor retains BGCT ties, but -- for many decades -- has had many connections to Broadway Baptist.

Ending his prayer, Freemyer stated: "God, you are doing a new thing. Praise be! … It springs forth and we can feel it."

This prayer drew scattered applause, in part because it came days after Baylor regents declined to meet with leaders of the campus LGBTQ group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which has been seeking formal recognition from school administrators. This policy change would give the group, once known as the Sexual Identity Forum, access to student-fee funds and, more importantly, this would indicate that Baylor leaders believe its work is in accord with the school's "unapologetically Christian" mission.

The Freemyer prayer yanked years of conflicts back into the open, igniting debates during graduation events and then on the Internet.

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The recording tape was rolling on Feb. 28, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh called Larry Lynch at the McLennan County sheriff's office.

In the background, gunfire continued as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the 77-acre Mount Carmel complex near Waco. Koresh was wounded early in a two-hour firefight in which four agents and six civilians died.

Koresh kept talking about Bible prophecies. Lynch kept interrupting, trying to get him to pay attention and help stop the fighting.

"All right, we can talk theology," Lynch said, frustrated. "But right now …"

Koresh fired back: "No, this is life. This is life and death! … Theology … is life and death!"

For Koresh, everything hinged on Book of Revelation texts about the Seven Seals and "the Lamb," a mysterious figure who would open those seals in the Last Days.

That was the infamous Branch Davidian drama summed up in one tense exchange, according to the creators of the six-part Paramount Network miniseries "Waco," which runs through Feb. 28. The complex community inside the compound -- including some believers who debated with Koresh -- kept trying to tell FBI leaders and their handpicked experts why they were doing what they were doing and why they believed what they believed.

In the end, federal officials saw everything through a "cult" lens.

"Something dehumanizing happens when you start using the word 'cult,' " said John Erick Dowdle, who with his brother Drew spent four years creating the miniseries. "No matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, the FBI people thought it was just a matter of time before they would kill themselves."

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."

Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

For half a century or more, journalists seeking insights on religion news in America have given a consistent answer to the question, "Who you gonna call?"

The proper response, of course, is "Martin E. Marty."

So it's no surprise that the 88-year-old historian -- author of 60-plus books -- has weighed in on the media storm surrounding Baylor University's Christian identity, big-time college football and the painful challenges facing educators wrestling with sexual abuse, alcohol and the law.

The key, according to Marty, is that Baylor is involved in a clash between two religions -- Christianity and football.

"But isn't football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise?", he asked, in a "Sightings" essay for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Marty's answer: "No." Anyone with a good world-religions textbook or encyclopedia will recognize the characteristics that define "religious" activities, he added.

Is this activity an "ultimate concern" for those involved? Put a checkmark there.

Does football provide "ceremonial reinforcement," adding a kind of "metaphysical depth" to life? Check and check. Are deep emotions involved in these rites, providing a crucial sense of "communalism" among the faithful? Once again, add two checkmarks.

Now what about football, especially in Texas?

Good news or bad news, these days, for the church in China?

Pope Francis didn't make global headlines on Aug. 14, 2014, when -- with permission from Communist Party leaders -- Shepherd One flew through Chinese airspace on the way to Seoul, South Korea.

Still, it was a symbolic moment that hinted at progress, after decades of bitter persecution for Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican. Then, a year later, Bishop Zhang Yinlin was ordained as bishop of Anyang, after nods of approval from both Rome and Beijing.

So things are looking up for religious freedom in China?

If so, what did it mean when the Rev. Gu Yuese -- leader of the largest Protestant megachurch in China's state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement -- was recently jailed after opposing the government's demolition of thousands of crosses in "China's Jerusalem," part of Zhejiang province.

"There may be all kinds of reasons they arrested him, other than that he is famous and his church is huge. It's hard to know what's happening, when you're talking about the Chinese government," said Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author or co-author of 36 books on various religious issues, past and present, including "A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China," with sociologist Xiuhua Wang.

"We can say that we haven't seen the Nero effect yet, with the government putting heat on Christians because China's economic numbers are looking bad. … Also, it's important to remember that we've reached the point where many leaders in China now have kids who are Christians. In some villages, you may have a Communist Party leader with a cross on his wall."

The bottom line: There is truth in the popular saying that China is so huge and complex that just about anything someone says about religion in China will be true -- somewhere in China.

At the same time, it's crucial to understand that human-rights trends among the 1.38 billion people in China, even among minority groups, will have a major impact on world affairs.

Politics, Baylor, The NoZe & Aqua Buddha

If Texas Baptists had a patron saint, the Rev. George W. Truett would almost certainly get the nod. So it was a solemn occasion when the great preacher from Dallas arrived in "Jerusalem on the Brazos" in 1941 to preach a series of revival services at Baylor University, the planet's largest Baptist institution of higher learning. Then loud alarm clocks started ringing in the attic of cavernous Waco Hall, on three-minute intervals.

This pandemonium was, of course, orchestrated by Baylor's Nose Brotherhood. This club for satirists was born in 1926 and quickly became known for its "Pink Tea" spectaculars, which offered "vertical exercising" on a campus that, from 1845-1996, banned dancing. The secret society was "just a fun-loving bunch of boys," Brother Dude Nose Harrison told the Dallas Morning News in 1931.

The Nose became the NoZe in 1965 when, in an event that has achieved mythic status, a campus bridge that once a year was ceremonially painted pink mysteriously went up in flames. The brothers were temporarily banished, but began appearing in their signature glasses, fake noses and tacky wigs.

The question now facing America is whether the activities of the NoZe Brotherhood could cost the Republican Party control of the U.S. Senate.

Alas, this is not satire.

Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway has asked why Republican Rand Paul, in the ominous words of a television advertisement, was a "member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a 'hoax,' that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was 'Aqua Buddha'?"

Being accused of "anti-Christian" activities is not a good thing in the Bible Belt. As the Washington Post put it, Paul stands accused of participating in a "secret society while at Baylor University that published mocking statements regarding the Bible."

The Conway campaign added: "This is an ad about things he did. He has failed to deny any of these charges."

At this point, I should stress that while I am a Baylor graduate from the same era as Paul, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NoZe Brotherhood. I did know some NoZe folks, including one who became a White House speechwriter, and like all Baylor alumni I know that no non-NoZe knows the no-nonsense non-NoZe news that the NoZe knows.

The Republican has acknowledged participating in NoZe pranks. Meanwhile, one of his Baylor colleagues told the Louisville Courier-Journal: "We aspired to blasphemy and he flourished in it."

Sounds like the NoZe to me.

During my years at Baylor, the secret society mocked all kinds of people, including Dan Rather, Richard Nixon, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (a powerful Baylor alum) and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. I was present when Woodward was made an honorary member -- Brother Water NoZe, or some variation on that theme. As I recall, the NoZe crashed his campus lecture, presenting him with his own plunger, while seated on a rolling commode.

The NoZe mocked all things Baptist, targeting the many sacred cows that resided on campus. These NoZe drippings rarely achieved brilliance and often veered into college-life stupidity.

Nevertheless, the Baylor Library maintains a modest NoZe archive. While the brotherhood has been exiled from campus several times, its official historian -- the late Brother Short Nose (William B.) Long -- served on the Baylor board of regents and received his alma mater's highest honor, The Founders Medal.

Drawing on this respected physician's book, "The Nose Brotherhood Knows: A Collection of Nothings and Non-Happenings, 1926-1965," Baylor Magazine published a 2003 report that probed the philosophy behind the brotherhood's attempts to "put the 'pie' in piety" and "the 'pun' in punctilious."

The bottom line: It is, as a rule, quite dangerous to mix satire and religion.

One of the NoZe -- it may have been Brother Bilbo BaggiNoze or Brother IgNoZetius Reilly -- told the magazine: "I have no problems whatsoever with Christianity, but I think blind Christianity is a mistake. People are sometimes afraid to examine other religions, but it just makes your beliefs stronger in the end. I don't think a Christian mission means that we can't look at and study everything in the world. Furthermore, if education is really the goal of each student here ... certainly they'd want to be exposed to as many opinions and as many things as possible."

Baylor, Bibles, boots and education

Soon after David Solomon arrived at Baylor University in 1960, he realized that one of his new friends had a problem -- this rancher's kid had spent his life in boots.

"That's all he had," said Solomon, a philosopher who leads the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture. "We went out and he bought his first pair of lace-up shoes. ... That's what Baylor was about, back then. Baylor was supposed to take Baptist kids from small-town Texas churches, knock the dust off them and hit them with the Enlightenment. You know, civilize them."

Texas has changed. But anyone digging beneath the headlines about the Waco wars over faith and learning will find that the past has power. The old assumption was that students arrived rooted into a brand of faith that was rich and rigid. Thus, Solomon said most of his professors set out to "shake everybody up" and teach students a more complex, progressive set of beliefs than what they learned at home and church.

Baylor life was baptized in faith, symbolized by chimes that played hymns as students -- like me, during the 1970s -- walked to chapel.

But in the classrooms, most professors assumed that piety was a good thing, but had little to do with the wisdom in secular textbooks, said Solomon, who has stayed active in debates at his alma mater. Thus, the world's largest Southern Baptist school was a "university with a Christian atmosphere," but not a "Christian university" that blended ancient faith and modern learning.

This worked for decades, until reports about sex, drugs and nihilism pushed millions of parents to hunt for distinctively Christian campuses. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, enrollment in the 105 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities -- an organization in which I teach journalism -- soared 60 percent between 1990 and 2002, while numbers at public and secular private schools edged up or stayed level.

Recently, Baylor has steered toward "Christian university" status, led by its regents and an academic team headed by a brash president named Robert Sloan.

The result was Baylor 2012, a controversial plan calling for a larger endowment, a 36 percent tuition hike, more scholarships, 230 new faculty positions and a wave of construction, most noticeably a $103 million science building. Sloan's team also began asking prospective professors -- Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike -- to explain how faith affected their teaching and research. This was a direct challenge to the "Christian atmosphere" tradition, with its separate zones for faith and learning.

Sloan fought for a decade, before the Jan. 21 news that he will step down to become chancellor. Baylor's civil war had become national news, especially when combined with a tragic basketball scandal.

While Sloan made painful mistakes, Baylor 2012 provoked a public statement of support from an ecumenical coalition of Christian educators -- including Solomon -- from Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard, Duke, the University of Chicago and elsewhere.

"Baylor has charted a bold course," it said. "It has strengthened the mission entrusted to it by its founders, preserving its Baptist heritage while making it intellectually relevant. ... In matters of faculty hiring and curricular innovation Baylor has assumed a leadership role among the remaining Christian colleges and universities."

News reports have often linked the Baylor controversy to decades of conflict between Southern Baptist "moderates" and "fundamentalists." But what Sloan and the regents say they want is a "big tent Christian orthodoxy" that transcends Baptist politics, according to Robert Benne of Roanoke College.

These are fighting words to many Baylor loyalists.

"Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan's contention that Christianity has intellectual content," argued Benne, writing in the Christian Century. "In the view of Baylor's new leaders, faith is more than atmospheric. There is a deposit of Christian belief that all Christians should hold to. On the basis of that belief they should engage the secular claims of the various academic disciplines."

This attempt to wed soul and intellect encouraged, or infuriated, many educators in postmodern America, said Solomon.

"We can no longer assume that our students know much at all about the faith once delivered to the saints," he said. "It's a new world, even for church kids. The days of bringing boys in off the farm are gone."