Bible

SBC President J.D. Greear offers blunt sermon on sexual abuse. What happens now?

SBC President J.D. Greear offers blunt sermon on sexual abuse. What happens now?

For decades, Southern Baptist leaders rolled their eyes whenever there were headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases.

That was -- wink, wink -- a Catholic thing linked to celibate priests. Then there were those mainline Protestants, and even some evangelicals, who modernized their teachings on marriage and sex. No wonder they were having problems.

This was a powerful, unbiblical myth that helped Southern Baptists ignore their own predators, said SBC President J.D. Greear, during a recent national conference hosted by the denomination's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the new SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.

"The danger of this myth is that it is naive: It relegates abuse to an ideological problem, when it should be most properly seen as a depravity problem. … It fails to recognize that wherever people exist in power without accountability abuse will foster," said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church near Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"What part of society has not been affected? It happens on Wall Street, in Hollywood, on Capitol Hill, in academic institutions, sports programs, Catholic and Protestant churches, liberal and conservative," he added. "I want to say something as an evangelical to evangelicals: We evangelicals should have known this. Didn't Jesus say there would be wolves in sheep's clothing that would come into the flock in order -- not to serve the flock -- but to abuse the flock?"

The shameful truth, said Greear, is that victims inside America's largest Protestant flock tried -- in recent decades -- to awaken SBC leaders. Then alarms sounded last February when the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that several hundred Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers had been accused of sexual abuse, with 700-plus victims.

This created another myth -- that these news reports marked the beginning of the crisis. Some Southern Baptists, said Greear, also suggested that victims should learn to practice forgiveness, implying that their cries for justice were "attacks from adversaries, instead of warnings from friends."

The SBC president became emotional at this point: "It's wrong to categorize someone as 'just bitter' because they raised their voice when their important warnings were not heeded. Anger is an appropriate response -- a BIBLICAL response -- in that circumstance. …

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."

Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.

Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.

"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.

"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."

There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.

"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.

At least, that's where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.

Something mysterious about Holly "filled me with conviction," said Dylan. "He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."

Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of "Cotton Fields" by folk legend Leadbelly. It was "like I'd been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me," said Dylan.

That story probably sounded "rather strange to lots of people," said Scott Marshall, author of the new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life."

"What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don't know the Bible, then who knows what they'll think that means? … Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That's just the way Dylan talks. That's who he is."

For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.

The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan's 1961-78 works, before the "born-again" years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The BBC.com headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims:

It's tricky: Donald Trump tries, once again, to nail down a personal Christian testimony

It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"

This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.

Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."

"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"

Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."

Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"

Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

Campolo, Neff signal that an open doctrinal left is emerging in evangelicalism

One moment defined old-school evangelicalism more than any other -- the altar-call ritual in which the Rev. Billy Graham urged sinners to come forward and repent, accept God's forgiveness and be born again. 

For decades, crusade choirs sang "Just As I Am," which proclaims: "Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come." 

So evangelical activist Tony Campolo knew he was grabbing heartstrings as he referenced this gospel hymn when announcing that he had changed his beliefs on marriage and homosexuality. 

"As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice," said the 80-year-old Campolo, for decades an influential voice on Christian campuses. "As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. 

"When we sing the old invitation hymn, 'Just As I Am,' I want us to mean it." 

With this nod, Campolo underlined crucial questions in heated debates linked to the emerging evangelical left: Since the movement called "evangelicalism" lacks a common structure and hierarchy, who decides what the Bible says about repentance and forgiveness? Who decides when acts cease being sinful and become blessed?  

Telling the Nativity story, with help of two foster boys

Night after night, Jesse and Kelly Cone led their children through some of the most familiar verses in all of Christianity. The goal was to use the quiet pre-Christmas season of Advent -- or Nativity Lent in their Eastern Orthodox parish in Santa Maria, Calif. -- to help their young sons grasp the meaning of Feast of the Nativity, which begins Dec. 25th and continues for 12 days. This isn't easy in a culture in which the powers that be roll out the Christmas bandwagon with the Halloween candy, well before the Thanksgiving turkey.

Each night at their simple Lenten meals the Cones opened a bag containing a verse or two of scripture, and four pieces of candy. The story started slowly, with all the familiar details about Roman politics, taxes, a census and a man named Joseph, making a precarious journey with his pregnant wife, Mary.

Then came this crucial detail, the moment when Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

All of this was familiar territory for the two Cone sons, but not for the two foster children living with the family.

"These boys were new to the Nativity story, but they certainly knew all about being homeless and alone," explained Kelly Cone, reached by telephone.

In a post online, that has since gone viral, she described the turning point: "Then we reached the part of the story where Mary and Joseph were forced to stay in a stable outside, cold and alone. No one had any room for them. They did the best they could, even though it was lower than low.

"I looked up at our 10-year-old foster boy, and his head was bowed, his face drawn and serious. Unlike his 5-year-old happy-go-lucky brother beside him, he remembers. He remembers the cold nights sleeping on the street or in someone's car because his mother had nowhere safe for him to stay. Instead of protecting him and reaching out for help, she eventually abandoned him at a mobile home park."

The 10-year-old boy -- who cannot be named due to privacy issues -- had tears in his eyes. Kelly Cone asked him how he thought Mary and Joseph must have felt.

"Sad. Cold," he replied.

From that moment on, the Cones knew this would not be an ordinary Advent and Christmas. There were children at their table who were hearing the Nativity story for the first time and, day after day, this reality began to gnaw at the Cones "like a bad toothache," she said.

The questions kept coming. Yes, the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. Yes, Christians really believes that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. Yes, shepherds in that part of the world had to sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions. Yes, coming face to face with an army of angels probably freaked the shepherds out.

While his wife processed her thoughts online, Jesse Cone shared these Advent dinner vignettes with students at the Christian high school where he teaches.

"Every kid knows the story, and every kid there has read a lot of theology. ... I told the story at our Christmas chapel -- not as eloquently as my wife did -- and people were crying," he said. As it turns out, "not only can you get a better view of the Nativity story by spending time with homeless boys than at the mall, you can see it better than you can from a theology department."

In California, he noted, people sing all kinds of Christmas carols that make references to snow and this becomes normal, even when snow is something that they rarely if every experience. The snow exists in their minds and they are comfortable with that. Sadly, the same thing tends to happen with the Nativity story itself.

All of these details, added Jesse Cone, are "artifacts we appreciate from a distance. That's what Christ meant for these boys before actually hearing the story, and that's how it can become for many of us as well."

But not this Christmas: This year the story came home for real.