SBC wrestles with corporate sin

Like most people born and raised in Biloxi, Miss., theologian Russell Moore grew up about 10 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. It cost too much to live near the water, but that didn't really matter since the sights, smells and rhythms of the coast defined the whole community. Driving away from his hometown has always been emotional, but the last time he pulled onto U.S. Highway 90 was different.

Hurricane Katrina was terrible. Now, the locals are facing what some writers have called "Katrina meets Chernobyl."

"I've never left like this, wondering if ... my children's children will ever know what Biloxi was," wrote Moore, in an online meditation about a recent visit. Gazing at Gulf, he knew that "there's a Pale Horse" out there, the rupture in deep water that is creating "plumes of petroleum great enough to threaten to destroy the sea-life there for my lifetime, if not forever.

"Everything is endangered, from the seafood and tourism industries to the crabs and seagulls on the beach to the churches where I first heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is more than a threat to my hometown. ... It is a threat to national security greater than most Americans can even contemplate, because so few of them know how dependent they are on the eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico."

It would raise few eyebrows if Baptists such as Al Gore, Bill Clinton or Bill Moyers voiced these views. Russell, however, is dean of the theology school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., a vital hub for conservatives in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention and in the wider world of evangelicalism.

Moore served as chairman of the resolutions committee this past week in Orlando when Southern Baptists gathered for their annual national meeting. Thus, in addition to dealing with scores of internal SBC issues, the convention also expressed its concerns about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Noting that the Bible teaches that those who harm the vulnerable should be held accountable, the convention called on "governing authorities to act determinatively and with undeterred resolve to end this crisis; to fortify our coastal defenses; to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration; to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities; and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety."

The resolution (.pdf) urged Southern Baptist churches to recruit waves of volunteers for clean-up crews, just as they did after hurricane Katrina.

The resolution stressed that "our God-given dominion over the creation is not unlimited, as though we were gods and not creatures, so therefore, all persons and all industries are then accountable to higher standards than to profit alone."

The key, said Moore, is that Baptists need a broader view of a key word -- "sin."

"A solid doctrine of sin is what has kept most evangelicals from sliding into a utopian view of government," he said, in a telephone interview. "We understand the sin nature of human beings. We understand that checks and balances are needed, when you are dealing with human institutions. Well, now we need to understand that corporations must be watched carefully. Planned Parenthood is a corporation. Playboy is a corporation. British Petroleum is a corporation, too."

The April 20th explosion in the Gulf, said Moore, could be a turning point for many conservative Christians on issues of pollution, ecology and environmental stewardship. It will be hard to ignore the worst oil spill in U.S. history, especially when the wider economic and human toll begins to close church doors and threaten generations of Bible Belt traditions -- like youth camps on or near the beach.

It hasn't helped that the first things most conservative Christians think about when they hear the word "environmentalism" is Hollywood, New Age spirituality and politicos who suggest that human beings are "parasites on a world that would be better off without them," he said.

This evangelical silence has not been constructive.

"This is one of those issues that, if evangelicals concede it to extremists on both sides, we are going to miss our opportunity to let our voices be heard on what the Gospel says about God's creation and our stewardship of the resources we've been given," said Moore. "Without a biblically conservative voice in that debate, something vital will be missing."

Phillip E. Johnson, rabbi

Call them the Evangelical Alpha Males.

There's Chuck Colson and James Dobson, James Kennedy and Robert Schuller, and Paul Crouch and Pat Robertson. There are many more. They are 60 years old or much older, but they still command the spotlight.

"During this decade the American Church will experience a massive turnover in ... leadership," note researchers George Barna and Mark Hatch, in their book, "Boiling Point." If history is a guide, "the impact of many of the personality-driven ministries will fade as the primary personality departs the scene."

Celebrities are hard to replace. That's why a provocative thinker named Phillip E. Johnson -- patriarch of the "Intelligent Design" movement -- has taken a different path.

It's not that he is terribly modest. But Johnson wants to win and he is convinced that aiming the spotlight at others is good strategy. He wants his cause to thrive after he is gone.

"One of the things that the Christian world is notorious for is a celebrity style of dealing with issues," Johnson said, speaking at a conference at Palm Beach Atlantic College (which is also where I teach). "That puts a big burden on one person. ... I never wanted a movement like that."

So Johnson writes his own books, while promoting those written by his colleagues. And he keeps yielding the stage to biochemist Michael Behe, philosopher Stephen Meyer, mathematician William Dembski, worldview specialist Nancy Pearcey and a host others.

Johnson would rather be a rabbi than an Alpha Male. This is not normal.

Then again, Johnson has not lived a normal, garden-variety Christian life. He is a graduate of both Harvard University and the University of Chicago School of Law and served as clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Then he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley -- a great home base for a left-of-center agnostic.

However, a personal crisis rocked Johnson's life and he became a Christian believer, of a bookish Presbyterian stripe. Years later, he read Michael Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" and was hooked. Johnson became convinced that the legal rhetoric being used to silence critics of Darwinian philosophy was, in fact, a secular fundamentalism.

Acting as fierce, but jolly, academic samurai, Johnson set out to slice up the scientific establishment. The result was "Darwin on Trial" in 1991, followed by numerous other books that have inspired and infuriated readers. Last summer, Johnson suffered a major stroke. He responded by writing yet another book, the upcoming "The Right Questions."

Johnson thrives in secular settings. When he does agree to talk theology, rather than science, he refuses to march straight through the landmines in the first chapters of Genesis. Instead, he starts with the prelude to the Gospel of John, which states: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made."

After reading this, Johnson asks: "Is that true or false?"

Then he turns this scripture inside out and creates a credo for use in sanctuaries aligned with the National Center for Science Education. It sounds like this: "In the beginning were the particles and the particles somehow became complex, living stuff. And the stuff imagined god."

After reading this, Johnson again asks: "Is that true or false?"

The movement Johnson calls "the Wedge" argues that today's debates over science, creation and morality are, literally, clashes between people who believe there is scientific evidence that God created man and those who believe there is scientific evidence that man created God.

This debate will not be settled overnight, which is why Johnson is convinced he must not fight alone. He believes the stakes are high and getting higher.

"If there is no Creator who has a purpose for your life, then there is no such thing as sin," he said. "Sin would mean that you are in a wrong relationship to your Creator. Well, you can't be in the wrong relationship with the particles. They don't care. So you don't need a Savior, to save you from the consequences of your wrong relationship with the particles. ...

"When you give away creation, you have given away everything."