Thinking Out Loud

January 18, 2016

Letter from Liberty University

Dear Mom and Dad,

Sorry I missed you when I tried to phone.

It’s hard to believe I’m already in my second semester of my freshman year. Classes are going well, and I was able to get a good deal on some textbooks.

I just wanted to tell you about something that happened today, because you’ll probably see it on the evening news.

Today Donald Trump came to speak to our chapel service. Well, it’s not really a chapel service, because calling it that messes up something; maybe it’s the accreditation, or state funding, or something. So they call it Convocation.

Anyway, Trump came to speak. Everybody was expected to attend. Somebody said there’s a $10 fine for skipping chapel, er, Convocation, so I went. The place was packed. Our president, Jerry Falwell Jr. took about 18 minutes — I checked the time on my phone — to introduce him, and mostly talked about the history of the college. I mean, we thought he was introducing Trump, but I think he kinda lost his way, not to mention spilling a glass of water and having his phone go off in the middle.

Then finally, Donald Trump walked on to the stage at our school, and spoke for 50 minutes.

Between that and being told last semester all the students should get a concealed carry permit — I mean nobody in our family even owns a hunting rifle — I’m kinda wondering what I’m doing here. I keep thinking that some people, like the Amish and the Mennonites and the Anabaptists don’t mix their politics with their faith the way we do here at Liberty U. And they get by without guns, too. And I’m reading that in other countries they don’t think like Americans do about religion and politics being so intertwined.

A few of my classmates are from Canada and they just roll their eyes anytime someone mentions government, or the debates, or the primaries or the election. They say it’s got nothing to do with what we are supposed to be learning.

Myself and two people in our dorm are driving to Pennsylvania this weekend to visit an Amish community. We’ve been invited to stay overnight. Some of them have a deal where you can do an extended stay and work with them on their farms. I’m thinking perhaps instead of doing my sophomore year right away I might —

–sorry, my R.A. is calling me to a dorm meeting. I’ll write again.

P.S.: Can you find out if we have any relatives in Canada?


Watch the entire Donald Trump event at Liberty (69 minutes) below or at this link.

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January 1, 2015

LifeWay, the SBC, #the15, and God

#the15As I mentioned yesterday, the latest “tempest in a Tweet-pot” involves a group calling themselves #the15, who have expressed outrage on Twitter against the retail arm of LifeWay, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publishing empire, because they sell so many things in their store of which #the15 does not approve, while at the same time claiming to operate by the highest standards. One blogger noted the company even sells a book by a self-professed mystic and Universalist.

In one corner, we have #the15. [Update] In an earlier version of this article, I mis-characterized them as ones whose Calvinism compels them to the most rigorous study of scripture which translates in the real world to acting as judge and jury on every published work, be it written by a blogger or national author. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.  (Luke 11:46)

[Update] After more careful study, I realized I had fallen under a misconception created by Ed Stetzer, and that the original #the15 were desiring to see the retail chain do a better job of being gatekeepers of what people see, than the usual Calvinist judge-and-jury situation which is more common. 

The problem of course, is what gets in and what’s excluded?

The debate has been going on for days now, with members of #the15 and those who align with them taking Route 15 highway signs as their Twitter profile picture.

Some of the books that LifeWay sells are easy targets, such as Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. None of us who work in and around this industry saw the controversy going in, but it’s now quite clear the title is theologically problematic. In the little independent store I oversee, the title will be taken off display tomorrow, though remaining copies will be sold as requested. I’ve emailed our staff over the holiday, and the consensus is that we’ve got to act responsibly in light of what is now so plain.

But there are others I feel are being unfairly criticized like Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker. In the book, Batterson borrows a story from Jewish antiquity about Honi The Circle Maker and propelling that story into a challenge to all of us “draw circles around” the thing or group of things that constitute our greatest needs or righteous desires. Admittedly, it’s not the analogy I would have chosen. But rather than meet with Mark and get to know him and what drives him, the analogy was just a little too outside the scope of conservatives, even though Jesus’ own story of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains elements of the afterlife which may or not be the case. (Commentators always point this out, that Jesus wasn’t indicating that people in Heaven and Hell can communicate with each other.)

Furthermore, now that he is branded, these same conservatives would be unlikely to touch Batterson’s new work, The Grave Robber, which is an excellent study of the miracles in John’s gospel.  (Actually, of all the stuff in the market, I’m amazed the DC pastor would be lumped in with Sarah Young and that he’s become such a target. I would dare these critics to check out the newer book, published by David C. Cook.)

In another corner, are those who are quick to jump on #the15 bandwagon and side with them in this, but this is more a vote against LifeWay than a vote for condemning books.

Still another group consists of people wanting to be identified as Calvinists who do not support #the15.

And finally, in the last corner, we have LifeWay itself. I have written about them before, and don’t wish to burden regular readers here with repetition, so you can simply check out these posts:

For them, it’s all about money. And more money. Regular commenter here and fellow blogger Clark Bunch replied yesterday:

LifeWay exists for one purpose only and that’s to sell you stuff. Any volunteer VBS director that has ever ordered materials knows that as well as anybody. A box of 15 paper whatevers are easily divided into “selling units” that cost 3X what you could get them for at Dollar Tree.

Heaven is for Real is a book they sell at LifeWay Christian *gasp* Bookstore. LifeWay is not a group of seminary professors or a board of trustees. It’s Southern Baptist Walmart. Our church uses LifeWay Sunday School literature for all age groups. Thom Rainer writes good stuff. But LifeWay should NOT be and I don’t believe claims to be in a position to say “this is what you should believe and teach others.” If you are a Calvinist, non-Calvinist or don’t know the difference, you can walk into their store and buy what you want.

If that’s all it is, a Baptist WalMart, then so be it. Let them stock whatever people are curious to read and throw in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Book of Mormon while you’re at it.

In our store in 2012, for several months we had a section captioned, “Heretics Corner – Because every bookstore should have one.” It was my place to include people whose orthopraxy makes others uncomfortable, though we do not stock popular liberal theologians like Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong because they undermine the rest of what we carry. And that’s an important distinction. I wanted to allow other voices to be heard even if I disagree with some aspects: Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber and even Peter Rollins, despite the lack of a third name.

That’s the part of this story that’s so confusing. I find myself agreeing the book censors because I view LifeWay’s hypocrisy as the greater sin. But I don’t support a very narrow judgmental attitude where only a few books get in. I am always reminded of the Life cereal commercial where the kids say, “We’ll get Mikey to try it; he hates everything.”   I wish all the energy that goes into condemnation was being used to celebrate the good things that God is doing through a whole new generation of leaders and writers instead of mistrusting them. (Life Cereal, LifeWay…I’m sure there’s a punchline there just waiting…) And I’m sure God can use the little boy’s story in Heaven is for Real despite my misgivings, just as he used Left Behind to propel people into a study of the end times, even though it’s not my personal eschatological cup of tea.

So today’s discussion, for me at least, blurs the normal battle lines.

Either way, it’s the online story that ended 2014 and as of the morning of 2015 was still going strong on Twitter.

I’d write more, but I have to prepare my Rob Bell text for this afternoon’s Christianity 201 devotional. That’s right, Rob Bell. He wrote about The Good Samaritan and despite others’ misgivings about the direction he’s been heading, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Yes, in 2015 the lines are quite blurred.


Read more about one of #the15 protagonists here.

[Update] It gets worse: read more about him at this story.  This guy is a menace.

May 2, 2014

Glenn Beck @ Liberty U.: Another Perspective

Much has already been written about the decision by Liberty University, the institution founded by Baptist Jerry Falwell, to invite Mormon talk-show host Glenn Beck to be the speaker at its April 25th Convocation. The thrice-weekly events are described as the “largest weekly student gathering in North America” (I think I’ve got that verbatim) and include top Christian authors and pastors, but sometimes civic leaders as well.

You can watch the entire lecture here.

The hinge on which all the discussion turns is whether or not Mormonism can be considered a branch of Christianity, a marginal group, or an outright false cult. Most Evangelicals would place the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) outside the Christian camp.

James Duncan of the blog Pajama Pages goes to great lengths to demonstrate the central doctrinal differences, and also documents that the University, clearly knowing they had a potential tempest ready to boil, informed students that they would receive a $10 fine if they failed to attend, something that university apparently has the power to do.

Liberty-University-ConvocationI am in agreement with what Duncan is reporting, but want to point out that I was recently told by a University representative1 that in order to keep its accreditation, Liberty could not continue to have “Chapel” three times a week, so they came up with “Convocation,” a slightly different use of the term than the one with which some of us are familiar. The concept is that a variety of speakers are introduced thereby avoiding any backlash that the meetings constitute a campus church service.

Had Beck stuck to political analysis common to outside speakers, we wouldn’t be having this discussion; but instead he went a different route, presenting a faith message that was sermon-like in style.

Had the university presented a number of Convocations as part of a series on comparative religion, we wouldn’t be discussing this either, but that wasn’t the case, there was both tacit and overt endorsement, especially by making the lecture more than mandatory.

My greater concern is that this was one of the final Convocations of the year; it’s Beck’s Christian college graduation-styled speech that will stick with students.

I am sure that with Beck’s busy schedule, getting a speaker of his caliber was probably considered a coup by the administration, and perhaps the pivotal end-of-April date was all that was available. But for me, the sermon seemed somewhat lacking and perhaps even a bit awkward. There was Beck, reminding the audience occasionally that he comes from a different denomination, but trying to affirm is Evangelical compatibility through his belief in the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

But he spoke of the Grand Councils, Mormon terminology, and used other words which meant one thing to LDS followers but would be heard differently in Falwell’s Baptist backyard.

Despite the passion and skilled rhetoric, the message just rang hollow.

Were I a student there, I think I would have said, “Who do I make the $10 check out to?”


1 Liberty recruiter with a display at a spring event.

February 25, 2012

LifeWay: We Didn’t Know What We Were Talking About

Filed under: bible — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:58 am

So now LifeWay Christian bookstores are going to — officially — carry the 2011 revision of the New International Version after all. Profit over principle?

In some sense, yes, but buried in the story is also an admission that in making an earlier decision, the delegates to last summer’s Southern Baptist annual meeting did not have all the correct facts in front of them and went with a knee-jerk reaction instead of getting all the facts. Do that, and you’re always forced to backpedal.

With the strongly emotional issue of Bible translation, this type of response is all too common. A handful of self-styled academics have a legion of followers who believe every words they say about “other” translations, even though the facts — and real academics — don’t support their wild claims. But there are many people out there who would rather believe the worst, and I know this because they make a regular point of sending me email forwards that insist the sky is falling.

At issue is the updated edition of the NIV Bible and a motion that a delegate to the convention put forward in June recommending that entire SBC denomination ban the translation. Some SBC pastors who had been preaching from the revised text immediately discontinued its use.

The bookstore chain and its affiliated publishing company is owned by the SBC, and is a major cash cow. LifeWay’s trustees have decided to go against the recommendation of their parent denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, and continue merchandising and selling the 2011 revision of the New International Version of the Bible published by Zondervan.

But the USAToday story, excerpted below, says the chain “won’t endorse it;” which is a throwback to a controversy a few years ago where the company placed consumer advisory warning stickers on some products (i.e. The Shack) which it did not ‘officially’ approve. Next generation writers like Donald Miller were a particular target in October ’10; though it paled in comparison to a September ’08 decision to pull a music magazine from the shelves with a cover story on female pastors, while continuing to print and market materials by Bible teacher Beth Moore.

The comedic value of this, “We’ll sell it to you, but we don’t approve of it” policy is, like the policy itself, without limits. Lifeway could bring in just about anything in print, CD or DVD without having to sanction it; which means it could make forays into the wider ABA book market or carry CDs or DVDs which its customers enjoy and are buying elsewhere, without compromising principles.

But does a warning notice or sticker on the product exempt the company from those principles?  And isn’t that warning somewhat unnecessary when it’s dawning on SBC leadership that the new NIV isn’t guilty of the translation crimes of which it is accused?

Here’s the story from USAToday:

Complaints that the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) is inaccurate and too gender-inclusive are not going to stop one of the world’s largest Christian resource producers from selling it.

That translation was criticized at the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix. Church representatives there approved a resolution asking Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources — owned by the denomination — to take it off its shelves.

Critics said the translation, which was updated in 2011, is filled with errors when it comes to language about gender, using “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” and “they” instead of “he” for a single pronoun. That kind of approach undermines the authority of the Bible, they said.

LifeWay’s trustees disagreed.

After having a committee review the 2011 NIV, they voted unanimously this week to keep selling it, while making clear they don’t endorse it…

…That decision disappointed the Rev. Tim Overton of Halteman Village Baptist Church in Muncie, Ind. Overton wrote the resolution against the NIV that passed in Phoenix.

His resolution initially was rejected by the committee that vets resolutions before they are presented at the annual meeting. But he brought it to a floor vote, where it was approved.

Overton, like many other Southern Baptists, believes in verbal plenary inspiration — the idea that every word of the original texts of the Bible comes from God. Adding words to a translation undermines that belief, he said.

“If it says ‘brother’ and you say ‘brothers and sisters,’ you are adding to the Scriptures,” he said.

Marty King, spokesman for LifeWay, said a committee of trustees reviewed the NIV to decide whether it was acceptable. Under Southern Baptist rules, he said, they were not required to comply with the resolution, and representatives at the annual meeting had inaccurate information about the translation.

“People thought this Bible used female language for God,” he said. “It does not. We think that messengers* voted without accurate information.”

continue reading here

*insider term for delegates to the SBC convention

October 6, 2010

Wednesday Link List

Here are some highlights from my blog travels in the past week:

  • While you’re link hopping  here, you can stream audio from CCM Gold Radio – Christian music from the ’60s thru the ’80s; though it’s a bit like tightrope walking without a net, because they don’t tell you what you’re hearing, and there are many obscure songs.   Great for Christian music trivia, however; I’m just not sure how many songs actually support the claim to include the ’60s.   I have a 3,000-plus library of Christian music on vinyl, and only a small handful are pre 1970.
  • Then again, you’re going to have to switch media for this one:   Many of you know Pete Wilson from his blog and his new book, Plan B.   But how many of you have been to Cross Point to check out a Pete Wilson sermon?   I thoroughly enjoyed this experience on the weekend.  Go to the page for Pete’s new Empty Promises series, and click on week one, the introductory message.   I promise you 30 solid minutes of distraction-free preaching.
  • Tullian Tchividjian has been busy on Twitter compiling short statements expressing various aspects of the gospel.  Blogger Barry Simmons assembles a couple of lists at his blog The Journeyman’s Files both here and here.   Sample sentence: “When we transfer trust from ourselves to Christ, we experience the abundant freedoms that come from not having to measure up.”
  • Trevin Wax plays transcription stenographer to a recent address by Al Mohler as to how he came to his present position on women in pastoral ministry.   Check out some highlights.
  • What life goals are you working on?  Things you’re trying to cultivate in your life?   Ever feel lost or orphaned?   Kathy Escobar has three words for you.
  • Here’s another take on the new CEB (Common English Bible) translation, which the writer calls a “Good News Glut.”   We learn now that five publishers are involved, and many are motivated by providing an alternative for the NRSV crowd.
  • Just When You Thought You’d Heard Everything Department:  Don’t know if this conversion would actually ‘stick,’ but Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell says she became a Christian because of her love of Italian food, primarily meatballs.
  • This one’s been in my files for awhile… Author Max Lucado considers things spiritual and things sci-fi and everything in between in a consideration of what the next life might be like.
  • Bene Diction posted this link a few days back to an article by Regent College professor John Stackhouse on the appropriateness of criticizing other Christians in a public forum.   Should we shoot our own?
  • Related?   Here’s a comment from a reader at CT’s article on Rick Warren’s video appearance at the Desiring God conference, and John Piper’s negative attitude toward Warren in particular:  “All of us, including the most intellectual, will be taking a Theology 101 course in heaven…”
  • Author Wayne Jacobsen got an insider’s look at the making of the now-released movie adaptation of Karen Kingsbury’s book Like Dandelion Dust.
  • New music artist of the week is two-time ASCAP award winner John DeGrazio.  Check out his 2010 album Stronghold at his webpage.
  • Michael Belote at Reboot Christianity has a great word picture of a typical gathering in the first century church, but to get there, link here first for a quick eight-question quiz.
  • No actual link on this one, but I’m currently reading Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis … out loud! Working away one chapter a night, and with my youngest (who’s now 16) listening, I figure many of the chapters started out as radio broadcasts anyway, so why not cover the book in its original form.   It also slows me down to catch all the nuances of Lewis’ masterful apologetics.
  • At least one Target store would rather slash women’s clothing to pieces than donate it to an orphanage in southeast Asia.   Why?   They’re afraid someone else might get the product and try to return it for refund.
  • It remains one of my all time favorite cartoons; so I’m thankful to a reader who sent a much better rendering of it than the one I posted… I think you already know the cartoonist’s name, right?

  • And here’s an edgy one appearing September 14th from Tom Pappalardo at The Optimist written in response to the migration of Roman Catholics out of New England, which leaves the northeast with a reputation once exclusively belonging to the northwest:

May 9, 2010

Pastors Who Are Non-Believers

This item by Erin Roach appeared as part of the “Culture Digest” collection for April 30th at Baptist Press.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A study by Tufts University has called attention to the presence of Protestant pastors who do not believe what they preach, something the authors describe as a nearly “invisible phenomenon” of “unbelieving clergy.”

Ambiguity regarding who is a believer in Jesus and who is a nonbeliever, the report said, is a result of the pluralism that has been fostered by many religious leaders for at least a century.

“God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all,” the authors wrote in summarizing the pluralistic view.

Rather than relying on statistical evidence to point to a conclusion, the study employs anecdotal stories of five ministers whose identities have been obscured. Even the authors admit they couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, but what they found, they said, does deserve a closer look.

One pastor, a Methodist, said he no longer believes that God exists, but his church members do not know that he is an atheist. Most of them, he said, don’t even believe Jesus literally rose from the dead or literally was born of a virgin.

Another pastor, from the United Church of Christ, said he didn’t even believe in the doctrinal content of the Christian faith at the beginning of his ministry, but he continues to preach as if he believes because it’s the way of life he knows.

A Presbyterian pastor in the study said he remains in ministry largely for financial reasons and acknowledged that if he were to make known that he rejects most tenets of the Christian faith he would obliterate his “ability to earn a living this way.”

A Church of Christ pastor explained how he continues to lead his church despite losing all theological confidence.

“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I see myself as taking on the role of a believer in a worship service, and performing,” the pastor said.

He describes himself as an atheistic agnostic and said he still needs the ministerial job and no longer believes hypocrisy is wrong.

A Southern Baptist pastor included in the study said he was attracted to Christianity as a religion of love and now has become an atheist. If someone would offer him $200,000, he said, he’d leave the ministry right away.

“‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers’ is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy and hypocrisy that staggers the mind,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog in March.

“In 1739, Gilbert Tennett preached his famous sermon, ‘On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.’ In that sermon, Tennett described unbelieving pastors as a curse upon the church. They prey upon the faith and the faithful. ‘These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.’

“If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them,” Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com. “If they will not ‘out’ themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to ‘out’ them. The caterpillars are hard at work. Will it take a report from an atheist to awaken the church to the danger?”



As for the cartoon, I traced a use of it back to an appearance in this blog post about doubt from a Christian perspective, but thought if you’re feeling really brave, you should consider this recent blog post about seminary education from an atheist perspective where you’ll also see the same cartoon.

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