Sep 19, 2014

"Made me think of ... the anti-Christ"

And oh, my! we had to pass the wounded. And some of the men were on stretchers going back to the dressing stations and some of them were lying around moaning and twitching. And the dead were all along the road and their mouths were open and their eyes, too, but they couldn't see nothing no more nohow. And it was wet and damp and cold. And it all made me think of the Bible and the story of the anti-Christ and Armageddon.
-- Alvin York, describing World War I in his autobiography.

Sep 18, 2014

When books change

In my copy of Elmer Gantry, one sentence is underlined six times: "He had, in fact, got everything from church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason."

That sums up Sinclair Lewis' 1927 satire of scandalous fundamentalist ministers pretty well. None of the underlinings are mine, though. I have a Kindle version of Elmer Gantry, so this is a "popular highlight," a sentence noted by other readers, on other e-devices.

The e-book is the latest in a line of changes in the production of the book. Its newness helps call attention to how books are consumed. Books are often thought of as just ideas. When ideas are consumed, though, they have physical form as a book. If you want to think about when and where and how books are used, it's useful to track how books and book markets change. Elmer Gantry has lived through a number of important changes.

Read the full essay in the Then & Now column at The Christian Century.

Sep 16, 2014

The Gospel of bad imitations

If you don't like evangelical art, you call it imitative.

Bad evangelical art is designed like the gospel tract that looks like $100 but isn't. On closer inspection, what looks like money is really the message, "DON'T BE A FOOL. You know You are going straight to Hell ..." The imitation is good enough to catch the eye, but also pretty obviously counterfeit.

This is the model: A bad imitation of one thing, it turns out to be something else.

"There is Christian grunge, Christian rap, Christian country," music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times in 1997, in a classic example of this critique. "Much of it is unabashedly imitative, attempting to counterfeit the sounds and images of a chosen genre while the words proselytize. A child who liked Nirvana, parents are advised by newsletters or store clerks, may also accept DC Talk or Jars of Clay."

The people who hate popular evangelical art -- especially those who once were given a Jars of Clay album when they wanted to hear Nirvana -- hate this art because it's like that. It's not the real thing. It's all fakes and bad substitutions.

The critics are, as philosopher Umberto Eco once wrote of America, people who want the real thing.

Imitation is at the heart of one recent evangelical film. This is not just to say that this film can be critiqued in the way that so much of evangelical art is critiqued, but that, more, this film has wholly embraced as its theme exactly the point that's so often criticized. Where most faith-and-family films attempt to distance themselves from that accusation of imitation, it's the core of "The Identical," which premiered in nearly 2,000 US theaters the first weekend of September.

In a curious way, "The Identical," which has been rejected by audiences and laughed at by critics, reveals how bad evangelical art uses this idea of bad imitation to communicate a gospel message.

Sep 15, 2014

Changes in American congregations

Living Word
Photo: Daniel Silliman
American churches are less traditional, less formal than they were in the 1990s.

A new paper to be published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion shows some significant changes are happening in American congregations.

Sociologists Mark Chaves, of Duke University, and Shawna L. Anderson, of the University of Chicago, have identified five trends taking place in America's churches, as well as its mosques, synagogues and temples: American congregations are more ethnically diverse, increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians, more informal and Charismatic in worship, less tied to denominations, and generally declining in size while, at the same time, more people go to fewer, bigger churches.

The paper reports on significant findings from the third phase of the National Congregations Study, comparing a 2012 survey with surveys from 2006-7 and 1998. This makes possible a better picture of turn-of-the-century developments in the life of congregations.

Some of the results, showing these trends:
  • 69% of predominantly white churches have at least some black members.
  • 11% of church-goers go to all white churches, about half the number that did so in 1998.
  • 7.7% of worshipers attend predominantly hispanic congregations, up from 1.4% in 1998.
  • 48% of religious leaders said gays and lesbians can be full-fledged members of their congregation, up from 37.4% in 1998.
  • 26.4% of religious leaders said gays and lesbians could hold leadership positions in their congregation, up from 17.7% in 1998. 
  • 65% of worshipers attend congregations where there is applause, up from 54.6% in 1998.
  • 59% of worshipers attend congregations where hands are raised in prayer, up from 48% in 1998. 
  • 34% of worshipers attend congregations where drums are played, up from 19.8% in 1998.
  • The median number of regular participants at a house of worship is 70.
  • The median number of regular participants at an average person's church is 301.
  • 50% decline in giving to denominations by denominationally affiliated churches since 1998.
  • 24% of congregations are not connected to a denomination. 
The full results of the extensive survey of more than 800 possible questions is available online at the Association of Religious Data Archives.

Sep 13, 2014

'Unconditional love, I swear I sell it all for this'

Lecrae's new single reached the number one spot on iTunes top songs chart last week. This is the first time a Christian hip-hop artist has had iTunes' most-downloaded song.

Lecrae was previously the first Christian hip-hop artist with a song to top iTunes' hip-hop/rap charts, with the single from his 2012 album "Gravity."

The new album, "Anomaly," was released on Sept. 9th. Three tracks made it to iTunes' top 10 most-downloaded songs and the album itself was the second most-downloaded of the week. The album was expected to sell more than 75,000 copies in the first seven days.

According to Vibe, the breakthrough doesn't signal a change in the hip-hop market or the coming of age of Christian hip hop as much as it shows how Lecrae himself is singular:
The contrast between Lecrae and virtually every other artist thriving in the current commercial hip-hop space is overwhelmingly vast. For years he was the jewel of a somewhat lackluster sub-genre, one comprised of fellow faithfuls who's stylings, in some eyes, were just a bit too holy and unambitious to win over the worldly folk. Now, though -- post-Grammy, post-BET and Billboard nods, post-cosign from all your favourites -- it's a new day altogether. And Lecrae is basically alone. He exists in a singular landscape, mapping out uncharted territory in hopes of finding signs of life. With nothing but a mic and a prayer, the Atlanta-based MC is attempting to redefine the public's narrow perception of rappers that have both conviction and skills to boot.
For his part, Lecrae said there's still a lot of misunderstanding of Christians in hip hop:
there's a misconception that Christians are out to prove how much better they are than everyone else, point fingers at them -- I think that's the wrong perception. Jesus himself was like, 'I didn't come to condemn, but to save.' He was hanging out with the prostitutes and the sinners. Christians, in reality, we're just as jacked up as everybody else is, we just have our hope in a different place. And I think that's the problem, we have a lot of bad representation in hip-hop.
Lecrae will start touring the album next month.

Sep 12, 2014

S. Truett Cathy, 1921 - 2014

S. Truett Cathy, a Southern Baptist businessman who founded the fast-food chain Chik-fil-A, has died at 93.

Cathy built a fast-food empire on a simple chicken sandwich and the Bible. He was known for his belief that Christian principles were good for business and business was a good expression of the Christian faith.

"I see no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and good business practices," Cathy said. "People say you can't mix business with religion. I say there's no other way."

Cathy was a life-long Baptist, named for the famous Southern Baptist preacher George W. Truett. Cathy was a member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga., and taught Sunday school there even after becoming a billionaire. As a teen struggling with school, he was also inspired by the New Thought self-help writer, who wrote in his bestseller Think and Grow Rich that personal beliefs played a powerful role in personal success. Cathy wrote his own philosophy of success in a series of books, including It's Easier to Succeed than FailEat Mor Chikin, Inspire More People, and How Did You Do It, Truett?

He opened his first restaurant in Hapeville, Ga., just south of Atlanta, in 1946. The restaurant, which is still in operation, was across the street from a Ford factory and near the Atlanta airport. It was open 24-hours a day, serving people working on all shifts, but closed on Sundays.

The chicken breasts first used to invent the company's famously simple sandwich were breasts rejected by another Atlanta company, Delta, because they were either too big or too small for the airplane food packaging. Cathy spent four years experimenting and perfecting the "boneless, skinless breast of chicken served on a hot butted bun," the sandwich that would become the company's signature. The first Chik-fil-A sandwiches were first sold in Hapeville in 1961.

By 2013, the company had about 1,800 locations in the United States and annual sales of more than $5 million. Before he died, Cathy saw Chik-fil-A became the number one in US chicken-sandwhich sales.

Interviewed by Pat Robertson after being in the restaurant business for 50 years, Cathy said, "I realize it was just a simple idea. That's why I was able to do it. It was just a simple idea."

Besides the sandwich, Cathy attributed his success to his Baptist beliefs. "The Bible tells a lot about how to run a business if we just read it and apply it," he said.

Sep 11, 2014

Jerry Jenkins: Obama's not the Antichrist

Christian fiction writer Jerry B. Jenkins does a series of Youtube videos. Mostly, the very prolific, very successful author uses the videos to talk about writing. In Writing Tip #15, Jenkins tells would-be novelists, "show, don't tell." Twice he's answered questions about the best computer program for writing. In another video, Jenkins talks about the effect Amazon book reviews have on sales. 

This is consistent with Jenkins' position as a writing coach and head of a vanity press.

Jenkins is also a Christian author though, so sometimes he gets asked religious questions. He's also most known for his apocalyptic fiction series, Left Behind, so sometimes he gets asked theological questions about the end times.

And sometimes he answers those questions.

Here, Jenkins responds to the question, "Is the microchip Obama is going to implement in 2017 the mark of the Beast?"

The video is by far Jenkins' most watched. It has been watched more than 10 times more than his second most popular video, Writing Tip #1 ("avoid throat-clearing").

Sep 9, 2014

Church of Ameugny, France

Church of Ameugny, France, built in 1050.

An earlier church, dating from circa 860, was destroyed by Vikings, epidemics and the apocalyptic panics of the year 1000. The church was rebuilt under the supervision of the Benedictine monks of Cluny.

Measuring religious identities / interpreting religious identities

There's some truth to the perception that Europe is generally less religious than the United States, but the claim is often exaggerated.

Europeans, by some accounts, have completely abandoned religion. They've given up faith in droves, leaving churches as empty monuments to another time. The modern European landscape is agnostic and atheist and looks like IKEA crossed with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Of course there are ways in which that's true, but it's not that true.

These are exaggerations.

These are broad characterizations bolstered, largely, by anecdotal accounts of impressions made in casual cultural exchanges.

Such exaggerations are further bolstered by the fact European religious identities are often measured differently than religious identities in the United States.

When asking about religious affiliation, for example, the European Social Survey -- a respected organization -- first asks a yes-or-no question. It asks, "Do you consider yourself as belonging to any particular religion or denomination?" If the answer is "yes," then there is a follow-up, "Which one?" Studies of US religious identity, by comparison, ask for the respondent's religious identity and offer a list of choices, including "none."

The European way of asking the question, according to some comparisons, results in as many as twice the number of people saying they have no religion.

It would be too simple to say that non-affiliation is overrepresented in the European studies. But comparisons between Europe and America need to be complicated: differences can be exaggerated by different ways of asking the question.

"In Europe, many surveys measure religious identity with a two-step question," explains Conrad Hackett, a demographer for the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. "In many cases, two-step questions seem to filter out respondents who might otherwise claim a religious affiliation but who do not consider themselves as having a significant level of religious belonging."

Hackett offers this as one example of the complexity of measuring religious identity.

In an excellent article recently published by the journal Religion, Hackett argues that religious measurements are often not straightforward, and study results need to be considered with care.

He makes seven suggestions for those considering survey results:
(1) Definitions and measures of religious identity shape knowledge about religious groups;
(2) Variation in question wording leads to variation in responses;
(3) Comparing results across surveys provides valuable perspective;
(4) Incentives shape how respondents report their religious identity;
(5) Religious identity may be liminal;
(6) Salient identity categories are often unmeasured; and
(7) Religious identity and religious practice may not seem congruent.

Sep 8, 2014

David Huskins, 1967 - 2014

David Huskins, a pentecostal minister who headed the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, has died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 47.

Huskins had been sick, suffering from a heart condition. The presiding bishop of the ICCC stepped down from ministry in July after two congestive heart failures. Though he hoped his absence would be temporary, Huskins also wanted the congregants of his Atlanta-area megachurch to understand the seriousness of his situation.

"I have been told medically I am at the point of complete exhaustion while still dealing with chronic congestive heart failure," he wrote at the time. "The effects of this mini-stroke and the medicines along with the energy lost from the congestive heart failures keep me very confused, often times unable to articulate my thoughts clearly and then also all the physical limits and battles."

According to a self-identified family friend, Huskins was concerned about being permanently disabled by a stroke.

He was found dead in his home in Cedartown, Ga. on August 25, according to police.

Huskins' last Facebook message was posted the day before his death. "The prize is worth the price," it said. "These light afflictions are working a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Jesus is good all the time."

Photo: Henry Herald
Bishop David Huskins preached on grace and God's power.

Sep 5, 2014

Tammy Faye Bakker performed vulnerability

Tammy Faye Bakker became, for many, the face of cheap religious sentiment. With too much makeup and easy tears, she represented what was gauche about contemporary American Christianity. She represented what was gaudy about religion turned into modern-day mass media entertainment.

Televangelism was in poor taste. And Bakker's makeup became an easy symbol for televangelism.

"To her detractors, Tammy was puerile, her message an uneducated trivialization of Christianity," writes Charles E. Shepherd in Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. According to Shepherd,
Tammy's thickening mask of makeup violated the essence of traditional holiness standards . . . The application took fifteen minutes each morning: a heavy coat of beige liquid base, dark V's of contour powder to create cheekbones on her rounded 'chipmunk cheeks,' a thick navy line around her eyes. That was just the start for the eyes. Tammy brushed light shadow on her eyelids, up to the crease. At the crease she drew a half-moon of light shadow extending to her eyebrows. The eyebrows were arched and lengthened. Instead of wearing lots of mascara, she used fake eyelashes, à la Lucille Ball. 'Some people tease me I wear too much makeup,' she told reporter Jody Jaffee. 'But a person has to find a look unique to them.'
In the late '80s and through the '90s, Bakker's unique look was a rich source of ridicule for the disgraced televangelist, and televangelists generally, and conservative Christianity too.

Jay Bakker remembers this.

The son of Jim and the late Tammy Faye, Jay Bakker is now a minister in his own right, though one more likely to quote the philosopher John Caputo than ask for money on TV. He recently gave an interview on comedian Marc Maron's podcast, WTF.

In the interview, Maron asked about the period when Tammy Faye Bakker became "a character of herself."

"It was weird, though, you know," Jay Bakker said:
Like, people would have those 'I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall' t-shirts, which was like the splattered makeup stuff. And she would sign 'em. And she embraced it, man. You know, I always told her, I'm like, 'Mom I think you're so beautiful without makeup.' But, she had -- her self esteem was really low, so she did that but, at the same time, she said, 'I don't care what these people say. Everybody's telling me to take my makeup off. Everybody's telling me to tone down. And I'm not going to do it.' Like most women, when they did Christian stuff, they would take their jewelry stuff off before they went on. My mom kept her jewelry on. You know, she just -- almost in some way, she was somewhat naive, but the beautiful part of that was she actually cared about people.
Maron, whose in-depth interviews have extensively documented the human struggle behind modern show business, notes in the interview that that paradoxical vulnerability made Tammy Faye Bakker a compelling TV presence.

Her makeup was a mask, literally. But that mask exposed her and made her vulnerable.

Sep 2, 2014

Aimee Semple McPherson: sources

"It's almost dangerous to say in the same (sentence) as 'Pentecostals,'" historian Anthea Butler said of Aimee Semple McPherson, "but I'll go ahead and say it: there's something sexy about her."

Semple McPherson, the pioneering pentecostal evangelist who used technology, media, and theatrics to spread the gospel, died 70 years ago this month. In her day, she reportedly drew larger crowds than Harry Houdini or P.T. Barnum.

"American Experience," the Public Broadcasting Service program, produced a documentary on Semple McPherson's life in 2007. It is now available on Youtube:

Anyone interested in a full treatment of Semple McPherson's life and her place in the history of American Christianity should check out Matthew Sutton's biography, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. (Sutton, incidentally, will be teaching at the University of Heidelberg this coming semester).

Pentecostal historians Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh spoke about Semple McPherson on the public radio program, "On Being" in 2011, offering an excellent introduction to the evangelist.

Digital of Semple McPherson's magazine, Bridal Call, from 1917 and 1918, have been made available by the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Aug 24, 2014

Taize prayers, Taize silence

I've gone to Taizé for a week. Regular blogging will resume in September.