After a bit of a break from my annual tradition, I’ve decided to resurrect my sometimes cited, frequently debated and occasionally requested list of Top Religion stories from my neck of the Christian world. As always, I offer my disclaimers first. This list is 100% subjective. This is just how I see things. I limit myself to ten primary stories (though I will list some honorable mentions as well), and I don’t put them in a particular order of significance as in greatest to lesser. I want you to add your own in the comment section – feel free to disagree, expand, add or challenge. That’s 99% of the fun. So without further fanfare…here’s the list for 2011.
1. 1. Arab Spring
Even if you aren’t a Van Impe/Camping/Left-Behind groupie, you’ve got to believe that something significant is going on in the Middle East with the collapse of multiple governments which were at least in an uneasy truce with the West (US/Europe) and generally with Israel. Egypt, Libya, Syria and other places are still in the midst of huge changes and where it will all fall out is anybody’s guess. But it doesn’t require ownership of a crystal ball to see that most of these countries are going to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-Israel/anti-American/anti-Christian political forces which is going to change the status quo we have known for a generation. Of lesser eschatological concern, but greater immediate attention, is the impact on the tiny “Christian” minorities in countries like Egypt which are already seeing a marked rise in persecution and violence. In addition, we have no idea how far this regional revolution will grow. Should Saudi Arabia come under anti-American governance, one can only imagine the amount of mischief that could come from a hostile government using the billions of dollars of American armaments they now possess and the ability to strangle us with their oil output. And I didn’t even begin to deal with Pakistan and Turkey and the tenuous condition of our alliances with them. Anyway you cut it…this is BIG in historical, spiritual and eschatological perspectives.
2. 2. Tim Tebow and “Tebowing”Rarely has there been such a polarizing public figure who has caught the attention and dominated the national dialogue as Tim Tebow. The discussions surrounding him make the debates over Ron Paul, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen seem downright civil. And while football is the “excuse”, make no mistake – this is a cultural/faith wars battle posing as a debate over an athlete’s skill set. Every year in every sport there is conversation over whether the hot new player has what it takes to be in the Big Leagues, but this is a whole different level of fandom and venom spewing. There are very few fence sitters. On one side, people who thought the NFL stood for “Nearly Finished Looking” are now sporting Broncos Jerseys with “Jesus” written on the back. Others have now found a convenient way to cloak their unbridled hatred for all things Christian by framing their vitriol with Tebow’s awkward throwing style and oh, yeah…he’s a religious kook too. The cool thing is that Tim has, thus far, been able to live above the fray, showing amazing grace and maturity for a kid his age and in such glare and unless you are totally blinded by anti-Christian bias he is the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner. His prayer posture has now become a national version of “planking” and “owling” only with a deeper message. Whether you love or loathe the Broncos, Christians should pray for this young man’s character and spiritual strength. He’s going to need it.
3. 3. Fundamentalist Schools and Accreditation
Several years ago, I printed a series of articles (no longer available) on my blog which pointed out problems in the Christian colleges located in the most conservative neck of the “evangelical” world (largely Fundamentalist schools). It was quite controversial at the time and the number of “hits” I got on my blog for weeks originating in places like Greenville, SC and Pensacola, FL and other home ports for these schools was both surprising and revealing. While I’m not taking any level of credit and I don’t claim to be a prophet or the son of a prophet, it is worth noting that many of the things I predicted and challenged have started coming to pass. One of the most significant is the decision to start seeking some form of accreditation by these schools. Bob Jones University shocked their constituency and those who knew of their philosophy of anti-accreditation several years ago by applying for accreditation with the Christian accreditation association, Transnational Association of Colleges and Schools (TRACS). This was not the equivalent of regional accreditation, but was a significant position change nonetheless. Interestingly, not long ago, another great bastion of accreditation resistance, Pensacola Christian College announced that they too were seeking TRACS Accreditation. Now, within the last few months, in what can only be described as a shift of seismic proportions, BJU has announced that they will see full accreditation with SACS – a secular regional accrediting body and one of the most influential ones in the country. This has the potential to change the entire “non-accreditation” game among colleges of their sort. On a side note, because I work as a consultant to colleges and schools on occasion and have relationships with multiple accrediting agencies, I have “inside” knowledge that there are multiple other, less visible, but significant colleges who are also now considering accreditation for the first time. Whether or not this was done because of a more astute prospective student or declining enrollment or simply a rethinking of their opposition rationale, it will certainly remove an excuse that many have used for not applying for enrollment at these schools and will move the institutional credibility (once attained) in a positive direction.
4. 4. Scandals Come Home to Roost
Virtually every branch of Christianity has had major sexual scandals over the last quarter century – from Catholics to extreme Fundamentalist. This year, however, many past sexual scandals in fundamentalist circles came home to roost in a major way and virtually no branch of fundamentalism went unscathed. The most significant one was the Trinity Baptist/Chuck Phelps/Tina Anderson Case from Concord, New Hampshire and which ended up impacting Bob Jones University, Northland International University, Maranatha Baptist Bible College and multiple churches and prominent pastors and college officials in the process. You had to have been living under a rock not to come across info on this on the internet this year (not to mention 20/20 and CNN) and if you haven’t heard about it, just google “Tina Anderson” and grab a cup of coffee – you’re going to be there for a while. But that case was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the case of a preferred mission agency of the GARB, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) which was hit by a decades old sexual abuse cover-up involving a missionary doctor and multiple young girls which is still being debated and investigated. The Hephzibah Home for Girls in Indiana has been charged with abuse of their charges by the media and former residents. Fairhaven Baptist Church and Fairhaven Baptist College in Indiana were the subject of a CNN investigation regarding gross abusive and harsh behavior toward young people (though there are no substantive sexual charges at this time). Berean Baptist Church/College in Jacksonville, Florida made the headlines when leadership was accused of a cover-up involving the pastor’s son who videotaped young college women changing their clothes and they are also in the middle of a financial scandal that involves the loss of their ministry campus and charges of an excessive lifestyle by the pastor and his family. Two Independent Baptist Pastors committed suicide in the Southwest upon being confronted about sexual abuse including a rape. A graduate of Hyles-Anderson College was just the latest in a string of pastor’s from that school to have faced scandal and charges and was sentenced to prison for molesting several young men in his church and school. Another, non-sexual scandal, involved the President of Tennessee Temple University and the Pastor of the sponsoring church resigning due to charges of plagiarism in a book written years before. Bottom line – this year a lot of corruption came to light and it can be dismissed by saying “it happens everywhere” with a shrug of the shoulders or it can be examined and addressed with integrity. Whether or not it will be addressed or ignored has yet to be determined and due to the nature and value of “independence” in this arm of Christianity and which has lead to a significant lack of accountability, it is hard to envision how a legitimate examination and corrective action could even be taken.
5. 5. The Rise of Internet Driven Activism
This is related to Number 4, but is separate as this has the potential to indefinitely and in various forms become a significant “game changer” in how grievances are addressed and scandals are dealt with for the foreseeable future. Several years ago, anonymous bloggers in churches like the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Belleview Baptist Church of Memphis, TN rocked their congregations with accusations, charges and commentary. Today, anonymity is no longer necessarily the modus operandi of these activists. The lead character in this new “Fundamentalist Spring” of activism and scandal revelation is Jocelyn Zichterman who has combined personal wounds and frustration (and some would say, bitterness) with the “system” within her former branch of fundamentalism and the power of social networking and the internet to create a whole new force that has lead to earth-shaking revelations, scandals, media scrutiny and even policy changes in institutions touched by her formidable will. The daughter of a somewhat prominent Independent Baptist family from the BJU/NU neck of the woods, she has made it her mission to expose and investigate what she perceives to be fundamentalist corruption and cultic behavior largely using alleged sexual abuse in her own home as her impetus and the response of many fundamentalists to her exposure of it. Her fundamentalist resume is quite impressive and it has now become the platform on which she is waging a war against perceived flaws, failures and scandals of epic proportions utilizing Facebook, blogs and a media-savy willingness to generate headlines, interviews and investigations to speak up for some who were ignored or otherwise silenced. She was largely responsible for putting the Tina Anderson/Chuck Phelps case on the national radar and now the rapist in question is in prison. Most recently, she brought about the end of Bob Jones University’s ill-conceived reappointment of Chuck Phelps to one of their prominent Boards through amazingly successful on-line protests, petitions and other tactics serving as the catalyst with other dissatisfied or wounded individuals or groups. While the University will deny that it had an impact on them, very few are going to believe that claim. The ABWE scandal mentioned above largely gained traction as the result of a blog where many shared their stories of abuse and cover-up. In 2011, a blog by disgruntled Sovereign Grace senior leader and pastor, Brent Detwiler was largely responsible for the Sovereign Grace head, C. J. Mahaney, taking a leave of absence/sabbatical to deal with spiritual issues in light of some of the charges and which continues to unfold with other resignations within SGM and disciplinary actions taken against Detwiler. Bottom line – this story is significant because the Internet connects anyone on the planet who has a story to tell or a charge to make with others who had similar experiences or who might be inclined to take up their cause. Many of these scandals are legitimate and poorly handled. On occasion, some appear to be exploiting the anonymity of the web and the ability to cast an experience from their singular perspective in order to garner sympathy or to attack others. Few would say that this is the best way to handle such matters. Others would claim that is the option of last result and their final venue for seeing things made right. However you feel about the tactic…no one can deny that it is a new and powerful force and those who have skeletons in their closets should be shaking in their boots.
6. 6. No “Religious Right” Candidate for President
This year’s Presidential Sweepstakes is all but destined to offer a choice between two major candidates who will not receive the endorsement or enthusiasm of most in the religious right. Many of whom will endorse the candidate (and let’s be honest…it’s going to be the Republican nominee) will do so out of a sense of political expediency, not a sense that this is “their guy”. Those who had a chance to earn the support of this formidable block of voters – Pawlenty, Palin, Perry, Bachman, Santorum, Huckabee – either didn’t even enter or never caught fire. Thus, Republican values voters are largely dispersed among candidates for whom many will admit to “holding their nose” when voting for them. Mitt the Moderate Mormon, Gingrich – the serial adulterer and Ron Paul – a guy whose followers make North Korean political party leaders look disloyal in comparison are all a far cry from the savior that Christian conservatives would like to see run against the man they perceive to be the greatest enemy to the national values our country has ever known (which might be an overstatement, but their perception nonetheless), Barak Obama. It will be interesting to see if any of the last election’s evangelical “rock star” young leaders come out supporting Obama again much as they did in 2008 when the Dems captured 40% of the evangelical vote. Sadly, there are few on the entire political scene down the road that might give any more hope to them except for one exception – FL Senator Marco Rubio – who has a Reaganesque vision, verbiage and values, but who just isn’t seasoned enough quite yet for the Oval Office. (At least he, unlike our current occupier in chief, is aware of that.) If I were a betting man, I’d say that Obama will win re-election by a hair this fall. More tragic than another four years of his leadership is the reality that he will then change the face of the Supreme Court and Federal Courts for the next generation – a consequence from which we will likely ever recover.
7. 7. Bell’s Hell
Not a lot needs to be written on this topic, but Emergent Church hipster, Rob Bell, shook up Christianity with his re-warmed version of a form of possible annihilationism and set off a storm of controversy and counter-tomes and sermon series and so on – the likes which haven’t been seen since Y2K. Bottom line – Rob Bell is a heretic and his church is better off now that he has resigned to pursue other “opportunities”. But there is no denying that he was a big story this year. (Note: since writing this originally, I have been told that the new pastor may be more theologically liberal than Bell — and that’s saying something.)
8. 8. Harold Camping Strikes Again (and Again)
Like a cat dropped off your deck will always land on his feet, radio evangelist Harold Camping has shown a decades-long knack for setting dates for the return of Christ only to have them pass without nary a whistle, let alone a trumpet blast, and still have followers willing to listen for and heed his next prediction. But his setting of the date of May 21st had a new level of support among his adherents as people quit their jobs, sold their homes, bought RV’s and painted them with doomsday messages and took to the Interstates warning of the coming Apocalypse months in advance. When the date passed and nothing happened – he offered an “ooops” moment and reset it AGAIN. It too, was false. In OT days, false prophets were executed. Harold should be glad he’s in the 21st Century. Of course, the media made a big deal with smarmy smirkiness throughout, subjecting even more citizens to his nonsensical predictions and by proxy suggesting that most Christians who believe in a rapture were Camping Crazy themselves.
9. 9. Mainstreaming Mormonism
Mitt Romney’s candidacy and likely future win of the Republican nomination has brought some interesting scrutiny to the cult of Mormonism (and using the term “cult” is apparently a VERY politically-incorrect thing to type – according to some evangelicals, many of whom teach at Fuller Seminary). With their “Holy Underwear”, Native American Jews, abstinence from coffee, coke and tea (caffeinated at least), secret baptisms of the dead, history of polygamy, mandatory tithing, golden discs, BYU’s good Basketball team and all – who wouldn’t want a little closer look at the faith system of a potential “most powerful man on earth”? What is interesting is that few orthodox Christians seem willing to hold the line that Mormonism is not a legitimate Christian sect with much dogmatism, and those who do – like the President of the Southern Baptist Convention – well, they should apparently be considered the crazy ones – not those who believe they are eventually going to get their own planet to run. Go figure. The sad fact is that Mormons, with all of their nicely-funded commercials, slick advertising and POWERFUL politicians and celebrities (Romney, Harry Reed, Orin Hatch, the Osmonds – for a few examples), are now gradually being accepted as mainstream and not even as extreme as say….those nasty “Baptists” or “Bible-Thumpers”. Compromise is the Life-Blood of Politics, but it is the Death-Knell of Sound Theology.
10 10. Homosexual Activism Gains the Upper Hand
Let’s face it – the GLBT forces had a good year and their radical agenda shows no signs of abatement. With even moderate conservatives rushing to prove their tolerance, they intimidate politicians and businesses into embracing pro-gay-lifestyle positions time after time after time. Now serving openly in the military and looking for ways to recall the Defense of Marriage Act passed by a previous congress, gaining the right to adopt children, punishing private (and public) enterprises who don’t just discriminate against them…but who don’t PREFER them in many cases, using judges to over-turn citizen initiatives approved by a majority to give them the right to marry, demanding and receiving preferred funding, constantly portrayed in a positive light by both the media and the entertainment industry — this tiny minority of Americans (probably less than 5% of the population) have unprecedented political clout in the history of the nation. (Don’t believe that? Ask this question. “Who is more likely to win confirmation to the Supreme Court if nominated – a conservative, pro-life evangelical or a liberal homosexual.” I believe I’ve made my point.) Why is this a major story for 2011 – the repeal of DADT was the high water mark in a very successful year for homosexuals and they are just a few court decisions away and a few hate-crime laws removed from being able to sue pastors, authors, bloggers, churches, private employers, etc… for ever giving voice to the consideration that their lifestyle is sinful and that they are not a legitimate “minority’. Religious freedom and 1st Amendment not withstanding – their agenda will take precedence and Christians need to think through those future scenarios as fines are considered, tax exemptions are lost and censorship is imposed. I do not believe such a scenario is a wild-eyed prophecy – it’s a coming reality.
Honorable Mentions: Considered, but not chosen.
- The Southern Baptists Consider a Name Change Removing “Southern” at Least
- Small Christian Colleges in Peril as Tough Economic Times and Declining Enrollments take their Tolls
- Disgraced LBTS Dean Ergun Caner takes Provost Position at Arlington Baptist College
- C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries Rocked by Accusations
- 400th Anniversary of the King James Version
- Churches No Longer Allowed to Meet in Public Schools in New York
So, those are my thoughts — what are yours? Feel free to disagree, debate or offer your own list below! Happy New Year everyone!