Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Christianity Today Asks: Who Killed Mars Hill?

Christianity Today has produced a new podcast series on what happened at Mars Hill Church that I can't recommend highly enough. If you're interested in the tangle of toxic masculinity, mega church politics, and the general corruption that is evangelicalism in the United States, you definitely want to follow this series.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

SBC Whistleblower Report: Southern Baptist leaders on sexual abuse in their own words

The following was prepared by Phillip Bethancourt and shared by him via Google Docs. It is, in a word, explosive. He includes audio files of Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd speaking that are pretty damning, in my opinion.
June 10, 2021

To: Mike Stone, Ronnie Floyd
CC: Rolland Slade, JD Greear

Mike and Ronnie,

I am writing to you in regard to your public responses to the recently publicized letters from Russell Moore. Ronnie, you said you “do not have the same recollection” of the events. Mike, your video called Moore’s claims “absolutely slanderous,” “ungodly,” and an “outrageous lie.”

I cannot remain quiet in light of your responses, so I am compelled to do something no one would want to do--become a Southern Baptist whistleblower.

Wouldn’t the best way to get to the truth be to hear the two of you in your own words? Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters--the same claims you now suggest are false. I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.

Below you will find links to audio clips from two meetings Russell Moore mentions in his letter; our October 8, 2019 meeting in Nashville (in which Ronnie was present along with others), which followed the Caring Well Conference and our May 9, 2019 meeting in Atlanta (in which both of you were present along with others). The brief summaries for each audio clip will help Southern Baptists understand the context of what happened in our conversations.

Nashville Caring Well Conference Debrief | October 8, 2019

In this Caring Well Conference debrief meeting, which included both Ronnie Floyd and Russell Moore, Floyd’s own words corroborate Moore’s recounting of the meeting. As the audio captures Floyd’s pressure tactics, sometimes masked in the form of “I’m just asking questions,” it also reveals troubling statements not previously disclosed to Southern Baptists.

Clip #1 - Ronnie Floyd questions the lack of restrictions on Caring Well Conference speakers

Ronnie Floyd’s question seems to imply that Caring Well conference speakers should have had restrictions on what they said since the Executive Committee financially supported the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. Russell Moore explains that the reason the ERLC didn’t restrict what speakers say is because “we are not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.” Note: no Executive Committee funds were used for the Caring Well Conference.

Clip #2 - Ronnie Floyd voices Executive Committee complaints about Rachael Denhollander

Ronnie Floyd’s question raises Executive Committee trustee complaints about how Rachael Denhollander “has come after them” in her Caring Well Conference interview. Russell Moore points out that the ERLC “didn’t script anybody.” And, in reference to the Executive Committee’s mishandling of a survivor’s public abuse disclosure, Moore asserts that the Executive Committee should “not do stupid stuff again.”

Clip #3 - Ronnie Floyd suggests his primary concern is not survivors but to “preserve the base”

Ronnie Floyd says he is “not worried” about what survivors would say because his primary focus is to “preserve the base,” seeming to suggest that his priority on abuse is protecting the SBC. Floyd had already stated that he is hearing threats that some churches may stop their Cooperative Program giving because of the Caring Well Conference. So, it certainly seemed to us in the room that what it meant to “preserve the base” was to protect the money.

Atlanta Meeting on Sexual Abuse | May 9, 2019

This meeting that included Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd intended to finalize action points on sexual abuse for the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham. Their resistance to the immediate formation of a standing credentials committee became a primary point of disagreement. Stone’s own words corroborate Russell Moore’s recounting of our contentious discussion on this subject.

Clip #1 - Mike Stone discloses that the Bylaws Workgroup abandoned pursuit of a Credentials Committee and perceived themselves as victims

In a response to Ronnie Floyd’s question, Mike Stone states the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned plans to create a standing credentials committee in advance of the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, right as many Southern Baptists were publicly calling for the formation of one. Why? At least part of the reason, Stone suggests, was the “human factor,” which he seems to portray as the fact that the Bylaws Workgroup believed they were true victims in the process, who were “thrown under the bus.”

Clip #2 - Mike Stone suggests approaches like mine to the Credentials Committee are “unseemly”

Near the end of the meeting, we were at a standstill regarding the prospects of a standing Credentials Committee proposal coming forward at the 2019 SBC Annual meeting. Mike Stone had already disclosed that the Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned its pursuit of one. Stone also had insisted during this meeting that a Credentials Committee be delayed at least a year, just as Russell Moore disclosed in his letter. Seeing no other pathway ahead at that point, I noted in the meeting that, if the Executive Committee wouldn’t bring a proposal, I would personally bring a motion from the floor of the convention to pursue a standing Credentials Committee. In Clip #2, Mike Stone uses the exact language Russell Moore referenced in his letter, when Stone calls approaches like this “unseemly.” He also suggested that the Bylaws Workgroup felt “like it has been bullied,” again implying that they were true victims in the process.

Southern Baptists Deserve to Hear You in Your Own Words

It is a difficult decision to become a Southern Baptist whistleblower. But Southern Baptists deserve to hear you in your own words so they can know the truth. That’s why I believe it is necessary to not only give the courtesy of first sharing this information with you directly but also make it available publicly soon.

Some may have questions about the nature of these audio clips. This audio was lawfully captured by me in the one-party consent states of Tennessee and Georgia. It was appropriately captured in a manner consistent with the practice of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group during major meetings and strategy sessions; real time documentation was often captured to ensure both the accuracy of notes and the clarity of follow up actions. I did not anticipate this audio might ever become necessary in a moment like this.

This audio captures relevant clips, attempting to ensure that nothing is taken out of context. The full audio is not available because it would publicly mention the names or stories of abuse survivors without their consent. However, when a credible third party investigation is launched, I would be willing to cooperate to provide the full audio along with other relevant information.

Southern Baptists are at a crossroads as we head to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville. I don’t know which direction Southern Baptists will choose. But I do believe these ancient words: the truth will set you free. The future of the SBC will only stand if it is built on a foundation of truth.

In Christ,

Phillip Bethancourt
Galatians 4:16

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Seminary Isn't Scary Podcast

When I graduated from high school nearly 3 decades ago the plan was to go into ministry. Had I stayed on the path I'd now have quite a bit of experience in that role, but that wasn't to be. I made some missteps along the way, and one of them was not going to seminary. I completed a Bachelor of Ministry (BMin) degree at Harding University, was ordained the day after graduation, and in just a little over a year was off to Brazil for mission work. In retrospect I see that more time and reflection would have helped heal some personal trauma and prepared my heart for what I was about to do. As a result, I spent only a few short years in Brazil, and was out of full time ministry not long after returning to the states. Last year (2020), while the pandemic was keeping me in relative isolation, I discovered that Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology has precisely the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program that I've been wanting to do. 

The ACU GST MDiv can be done almost entirely online, with only a requirement of 4 separate weeks of intensives on campus over the course of 4 years. What really attracted me were the Hebrew and Greek requirements, something we don't find very often any more at seminaries. If the courses are offered they are often optional, and as someone who continues to maintain a keen interest in the Bible, its interpretation, and its impact on people and society, this matters to me.

Below are the first 7 episodes of a podcast that ACU GST has produced, interviewing different professors and people connected to the seminary about their experiences. If you're considering seminary, whether at ACU or elsewhere, you might find these interesting.

One disclaimer though: although ACU GST is fairly progressive for an evangelical seminary, accepting critical scholarship and not requiring and creedal statement or position from students, it may not be the best place for every Unitarian Universalist. I have classmates from evangelical and mainline Protestant traditions, and the professors show a concern for us thinking clearly and developing as people rather than holding to their beliefs. At the same time, a UU with little or no interest in the Bible and Christianity would be better suited looking to Meadville Lombard Theological School or Starr King School for the Ministry. Both of those are affiliated with Unitarian Universalism. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Hope for Post-Pandemic Times | Pentecost 2021

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place."Acts 2:1 NRSV

People gathered for a common purpose can have great power.     

The past year, being one of pandemic and social isolation, has been a rough one for many people. Sickness, hospitalization, and death have been the experience of families around the world. For those who managed to avoid getting sick and who had no one close suffer with the virus, there was still the daily struggle of adapting to life primarily lived indoors. I feel especially for parents of young children who've had to monitor their children to keep them focused on schoolwork while, also working to continue to support their families. As an introvert, 'homebody,' and father of grown children, the circumstances of the past 12+ months didn't post a huge challenge for me personally. I've been able to work and study remotely, and everything I feel I need, I have. And yet, Pentecost has reminded me of a way in which I do miss some gatherings.

The week prior to my first trip to Brazil in 1997 was one spent at a retreat. About 50 or so young Christian young people had signed up and raised money to go to other countries to get a taste of mission work for two months, and I was one of them. The sending organization rented a retreat center and our days that week were spent together in classes, team bonding activities, meals, and more. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, one that got me out of my head and able to connect a little better with my heart, which was going to be essential for the following several weeks living in a country with different customs, cuisine, and language from what I'd always known.

Experiences like that, bringing a sense of heaven on earth, are few and far between, in my experience, and in recent times they've been practically impossible.

Over the past year the world has experienced the first global pandemic since 1918, and 3,464,312 have died as of this writing. Not so bad when compared to the 20th century pandemic, which took the lives of between 20 and 50 million, until you consider that our recent lower numbers are due almost certainly to better medical science, and further reflect on the fact that each of those more than 3 million people were human beings with thoughts, feelings, hopes, and loved ones. I've been fortunate to have lost few that I know, although I had the shock of finding out a couple of weeks ago that my psychiatrist had died of COVID-19. 

In time we'll learn to feel comfortable again with one another in close quarters. At least, so I hope will be the case. Online gatherings have been a useful outlet for social connection, and has opened up possibilities to attend seminars and conferences that previously would have required travel and significant expense. Still, those just aren't and never will be the same as joining in heart, mind, and hand with others to seek what's highest and best. Perhaps, as this Pentecost comes and goes, we're passing through a gateway into new possibilities and a greater appreciation for being with one another. We could use a fresh wind blowing through the world right now, clearing the confusion, cooling tempers, and renewing our lives.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

On Canon

It's common now to refer to whether something really happened in a movie or TV 'universe' as being 'in canon' or 'out of canon.' This comes from the use of the terms 'canon' and 'canonical' in religious usage, referring to writings considered reliable representations of a particular faith. The word 'canon' itself is derived from a word for 'reed,' and was used to refer to a measuring stick. Whether some religious truth-claim was to be believed or not depended on how it measured up to scripture, and so what constituted scripture had to be defined somewhere along the way. 

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it suddenly had a massive amount of tangled and somewhat incoherent IP on its hands. Here's how they cleaned it up:

As of April 25, 2014, the only previously published materials that are considered canon are the six Star Wars films, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series and film, novels (where they align with what is seen on screen), and Part I of the short story Blade Squadron. Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe is no longer considered canon[2] and was re-termed as the "Legends" brand. Most Star Wars material released after April 25, 2014—with some exceptions—is composed in collaboration with the Lucasfilm Story Group, making it part of the "new canon."

Although it's commonly misunderstood that a church council defined the canon of Christianity, it wasn't so straightforward. What actually happened was that from the time of the apostles and into the third century C.E. a multitude of different writings circulated among Christian communities, and there wasn't any one defined version of Christianity that was considered correct in all places. There were churches that claimed some connection to an apostle or more, and churches that were fostered or founded by such churches, and other churches that also claimed some ancient connection or greater hold on 'the truth.' It used to be common to hear about Gnostic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, but again that's too simplistic. Many groups fit neatly into neither category.  However, over the course of time, with debates and conversions, one group became dominant. 

The proto-orthodox church, through an extended process of localized discernment over time, came to a general consensus on the books of the New Testament as we now have them. Really, the only significant variation in terms of the New Testament is with the Orthodox Tewahedo canon, that has a few extra texts. This sorting out of canon is seen by some as miraculous, though I suspect the leadership of the episcopacy had more than a little to do with ensuring that books which supported their understanding of the faith were accepted, and others rejected. The role of the episcopacy itself is a matter for a separate post. 

The Jewish Study Bible offers, in its commentary notes, a perspective I find useful in understanding scriptural canon:

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. (Berlin et al., 2004)

Within Unitarian Universalism there is no set, defined canon, and that's by design. While our predecessor churches originally held to the Protestant Bible, that was set aside as a standard by the time of the consolidation of the two denominations mid-twentieth century. Personally, I've noted that poet Mary Oliver and translations of Rumi tend to have a lasting popularity, and there are readings offered in the back of the primary hymnal used that have something of a scriptural ring to them, but really there's no consistency. In fact, it's more common for people to have their own personal canons, whether they think of them as such or (more likely) not. That is, texts, songs, films, and so forth that they find themselves referring back to from time to time.

What this means is that while other Western religions have specified texts around which a community gathers, no such thing exists for Unitarian Universalists. I'm not sure how important that is, as we seem to do okay without it. I grew up Catholic, hearing the lectionary readings at every Mass until the main stories were engraved in my mind, but whether that made any substantive difference to my sense of connection to the community is uncertain. After all, I did skip out at age 17 for a more evangelical outlook, and that only after my own study and reflection. 

With no shared canon, it can't be said that Unitarian Universalists have a shared sense of what a 'revelation' might be. We tend to hold a more humanistic outlook, though not across the board and many would like to deny it, and such questions are not what we typically center among ourselves. We have a much more this-worldly perspective that tends to keep us away from debating the nature of gods and whether there's an afterlife. It's hard to fuss over such literally immaterial things when we live in a world with systemic oppression, corruption in high places, and so much suffering and injustice. 

As for me, I find myself at this point in my life incapable of believing that any deity as described by classic Christian interpretation could possibly exist. Whether a trinity or not, a god described as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent would not be so limited as to be rendered incapable of immediately delivering us from evil. Indeed, if said god were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent, and yet still somehow restricted, the world remains exactly as we would expect it to be. That being the case, no purported revelation seems worth the time to take seriously, particularly in light of the fact that our human condition really only started to improve substantially with the advent of the scientific method for arriving at facts and solutions. Had revelation provided us with warnings about microscopic bacteria or forbidden human enslavement in no uncertain terms, then it could perhaps be more worth of acceptance.

But then, is the function of a canon really to serve as a font of actual information, or is it something else? In practice a canon functions as a common ground of understanding for a community. Thus the debates among Trekkies and within other fandoms about what's in canon and what isn't. They have a common vocabulary and shared narratives that they use to engage with one another socially. In the religious arena having a canon that's agreed upon doesn't always mean everyone has to agree with it. In the biblical book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham actually debated and negotiated with God, and he's one seen as a friend of God. Within the text of the Bible itself we encounter different voices that often disagree with one another. How then could it be wrong for a community to share a canon and at the same time have the space and grace to allow for arguments with the text itself?

If I were a theistically-minded Christian and compelled to choose, I'd borrow the perspective held by Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

However, Community of Christ has insisted since the time of Joseph Smith III that what the authors of scripture wrote is not revelation itself. They wrote works of literature that are pointers to revelation. Former member of the Community of Christ First Presidency F. Henry Edwards wrote, “Revelation cannot be fully expressed in words. Words are but tools, and must be quickened by the illumination of the Spirit which shines in the hearts and minds of the readers….Revelation, then, is one thing, and the record of revelation is another.” Former apostle Arthur A. Oakman made the following observation in an important 1966 article: 
The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it. Had they never apprehended it, it would still have been there. But it became revelation to them when they appreciated this divine movement. What we have in the Old and New Testaments is not, therefore, revelation. It is a record made by the preceptor. …There are, then, strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are “truths of revelation”—statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experiences. 
In its theology, ethics, and pastoral practice, Community of Christ believes it is essential to make this kind of distinction between revelation and human beings’ varied literary accounts of revelation. Without this distinction, communities are always tempted to worship not the Living God, but their texts, traditions, and interpretations, which can bring and has brought great harm into people’s lives. (Chvala-Smith, 2020)

What we find among white conservative evangelicals in the United States is precisely the situation described in that last paragraph: they commit bibliolatry by paying lip-serving to it without really understanding it or committing to live according to it. If instead they were able to see the Bible as the result of attempts to put into various genres of writing the sense of what they understood as having come from God, there could be a great deal more humility and less beating others over the head with interpretations. Then again, perhaps that's simply an enduring difficulty stemming from the human condition that will manifest regardless. 

Attending General Assembly I've come to suspect that for some Unitarian Universalists they see Robert's Rules of Orders in roughly the position of canon (and that's not a joke), and as I mentioned above there are some texts and songs that we tend to favor collectively. And yet we carry on seemingly well without a canon. It can certainly be useful to have a shared standard as a resource for homilies and liturgies, providing a common ground for everyone in the community. It can also be a source of misery, as we see in the fandoms when some take others to task for not conforming to a particular understanding or appreciation of canon. Except that religion isn't meant to be a hobby. Rather, a way of life. That's not so easy to walk away from, as if leaving a fandom could ever be easy for someone either. 

Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. Oxford University Press.

Chvala-Smith, A. J. (2020). Exploring Community of Christ Basic Beliefs: A Commentary. Herald Publishing House. 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary to Relocate

The email below arrived this afternoon (Friday, May 7, 2021), and I thought it good to share here as well. See the bottom of the email in this post for a link to a page with more details. My take on it is that they are thinking of their students and faculty with this move, considering feedback provided over what their current space lacks, and also practicing fiscal responsibility. With the COVID-19 pandemic office space in the real estate market has taken a big hit, so it's prime time to get into an affordable new lease on a better location.

Dear friends of Meadville Lombard,

We are moving!

Meadville Lombard’s 10-year lease for office space at the Spertus Building expires in December 2021. Although the lease provides for two 5-year renewals, the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team believed it was in the best interests of the school to test the real estate market given the current environment that has resulted from the pandemic. This was not a decision that we came to lightly, but we strongly believe that this move will enhance the experience of our students and prepare the school well for the future.

Over the years and, more specifically, in a survey taken by the Student Advisory Council in the Spring of 2019, our students have shared their desires for improvements to our space, such as access to classrooms with natural light, small group meeting space, a chapel, transgender and non-binary student safety, and ADA accessibility.

We also needed a space that allowed us to invest in our future and innovate, to create new programs that prepare a larger, broader audience of students to carry our UU values into the world, as well as to host community groups with whom we are growing relationships. A recording studio will enable us to host podcasts with scholars, faith leaders, and community leaders to help us become recognized as the thought leader that we already are.

We firmly believe we have designed a great space—one that provides classrooms that we can use any time of day or night without additional expense, one that provides a chapel that will be available to students of all faiths, and one that provides us the flexibility to make changes as we grow into our future.

The address of the new space and more details about the decision can be found on our website: https://www.meadville.edu/ml-commons/details/mlts-is-moving/


On behalf of the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team

Cindi Redman
Vice President for Finance and Administration (credman@meadville.edu)

Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Trickle of Churches Leaving the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church is heading towards an official split, but with the pandemic and the inability to bring in delegates representing the church in nations other than the United States, the General Conference where the plan to do so will be voted on keeps getting postponed. As of now, it won't be happening until Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While most parishes of the UMC are apparently waiting it out, for a few, it's just too long to reach a decision, and they are disaffiliation. It's not an easy road to take, and here I'll take a look at what makes it difficult, and review the situation of some churches that have departed or are in the process of doing so.

Complicating the decision of a church to leave the denomination is the connectional polity practiced by United Methodism, in which all property at the congregational level is held in trust 'for the benefit of the entire denomination.' Putting it plainly, people can quit the denomination, but the property stays behind, unless the annual conference approves property going with a departing congregation. Even with approval, a disaffiliating parish will have to pay up all apportionments (dues to the denomination) for prior and current years, as well as its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liability. None of that is cheap. 

United Methodist News reviewed available data and found that the 54 conferences only approved around 51 disaffiliations in 2020. I say 'only' because that seems small in comparison to the 305 churches that closed because they were too small and had become unsustainable, and because there are 31, 000 United Methodist parishes in the United States. A 0.16% decline in parish affiliations is barely a drop in the bucket. Two churches in the Texas conference have disaffiliated or plan to do so pending conference approval, but again that's only 2 of a total 640 congregations in the conference, or 0.31%. 

Although historically the UMC hasn't kept official, consolidated records of disaffiliations, it is doing so now through its General Council on Finance and Administration. The denomination's pension agency, Wespath Benefits and Investments, is keeping track of departures as will in order to ensure that clergy pension liabilities don't go unmet. Given the small numbers involved so far, and the high cost of leaving, I don't think they have a great deal to worry about until the actual split presumably takes place. 

What about the churches that are leaving? It turns out that they represent both progressive and conservative perspectives. 

Grace Fellowship Church in Katy, Texas left for the Free Methodist Church in North America in 2020, citing the 'dysfunctional fighting' within the UMC as their motivation for doing so. This was no small loss in terms of membership for the UMC, as Grace Fellowship is a megachurch consisting of nearly 3000 members. The Free Methodist Church, for its part, wanted to make clear that it isn't merely a conservative version of the UMC. It was founded in 1860 and in the roughly 160 years of its existence it has developed its own culture and values. At about 110,000 adherents in 900 congregations, the FMC is considerably smaller than the UMC, and I imagine that concerns over church culture aside, denominational leaders must be pleased to have such a sizeable church join their number. 

Three progressive churches in Maine have also taken steps to disaffiliate: HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland and Chebeague United Methodist Church in Chebeague Island. It's unclear to me at this point whether any of these will be affiliating with other denominations. HopeGateWay, which had to pay more than $350,000 to the United Methodist Church as part of the settlement to leave, has indicated that there are no immediate plans for them to do so, although they are 'in covenant' with other departing UMC churches in their area. All three of these churches cited discriminatory language and practices toward the LGBTQIA+ community as motivating their decisions.

Christ Church, a conservative congregation in Fairview Heights, Illinois, is another disaffiliating congregation. They incorporated as a new entity in 2020 and as far as I know are working through property issues with their conference. They appear to have a commitment to remaining non-denominational.

Bering Church, in Houston, Texas, is another noteworthy parish of the UMC that is on its way out.  Founded in 1848, when the population of Houston was only around 5000, the first members were German-speaking immigrants. Remarkably (to me, anyway) German remained the primary language in the worship services and Sunday School classes until 1911. Demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought in 'hippies and homosexuals,' according the church website. Rather than resist the changing face of the community around it, they embraced it by committing to minister to their new neighbors and fully welcome them without discrimination or prejudice. That they were so progressive at that time is really impressive to me. I also found intriguing the statement of belief included on their website.


If you are a first-time guest at Bering or a long-time member,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are black, brown, white or anything in between,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, or non-gender binary,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are a Native American or an immigrant friend, whether or not you have documents,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are lay or clergy, male or female, young or old, abled or differently-abled, rich or poor, short or tall, wide or deep,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

No matter what you believe or what you doubt . . .
No matter what you count on, or what you question . . .

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

At Bering, we celebrate you as a gift of the Creator,
and an individual wonder of God’s creation.

What strikes me about that statement is how humanistic it is, particularly in comparison with the usual statements of faith we find on church websites. Instead of beginning with God and the Bible and only mentioning humans as sinners, this statement is affirming of myriad ways of living a human life, and only mentions God at the very end. Obviously, evangelicals would despise it. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bering Church has opted to pursue affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Widely known as the most progressive denomination in the United States, the UCC has served as a refuge for a number of congregations whose denominations have tended to be a bit too conservative for them. The latest example I know of are the seven Reformed Church in America congregations in New York who joined the UCC in 2017. Although I don't know all the details, my understanding is that LGBTQIA+ exclusion from ordination was a deal-breaker for them. While they have maintained their affiliation with the RCA (I have to think it has to do with the conditions around endowments), they are now co-affiliated with the UCC, thus circumventing any issues of ordination or other official forms of LGBTQIA+ discrimination. 

Aside from social considerations, the UCC is also a good fit for Bering Church because no change in their current beliefs or practices will be required. As a UMC church they already practice baptism of infants and adults, and their liturgy won't have to be modified either unless there are aspects that directly reference the UMC. It isn't the intent of Bering Church to entirely abandon their Methodism, and the UCC allows plenty of room for that. 

To me, it makes more sense to wait until the General Conference, even if it's postponed again. Then again, it's not my pony show. Conservatives complain that while they stay they're spending time and resources on their denomination's issues that they could be putting into their missions. Progressives point to the ongoing sense of harm being done to LGBTQIA+ members as something that can only be ended by splitting off. 

For those who manage to wait, the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would relieve them of the price tag for leaving, assuming it's approved. The protocol would commit $25 million over the next four years to form a new conservative or 'traditionalist' denomination. Conservatives have already taken steps in that direction by organizing the Global Methodist Church, at least on paper. With the approval of the protocol, parishes and conferences could vote to join the new denomination (or I suppose, perhaps, go off on their own), taking along their property. 

Whatever happens, it's indicative of the deep divide that exists politically, religiously, and socially in the world. While I tend to believe that denominations in general are going to continue to dwindle to a pale shadow of their former selves, and that what's considered 'progressive' today will be 'conservative' in 50 or more years, in the meantime we have to live through the struggle and do our best. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

It Isn't All Dinosaur Pee

Was the water you bathe in and drink once dinosaur urine? It turns out that some of it probably was, but not all of it. 

Dinosaurs, other than the non-avian variety which we still have as birds, were on the Earth for between 165 and 177 million years. They first appeared between 243 and 231 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, and for whatever it's worth, the Mesozoic Era is divided by scientists into three periods: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. During this very long period of time the land gradually split from one huge continent into smaller ones. Dinosaurs became extinct around 66 million years ago. This means that they were on Earth for far longer than they’ve been extinct.

Now, about the water. There are more than 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. Less than three percent of all this water is freshwater and of that amount, more than two-thirds is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. As I mentioned above, not all of the water we have on earth now is the same that existed over 66 million years ago. That's because not all the water that exists today is exactly the same as what existed then. While the amount of water on earth remains more or less the same over time, molecules of water are constantly being formed and broken apart. 

Water molecules are broken up during photosynthesis in plants. The plants take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) from the air and soil. Within the plant cell, the water is oxidized, meaning it loses electrons, while the carbon dioxide is reduced, meaning it gains electrons. This transforms the water into oxygen and the carbon dioxide into glucose. The plant then releases the oxygen (O) back into the air, and stores energy within the glucose molecules. To make it plain, although plants take in CO2 and release 0, it wasn't the carbon dioxide that became oxygen. It's the water that plants take up through their roots that gets split up, with the O atoms escaping out into the atmosphere. 

If that's the case, then shouldn't we be losing water over time? Not really, because cellular respiration in animals, including humans, produces water as a byproduct. Buckle up, because what follows is that process, and it's not as straightforward as what I described for photosynthesis. 

Animal cells take glucose and combine it with oxygen to create four molecules of adenosine triphosphate, commonly referred to as ATP, and six molecules of carbon dioxide during glycolysis. ATP is the molecule that cells need to store and transfer energy. Additionally, two molecules of water are created during this step, but they are a byproduct of the reaction and not used in the next steps of cellular respiration. It is not until later in the process that more ATP and water are created.

The second step of cellular respiration is called the Krebs Cycle, which is also known as the citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. This stage takes place in the matrix of a cell’s mitochondria. During the continuous Krebs Cycle, energy is transferred to two carriers, NADH and FADH2, an enzyme and coenzyme that play major roles in generating energy. Some people that have difficulty producing NADH, such as those with Alzheimer’s, take NADH supplements as a way to boost alertness and concentration.

The electron transport chain is the third and final step of cellular respiration. It is the grand finale in which water is formed, along with the majority of ATP needed to power cellular life. It starts with NADH and FADH2 transporting protons through the cell, creating ATP through a series of reactions.

Toward the end of the electron transport chain, the hydrogen from the coenzymes meets the oxygen that the cell has consumed and reacts with it to form water. In this way, water is created as a byproduct of the metabolism reaction.

Over the course of the past 66 million years quite a bit of photosynthesis and cellular respiration has taken place in the biosphere. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms have been separated, circulated, and joined over and over again trillions of times. Thus, in an 8 ounce glass of water you may drink a few molecules of water that were once dinosaur pee, but the whole glass of water wasn't. This also means that much of the hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere right now was once bonded in molecules long, long ago that were in dinosaur urine. 

All this is simply to show that while this world is ancient, change is the greatest constant. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Continuous Succession

"For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.” – Marcus Aurelius

When I was a child my father had a new well dug on the farm. It took a few tries to find the right place, and at one of the failed sites something else was uncovered. From deep under the earth wood was uncovered, from too far down for them to be tree roots. These were the remains of ancient trees long gone. The drill kept going, hundreds of feet down, and suddenly seashells began to appear. Those, the sand and small fossils were from a long-lost ancient sea. What I could not have fathomed then and can barely comprehend now is how very long ago that sea existed.

During the early Paleozoic, 541 to 252 million years ago, what is now Missouri was covered by a warm shallow sea. I can't write 'what is now Missouri' without qualifying that, because the Earth has changed dramatically since that time. Continents have moved and hundreds of feet of soil now cover what existed so long ago. In any case, that sea was home to a menagerie of ancient creatures, including  shelled cephalopods, corals, crinoids, armored fish, and trilobites. Later in the Paleozoic, during the Carboniferous, a wide variety of flora developed on land. That was the period in which oxygen levels were at their highest, sustaining giant insects like dragonflies that could have wingspans of over two feet (more than half a meter). By the end of that period the sea had disappeared from most of the state, although southeastern Missouri was covered with seawater into the early Cenozoic. Since I grew up in northeastern Missouri, the only sea relevant was that of the Paleozoic. 
As I grow older it's easy to become nostalgic about the place where I was born and raised. I spent a lot of my time out in the woods and fields of Missouri, and there's a patch of it around the farm where I grew up that will likely always feel like home. And yet, it has not always been there. I imagine that before the last ice age it looked quite a bit different than it does now, and the same can be said for how it looked prior to European colonization compared to today. Although the country I grew up in has been losing population for over a century, since I was a teenager I've imagined what it would be like for that place to become urbanized. What if those fields and woodlands become housing developments someday, after the population decline reverses?

In truth, the only constant is change. As long ago as 541 million years ago is to us now, the Earth will still exist in another 541 million years. The places that I have known, in Missouri and elsewhere, will be long gone, covered under tons of history. It seems certain that the homo sapiens sapiens subspecies will be long extinct by then, although perhaps I can hope that our passing will not mean the end of the genus Homo. The varieties of creatures that existed in that ancient, shallow sea that existed where we now find Missouri are extinct, but certainly there are species that evolved from them, and then others from those successor species, right down to our time. Humans in the far distant future could be vastly different from us, and if they are spread out in different parts of the solar system and galaxy, they could also be distinct from one another. Unless, of course, we go truly extinct before that.

The world will be different. The continents continue shifting and moving. Species keep evolving. Layer upon layer of new earth is laid down even as mountains are worn down by wind and rain. It is important, I think, to keep some trace of this knowledge in mind in order to put things in their proper perspective. What matters to us intensely now is important because it impacts our lives and those of the world we know. At the same time, will our bones not one day also be fossils found far below earth's surface, telling of a long-forgotten time? There must be this continuous succession, so that new things can come about. That is life, in its truest sense.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Making Mars Liveable

Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/J. Cowart, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
What if Mars could be made liveable?

Mars is, as far as we have been able to tell so far, a lifeless world. It might not have always been so. For millions of years the planet had a denser atmosphere and likely running water. It's uncertain that was long enough with the right conditions for life to evolve, and for at least 3.8 billion years Mars has been frozen, with an increasingly drier and thinner atmosphere. When a massive meteor strike ended the Cretaceous period the impact was so great that some of the debris escaped Earth's gravity and was strewn through the solar system. A great deal of it found its way to the surface of Mars, but that was roughly 66 million years ago, when the planet had already been cold and dry for billions of years. While mathematical models have indicated that at least some of this debris carried viable microbes, only the hardiest of extremophiles could still be active there. 

The reason why Mars is still losing atmosphere today is that it lacks a protective magnetic field. The Earth has a robust magnetic field that is generated by electric currents produced by convection currents in the Earth's outer core. Lacking an active core for many billions of years, Mars is exposed to the solar wind and cosmic radiation. That not only strips away atmosphere, the radioactivity is in itself  hostile to life. This lack of a magnetic field has bothered me for years since I first learned of it, because without it no terraforming activity would be sustainable or truly effective. It turns out that there is a way to do it, though it's well beyond our current technology.

If a magnetic field were created at a point between the Sun and Mars where their gravities cancel out, that could theoretically encircle Mars and provide the needed protection. The magnetic field would need to be between 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss to sufficiently shield Mars against the solar wind. With our current available means we could only put a field of about 2,000 Gauss where it would need to be. 

To me, it seems only a matter of time before scientists and engineers are able to create the magnetic field needed. Whether decades or centuries, so long as civilization isn't disrupted we should eventually have the proper technology. At that point we would have a number of different warming methods to pursue, restoring as much as a seventh of the liquid water that Mars once had. If comets could be directed towards the planet they could provide additional water, though it's uncertain how much. In any case, it would take hundreds of years to reach a point of basic habitability, but with less than 40% of Earth's gravity the atmosphere would perhaps be maintainable at only 0.38 bar. For comparison, on Earth the air pressure at sea level is 1.01325 bar, and at the top of Mount Everest it's 0.337306 bar. In case that mistakenly sounds reasonable to you, here's a video showing how difficult it is to sustain life at high altitude. 

That isn't to say that it's entirely impossible. If our species reaches the point of being able to generate a magnetic field and rehabilitate the atmosphere of Mars to this degree, surely genetic engineering will also have developed to the point of enabling some forms of life to make it there. Tibetans already have a gene that they inherited from the Denisovans, a species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago, that enables them to breathe easily at much higher altitudes than the rest of humankind. Tibetans actually have less hemoglobin in their blood than other humans, which is believed to help avoid clots and strokes when the blood thickens with red blood cells. In fact, they have several genes that enable them to use less oxygen. In the future, human DNA could be engineers to make life more doable on the surface of Mars. Additional breathing equipment and pressurized habitats would make it possible to maintain a population on Mars. Just recently (April 2021) the Perseverance rover succeeded in converting carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere into oxygen. The atmosphere there is 96% carbon dioxide, providing a steady source for conversion to oxygen. 

Much of science requires work that goes well beyond the lifetime of any single person. There are breakthroughs and discoveries, to be sure, but then decades of work to test them and explore their implications and applications. No one alive nor anyone for generations will breathe on Mars without protective gear. The research we do now is for the benefit of all our kind for many generations to come. This is us at our finest, when we take consideration for others we'll never know and can hardly imagine.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

No Future for the Pterosaurs

The ecological niches filled by familiar species in our era were in distant prehistory occupied by other species. Life has been humming along for billions of years in this world, seemingly endless days that in abundant numbers make up not only centuries and millennia but periods, eras, and epochs. It is incredibly difficult for the human mind to conceive of deep time. And in those many millions upon millions of years life has taken forms to fill niches that show a certain continuity, in that they are adapting to the same or similar circumstances.

A pair of recently-published papers have introduced a couple of new pterosaurs to the scientific world and provide us insight into the niches these creatures were able to inhabit. So we're clear, pterosaurs are technically a type of lizard, and included the pterodactyl among at least 130 pterosaur genera. They in the late Triassic Period and endured until the late Cretaceous Period (228 to 66 million years ago), going extinct along with the dinosaurs. Further, modern birds are not descended from these reptiles, but rather from avian dinosaurs. 

One of the newly-described species is the Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, nicknamed 'Monkeydactyl.' It has received that moniker for having opposable thumbs and living in trees. The other, anurognathid, has a passing resemblance to the porgs of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Both of these species of pterosaur lived around 160 million years ago, and were uncovered in China.
Monkeydactyl, as it's been called, appears to be the earliest animal to sport an opposable thumb, such that it could touch its thumbs to its other fingers. Its physiology leads paleontologists to believe that it was adapted to life in trees, consuming insects and similar prey. While closely-related varieties of pterosaur existed in the same time and place, so far no others have been found to have similar adaptations to an arboreal existence. In our times tree frogs and certain types of primates fill this ecological niche.
Anurognathids, for their part, had small bodies, membranous wings, and a thin tail. Their proportionally huge eyes were likely advantageous in low-light conditions as they snatched insects into their wide, grinning mouths. These diminutive pterosaurs were probably fuzzy, having a pelt of tufted pycnofibers that were neither hair nor feathers. Where the Kunpengopterus antipollicatus was in the same space as arboreal primates and tree frogs in our times, anurognathids were more like the bats of the late Jurassic. To me they look more like little sky gremlins than cuddly porgs.
Consider now how long it took for these and other ecological niches to be filled again. After the meteor struck the earth, ending the Cretaceous and initiating the Paleogene, three quarters of life on earth went extinct in a matter of between 10,000 and 20,000 years. That might seem like a lot to us small humans with our brief life spans measured in decades, but in geologic time it's a blink of an eye.  All non-avian dinosaur species, millions of varieties of microscopic organisms, and a vast array of invertebrates were wiped out. Plant species suffered as well, with loss from diminished sunlight in the short-run, to a dramatically changed planetary climate in the long-run. It took between 4 and 10 million years for a full restoration of biodiversity to occur. That means that for millions of years there were roles not being played in the environment. Perhaps it was quite a while before bats and monkeys took the places of creatures like the flying porgs and monkeydactyls. 

As I indicated in the opening paragraph, we're dealing here with spans of time that are inconceivable to the human mind. We can talk about them, but rarely do we glimpse the actually scale of time we're considering here. 
The tyrannosaurus rex is closer in time to us that the stegosaurus is to the t-rex. Think about that for a few seconds. When I was a child I had little toy dinosaurs, all from different time periods and mixed together. Although it was known to scientists that these creatures lived in vastly different times, this information didn't filter out to the public easily. Perhaps with the internet we now have better access to learn such things that we miss in school, but we still have a tendency to lump all known varieties of dinosaur together. Based on lengths of time involved, it would actually make more sense (but still be ridiculous) to associate t-rex with the time of humans than with that of the stegosaurus.

In this unfathomably ancient world of ours many species have come and gone. Our own species has only been around for 200,000 of the 3.5 to 4 billion years that life has existed in this planet. The hubris of apocalyptic religious beliefs that center human history in the vast scheme of things are laughable by comparison. If the lineage of our species doesn't eventually go extinct, I'm convinced that as our kind spreads out first throughout the solar system and then to other star systems, evolution and adaptation will take place. Some may be guided by our hands, with genetic engineering to enable better suitability to life in space and on alien worlds, and other aspects will probably be just what happens over time. We are, after all, talking about a future of many millions of years stretching into billions.

If any of this is to matter, each generation as an obligation to those that follow to make the conditions for life better, not worse. Pterosaurs and dinosaurs could do nothing to avoid extinction. Humanity is in a different position, and it will take the cumulative miniscule but ultimately necessary actions of each age to ensure a future full of life for beings that proceed from our genetic heritage. If not, surely in due time some species might arise to take the place we vacated through ignorance.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Overlooked and Despised: Lectures on a Humanist Re-Thinking of Biblical Outsiders

The first time I met Dr. Anthony Pinn was a few years ago at an interfaith conference in New Jersey. He was chatting with Chris Stedman, the founder of the Yale Humanist Community. I had no idea who Dr. Pinn was, but I was excited to meet Chris. I'm embarrassed to admit that I asked Dr. Pinn if he could take a picture of me and Chris, which he graciously obliged in doing. Had I realized I would have wanted a photo with both. 

Dr Pinn is a scholar, Humanist, and Unitarian Universalist who writes and speaks in support of what he calls 'Black Humanism.' To be clear, his Black Humanism is distinct from that advocated by earlier Unitarian Universalists of color, in that Pinn's work aligns with the non-theistic outlook of contemporary Humanism as described by Humanism and Its Aspirations and The Amsterdam Declaration

It was therefore really good news to learn that Dr. Pinn will be giving the Minns Lectures this year. This series will take place over three Friday evenings this May, will be online, and is free to attend. Registration is required. The subject matter and this speaker should make for some very thought-provoking lectures. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Some Options for Baptist Women to Pursue Ordained Ministry

First Baptist Church, 223 Bull Street, Savannah, Chatham County, GA via PICRYL

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is experiencing some turmoil. As I blogged almost a month ago, Beth Moore has disassociated herself from the denomination that she's called home since she was a child. Her departure is big news because of her relative prominence in evangelical and especially Baptist circles as a Bible teacher. I'm going to share here a bit more commentary from others that has come up since that news, and then discuss some options for Baptist women considering ordained ministry to follow their sense of calling. While I am Unitarian Universalist and not Baptist, I think people should be able to pursue the things that matter to them in life.

First up, David French has some thoughts on the matter of Beth Moore's departure. In a piece entitled 'Cruelty is Apostasy,' he writes:

There are many reasons why people leave a church. Some reasons are good. Some are not. But it’s a singular tragedy when a person is hated right out the front door. I grieve for the hatred Beth endured. I grieve for the steep and exhausting emotional cost paid by those on all sides of our ideological divide who speak in good faith, from the heart, and face not respectful disagreement but self-righteous cruelty in return.  
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross.

The kind of incessant hate that women receive in evangelical circles for daring to even appear to be leaders astonishing. Consider the following from Twitter:

One wonders how being such a joyless wretch as Rod D. Martin plays out for the other people in his life...especially the women who have to interact with him. His kind of religion is dying, but it can't die fast enough. 

Second, Bob Smietana shares in an article the experiences of other women like Beth Moore, including that of the Rev. Courtney Pace. Specifically she comments on the restrictions that women submit themselves to for the sake of church community and system of belief. 

The Rev. Courtney Pace, Prathia Hall scholar-in-residence with Equity for Women in the Church and a board member of the Nevertheless She Preached conference, has written about what she called “the inevitable evolution of Beth Moore.” Pace said Moore has long been more than a Bible teacher, even if she was not willing to admit it. She’s really been a preacher, even if she stood behind a “Bible stand” rather than a pulpit.

Pace, who grew up Southern Baptist and used to watch Moore’s videos while working out, said when she went to seminary, a number of her female classmates wanted to be “the next Beth Moore.” Even after leaving the SBC, she kept an eye on Moore and eventually began, as an academic, to study her.

She’d long been expecting Moore to leave the SBC. Pace said that over the years, she could see Moore chafing against the restrictions men in the church placed on her, especially the kind of deference she was expected to show to men, as if she needed their permission to be in ministry.

Pace said that growing up Southern Baptist, she felt the same restrictions — saying she felt as if she had to be “as small and quiet as possible” even when she thought God wanted her to raise her voice.

In order for women pastors to follow their calling, their “give a damn” has to break, said Pace.

“If you live your life doing what everybody says you should or what you’re supposed to, you’re never going to get to be yourself,” she said.
The church will be healthier and more whole when women who lead Bible studies or ministries are enthusiastically and unreservedly supported and taught by the church to do so knowledgeably and well. The church will be healthier and more whole when women called to academic realms outside the church are supported and taught by the church to do so with their faith integrated well.

It’s encouraging to see many more women attending seminary in recent years for the purpose of future work in ministry, but, even more, simply to gain a theological education for its own sake, as shown in doctoral research done and reported by Sharon Hodde Miller.

More and more seminarians, in addition, men and women, are seeking theological degrees in order to use them in work outside the church or in bi-vocational ministry. According to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one-third of 2017 graduates of seminaries were planning to enter bivocational minis­try, Christianity Today reported last year.

That data also shows that Southern Baptist seminaries in particular saw a 12% increase from 2012 to 2016 in female students enrolled in graduate-level degree programs. And the credentials I gained long ago in a state university are now being used to serve the church by bringing them to students in the seminary where I now teach. The parallel tracks have crossed.

When I was a student at Harding University in the late 1990s I had one woman classmate in my ministry training program. She had been admitted on the condition that it was understood that she wasn't preparing for 'pulpit ministry.' This came up from time to time in class discussions. We thought we were being respectful in our behavior towards her, but there's no way a woman can be told repeatedly in front of others that there's something she can't do because of her gender without it being a wearisome insult, at best. While that was a Church of Christ school, and not Baptist, the views toward women in ministry leadership there were as bad as some of the worst I've seen among Southern Baptists. 

Fourth, here's a list of Baptist denominations/networks that do permit the ordination of women. If you're a Southern Baptist woman, or a woman otherwise in a conservative Baptist setting who feels called to ministry, these would be some options to check out.
Note the following: 1) this list is not meant to be exhaustive. It's a starting point that might be sufficient for your search, 2) Baptist churches are congregationally governed, so some churches or associations might not be as welcoming to women in ministry as others, and 3) attitudes towards lgbtq+ folks tend to be more exclusionary among Baptists generally in comparison with mainline Protestant churches. For some limited comparison of denominational policies toward lgbtq+ people, see this table.

Fifth and finally, if you're a Baptist woman looking for someplace to prepare for ministry, I recommend Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology. Although it's historically affiliated with the Church of Christ, it is welcoming towards people of other denominations (including me, a Unitarian Universalist), and women regularly study at ACU GST for ordained ministry. There is, in fact, now a Baptist Studies Center at ACU GST. I hope you'll check it out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Fundamentalists Being Fundamentalists at Lee University

Last month word circulated online about some messy, homophobic business at Lee University, affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). 

The renewed debate about identity and inclusion at Lee began weeks ago when Preston Sprinkle, president of the Idaho-based Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, gave a chapel talk to students about showing compassion and love to people experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth. 
Sprinkle told a story of a friend who was born a woman but identified as man. Sprinkle said his friend left the church but returned years later because of the love shown by a pastor. 
Walker said he got feedback from students, parents and community members that Sprinkle's message was ambiguous since it did not address whether people need to repent their sin. The Church of God does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex relations, just as it does not support premarital or extramarital sexual relations. According to its doctrine, the church believes those who practice homosexuality or are in a same-sex marriage have been misled by Satan and, if they do not repent and become celibate, they "forfeit their salvation and relinquish their eternal inheritance." 
The Church of God, which helps fund the university and provides the school's theological framework, put out a statement describing Sprinkle's message as "contrary to scripture." Lee University put out a statement as well. Sprinkle's talk was removed from Lee's social media pages. Then, on March 11, Walker gave his special address to the Lee community.

To be perfectly clear, the brouhaha is all due to a guest speaker urging compassion for transgender people. He wasn't affirming them at all. He only wanted people to be loving towards them while believing and presumably telling them that they're going to hell unless they repent. The absence of condemnation and a call for repentance was read as too kind, apparently.

As Hemant Mehta has noted, this really isn't surprising coming from a private university affiliated with a fundamentalist Pentecostal denomination.  

Well… yeah. I’m not sure why they’re surprised to learn that bigots are bigoting. Conservative Christianity teaches everyone to look down upon LGBTQ people if they dare to embrace that identity. Trans people don’t exist in their theology. Gay people must remain celibate if they want to stay in God’s good graces.

Sprinkle’s message was in no way pro-LGBTQ. The graduates were fine with that for some reason. But the school’s leaders flipped out because it wasn’t explicitly anti-LGBTQ and the graduates think that’s somehow going too far.

I agree with the graduates that the university is not a safe space for LGBTQ students. But why would it ever be? The Church of God isn’t a welcoming place for them either. Unless you’re entering the school with no awareness of its conservative Christian doctrine, you shouldn’t be surprised when the lack of bigotry is seen as a problem for a speaker.

He makes a legitimate point. It's like every time Pope Francis reaffirms traditional Roman Catholic teaching, and people act shocked about it. Stop already. The pope is Catholic, and fundamentalist-aligned universities are run by hateful religious bigots. 

And yet, it isn't always about whether a person knows this going in. 

First, young people often feel at a disadvantage, as they have no life experience, limited resources, and usually few connections outside of their family and friends. When lgbtq+ youth go to college, they may or may not be closeted, but they are under pressure from all sides to go along with the parents' agenda. At least, they might think, they're getting away from their home and will taste some freedom without their parents around. It's far easier said than done for a recent high school graduate to go against their parents. 

Second, not everyone comes to terms with who they are before adulthood. How many of us really did? In college, young adults are away from everything they've known and are exposed to people from other places and backgrounds. Yes, even at an evangelical school. The space, exposure to new people, and contact with different ideas can help the young come to needed realizations about themselves. Now, imagine doing that in an environment where the person you truly are is the specific type that the university condemns. 

The very first line of the Church of God's 'Declaration of Faith' states that they believe '[i]n the verbal inspiration of the Bible.' In case you're unsure, that essentially means that God inspired the Bible word for word. That's how far gone these folks are in their beliefs. Imagine going to school where professors have to agree with a statement like that, and most do so happily. Now picture being any of the types of people condemned to hell in that book, and being surrounded by professors and fellow students who agree wholeheartedly with it. The alumni are right to want to 'protect' the transgender students at Lee University. I wonder to what extent that's even possible. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Crusaders No More: Evangel University Drops Its Mascot

It surprised me to hear that Evangel University would be dropping the Crusader as their mascot. The term hearkens back to their roots in the Pentecostal preaching of the 20th century (Evangel is affiliated with the Assemblies of God), with evangelists holding tent revivals as part of what they called 'crusades.' Back then, laypeople wouldn't have generally picked up on or cared about the violent roots of that term, going back to warfare between Christians of Western Europe and Muslims (and at points with Eastern Christians) in the 11th to 13th centuries. The armored medieval soldier imagery could have more easily been associated by them with the 'full armor of God' language found in the New Testament than with the events of Christian history.  In an era when mascots are sacred calves battled over in the culture war, I would have expected Evangel to double down on keeping the status quo. I shouldn't have, because it's bad for revenue.

"We recognize that times have changed," Hedlun said. The Crusader mascot "really no longer represents what our university stands for. As well, we have a lot of alumni who are involved in work both in the United States and globally, and knowing that we are global community members, it is not a mascot that our alumni can advocate for or support in their work around the world."

In a prepared statement on the university website, Evangel president George O. Wood said, "Today, we recognize that the Crusader often inhibits the ability of students and alumni to proudly represent the university in their areas of global work and ministry." 

That first paragraph started well, acknowledging changing perspectives. In a globalized world, with students coming in from everywhere, it's hard to avoid recognizing the deeper negative historic connotation of any word referencing the crusades. The folksy 20th century meaning is lost in translation. It would seem from the rest of that paragraph that the issue is just as much or perhaps more about the students graduating into an international job market. Saying that alumni can't 'advocate for or support in their work around the world' means that the image of the school is adversely affected by an image of religious conquest. It also means a reduced possibility of soliciting funds from alumni.

For most universities their alumni are an important revenue stream. I know someone who's career in life has mostly been about schmoozing with well-to-do alumnus of whatever university he's working with at the time, talking up the school's programs and direction. Some of it is maintenance, to keep the money flowing in, and some of it is seeking funds for specific purposes. While most graduate with a significant amount of student debt, there are enough graduates who either go on to make their fortunes or continue those of the family business to make this endeavor worthwhile. Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that Evangel would be sensitive to what their alumni worldwide are saying about the school and its mascot. 

Am I cynical? Yes, most of the time. Still, whether they took action for the 'right' reasons or not, the result is the same. Next Fall a new mascot will be debuted at Evangel University.