October 2010

Southeastern celebrates 60, endows Hunt chair

October 15 2010 by Lauren Crane

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)--Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated its 60th anniversary during its fall trustee meeting at the Wake Forest campus and installed the Johnny Hunt Chair of Biblical Preaching.

Trustees also elected two new deans and two professors to their posts.

Sixty years after its founding, Southeastern has more students than at any other time in its history, with nearly 2,700 students in its graduate and undergraduate programs.

"We are grateful to God for his faithfulness to Southeastern during 60 years of ministry," SEBTS President Daniel Akin said. "What is truly encouraging is that even as we celebrate the past, we look forward to God doing an even greater work through Southeastern in the years to come."

An increasing number of students are studying online, in hybrid format classes and on campus, Akin noted.

During the Oct. 12 chapel service, Akin announced the completion of the fully funded Johnny Hunt Chair of Biblical Preaching, a $1-million endowed chair for a professor of preaching. Akin announced that Greg Heisler, associate professor of preaching and speech, will be the first to hold the chair.

Hunt, a Southeastern alumnus, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church of Woodstock, was honored for his legacy, which inspired his congregation and friends to donate funding for the endowed chair.

"We love and appreciate Johnny Hunt, and his blessed church of First Baptist Church in Woodstock," Akin said. "There is no greater evangelist for Jesus, and there is no greater evangelist for Southeastern."

Hunt said the chair of preaching is especially gratifying, as the gift will continue funding the professorship in perpetuity. He said his hope is that future generations will be trained and equipped to share the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and he has no greater joy than to be associated with such an endeavor.

"The only hope for this country, the only hope for this world is the gospel of Jesus Christ," Hunt said. "Preach the Word. As far as I'm concerned, I know of nothing a preacher needs to do more than preach the Word of God. It still changes lives."

Trustees elected several new positions, including Ken Keathley as senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the faculty. Keathley had stepped into the role on a temporary basis after David Nelson, former dean, left in February. Keathley had been serving at Southeastern as professor of theology and dean of graduate studies since 2006.

The board also elected Mark Liederbach as vice president for student services and dean of students. Liederbach, who has been serving in the capacity since June 1, was the unanimous recommendation for the position to succeed Alan Moseley.

Also, Michael Travers, professor of English, and Greg Welty, associate professor of philosophy, were elected to the faculy.

Trustees received the resignation of board member Stephen Batts and approved the appointment of Joe Forrester, a businessman and active member of Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Ga., to fill Batts' position on an interim basis.

Lauren Crane is a writer for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

10/15/2010 9:15:00 AM by Lauren Crane | with 2 comments

Chilean miners thank the Lord

October 15 2010 by Tristan Taylor

SANTIAGO, Chile (BP)--As 33 trapped miners in Chile stepped out of a rescue capsule to greet the world again Oct. 12-13, many wore a T-shirt with ¡Gracias Señor! (Thank you, Lord!) printed across the front.

Christian Maureira, national director of Campus Crusade for Christ in Chile, provided the T-shirts to the miners, who were trapped 2,300 feet underground when a partial collapse blocked the mine exit on Aug. 5. Rescuers worked more than two months to free them from beneath a half-mile of rock.

"When I saw the miners on TV [wearing the shirts], my heart was like this ... really fast," Christian Maureira said about watching the rescue. "I was really excited because a lot of people around the world were looking at that. They gave the glory to God -- wow!"

Maureira suggested his T-shirt idea to José Henríquez after meeting Henríquez's daughter, Hettez, at Camp Esperanza (Hope), where many of the miners' families were holding vigil. Henríquez, one of the trapped miners, became the spiritual leader of the group and conducted nightly Bible studies for the men. (Read a related story about Henríquez here)

"[The miners] received the [T-shirt] idea with rejoicing," Maureira said. "They had decided to say thank you to God." They even gave input on the design of the shirt.

On the back of the shirts was a reference to Psalm 95:4 (NIV): "In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him."

Maureira chose that scripture verse after receiving a letter from Henríquez that included the reference. He wanted the T-shirts to help the miners express thanks to God in a way no one could miss.

"God allowed this situation, and the miners are alive by the grace of God," Maureira said. "I think the most important fact was the glory of God in this situation."

Along with the T-shirts, Maureira sent the miners 33 MP3 players containing audio versions of the Bible and the "JESUS" film.

To Maureira, the miners' decision to wear the shirts is evidence of how he hopes this event will affect Chile.

"Our society is really humanistic and secularist. They don't believe in God. But with this situation, the Chileans accept that we are a Christian community. The people express their faith in God freely," he said. "The people say, 'It is a miracle. Thank you, God.'"

Maureira said he has seen Chile go through many challenges -- changing governments, earthquakes -- but he hopes the rescue of the miners will be one that defines the country.

"With these T-shirts, we want to tell [Chileans] it is the plan of God and the glory of God. God is in this situation," Maureira said. "That was the mission, and we completed the mission."

Tristan Taylor is an IMB writer in the Americas.

10/15/2010 7:35:00 AM by Tristan Taylor | with 1 comments

Faith, fanaticism in South’s football god

October 15 2010 by Greg Garrison, Religion News Service

AUBURN, Ala. — Chad Gibbs has been on a pigskin pilgrimage throughout the South, searching for spiritual truth in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Gainesville and Fayetteville.

He grew up a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide and switched allegiance to his alma mater — and the University of Alabama’s archrival — Auburn University. For a while, Gibbs became so fanatical that he wondered if football had replaced God as his god.

“I wondered about how much I could care about football before it starts to hinder my faith,” said Gibbs, a 2002 Auburn graduate who lives less than a mile from the school’s famed Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Gibbs set out to find how other Christian football fans handled their dual obsessions. For 12 weeks he attended football games involving every Southeastern Conference (SEC) football team.

That quest resulted in Gibbs’ new book, God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC, which tracks college football’s near-religious following in the heart of the Bible Belt, where fans worship their SEC teams on Saturdays and God on Sundays.

In the summer of 2009, he contacted churches and campus ministries in all 12 SEC university towns.

“I was looking for fanatical fans that were also Christians,” Gibbs said. “My idea was to go to the games and spend time with them and see how they balance the two.”

RNS photo courtesy Chad Gibbs

Chad Gibbs toured the Bible Belt and college football's SEC schools for his book, God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC.

Among the many memorable people he met was a Catholic priest, Gerald Burns, pastor of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, La., who watches Louisiana State University games on his big-screen, high-definition TV. He once joined the LSU crowd in chanting, “Go to hell, Ole Miss!” while wearing his Roman collar. LSU won 61-17.

Gibbs soon realized he wasn’t the only one who got carried away with football, letting it become his religion.

“If you ask them point-blank, ‘Do you worship football?’ they’d say no,” Gibbs said. But for some, football clearly trumps God, he said.

Gibbs interviewed evangelist David Nasser, a football fan, who talked about how discussing football opens doors to sharing faith. Nasser added, however, that “football is a great hobby, but a horrible god.”

The statement struck a chord with Gibbs, and became the theme of his book.

“I was using football for my self-awareness and identity as a person,” Gibbs said.

“I was trying to get too much out of football. On a Sunday morning after a loss, I was still pouting. ... I was looking to get so much out of football that football really can’t give you. I learned you have to take it as what it is, as a game.”

People who look for the meaning of life and salvation from football will always be disappointed, he said.

“When you try to fill that void where you’re supposed to put God, if you try anything else, it doesn’t work,” Gibbs said.

“It’s not something to build your life around. Football’s certainly not worth being miserable about. When you start leaving games depressed, you may want to step back and take a critical look at things. I began to realize what about football had me so wrapped up. I was looking for more from football than I should be looking for from football. It’s hard to fit a football into the God-shaped hole in your heart.”

After Auburn’s win over Clemson this season, Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said, “It’s a God thing,” which stirred up a lot of commentary over how much God really cares about football.

“When I heard it, I did kind of cringe,” Gibbs said. “I know how it sounded. It sounded like God made Clemson miss a field goal.”

Gibbs thinks what the coach was getting at was turning a loss into a learning experience. And while Gibbs clearly thinks football shouldn’t be more important than spiritual issues, he doesn’t rule out that God cares about football.

“I don’t think God gets upset if we go to football games,” Gibbs said. “You can obviously take it too far. I think God’s big enough to hear prayers about Sudan and football at the same time,” Gibbs said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)
10/15/2010 7:10:00 AM by Greg Garrison, Religion News Service | with 1 comments

Behind Colbert’s right-wing funnyman: quiet faith

October 15 2010 by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service

When comedian Stephen Colbert brought his act to Capitol Hill last month and stole the spotlight with his satirical shtick, no one was more surprised than lawmakers.

“You run your show,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers scolded him, “we run the committee.”

When Colbert finally let his well-coiffed hair down and got serious about the “really, really hard work” done by migrant farmworkers, even more people were surprised when the funnyman gave a glimpse of his private faith.

“And, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our brothers right now,” Colbert said, quoting Jesus. “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”     

It was a different kind of religious message than Colbert typically delivers on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” where he often pokes fun at religion — even his own Catholic Church — in pursuit of a laugh.

Yet it was the kind of serious faith that some of his fellow Catholics say makes him a serious, covert and potent evangelist for their faith.

“Anytime you talk about Jesus or Christianity respectfully the way he does, it is evangelization,” said Jim Martin, the associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, who has appeared on Colbert’s show four times.

“He is preaching the gospel, but I think he is doing it in a very post-modern way.”

It’s a contrast to Glenn Beck, the kind of right-wing media icon Colbert loves to skewer.

While Beck’s recent Restoring Honor rally in Washington was headed by a conservative broadcaster who embraces theological patriotism, Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive on Oct. 30 will be helmed by a man of more private faith who leaves his God-and-country religion on the set.

Colbert has said that he attends church, observes Lent and teaches Sunday school. “I love my church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout,” he told Time Out magazine. “I was raised to believe that you could question the church and still be a Catholic.”

His on-air persona is a bloviating holier-than-thou conservative whose orthodox Catholicism is part of what makes him funny. On air, Colbert has chided the pope as an “ecu-menace” for his outreach to other faiths, referred to non-Catholics as “heathens and the excommunicated” and calls those who believe in evolution “monkey men.”

Diane Houdek has tracked Colbert’s on-air references to Catholicism on her blog, Catholic Colbert. When he recites the Nicene Creed or Bible verses from memory, as he did in 2006, it shows how foundational his faith is, she said.

“He is moving in an extremely secular world — it is hard to get a lot more secular than Comedy Central,” Houdek said. “Yet I feel he is able to witness to his faith in a very subtle way, a very quiet way to an audience that has maybe never encountered this before.”

RNS photo courtesy Scott Gries/Comedy Central

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert has used his “Colbert Report” to gently make fun of religion and religious institutions, even as he remains a man of deep and devout Catholic faith.

It’s particularly powerful to Catholics, Houdek said, when the lines blur between Colbert’s personal faith and that of his on-air alter ego. She pointed to a 2007 segment in which his character reveled in Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that non-Catholic faiths were “defective.”

“Catholicism is clearly superior,” Colbert crowed beside a picture of the pope. “Don’t believe me? Name one Protestant denomination that can afford a $660 million sexual abuse settlement.”

It wasn’t just funny, Houdek said, but “powerful.”     

“He really made a strong criticism of the church.”

Colbert’s personal opinions about Catholicism are not usually so clearly displayed, and his range of guests offers little clues. His Catholic guests have ranged from the theological left — openly gay Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan — to the far right — Catholic League president William Donohue.

Houdek said she regularly fields comments from readers who believe they’ve found a fellow traveler in Colbert. “You can’t pin him down,” Houdek said. “He becomes kind of a Rorschach test for what the viewer’s beliefs are.”

Colbert’s show also tackles the difficult questions Catholicism and other religions try to answer. With Martin as a guest, he has wrestled over poverty, the value of suffering and the role of doubt in faith.     

“He manages to raise the big questions very deftly,” Martin said. “I think that is a great catechesis for many people because he might be reaching Catholics who never go to church and he is speaking to them in language they can understand.”

Kurt C. Wiesner, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Littleton, N.H., writes a blog about religion and popular culture. Watching Colbert’s congressional testimony, he saw something that reaches beyond Catholicism.

“He offered a human witness, without a doubt,” Wiesner said. “He gave witness to what Christians are often called to do, but the message isn’t be a Christian like him. It is that one’s faith calls us to be engaged with our fellow human beings.”
10/15/2010 7:06:00 AM by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service | with 1 comments

Film probes Americans’ images of God

October 15 2010 by Kimberlee Hauss, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — On the big screen of the movies, God has been played by everyone from George Burns (“Oh, God!”) to Alanis Morissette (“Dogma”) to Morgan Freeman (“Bruce Almighty.”)

On the small screen of people’s imaginations, God frequently looks like an old man in the clouds, like something out of “The Simpsons.” Or Kenny Rogers. Or more ambiguous terms like creator, energy, love or nature.

That’s how some Americans described their image of God in a small independent documentary entitled “God in the Box.”

“I really wanted to be able to look behind people’s eyes and see what God looks like to them and what God means to them,” said filmmaker Nathan Lang. “They’re not leaving novels about their feelings, they’re leaving just snapshots.”

Lang’s four-man crew traveled across the country for three years with a phone-booth-sized black box that they set up on street corners. The hope was that people would feel comfortable enough in the anonymity of the box to share their thoughts and visions of God.

The documentary has been shown at synagogues, churches, mosques and community centers and anywhere people want to see it.

Passersby stepped inside the box as cameras and microphones captured their insights while they sketched their image of God.

RNS photo courtesy Nathan Lang

Filmmaker Nathan Lang invited passersby to enter a large black box and describe their image of God for his new film, “God in the Box.”

“Our hope was just that people would take it seriously when they went in and ... take a moment and reveal themselves,” Lang said. “And 99.9 percent did. They were quite sincere about it.”

The documentary features three groups of people: the filmmakers, the participants and a few religious experts. The storyline is built around the people in the box, but it also traces Lang’s personal journey.

Lang was raised Jewish but had many questions about God. As he crisscrossed America, he found the majority of participants had an opinion, but many, like him, were less than certain about their answers.

Respondents answered with everything from God does not exist, to God is the creator of all things. Some said God was energy, while others called God a conscience, a second chance, a higher power and love. When asked to describe or draw God, some people drew things in nature, others sketched symbols like hearts and crosses, while still others said he looked like Kenny Rogers.

Amid the variety of answers, Lang said one thing was clear: People were taking the questions seriously, even if they didn’t know the answers.

“People were incredibly honest and were willing to reveal parts of themselves that I don’t know if I would reveal if I had walked into that box under those same circumstances,” Lang said.

At a screening here, Graylan Hagler, senior minister at Washington’s Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said the privacy of the box offered people a safe place to share their feelings.

“It’s interesting how people, when they get into a place where they know that they are respected and (are) not going to be judged or criticized, have a tendency to get truthful,” Hagler said.

Although respondents were willing to open up and share, the project that began with questions ultimately ended with them, as well.     

“It’s more about the question than about the answer,” said Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

The documentary ends with the filmmakers themselves stepping into the box and confronting their own questions.

After three years of traveling in search of answers, Lang, too, still had a hard time stating his view of God.

“I’m a prisoner,” he said, “in my own device.”

More information on the film can be found at www.godinthebox.com.
10/15/2010 7:02:00 AM by Kimberlee Hauss, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

After teen suicides, gay opponents look inward

October 14 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

When Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself after his roommate allegedly broadcast his sexual encounter with another man, Albert Mohler wondered if anything could have prevented the 18-year-old’s suicide.

“Tyler could just have well been one of our own children,” said Mohler, a father of two and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who criticized the Christian treatment of gays on his blog.

“Christians have got to stop talking about people struggling with sexual issues as a tribe apart,” he wrote.

In the wake of a spate of gay youths who were bullied — and some who took their own lives — Mohler and some other vocal opponents of homosexuality are taking new steps of introspection.

While defending traditional Christian teaching against homosexuality, they say divisive and condemnatory rhetoric needs to be replaced with actually getting to know a gay neighbor or classmate.

Some have gone even further. Exodus International, a leading “ex-gay” group, pulled its sponsorship of the annual “Day of Truth,” which encourages students to express their disapproval of homosexuality.

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, recalled the pain of being a middle schooler who was bullied because peers thought he was gay. The recent suicides led him to think his organization needed to lead the way in encouraging less “polar” ways of addressing sexuality.

“I think the church really needs to approach these issues in a much more conversational, relational, service sort of way,” Chambers said. “Not to change our position about biblical truth — because we haven’t done that — but to really understand that whether someone agrees with us on this issue or not doesn’t mean that they’re not our neighbor.”

The current issue of an Assemblies of God ministers’ journal discusses pastoral counseling on homosexuality, and while the church maintains that homosexual behavior is “against God’s word,” leaders say hatred and bullying are entirely inappropriate.

“It’s that balance between conviction and compassion and we are really trying to walk a line,” said James Bradford, general secretary of the Pentecostal denomination.

Gay rights groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical. Such sentiments are a positive “step in the right direction,” said Rebecca Voelkel of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, but they do not go far enough.

“If we reach out in love, and yet our real message is that who you are as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person is not beloved in the sight of God, then that reaching out may in fact be under false pretenses and could in fact be even more dangerous,” said Voelkel, a minister of the United Church of Christ.

In recent weeks, blogger John Shore has found many evangelicals grappling with these issues in their comments on his blog post that connected Christian opposition to homosexuality with gay teen suicide.

Shore, an Episcopalian from San Diego, said he can’t applaud evangelicals who say they are sympathetic to gays but also condemn their behavior as sinful.

“It doesn’t matter during the course of the day how often I move to defend the gays if at the end of the day I am convinced that the way they are is an abomination to God,” he said.

Pastor Mike Cosper of Louisville, Ky., said he agrees with Mohler that the church could be less judgmental about homosexuality, and believes evangelicals shouldn’t get any more “fired up” about it than they would about greed or any other sin.

Yet he disagrees with advocates like Voelkel who wish conservative churches would change their viewpoint on sin.

“The reality is we have historic faith, we have a belief and we have plenty of anecdotal and testimonial evidence of people who’ve said I’ve walked away from this lifestyle,” said Cosper, whose Sojourn Community Church has hosted conferences to help pastors “shepherd people through that journey.”

Religious leaders aren’t ready to lay the blame of the suicidal deaths of gay teens like Clementi on themselves. But Mohler said gay friends in his congregation have helped him realize he should not consider homosexuality “someone else’s problem.”

“Do I think the church is primarily to blame? No,” said Mohler. “But does the church have a responsibility? You bet. ... I’m not suggesting there was some congregation that failed (Clementi). My concern is that we’re failing many others.”  
10/14/2010 9:13:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 4 comments

David Horton urges students to be part of miracles

October 13 2010 by SEBTS Communications

All believers can live in miracle territory, David Horton says, but being in the right place for a miracle has less to do with geography and more to do with spiritual condition.

During a chapel service on September 23 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the president of Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute, located in Henderson, asked students if they were in the right place for a miracle. Teaching from the text of one of Jesus’ well-known miracles — the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6 — Horton said all believers want to be in miracle territory.

SEBTS photo

David Horton speaks to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary students during a recent chapel service.

“We want to be in the right place to see things happen. Any place we go can be miracle territory,” Horton said. “Miracle territory is not defined by geographic location so much as by the spiritual condition of people, if they have the faith to see what God can do.”

Horton outlined four ways people can know if they are in “miracle territory.”

He said, “You know you’re in miracle territory when God sees your problem before you do.” Just as Jesus is positioned on top of a mountain in John 6, seeing the need of the thousands who had followed him, Horton said God is still positioned to see the needs of his people before they recognize them. “Even though we don’t see problems coming, God does and he’s ready with a solution.”

The situation must also be humanly impossible to fix, Horton said, requiring a God-sized solution. Looking at verse five of the chapter, Horton said that when Jesus asks a question in the Scriptures (as he did of the disciples), he does not do it for his benefit but for ours.

“Jesus already knew what he was going to do. For this miracle to take place, one of the first things that had to happen was for the disciples to realize it was humanly impossible.”

Just like the boy who offered up the little food he had, Horton said believers must also offer up the little bit they can to be part of the miracle solution. “Little really is much when God is in it,” he said. “Are you willing to take what little is in your hands and put it in the hands of God?”

God blesses beyond imagination when he performs miracles. In the example found in John 6, Horton said God provided enough food that all of the people were filled, with some still left over. “In the end, they had more than in the beginning. Never lose sight of that fact that though you feel inadequate, you serve an awesome God and nothing is impossible for him.”

Horton said God’s blessing beyond imagination is what he thinks Paul had in mind in Ephesians 3:20, when he said God is able to do “exceedingly more than we ask or imagine.”

Most importantly, though, Horton said the value of being in “miracle territory” is not to see miracles happen, but to see the one behind the miracles.

“We shouldn’t just be excited about the sign, but about the savior behind it.”
10/13/2010 10:22:00 AM by SEBTS Communications | with 0 comments

Jesus seminar to mark 25 years of questions

October 13 2010 by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service

Since 1985, scholars affiliated with the Jesus Seminar have been casting doubt on the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus and questioning whether he saw himself as an end-times prophet.

As the seminar marks its 25th anniversary Oct. 13-16 in Santa Rosa, Calif., it’s generating far less attention and controversy than in years past, when the media spotlight gave members a platform to reach millions.

Now observers are debating a new question: What difference has the Jesus Seminar made? Once again, the jury is divided.

Among the seminar’s 100 fellows is a strong sense that the group has effectively made the general public more aware of questions surrounding the so-called “historical Jesus.”

For example: By using color-coded beads to vote on whether Jesus likely said this or that, the group captured widespread attention, said John Dominic Crossan, chair of the 25th anniversary event.

“When some of our critics said, ‘These guys are seeking publicity,’ we said ‘Duh! That’s the whole purpose!”’ Crossan said.

“We wanted people to know what we were doing. That was the whole purpose of the voting with colored beads and all the rest of that paraphernalia. It was designed for cameras.”

Critics of the Jesus Seminar concede that the group deftly drew the spotlight and got a cross-section of people talking about Jesus. But they also fault the scholars for allegedly misrepresenting their views as mainstream and for shaking the faith of Christian communities.

“They created this impression that they were representing a genuine consensus of opinion that Jesus only said 18 percent of what’s attributed to him in the Gospels and so on,” said Duke Divinity School Dean and New Testament scholar Richard Hays.

“In point of fact, that was never so. They didn’t represent the sort of consensus that they claimed to represent. It was a self-selected group of scholars who held a particular view.”

The Jesus Seminar held its first meeting in Berkeley, Calif., as 35 individuals, mostly scholars, responded to an invitation from the late Robert Funk, who died in 2005.

Having rejected the fundamentalism of his youth, Funk was eager to assemble fellow scholars to dispel what he considered to be mistaken church teachings about Jesus, according to Lane McGaughy, a member of the seminar since its beginning.

What emerged from the group’s semiannual meetings was a sense of Jesus as human, not divine, rising to prominence because of his social justice teachings, not because of his messianic status.

“The danger is that any of us will see in Jesus what it is that we’re looking for,” McGaughy said. “That is a problem not just for Jesus Seminar scholars but for conservative scholars as well.”     

Critics say the Jesus Seminar has long been an agenda-driven project marked by flawed methodology.

Fellows of the seminar defend its methods and its impact. Crossan says that through the seminar, scholars fulfilled a moral duty to make their insights accessible to rank-and-file Christians and other curious people, not just academic journals.

McGaughy goes even further, saying the seminar, in presenting a historical and human Jesus, helped make Christianity meaningful for people who stopped believing doctrine and left the church.

“It’s opened up some very interesting changes in a lot of these so-called dying churches,” McGaughy said. “Because of the Jesus Seminar, a lot of people feel that they have permission to ask questions that they never before thought they could ask in church.”

Without a doubt, the Jesus Seminar elicited strong reactions from scholars and clerics who defend tenets of orthodox Christianity.     

The seminar provided a “wake-up call” for conservative scholars to popularize their own writings, said Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.

“One of the positive effects is that it’s changed the way the networks deal with that kind of subject,” Witherington said. “They started bending over backward to get more of a spectrum of opinion about the historical Jesus because they realized there was such pushback to just interviewing the Jesus Seminar people.”

After more than two decades of examining the Gospels, the Jesus Seminar is moving on. Fellows continue to meet, but they now focus on the biblical book of Acts and the letters of Paul.

The Westar Institute, an umbrella group for the Jesus Seminar, will this month publish “The Authentic Letters of Paul.”

As the seminar moves beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, critics say the initiative has ceased to compel public interest. Witherington sees the lack of public attention as a sign that the seminar is now largely irrelevant to public conversation about religion and culture.

Fellows of the seminar acknowledge that public attention has waned, but they aren’t entirely disappointed. To some, being disregarded has become a badge of success.

“There is in a way less criticism of the Jesus Seminar now and less publicity in fact because our work has been accepted. It’s no longer regarded as on the fringes,” McGaughy said.  
10/13/2010 10:18:00 AM by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Courts uphold piercing, religious plates

October 13 2010 by Whitney Jones, Religion News Service

Two federal courts have issued strong defenses of religious expression in two separate decisions, one involving a teenager’s nose piercing and the other a license plate.

Ariana Iacono, a freshman at Clayton (N.C.) High School, was allowed to return to class on Oct. 8 after missing more than four weeks of school for wearing a small nose stud that violated the school dress code.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Iacono, claiming that the school was violating her right to religious freedom as a member of the Church of Body Modification.

“We are thrilled that Ariana can return to her studies,” said Nikki Iacono, Ariana’s mother, in a statement from the ACLU. “She has missed 22 days of school already this year because the school has wrongfully forced her to choose between her education and our family’s religion. Ariana was an honor roll student in middle school, and she is eager to get back to her classes and continue with her education as soon as possible.”

The Iacono family belongs to the Church of Body Modification, which believes rituals such as tattoos and piercings are essential to spirituality and connect followers to the divine.

The emergency court order by U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard will allow Iacono to attend school while the lawsuit continues on the constitutional questions raised by her case.

Meanwhile, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reversed a lower court decision that supported a Vermont statute that prohibited religious messages on vanity license plates.

Shawn Byrne of West Rutland applied for a personalized license plate with the letters and numbers “JN36TN” referring to the Bible verse John 3:16. A month later, the DMV denied his application because the message was “deemed to be a combination that refers to deity,” according to a statement from the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed suit on behalf of Byrne in 2005.

DMV officials had earlier allowed “GENESIS” and “CREED” on vanity plates as long as they refer to musical groups and not biblical allusions, and “GODDESS” and “BUDDHA” were acceptable as a reference to a nickname.

“Christians shouldn’t be censored from expressing their beliefs while others are freely allowed to express theirs,” said David Cortman, senior counsel at Alliance Defense Fund. “The 2nd Circuit rightly concluded that it’s unconstitutional for the government to decide that car owners can only identify who they are and what they believe on personalized plates if their identity and beliefs are nonreligious.”  
10/13/2010 10:16:00 AM by Whitney Jones, Religion News Service | with 1 comments

Most think sex offenders should be in pews

October 13 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

Nearly eight in 10 respondents who participated in a Christianity Today International survey said convicted sex offenders should be welcomed in church pews.

The vast majority of survey participants — pastors, church leaders and staff members and active Christians — agreed to the idea so long as offenders who were released from prison were subject to appropriate limitations and kept under supervision.

The results were published in the September issue of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine that is the flagship of the Illinois-based publishing company.

A significant majority — 83 percent — said a demonstration of repentance is a key factor in shaping views about whether or not convicted offenders should be welcomed by a congregation.

Two in three respondents said their views would depend on whether one or more of the victims of the offender attend the church.

Almost three-quarters of the respondents’ churches do not provide a recovery ministry to people with sexual addictions. Almost a quarter said they “do nothing,” while about half provide  referrals to other organizations or ministries.

The survey was based on the responses of 2,864 people drawn from publications and websites of Christianity Today International.  
10/13/2010 10:15:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

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