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This American Life and Religion Ghosts


This American Life
One almost-good thing that came out of the frenzied and non-stop focus on gun violence and gun control by the media for pretty much all of February was this lengthy investigative radio piece by This Ameircan Life. It was a fascinating deep-dive into a high school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, where shootings are commonplace, and gangs are nearly unavoidable. I’ll explain why I say “almost” good.

(Let me first pay my dues to the term “religion ghost,” which belongs to the venerable tmatt of GetReligion. It refers to the phenomenon of a religion reference appearing as a ghost in a news story. Dues paid.)

Most of the piece was excellent. Three reporters went into the school and did in-depth reporting and interviews for an entire semester, during which several shootings occurred and the school officials made bold decisions that affected students’ lives.

However, there was one shocking — and frustrating — part of the report.

Let’s imagine that you are the reporter, in a dangerous neighborhood in the South side of Chicago. Gangs are so prevalent that students are virtually assigned a gang based on their zip code, whether they want it or not. Kids are dragged into gang life against their will, getting involved in shootings and arrests, without willfully joining the lifestyle or “becoming a bad guy.” Wouldn’t you want to be looking for examples of individuals who combat the ubiquity of gang violence and lead a responsible life? Wouldn’t you want to find the responsible students and compare them to the ones that end up in the gangs, and note the differences?

In the midst of this chaotic environment, you come across one young man who has decided to make his “entire identity” to be anti-gang, and is a responsible role model for other students. (What a find! What makes him different? Why is he anti-gang, and other students aren’t?) And suppose that young man was an “outspoken Christian” and “holds Bible study in his living room”? What a fascinating coincidence. Perhaps there’s a connection between those two things!

Wouldn’t that be, if not the most interesting part of the story, at least very central angle to explore? Part of the purpose of your story is to figure out why the cycle of violence continues and wham! Right in front of you is a case study of a young man who is bucking the trend and choosing to avoid the gang life at all costs. And he’s a Christian. Wouldn’t you want to explore that connection, as a reporter?

As luck would have it, that is exactly what happens in this story. And yet in two entire hours of the Harper High School story, less than a minute of air time is dedicated to this mysterious anti-gang Christian student. Here’s a text version of the relevant clip, which occurs between minute 19 and 21 of the audio. (I’m guessing on the spelling of his name.)

If you want to see the lengths you have to go to to not be part of a gang, you should meet a senior named Diante. Being anti-gang is Diante’s entire identity.

He’s an outspoken Christian — he holds Bible study in his living room.

Other kids come to him for advice, a role he wholly embraces. He’s poised to be the valedictorian. When you talk to Diante you get a sense of what it takes to stay away from the gangs.

“Do you ever go out just around the neighborhood?”

“Oh no, no. And that’s hard too, because that’s when depression is likely to set in….I’m not really friends with anybody.”

And that’s all we hear from Diante. I hope and pray that he’s doing OK, and has some church support behind him. Because he certainly didn’t get any hint from Linda Lutton that he’s doing the right thing.

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The Bible according to the History Channel

This looks interesting, but I’m not going to get my hopes up. I’m simply not convinced that the creators of the series were justified in attempting such a huge project.

I went to a lecture once by a Harvard literature professor who was speaking about Homer (I forget the exact topic). During the Q&A afterward, he was asked whether he views the Bible as literature in the way he views the Iliad or Odyssey as literature. He said no, that would be a mistake. Not because the Bible isn’t inherently literary — we would be foolish not to attend to genre and form. He said “no” because he believes the Bible has a greater purpose than other literature. The Bible has a spirit-transforming intent and affect, therefore it shouldn’t be critiqued in the same way that we criticize other literature. If read properly the Bible commands us to critique ourselves, not the book.

There’s no way The Bible – The Movie would be able to do what The Bible as a book does (though I’m guessing the orality people would disagree). But if it were to be done well, I would take the model of the best movie-series-from-book that I know — the Lord of the Rings — and hope that it looks something like that. That means they have to acknowledge that there’s no way to do justice to the book, and use artistic license and mastery of film-making to make a phenomenal piece of art.

Unfortunately, a miniseries on the history channel by the folks who made Survivor and Touched By an Angel don’t quite have what it takes. In their own words, their aim was not to make the best screen-adapted Bible story:

Our greatest hope is that this series will affect a new generation of viewers and draw them back to the Bible.

To extend the analogy, if Peter Jackson’s goal was to get people really excited about Tolkein’s books, do you think it would have renwed interest in the books as much as it did when his goal was to make the best LOTR films imaginable? I doubt it.

It should, nevertheless, be interesting.

What do you think? Would it have been better to not even try? Or is some publicity for the Bible better than none?

Millennial Evangelicals and Sex

Identifying and studying the evangelical bloc has been a bane of pollsters and researchers for some time, and so when people say “evangelicals think so-and-so,” a healthy skepticism should ensue. Especially if the people saying it might be trying to mock you.

According to research expert Ron Sellers, there are three helpful ways of “measuring” genuine evangelicals. The first is to ask them if they are evangelicals. The second is by their commitment: how often are they at church? How often do they read the Scripture? And the last method is to look at whether they agree with distinctly evangelical beliefs, like the inerrancy of Scripture or the impetus to share their faith with others.

It was surprising, then, when a big study came out saying that young evangelicals were having premarital sex as frequently as non-evangelicals, the reaction was one of panic, rather than skepticism.

Commissioned by the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, the study’s findings suggested that eighty percent of young adult (18-29) evangelicals were having premarital sex, compared to 88 percent of their non-evangelical peers.

The study went relatively unnoticed for most people. But in 2011, the word got out. In the October 2011 edition of Relevant Magazine, writer Tyler Charles referenced the study an article titled “(Almost) Everyone’s doing it.” It made a few headlines.

The response among evangelical leaders was noticeable. Some of them made sex a hot topic in 2011-2012. A few highlights include:

  • Dallas megachurch pastor Ed Young and his wife Lisa hosted a 24-hour “bed-in” where he taught about Christian sexuality from a bed on the church rooftop. (January 2012)
  • New York City pastor Tim Keller released a book “The Meaning of Marriage.” (November 2011)
  • Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll released his book “Real Marriage,” and devoted a sermon series to the topic. (January 2012)

real marriageThe response was such that author and pastor Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in a January Washington Post column, “if evangelicals keep their frenetic pace up, 2012 will be the year they self-combust from over-sexual-exposure.”

No evangelicals want be implicated in the sins of abortion; aside from the sin itself, there would be added risks of public humiliation and hypocrisy.

Amidst the attempts to develop a better working theology of sexual ethics, only a few observers decided to take a closer, more skeptical look at the actual survey data.

Pastor Kevin KeYoung warned against a “love affair with bad stats” on his blog, pointing out a few weak points of the survey’s sample size.

Most skeptical of all, however, was World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, who saw the NAE and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy as “strange bedfellows.”  He pointed out that the National Campaign, and the Guttmacher Institute which conducted the research, both had ties with Planned Parenthood. He also noted that National Campaign CEO Sarah Brown tried to use the information in the study to make evangelical public opinion say something it wasn’t saying: that most evangelicals support a non-abstinence based approach to contraception for unmarried couples.

Olasky’s skepticism was well-placed. A closer look at the study reveals a few issues, which brings us back to Ron Sellers’ three criteria for measuring evangelicals.

First: self-identification

The study was not designed to look at the beliefs of evangelicals. It was national survey with questions where respondents could self-identify according to religion. But the wording of the questions conflated several terms into one, asking “Do you consider yourself to be a born-again Christian, an evangelical, or a fundamentalist?” That’s one question, not three.

Are “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist” the same thing? If one were to ask Billy Graham, as one renowned religion reporter once did, he might say that evangelicals are somewhere in between liberal Christians and fundamentalists.

Isn’t it possible to be “born-again” and not identify primarily as evangelical, or evangelical without being fundamentalist? While traditional evangelicalism has roots in fundamentalism, as Dr. Timothy Larson has shown, the movement has spread beyond those roots, and the two groups now hold different theological beliefs.

With this wording, those who consider themselves “evangelical” but not “fundamentalist” are forced to provide a less accurate answer. 476 of the 1800 survey participants answered “Yes” or “No”, while 926 answered “N/A”.

Second: religious practice (church attendance)

25 percent of respondents answered “once a week” but the survey does not specify whether the 447 people who answered that question were the same or different from those who self-identified as “born again, evangelical, or fundamentalist.” It’s possible that they were Catholic or Protestant, but not “born again, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist.”

Third: beliefs

The survey made no attempt to identify perhaps the most important aspect of these evangelicals: their beliefs.

Of course, the final reason why evangelicals might find the survey problematic is that both the National Campaign and the Guttmacher Institute have ties with Planned Parenthood, and both support abortion.

A second chance

Now, however, the NAE appears to be bearing the fruit of repentance: a new study on sex and unplanned pregnancy exclusively for evangelicals.Sexual activity

They have commissioned a new research firm to release a new study “Sex & Unexpected Pregnancy: What Millennial Evangelicals Think and Practice.” This time, the study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, whose president is none other than Ron Sellers, who was considerate enough to find some real young evangelicals for his survey about young evangelicals.

The new study’s results show clearly that “Most Young Evangelical Millennials Have Never Had Sex.” The facts, it seems, show quite definitely that faithful millennial evangelicals believe that premarital sex is wrong, and their lifestyle is mostly consistent with that belief. Yawn.

Among the interesting findings:

*45 percent of respondents (young evangelicals) “strongly disagree” with the statement that abstinence is unrealistic in today’s world.

*Only 2 percent would “definitely consider an abortion” when experiencing an unexpected pregnancy. 91 percent said they would consider raising the child with the other parent.

*The study found a correlation between those who read the bible more frequently, and those who choose to abstain from premarital sex.

So rather than headlines such as “Evangelicals struggle to address premarital sex and abortion” by David Sessions, or “Evangelicals Finally Admit That Not Even God Can Stop Teenage Boning” by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, the truth is more like “Despite liberals’ attempts to prove otherwise, young evangelicals believe and live according to the tradition’s teaching.”

The data is consistent with what the Public Religion Research Institute showed in October 2012, and what the Baylor Religion Survey found in February 2011 that millennial evangelicals have by and large not abandoned the conservative views — both political and theological — of their parents. Evangelicalism in young America is alive and well.