Category Archives: Evangelicalism

12.24.2022: How Would You Prove That God Performed a Miracle?

Josh Brown directs the program in neuroscience at Indiana University Bloomington. He has published dozens of articles on topics like the neural basis of decision making in the brain. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a calm, methodical way of speaking. And after almost two decades of keeping relatively quiet, he is now speaking openly about his most surprising research finding: He believes that God miraculously healed him of a brain tumor.

Christmas is a time when miracles happen, according to the Hallmark cards and cartoon specials. But Dr. Brown and his wife, Candy Gunther Brown, who did her doctorate in religious studies at Harvard and is also a professor at Indiana, believe that God does intervene to cause miraculous healing, all the time. Partly to understand the healing that shocked their family, they have traveled as far afield as Brazil and Mozambique to collect documentation purporting to link Christian prayers and revivals to sudden, inexplicable medical recoveries. But is it possible to prove that a miracle happened? Is it dangerous to even try?

Read more here.

Image credit: Zak Tebbal

12.20.2022: Parable of the Sower

The only decor in the little, white-walled church is a black cross and a text mural in large, black, sans serif letters: “Jesus Loves You Beyond Belief.”

The renovation was barely finished in time for the first official Sunday service. Blue painter’s tape still lines open floor ducts, and the tang of newly refinished floors pricks the nose.

Pastor Brian Pell, 30, looks relieved. He’s been working to plant this new congregation for over a year and today is “the launch,” in church-planting lingo. Outside on this mild September morning, on a slightly overgrown dead-end street near downtown Carrboro, churchgoers file past a card table stacked with donuts—not a flood of people, but not a trickle either. By the time the worship band picks up their guitars, about 80 people have turned up.

The scripture for this Sunday is from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, displayed on television monitors flanking the stage. It’s a passage about how harsh rules on food, drink, and worship are not the point of the gospel. This suits Carrboro, a kombucha-drinking, Pride flag-festooned town of about 21,000 next to Chapel Hill. When a young woman stands to read the day’s text and starts talking about wives submitting to husbands, people trade confused glances. When she gets to “slaves, obey your human masters in everything,” she realizes her mistake: “Wait a minute, I’m reading Colossians 3! Can we just start the service over?”

The congregation bursts into friendly laughter. This is Vintage Church Chapel Hill/Carrboro’s first service, and the goof breaks the tension—a little wink from the Holy Spirit. The slip is also telling. While Christians might prefer to lead with the agreeable parts of the gospel, sooner or later they run into the awkward fact that Jesus and his disciples were not, ultimately, warm and fuzzy or an easy fit in the 21st century.

Pell knows this as well as anyone. He’d planned to preach straight through Colossians, and would have to confront Colossians 3 the very next week.

Carrboro may seem like an odd place to start an evangelical church, with its rainbow crosswalks, informational lectures on hemp at the local grocery co-op, the spoken-word poetry, “anti-oppression talks,” and craft tables at its monthly “Really, Really Free Market.”

But perhaps all this makes Carrboro an ideal mission field for Christians. In our multicultural, secular age, Pell may convince nonbelievers that the best answer to their postmodern problems is a 2,000-year-old faith.

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Image credit: Maddy Gray

04.28.2022: The Soul Truth


Sitting through a 40-minute lecture is not, generally, a popular pastime in our distracted culture. But on a typical Sunday at The Summit Church in Raleigh, the room goes from worship-band jamming and raucous applause to rapt silence as J.D. Greear, 48, walks onstage.

His salt-and-pepper crew cut, well-groomed stubble, black polo shirt, black zip-up jacket and khakis are the uniform of a pastor who is cool, but not too cool—who wants to bridge the formidable Boomer—Gen Z chasm.

All around the sprawling auditorium, people are flipping through their Bibles and getting ready to take notes. Occasionally a glowing screen lights up the dim room, but it’s just someone consulting a Bible app.

“Christian love—1 Corinthians 13—is countercultural, and it’s often straight-up confrontational,” Greear says.

Greear’s sermon is about confronting the self-centered motives that often lie behind pious behavior: “Apart from love, Paul says, every other religious act is empty, it is hollow, it is displeasing to God and it’s just annoying to other people … You tracking with this? Because, see, this is what the Corinthians were: They were religiously impressive on the outside, but full of selfish immaturity on the inside.”

He glances occasionally at the small black binder of notes in his left hand, his eyes otherwise locked on the cameraman back near the tech booth. Most people in the congregation are watching Greear on one of the room’s giant screens, as are congregants at Summit’s 10 other campuses around the Triangle.

Greear gestures with the amped-up energy of a professional who knows how to calibrate for the camera without seeming hammy in real life. He never admonishes the congregation for too long without a dimpled smile and some comic interlude of repentance for his own idolatries, whether it’s pride, people-pleasing, or his excessive love for Nicolas Cage movies.

The man can preach. It’s not hard to understand why so many congregants cite Greear’s sermons as a major reason they are here—over 8,600 on an average weekend (another 7,000 watch online). Summit’s Easter service at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater drew almost 16,000.

Still, the Triangle is a hard place to win souls for Jesus. It’s full of transient college students, well-educated skeptics, and immigrants from other religious backgrounds. Like everywhere else in the Western world, the Triangle has lots of exhausted and apathetic people who would prefer to sit alone on the couch on Sunday morning. Yet Summit is preposterously determined—more determined than most churches—to win people to Christ.

What’s even more unusual, in our polarized times, is this: Greear is not doubling down on us-versus-them, but trying to build bridges—both at Summit and during his recent term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Greear’s presidency was a testy three years spent trying to get the country’s 14 million Southern Baptists to wrestle more openly with racism and churches’ widespread failure to listen to victims of sexual assault.

Christian love, he said in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, “sometimes presses down to expose what you are hiding … love does not naively close its eyes when difficult questions are in order.”

Greear’s tightrope walk may be attempting the impossible: to pull back from the culture war without yielding to secular values, and to serve and love non-Christians—while still begging them to see that they are damned without Jesus.

Read more here.

Image credit: Maddy Gray

06.11.21: Is There a Way to Dial Down the Political Hatred?

President Biden tends to hammer on the theme of national unity, often in theological terms. On Memorial Day, he described the ongoing battle for the “soul of America,” a conflict between “our worst instincts — which we’ve seen of late — and our better angels. Between ‘Me first’ and ‘We the people.’” In January, in his Inaugural Address, he quoted St. Augustine: “A people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

That line appears in “The City of God,” in a chapter that laments the fate of a people who drift from heeding their better angels to obeying their inner demons — like denizens of the Roman Empire, which “declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows,” St. Augustine wrote.

Over the past six months Mr. Biden has been warning us, in his frank and ecumenical way, that Americans have become a bunch of idol worshipers. He’s right. We have transformed political hatreds into a form of idolatry. A team of researchers analyzed a range of survey data and concluded that “out-party hate” now seems to shape American voting decisions more than race or religion do. “The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science last fall, based on “the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.” Political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith, a chief source of existential meaning.

The analogy between political sectarianism and religious faith goes only so far. I don’t mean to suggest that every crackpot political opinion deserves the status and legal protection of a religious doctrine or that all dogmatic mind-sets are morally equivalent. It should be possible to hold one party responsible for voter suppression and the Capitol riot while recognizing that pseudoreligious ideologies and purity cults have multiplied on both ends of the political spectrum. This is a commentary not just on the polarization of politics but also on the persistence of humans’ metaphysical needs, even in a secular age — and a nudge to reappraise our prophecies of apocalypse or salvation from a humbler perspective.

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Image credit: Alberto Miranda

12.13.19: What Would Jesus Do About Inequality?

Chapel Hill, N.C. — One Saturday morning this fall, I walked into Chapel Hill Bible Church, an unpretentious complex of brick buildings near the highway. Inside, a conference space bustled with 50 people sitting at round tables. The crowd skewed millennial, mostly (but not entirely) white. I sat next to a hip-looking bearded man wearing a hoodie, who told me he was a nurse at a nearby hospital. My other tablemates included a cybersecurity expert, a doctoral student in speech pathology and an occupational therapist working in public schools.

They had come to talk about how they integrate religious faith with what they do for a living — how the lessons and community of Sunday worship can become “a church for Monday,” in the phrase of the conference organizer, Made to Flourish, a Christian ministry based in Overland Park, Kan., which works with churches in all 50 states. The people at my table already knew one another through a local Christian program called Triangle Fellows, which calls itself “an immersive discipleship and leadership development program for young professionals.”

In today’s evangelicalism, this is where the theological action is: the faith and work movement, the intersection of Christianity with the demands of the workplace and the broader economy — in a society that is one of the world’s wealthiest, yet persistently inhumane. In politics, responses to the American economy’s moral crisis usually split along the lines of the culture war. President Trump, still the darling of white evangelical voters, has hardly wavered from the Christian right’s tradition of faith in a lightly regulated market and weak social safety nets.

The evangelical faith and work movement used to be merely another trumpet for this peculiarly American political gospel. But in recent years the movement has become much more ideologically diverse — and far more interesting. Participants are moving beyond the idolatry of the free market to a conversation about economic justice that doesn’t align so neatly with culture war clichés or party platforms.

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Image credit: Jan Buchczik

04.21.19: Can Black Evangelicals Save the Whole Movement?

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Not long ago, when Southern Baptists in Knox County, Tenn., invited Walter Strickland to speak at one of their meetings, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Mr. Strickland, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is one of the few African-American scholars teaching at a Southern Baptist seminary. He has made his career in the midst of a culture war: not the familiar clash between progressives and conservatives, but a battle within the ranks of conservative evangelicalism.

When he arrived, he “parked strategically by the exit, facing out,” he told me, in case he needed to make a quick getaway from the roomful of evangelicals who might not like what he had to say about institutional racism. Yet the Knox County Baptists kept him late, peppering him with thoughtful questions. “I almost missed my flight,” he said, laughing.

Many white evangelicals say they want to cultivate diverse congregations and dispel the liberal image of the racist, pro-Trump evangelical. “I think people are hungrier for this conversation,” said Mr. Strickland, who travels around the country to advise Christians on how to recognize and mitigate systemic racism. “The reality of Donald Trump and all the issues we’ve faced since his candidacy have really hardened the hearts of some, but it’s also ripped many people even farther away from conflating the Republican Party with the party of Christ.”

Some of the Christian right’s most prominent leaders have split over Mr. Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric. They disagree over how to fulfill the earthly duties of Christians — especially the obligation to make this fallen world look more like the Kingdom of God foretold in the Book of Revelation, when people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” shall stand together “before the throne and before the Lamb.”

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Image credit: Boyoun Kim

06.02.18: Sex and Gender on the Christian Campus

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago seems like the last place in which to expect a scandal over Title IX.

Moody is one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country, and Title IX’s authority is diminished these days. Last year, the White House rescinded the Obama administration’s stricter enforcement of the federal law against sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal financial aid. Moreover, under President Trump, the Justice Department seems disinclined to challenge conservative Christians’ insistence that the First Amendment exempts their institutions from the full force of anti-discrimination laws.

Yet recent events at Moody show that religious freedom does more than protect the dissenting views of minority groups — it encourages members of those groups to fight vigorously among themselves. In January, a former Moody communications instructor named Janay Garrick filed a suit in Federal District Court. She accused Moody of “discrimination and retaliation,” charging that the school fired her for such insubordinate acts as helping female students file Title IX complaints about the pastoral ministry program, which was then restricted to men and still excludes women from some parts of the major. She also counseled lesbian and transgender students and collected the testimonies of female students who reported sexual assaults and harassment, according to court documents. (Moody declined to comment.)

Moody, like many evangelical and fundamentalist schools, adheres to a “complementarian” theology of gender — meaning that God created men and women for separate, complementary roles in family and church life. “If a church or parachurch organization has no watchdog and will do as it will under religious freedom, and women are pulled down a slope, and told they can’t understand or handle religious texts, and they’re being harassed and raped, then our Christian liberty has gone too far,” Ms. Garrick told me.

Conservative critics have charged that Moody’s decision to hire someone like Ms. Garrick — who had said in her job interview that she is a gender egalitarian as well as an ordained minister — reveals broader theological confusion. Audrey Belcher, a recent graduate of Moody and one of the few women to major in theology there, said that some male professors encouraged her to pursue an academic career, although no women serve on Moody’s theology faculty. “They said, ‘If you want to teach, you should do that.’ I pointed out to one of my teachers that I couldn’t teach at Moody even if I was qualified,” she told me. “He had the view that this was something they were working on.”

The tumult at Moody reflects a larger pattern in evangelical higher education. Internal turmoil — over sex and gender as well as racial justice — continues despite every sign that government pressure on these schools has abated. White House policies cannot halt the undertow of generational change, and may even accelerate it, because a modest but meaningful resistance to evangelical support for Mr. Trump is brewing on many Christian campuses.

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Image credit: Jenn Liv/NYT

11.17.17: How To Escape From Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Kaitlyn Schiess has a sterling evangelical pedigree. She grew up in evangelical churches in Colorado and Virginia and graduated from Liberty University before entering Dallas Theological Seminary last year to prepare for a career in the church. But lately she has been frustrated by evangelicals’ failure to challenge the prejudice and predation in their midst. Over the course of the week, as Roy Moore, the Republican senatorial candidate in Alabama, faced more allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with young women and teenagers, many evangelicals leapt to his defense.

To Ms. Schiess, this is one more sign that a new ritual has superseded Sunday worship and weeknight Bible studies: a profane devotional practice, with immense power to shape evangelicals’ beliefs. This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

It’s no secret that humans — religious and secular alike — often act on “less than logical” impulses. Social scientists have documented our tendency to reject reliable evidence if it challenges our beliefs. Hours of tearful victims’ testimony will not deter evangelicals who see Roy Moore as the latest Christian martyr persecuted by the liberal establishment. “Their loyalties are much more strongly formed by conservative media than their churches,” Ms. Schiess said. “That’s the challenge for church leaders today, I think — rediscovering rather ancient ideas about how to form our ultimate loyalty to God and his kingdom.”

When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer: pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences. It shapes our response to evil and our reaction to people different from ourselves.

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Image credit: Yann Kebbi/NYT

04.13.17: The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

THE arrival of the “post-truth” political climate came as a shock to many Americans. But to the Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, charges of “fake news” are nothing new. “The deep distrust of the media, of scientific consensus — those were prevalent narratives growing up,” she told me.

Although Ms. Evans, 35, no longer calls herself an evangelical, she attended Bryan College, an evangelical school in Dayton, Tenn. She was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a “biblical worldview.”

“It was presented as a cohesive worldview that you could maintain if you studied the Bible,” she told me. “Part of that was that climate change isn’t real, that evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God, and capitalism is God’s ideal for society.”

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

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Image credit: Alex Webb/Magnum

01.16.16: Hallelujah, College

Students at a five-day college missionary conference in St. Louis in 2016 sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

LAST fall, as student activists around the country protested racism on their campuses, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas dismissed secular universities as havens for “leftist, coddled kids.” The protests proved that these schools teem with “psychotic Marxists,” declared “The Daily Caller,” a conservative website.

When conservative Christians map the culture wars, they cast secular universities to the far left periphery — the region that medieval cartographers would have marked “here be dragons.” A cottage industry of books with titles like “How to Stay Christian in College” has long warned pious 18-year-olds that college is a place where the “Prince of Deception” will set “spiritual snares.”

American evangelicals have a venerable tradition of painting the ivory tower as the bastion of unbelief and leftist ideology. As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.

Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on. It’s true that many schools’ nondiscrimination policies have made life more difficult for Christian ministries that require student leaders to assent to a statement of faith. But some students have seized on this challenge as an opportunity.

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Image credit: Paul M. Walsh/Leader-Telegram via AP