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Cover Story: Inside the Popular, Controversial Bethel Church

Some visitors claim to be healed. Others claim to receive direct words from God. Is it 'real'--or dangerous?

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I have seen a man dance holding a translucent scarf, the fabric billowing around his spinning form like a garment made of stars. I have prayed for strangers’ healing from high-blood pressure and unspecified neurological disorders. I have wept with salt-faced abandon as four women prayed over me; I have walked through a “fire tunnel”; I have seen a woman bob in Hasidic fashion over the Bible app on her smartphone.

I experienced all this at the increasingly famous (and, to some, infamous) Bethel Church, and I did so as an evangelical Christian of Reformed persuasion. My parents named me for the Welsh pastor-theologian Martyn Lloyd-Jones. My father is a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Jonathan Edwards is one of my guiding lights, Wheaton College is my alma mater, and I attend a Presbyterian church in Toronto where I have never heard anyone speak or pray in tongues.

Yet Bethel has been on my mind since a friend prayed for my healing at a campground in Wisconsin in 2010. She introduced me to the teachings of Bethel’s senior pastor, Bill Johnson, and gave me a few of his books. As Bethel grows, you might very well hear from a few people in your congregation who have traveled to Redding to find out if Bethel is “real”—and who come back proclaiming that revival is under way.

When I set out for Bethel Church—a hub of a global revival movement—I half-expected to discover a rogue organization of hucksters intent on subverting the faith. And I half-expected to discover a community of believers more earnest and devoted to God than anyone I’d ever met. In the end, what I discovered in Redding, California, didn’t fit either narrative neatly.

Bethel Church sits ...

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Investments for the Kingdom
Eventide Funds has confounded the investment world with its success—and its biblically based principles. Not long ago, when reporters wrote about Robin John, the cofounder of Eventide Asset Management, a subtle snicker rumbled under the surface. One called him “The Believer”; others pointed out the odd language on his Boston-based mutual fund company’s website: business as an “engine of blessing” and “biblically responsible investing.” Theology as the foundation for picking stocks? Is this guy for real? Today the murmurs seem to have faded, and for good reason. Since its launch in 2008, Eventide’s flagship mutual fund (a pool of money professionally invested in stocks, bonds, and other securities), the Gilead Fund, has given shareholders a 13.70 percent annualized return as of September 30, 2016, compared to 9.03 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500. To put that into perspective, an investor who put $10,000 into the fund at its launch would be worth $26,050 today. The Gilead Fund has been covered as a top performer by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, among other publications. Over the past three years, media attention has helped Eventide explode from $50 million in assets under management to nearly $2 billion. But there’s more to Robin John than a focus on profit. Challenging Milton Friedman’s declaration that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits, John says, “Profit is only the byproduct of a job well done.” John, an evangelical living in Dallas, is a leader in the growing field of biblically responsible investing, which applies Christian theology and social concern to investment analysis. Eventide, founded in 2008, has garnered attention because of both its results and its uniquely faith-filled ...Continue reading... [...]



Urban Mix-and-Match Religion Didn't Start with Nick Cannon

Why this 'new spirituality' is really just old-fashioned syncretism.

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After waking up in the middle of the night to the high-pitched cries of my sweet daughter, I rolled out of bed to warm a bottle. With her snuggled closely in my arms, I reached for my iPhone and noticed that I had received a text message from one of the other pastors at my church. It was a link to a recent interview with the rapper, actor, film producer, and social media phenomenon Nick Cannon.

As a pastor in the inner city, I often listen to interviews and podcasts on urban stations so I can stay up to date on some of the prevailing thoughts that influence inner-city culture. With millions of social media followers, Nick Cannon has a cult-like following that adheres to his business advice, wisdom, and insight like a modern day prophet. After placing the baby down, I popped in my headphones and listened to the entrepreneur open up on a wide range of issues including his failed marriage with Mariah Carey, his new NCredible headphones, and even his belief in God.

Cannon, the son of the late televangelist James Cannon, was asked about his eccentric dress and specifically the reason he dons a diamond-studded turban. He mentioned that he wore the garb for religious significance. He'd been studying different religions and cultures, and while he affirmed his Christian roots, he'd become greatly influenced by the teachings of the Nation of Islam, The Moorish Science Temple, and a plethora of other mystical religions.

Cannon goes on to mention that Christianity was his first language but that he is now fluent in a range of different spiritualities as well. As I listened intently, it became clear that his religious worldview was based on a combination of Christian, Islamic, and Moorish thought which frames his unique, personal ...

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Stop Calling Everything a Bible Study

Why it matters what churches call their classes.

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In the South, our beverage vocabulary can be confusing to those from other regions. When we offer you a Coke, we are asking if you’d like a soda of any kind. And when we offer you tea, we do not mean Earl Gray in a mug. We will assume that you understand this implicitly. As a Southerner with Northern relatives, I can affirm that many a family gathering could have been saved from such confusion by a simple clarification of terms.

Using a term too generally can cause greater misunderstanding than simply serving someone the wrong drink. Take, for example, the term “Bible study” as it is often used in the local church. On the typical church website, it’s not uncommon to find classes on marriage, finances, parenting, prayer, and books of the Bible all listed as “Bible studies.”

In these gatherings, good things happen. People connect to one another in community. They share needs, confess sins, and explore topics through the lens of Scripture. But not all of these classes are Bible studies.

Over time, “Bible study” has become a catchall to describe all kinds of gatherings. In the words of the esteemed linguist Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

As we have expanded our use of the term, we have decreased the number of actual Bible studies we offer. Churches have gradually shifted away from offering basic Bible study in favor of studies that are topical or devotional, adopting formats that more closely resemble a book club discussion than a class that teaches Scripture.

The evidence of this trend is everywhere, from church websites to the bestseller section in the Christian bookstore. Not many Christians ...

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What Message Is Jack Graham Sending to Russell Moore and Southern Baptists?
Ed Stetzer discusses the tensions of denominational giving, who speaks for the SBC, and the impact of the 2016 election. Last week, two-time Southern Baptist Convention president Jack Graham announced that his church would withhold its donation to the denomination’s Cooperative Program (CP). Southern Baptist churches decide individually whether to donate a percentage of their tithe to a common pot which funds state conventions, national denominational agencies, seminaries, and church planting and missions entities like the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. Less than two percent of the Cooperative Program’s budget funds the Southern Baptist national public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, led by Russell Moore. But the 2016 election demonstrated that Graham and Moore were on separate political pages. In an interview earlier this month, Graham noted an “uneasiness” among church leaders about the “disconnect between some of our denominational leaders and our churches.” While initially a critic of Donald Trump, Graham later joined Trump’s list of faith advisors and penned several editorials explaining his support. Moore, on the other hand, consistently spoke out against Trump and at one point criticized his Religious Right supporters as defined by “the doctrinally vacuous resentment over a lost regime of nominal, cultural ‘Christian America.’” These critiques didn’t sit well with Graham. “There was a disrespectfulness towards Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders, past and present,” Graham told The Wall Street Journal in an article about SBC pushback to Moore from December. But Graham insists that he’s “not angry at the SBC, and neither are our people.” “I’m not working to start ...Continue reading... [...]



News: Why Tim Keller, Max Lucado, and Hundreds of Evangelical Leaders Oppose Trump’s Refugee Ban
Regardless of court fight’s final outcome, fewer persecuted Christians will make it to America under president’s plan. More than 500 conservative evangelical pastors and leaders representing all 50 states are urging President Donald Trump to reverse his temporary ban on refugee resettlement and his “dramatic reduction” of the total America will accept this fiscal year. The open letter, published Wednesday as a full-page ad in The Washington Post with more than 100 of the signatories listed, was notable for two reasons. First, it contained only conservative evangelicals, instead of the mix of progressive names that usually sign such open letters. And second, topping the list were Tim Keller and Max Lucado—two well-known and well-respected pastors and authors who rarely speak out on political matters. Other key signatories include Kathy Keller, Willow Creek’s Bill and Lynne Hybels, authors Stuart and Jill Briscoe, author Ann Voskamp, Southern Baptist seminary president Daniel Akin, and pastors Joel Hunter and Derwin Gray, among many others [full ad below]. “As Christian pastors and leaders, we are deeply concerned by the recently announced moratorium on refugee resettlement,” stated the group letter, later noting, “We have a historic call expressed over 2,000 years to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now.” Currently tied up in the court system, the president’s controversial executive order suspends the entire US refugee resettlement program for 120 days and indefinitely bans refugees from Syria. It also halves the number of refugees that can come to the United States this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. “We live in a dangerous world,” acknowledged the group letter, “and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and in setting the terms ...Continue reading... [...]



Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon
The leading Christian scholar on gender dysphoria defines the terms—and gives the church a way forward. I still recall one of my first meetings with Sara. Sara is a Christian who was born male and named Sawyer by her parents. As an adult, Sawyer transitioned to female. Sara would say transitioning—adopting a cross-gender identity—took 25 years. It began with facing the conflict she experienced between her biology and anatomy as male, and her inward experience as female. While still Sawyer, she would grow her hair out, wear light makeup, and dress in feminine attire from time to time. She also met with what seemed like countless mental-health professionals as well as several pastors. For Sawyer, now Sara, transitioning eventually meant using hormones and undergoing sex reassignment surgery. Sara would say she knew at a young age—around 5—that she was really a girl. Her parents didn’t know what to do. They hoped their son was just different from most other boys. Then they hoped it was a phase Sawyer would get through. Later, two pastors told them that their son’s gender identity conflicts were a sign of willful disobedience. They tried to discipline their son, to no avail. Sara opened our first meeting by saying, “I may have sinned in the decisions I made; I’m not sure I did the right thing. At the time, I felt excruciating distress. I thought I would take my life. What would you have me do?” The exchange was disarming. I have worked with people like Sara for more than 16 years. Although most of my published research and clinical practice is in the area of sexual identity, I regularly receive referrals to meet with people who experience conflicts like Sara’s. The research institute I direct, housed at Regent University in Virginia, published the first study ...Continue reading... [...]



Roe v. McCorvey
What made ‘Roe’ betray the pro-choice cause? Norma McCorvey could outcuss the crassest men; she could outdrink many of the Dallas taverns' regulars; and she was known for her hot temper. When pro-lifers called her a murderer, she called them worse. When people held up signs of aborted fetuses, Norma spit in their faces. She had a reputation to protect, after all. As the plaintiff in the infamous Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, Norma's life was inextricably tied up with abortion. Though she had never had one, abortion was the sun around which Norma's life orbited. She once told a reporter, "This issue is the only thing I live for. I live, eat, breathe, think everything about abortion." Then the fiery pro-life group Operation Rescue moved in next door. An Unlikely Friendship Operation Rescue has had a tumultuous history. Founded by Randall Terry, OR made international headlines in the late eighties by staging "sit-ins" at abortion clinics across the country. Almost immediately, the pro-life movement was split between those who supported OR and those who thought they were doing more harm than good. A few people stood in the middle, but not many. Terry stepped down from OR in 1990, and his successor, Keith Tucci, followed suit a few years later. Flip Benham became director in 1994. By this time, federal legislation and extreme penalties for a first-time offense made the well-attended rescues largely a thing of the past. OR's influence was clearly on the wane, but their move next door to Norma's abortion clinic, A Choice for Women, would change that overnight. Norma called Flip Benham, the brash and bold OR leader, Flip "Venom." Flip called Norma "responsible for the deaths of 35 million children." They were supposed ...Continue reading... [...]



News: The Title IX Lives of Christian Colleges
Why CCCU schools are split on claiming one of their legal rights. Editor’s note: On February 22, 2017, the Trump administration revoked the Obama administration’s guidance that Title IX required public schools to accommodate transgender students in restrooms and lockerrooms. What was intended as a “list of shame” for Christian colleges may instead become a badge of honor. The US Department of Education (DOE) now publicly lists which schools have religious exemptions from portions of Title IX, the civil rights law banning sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. The lengthy list reveals that members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) are split on the strategy for safeguarding religious freedom in Christian higher education. Since Congress finalized Title IX in 1975, 66 of its 246 exemptions have been given to CCCU members and affiliates. With eight more schools still on the pending list, more than half of the CCCU’s 143 American schools have claimed an exemption. A disproportionate number of those (49%) have come in just the past three years, after the DOE sent out “Dear Colleague” letters to schools: first to inform them that they could not discriminate against transgender or gay students (2014), then to tell them that they had to treat students according to their gender identity (2016). Dordt College, an Iowa school affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, received its exemption this September after waiting nearly a year. “The boundaries around religion in America are constricting to the point where I was concerned that the likelihood of the government acknowledging [Dordt] as a religious institution—and therefore being covered under the First Amendment—was decreasing,” ...Continue reading... [...]



The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village
How to conserve and strengthen the American church. For most of my adult life, I have been a believing Christian and a committed conservative. I didn’t see any conflict between the two until my wife and I welcomed our firstborn child into the world in 1999. Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world his children will inherit. And so it was with me. As Matthew grew into toddlerhood, I began to realize how my politics were changing as I sought to raise our child by traditionalist Christian principles. I began to wonder what, exactly, mainstream conservatism was conserving. It dawned on me that some of the causes championed by my fellow conservatives—chiefly an uncritical enthusiasm for the market—can in some circumstances undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family. I also came to see the churches, including my own, as largely ineffective in combating the forces of cultural decline. Traditional, historic Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox—ought to be a powerful counterforce to the radical individualism and secularism of modernity. Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian. In my 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, which explored a countercultural, traditionalist conservative sensibility, I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western civilization had lost its moorings. MacIntyre said that the time is coming when ...Continue reading... [...]



Why Africa Needed Its Own Study Bible
And why Americans might want one too. If you ever get invited to a wedding on a Friday night in Morocco, the invitation will say the ceremony starts “the evening of Saturday.” North Africans consider each day to begin the evening before nightfall—just the way Genesis describes each day of the world’s first week: “And there was evening, and there was morning. . . .” This small connection between Scripture and one of Africa’s myriad cultures appears at the beginning of the Africa Study Bible (ASB), set to launch in February 2017. The first English-language study Bible written by African scholars for an African context, it’s also attracting Western readers. Using the New Living Translation, the ASB includes explanations of unfamiliar words, African proverbs, and ways to apply Scripture to life in Africa. “A lot of the analogies and cultural phrases in American study Bibles don’t relate fully to many of the issues a lot of Africans are going through—like civil war, polygamy, and the worship of idols,” said Natalie Cameron, spokesperson at Oasis International, which helped to develop the ASB. Conversely, some Bible stories resonate especially well, such as those of the Israelite tribes, given that many Africans are deeply connected to their own tribes. Just as Westerners generally spend more time in the New Testament, African Christians can over-relate to the Old Testament, said Priscilla Adoyo, a lecturer at Africa International University who worked on the ASB. “Sacrifices, blessings and curses, family and other relational practices, drought and famine are all familiar ground to the African,” she said. “Unfortunately, some have embraced the Old Testament teachings and picked and ...Continue reading... [...]



News: Challenging the Narrative: How Race Complicates the Latest LifeWay Debate
Black Southern Baptists weigh in on the issues around removing Sho Baraka’s album. Being a black leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) today can be exciting, as America’s largest Protestant denomination makes unprecedented progress toward diversity. But it can also be discouraging. Even small instances of culture clash are hard to overlook when you’re in the minority. The latest discussion over racial disconnect in the denomination stems from LifeWay Christian Resources’ decision to stop carrying a CD by rapper Sho Baraka at its 170 bookstores. The Washington Post broke the news last week, attributing the decision to a lyric in one track on The Narrative that contains the word penis, though LifeWay’s statement on the matter only referenced inappropriate language. The SBC’s “strides towards reconciliation and celebration of diversity have been significant,” said church planter Muche Ukegbu. “[They] are more than just talking points to placate the culture.” His congregation, The Brook Miami, is among the more than half of new Southern Baptist church plants—and 20 percent of SBC congregations overall—with mostly non-white members. “With that being said, it’s situations and instances like this [that are a] frustrating reminder of how out of touch some institutions and leadership really are, and how far we still have to go,” Ukegbu told CT. For Baraka’s friends and fans, there’s a bigger backdrop beyond one word, one line, or even one album. It’s hard to separate the content of the artist-activist’s recent release from his racial and political identities. Leading up to the election, Baraka went on tour with fellow Humble Beast artist Propaganda to hold conversations on race and politics at churches ...Continue reading... [...]



As a Special Needs Parent, I Thought I'd Hate ‘Speechless’
Why I was wrong—and what the ABC comedy reveals about conviction and forgiveness. When I first saw the trailer for ABC’s Speechless, it was shortly after my son was diagnosed with autism, and I was prepared to self-righteously hate it. It conjured the first and only memory I have of my child being mocked: As my son head-butted the side of a car-shaped grocery cart, an older boy in line behind us did the same. Declan thought he was being included in a game. I knew he was being excluded from one. This is the sort of tone I feared Speechless might strike—one that generated humor by merely playing at inclusion. The 30-minute sitcom features JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy who is rendered speechless by cerebral palsy, and the other DiMeos as they grapple with life as a special needs family in Newport Beach, California. Its premise reads like it should be a drama a la Parenthood. From the get-go, however, it promised to move against the sentimental current that drives most other shows about kids with special needs. Based solely on the trailer, Speechless seemed uncomfortably irreverent to me, siphoning humor from the special needs community. As I’ve continued to watch it, though, I’ve realized this careful irreverence actually enables Speechless not only to depict the challenges of a special needs family holistically but also to raise broader questions about metaphorical voicelessness and privilege. To accomplish this, the show’s creators tap into the vestiges of a fading form of humor—namely, humor as a form of grace. This unexpected tone won me over as a viewer and empowered me to find a similar grace in my own life. By the time I hate-watched one episode of Speechless, the sticker shock of my son’s diagnosis had worn off. We were still walking through the heavy moments ...Continue reading... [...]



The Second Life of the Man Who Wouldn’t Run on Sunday
How Eric Liddell, the hero of 'Chariots of Fire,' laid aside Olympic glory for the missions field. The scene is easy to recall. A group of young athletes in slow-motion, running on a beach, to a Vangelis score. The camera finds the beatific face of a young Eric Liddell, and the Chariots of Fire magic washes over you once more. It’s a great movie and a powerful story—the story of a unique Olympian, a conscience-driven Christian man, who was very fast and felt God’s pleasure in that fastness. Yet here is the remarkable truth: Chariots of Fire did not tell the most engrossing part of Liddell’s remarkable life. This is left to Duncan Hamilton and his new biography, For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr. Hamilton’s book spans the full spectrum of the Olympic champion’s life, allowing us an extended look at Liddell’s work as a missionary in China. The world might like the athletic heroism best, but Christians will find Hamilton’s portrait of Liddell’s sacrificial labor deeply stirring. Hamilton is well known in the UK as an award-winning sportswriter. This nearly 400-page text amply demonstrates his talents, as not a word is wasted, and many an opportunity for a fresh metaphor taken. For the Glory fits self-consciously in the vein of true tales like Unbrokenand The Boys in the Boat, and belongs in their company for its dramatic power. Like the camera at an Olympic event, we rarely linger long on any one aspect of Liddell’s story; Hamilton keeps the pace at a fast clip, and his cut-glass prose focuses our attention squarely on the champion. ‘Each One Comes to the Cross-roads’ The biography is not hagiography, but it is deeply appreciative of Liddell’s character and example. While some readers might want more ...Continue reading... [...]



The Real History of the Crusades

Fri, 06 May 2005 13:00:00 PDT

A series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics? Think again. With the possible exception of Umberto Eco, medieval scholars are not used to getting much media attention. We tend to be a quiet lot (except during the annual bacchanalia we call the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, of all places), poring over musty chronicles and writing dull yet meticulous studies that few will read. Imagine, then, my surprise when within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant. As a Crusade historian, I found the tranquil solitude of the ivory tower shattered by journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop. What were the Crusades?, they asked. When were they? Just how insensitive was President George W. Bush for using the word crusade in his remarks? With a few of my callers I had the distinct impression that they already knew the answers to their questions, or at least thought they did. What they really wanted was an expert to say it all back to them. For example, I was frequently asked to comment on the fact that the Islamic world has a just grievance against the West. Doesn't the present violence, they persisted, have its roots in the Crusades' brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world? In other words, aren't the Crusades really to blame? Osama bin Laden certainly thinks so. In his various video performances, he never fails to describe the American war against terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam. Ex-president Bill Clinton has also fingered the Crusades as the root cause of the present conflict. In a speech at Georgetown University, he recounted (and embellished) a massacre of Jews after the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 ...Continue reading... [...]