tmatt trio

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

I just did a Google Images search for the words “American Evangelicals” and it yielded — on the first screen — as many images of Vladimir Putin as of the Rev. Billy Graham. If you do the same thing on Yahoo! your images search will include several pictures of George Soros.

I don’t need to mention the number of images of Donald Trump, a lifelong member of the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do I?

The obvious question — one asked early and often at GetReligion — is this: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” But that really isn’t the question that needs to be asked, in this context. The more relevant question is this: “What does ‘evangelical’ mean to journalists in the newsrooms that really matter?”

I raise this question because of a remarkable passage in the New York Times feature about the tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans, a highly influential online scribe whose journey from the conservative side of evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism has helped shape the emerging evangelical left. The headline: “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.”

Before we look at that news story (not a commentary piece) let’s pause to ask if the word “evangelical” has content, in terms of Christian history (as opposed to modern politics).

For background see this GetReligion post: “Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books.” That points readers toward the work of historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, author of the upcoming book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” Here is a crucial passage from Kidd, in a Vox explainer piece:

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier.

The news media image of modern evangelicalism, he added, “fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.”

Now, from my perspective, the most important thing that needs to be said about the work of Rachel Held Evans is that she openly challenged the DOCTRINAL roots of evangelical Christianity, as opposed to focusing merely on politics.

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ChurchClarity.org: Sometimes asking blunt questions about doctrine makes news

ChurchClarity.org: Sometimes asking blunt questions about doctrine makes news

Way back in the late 1980s, the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado needed to elect a new bishop.

This led to an interesting series of events, with the various candidates -- there were a bunch -- traveling across that large and diverse state to meet with the faithful and to take questions. As the religion-beat writer at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP), I went along.

It was during that tour that I came up with a set of three questions that I have used, ever since, when probing doctrinal fault lines inside Christian organizations, both large and small. Here at GetReligion, we call these questions the "tmatt trio." One of them is rather relevant to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) and my recent update post on the work of the LGBTQ activists at ChurchClarity.org.

But first, here are the three questions, as stated in an "On Religion" column I wrote about the polling work of the late George Gallup, Jr. It opened with a reference to a speech he gave in 1990.

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. ... The questions:
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

It is interesting, sometimes, to observe the lengths to which Christian leaders, academics and others will go to avoid giving clear answers to these questions, even the one focusing on the resurrection. The key is to pay close attention to their answers, seeking insights into where they stand in the vast spectrum -- liberal to orthodox -- of Christian life.

Now, look again at the third question: "Is sex outside of marriage a sin?"

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BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

Ask most Americans to name the most important day on the Christian calendar and I'm afraid (as a guy who took a bunch of church history classes) that the answer you will hear the most is "Christmas."

That is a very, very American answer. As the old saying goes, the two most powerful influences on the U.S. economy are the Pentagon and Christmas. There's no question which holiday puts the most shoppers in malls and ads in newspapers (grabbing the attention of editors).

But, as a matter of liturgical reality, there is no question that the most important holy day for Christians is Easter, called "Pascha" in the churches of the East. I realize that St. Paul is not an authoritative voice, in terms of Associated Press style, but this is how he put it:

... If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Now, I am not here to argue about doctrine. What "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's podcast (click here to check that out) was the fact that what religious believers affirm in terms in doctrine often plays a crucial role in how they live and act. Thus, it is often wise for reporters to ask core doctrinal questions in order to spot fault lines inside Christian communities, especially during times of conflict.

Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly mentioned (some witty readers once proposed a drinking game linked to this) the "tmatt trio" of doctrinal questions that I have used for several decades now. Here is a version taken from some of my conversations with the late George Gallup, Jr.

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?

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Just in time for Holy Week: BBC asks if modern Brits still believe in the resurrection

Just in time for Holy Week: BBC asks if modern Brits still believe in the resurrection

What we have here is a unique -- but to my mind interesting and valid -- variation on the whole tradition of major newsrooms publishing news reports just before Easter that strive to undercut the most important doctrines in ancient Christianity.

In this case, BBC leaders commissioned a survey asking 2,010 adult Brits what they do and do not believe about the resurrection of Jesus, the central doctrine of the Christian faith. The headline that resulted delivers some sobering news for small-o orthodox Christians: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians."

This raises a logical question: Is someone a Christian if he or she does not believe in the resurrection? In this case, the pollsters working with BBC on this survey simply punted, in terms of trying to answer that question. Here is the overture:

A quarter of people who describe themselves as Christians in Great Britain do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, a survey commissioned by the BBC suggests.
However, almost one in 10 people of no religion say they do believe the Easter story, but it has "some content that should not be taken literally".
A fifth of non-religious people believe in life after death, the poll suggests.
The Church of England said it showed many people held religious beliefs.

Wait, the whole Church of England answered? In chorus? I would assume that this was a quote from a press agent for the Anglican establishment, a PR pro who really had to reach in order to find that silver lining!

Now, the first thing that jumped into my head when I saw this was that if you combine the "Christians" who do not believe in the resurrection with the secular people who do not believe in the same doctrine, then you have a really good picture of the size of a religious and secular left coalition in modern British culture.

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Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

I realize this may sound like a rather obvious question. However, after 40 years of religion-beat work (in one form or another) I still think that it's relevant.

The question: To cover religion news events and trends, does it help if journalists know enough about religion to ask detailed questions about, well, "religion"? When I say "religion" I am thinking about details of doctrine, tradition and history.

In other words, when covering Iraq over the past decade or two, would it have helped to know the doctrinal differences between Sunni Muslims and the Shiites? If covering debates between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, would it help to know something about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity? If covering debates about citizenship in Israel, do you need to know something -- doctrinally speaking -- about Reform Judaism and its emergence out of Orthodox Judaism in Europe?

This topic came up in this week's "Crossroads" podcast because of the recent GetReligion post about a nasty split inside a "Lutheran" megachurch in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in the heart of what has long been known as the "Lutheran Belt." Click here to tune that in.

The problem was that a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press never got around to telling readers which brand of Lutheranism was found in this specific megachurch. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune report clarified this big denominational question in its lede and in a follow-up paragraph a few lines later.

Did this picky detail really matter? Only if readers wanted to know what the fighting was actually about.

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Stay tuned: The New York Times probes sex debates and the quiet evangelical left

Stay tuned: The New York Times probes sex debates and the quiet evangelical left

One of the hot social-media stories right now, in the world of religion news, is the New York Times piece that ran under this headline: "Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights." Note, in particular, that the word used is "debate" rather than the omnipresent liberal Protestant word "dialogue."

There really isn't anything new in this story, for those who have covered the evangelical left for the past quarter century or so. The news is that this debate is now in The New York Times, the bible of our culture's principalities and powers (that be). Even though there is little news content here, this piece does offer a fascinating update on three issues that we have been discussing here at GetReligion ever since we opened our cyber-doors a decade ago.

I. The news media consistently show a lack of interest in covering the actual beliefs -- doctrinal, not political -- of believers on the religious left. The assumption seems to be that their views are so obviously correct that there is no need to cover the fine details or let leaders in these pews and pulpits discuss why they believe what they believe.

For example, it will be interesting to watch mainstream media coverage of the long-expected announcement by the Rev. Tony Campolo, one of America's best known evangelical progressives, that he -- in the words of the Baptist News Global report -- now "supports the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church." Reporters should also watch what is said, and not said, by those hailing Campolo's decision, such as retired Christianity Today editor David Neff. Again, it is crucial to look for what they are actually saying about Christian doctrine, not U.S. laws or public policy.

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New York Times visits Erskine College: Who gets to declare what is a 'sin' these days?

New York Times visits Erskine College: Who gets to declare what is a 'sin' these days?

Once again, let us return to Erskine College in Due West, S.C., where Christians -- under the watchful gaze of The New York Times -- are arguing about 2,000 years of Christian tradition on sexuality and marriage. Click here for my first GetReligion post on this controversy.

The headline: "Erskine College’s View on ‘Sin’ Jolts Gay Athletes." The key word, of course, is "sin" -- a word that is increasingly difficult to use publicly in America these days, no matter what is stated in the Bible and/or the First Amendment.

Now, loyal GetReligion readers will know that the word "sin" plays a key role in the infamous "tmatt trio," that series of doctrinal questions that I have used while reporting on the fault lines inside Christian churches, denominations, parachurch groups, etc. At one point, we jokingly suggested using "tmatt3" as shorthand for these questions. Once again, here they are:

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

With that in mind, let's look at the crucial passage in the Times piece that deals with, yes, the Erskine administration's attempts to defend the use of a doctrinal covenant that draws some boundaries around the voluntary association that is this private Christian college.

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Flashback to George Gallup, Jr., and very early roots of the tmatt trio

Flashback to George Gallup, Jr., and very early roots of the tmatt trio

It's an experience that most journalists have had, at one time or another. You have just interviewed someone who is really interesting and, perhaps, an important leader in their field. The interview eventually turns into a conversation, usually about the topics linked to the topic being discussed or the details of the person's work.

I had several chances -- over the space of a decade or two -- to talk to the late pollster George Gallup, Jr. It is not surprising that he enjoyed talking about trends in American religion. Me too. He enjoyed talking about interesting questions linked to religious issues. Me too.

This brings us, of course, to the "tmatt trio" -- the three basic doctrinal questions I have long used to probe fault lines among Christian leaders and their followers. The goal is to ask the questions and then listen to the content of the answers, which are almost always highly nuanced and are often revealing.

Gallup and I discussed these questions on several occasions.

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