This weekend, Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger will be speaking at the convention of the American Atheists in Charleston, South Carolina. Their topic is how the Creation Museum presents itself as a museum, how it mobilizes science, and how it employs a rhetoric of damnation.
The invitation to speak came a year ago from Pam Whissel, who is the organization’s membership director and editor of American Atheist magazine. To their surprise (small world!), Ms. Whissel is a University of Dayton alumna. She graduated from UD with a degree in English in 1988.
Interestingly, the American Atheists claim on their website that they are “committed to the absolute separation of religion and government.” While phrased a bit differently, that commitment is not altogether different from the commitment that many Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries died for.
They were convicted by the idea that a Christian cannot truly follow Jesus and swear allegiance to the state. According to their reasoning, to follow Jesus is to love one’s enemy. To swear allegiance to the state is to agree (wittingly or unwittingly) to go to war to kill the enemy if the state demands it. These courageous Christians suffered persecution (often to the point of execution) for their radical Christian beliefs. Their stories can be found in The Martyrs Mirror.
How interesting that the convictions of the American Atheists appear to intersect with those of deeply convicted Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries. It turns out that some descendants of those radical Christians live right here in the USA. You’ll find them riding in horse-drawn buggies—in Amish Country. Small world, indeed.
Today’s post is written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6.
Large numbers of Americans support the right of same-sex couples to marry, of trans people to use public restrooms that align with their gender, and of people of any gender or sexual orientation to serve in the military. They believe, broadly, that one’s sexual and gender identity shouldn’t get you fired, evicted, bullied, beat up, or killed.
That’s not something to be taken for granted, as anyone with even little knowledge of queer history knows, nor does it mean that LGBTQ+ people are safe in America. It just means that, for now, more people than ever are accepting and supportive of their queer friends, neighbors, family members, and selves.
This advancement in gay rights makes the Religious Right attack on gay rights all the more pointed. For the anti-gay Religious Right, public acceptance of gay rights is evidence that America has rejected God and will decline into chaos and ruin because of it and that, along the way, Christians will continue to be persecuted.
Worry that America is going to hell in a handbasket are not new, as Kathryn Gin Lum lays out in Damn Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford 2014). Indeed, Gin Lum’s book covers less than half of American history and it’s still over 300 pages. There is a long held fear of our collective, national damnation, and contemporary fears about sexuality feed into that fear.
What is relatively new is the Religious Right’s effort to connect same-sex sexual desire, contact, and identity with our national ruin, in part because, before the movement for gay rights accelerated in the late 1960s, the rest of culture did the work of controlling LGBTQ+ people. Pastors did not preach on the subject, street evangelists did not yell about it, and religious lobbyists did not push on members of Congress to oppose gay rights laws because there was no need. A broader homophobic culture did the work of condemning queer people to hell on earth, so anti-gay Christians didn’t have to worry too much about condemning them to hell in the afterlife.
That changed, though, as queer people began to push openly for civil rights. The Religious Right pushed back, rooting their arguments against gay people and gay rights in the language of sin, then morality, then pseudo-science, and now freedom. Over time, the language shifted from attacks on gay people as immoral to disingenuous claims of opposing gay rights out of love for queer people, whose sexual behaviors and identities were considered to be self-destructive. Underlying all these arguments is the idea that queer identities are not “God’s design.”
Design, of course, is a loaded word for creationists like Ken Ham. Those who oppose gay rights because same-sex sexual orientation is not “God’s design” point to a literal Adam and Eve, who were of two different sexes, as the template for human relationships—“God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve,” as the anti-gay picket sign says.
Out of the Adam and Eve relationship, anti-gay Christians argue, we see the ordering of all social relationships: the rule of men over women, the headship of husbands over wives, the life-long pairing of monogamous couples in a God-blessed relationship, the obligation for people to have children, and the rule of humans over the environment, including over other animals. Later, in the New Testament, the metaphor of a marriage between heterosexual couples informs how we are to understand our corporate relationship to Christ: he is the bridegroom, and the Church is his bride. Sex differences, as defined by primary sex organs, must matter in the marriage of Adam and Eve if they are, as Ken Ham argues, the progenitors of the human race, and in the marriage of Christ and his Church (since the Church must be as submissive to Christ the Head as wives are to husbands), and because sex matters in those relationships, it must matter in ours.
In this logic, same-sex sexual sin (whether that is desire, behavior, or identity) is a worse sin than other sins, not in the fact that it separates people from God (as all sin does) but in its very essence. It is a sin not merely between the individual and God but an effort to undermine both the hierarchy of domination established in Genesis (man over woman, husband over wife, humans over the environment) and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Unlike eating shellfish or wearing clothes of mixed fibers (which, like sex between men, is prohibited in Levitical law), sex between people of the same sex is not breaking a ceremonial law; it is also more significant than breaking a moral law (such as incest, which is also prohibited by Leviticus). It is a worse offense because it is a defiance of the very order that God established for the world. Gay people, thus, are the worst sinners because they are trying to destroy the world God made. We see this homophobic theology proclaimed most loudly and clearly by Westboro Baptists, but it is central to anti-gay teachings in many conservative churches, not just those that show up to picket the funerals of dead gay people.
This framing makes sex acts between people of the same sex incredibly threatening to a Christianity that espouses patriarchy in the public and personal realms and human domination over the Earth. In that regard, Christian homophobia and secular homophobia are very similar in that they are efforts to reassert patriarchy through expressions of misogyny and toxic masculinity.
In the last ten years, even as more and more people, including Christians, affirm LGBTQ+ people and same-sex love, these attacks have relied on a new weapon: claiming that gay rights (and, by extension, queer people) are an attack on freedom itself and religious liberty in particular. In its gentler versions, this argument claims that those who find same-sex sexuality to be sinful have, on grounds of religious freedom, the right not to serve LGBTQ+ clients, a la Masterpiece Cakes, a case involving a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple that will be heard by the Supreme Court soon.
In its uglier forms, this argument says that gay people are such a threat to our democracy that they are our enemies. Wrote Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert on August 12—the same day that actual neo-Nazis killed a peaceful protestor in a planned race riot in Charlottesville, Virginia—on his Facebook page,
The LGBT activists who behave as Nazis are trying to ruin anyone who “disagrees” with them – even grandmothers. Simply believing in the Bible is offensive to these activists. They can’t stand it if you disagree. They demand full compliance with their diminished morality. They clearly behave just like the “brown shirts” and “SS” troops that Nazis used to destroy Jews and anyone who disagreed with the Nazi ideology.
This is the ugly end: those who were actual victims of the Holocaust (queer people) are called Nazis in an effort to whip up sentiment against gay rights and for violence against gay people. And it is working. Violence against LGBTQ+ persons in 2017 has already outpaced that committed in 2016, according to a recently released report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
For Jason Rapert, Ken Ham, and other Religious Right Christians who seem obsessed with homosexuality (and who neglect their duty to care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, free the oppressed, or fight the actual, literal Nazis killing people in American right now), we might look at them with pity (provided, I think, that this does not distract us from our work of tending to those people they have harmed). They believe that our collective recognition of gay rights, as observable in our laws, and our increasing acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people, removes us from the relationship that God designed for humanity. They believe that God will destroy us for it, either by lifting his “veil of protection” or through direct, holy violence aimed at those who openly support, tolerate, or simply do not protest with sufficient vehemence against gay rights.
When people really believe that everything rests on everyone being straight, they live in constant fear and anger—fear that God will condemn them, too, and anger at those people they see as the cause of God’s fury. And you can see that fear and anger throughout their words and work.
To say that Ken Ham devotes a great deal of energy and time to vilifying gay marriage and LGBTQ rights is an understatement.
As we noted recently, over the past year Ham – who apparently has no comment on, say, immigrants, refugees, or white nationalism – has written numerous posts on topics such as transgender bathrooms, millennials’ unbiblical tolerance of gay marriage, and “Rainbow Fries and Flags: A Sign of Our Secular Times.”
But to get a real feel for the depth of Ham’s fury over tolerance for gays and lesbians, let’s go back to July 2013. It was just a few weeks after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and Ham used the occasion of the “Answers Mega Conference” (Sevierville, Tennessee) to deliver a hour-long diatribe entitled, “The Great Delusion: The Spiritual State of the Nation.”
For the first thirty minutes or so Ham fulminated that the tolerance of homosexuality and gay marriage was the clearest evidence that America had abandoned God’s Word and was now in “catastrophic spiritual decline.” President Obama bore much responsibility for this state of affairs, as he and his anti-Christian comrades actively and successfully promoted the gay/lesbian agenda in the culture and the courts, with legalized polygamy and worse just around the corner.
The result of all this was a nation mired in depravity akin to the “days of Noah.” Ham then asked a rhetorical question: “What does God think of a nation like this?” His verdict:
A sign that God is giving a culture over to judgment, a sign that God is withdrawing the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, is that sign of homosexual behavior, gay marriage, that is permeating the nation. Therefore it is my assertion that America is under judgment. It is under judgment by an almighty God.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Ham then asked how we should view President Obama, who has
pushed the gay marriage/homosexual agenda in a big way [and] has condoned the killing of 55 million children that makes what Hitler did at the Holocaust pale in comparison.
Ham responded with a truly apocalyptic pronouncement:
President Obama has been appointed by God to be where he is. Scripture makes it clear. If America is under judgment, then . . . the leader is there for America’s judgment. . . Wow. We need to fall on our knees . . . before a holy God and repent.
In short, God was abandoning America because it tolerated gay marriage, leaving it to endure a judgment facilitated by a president who resembled Adolf Hitler, a judgment akin – as Ham explicitly noted – to the drowning of billions in the global Flood. As we summarized Ham’s menacing message in Righting America:
Judgment Day is nigh, Judgment Day for those who have abandoned God’s Word for man’s word, Judgment Day for gays and lesbians who refuse to repent of their vile affections, Judgment Day for Barack Obama and his minions who have helped carry out the homosexual agenda. As it was in the time of Noah, so it is now. Judgment Day is almost here, and Ken Ham, safely inside the ark of salvation, is ready to watch God pour down his terrible and violent wrath on this wicked president and this wicked culture. (170)
A coda. It is now 2017, and the United States has a new president. In keeping with so many of his fellow evangelical leaders, Ken Ham has had nary a negative word to say about Donald Trump. For Ham and others in the Christian Right it makes sense that God would delay Judgment Day while a Republican occupies the White House.
For many other Americans, however, Trump is himself hastening the Apocalypse.
Today’s post again features our colleague, Dr. Emma Frances Bloomfield, who shares more about her visit to Ark Encounter and the apocalyptic rhetoric she found there.
As a follow-up to my previous post, I’d like to focus on a few specific material and sensory elements of the Ark Encounter and how they contribute to its apocalyptic arguments. During my site visit, I was struck by the ark’s structure, materials, textures, and sounds and how they amplify the Ark Encounter’s message of an impending second coming.
To enter the ark, people must first queue up in snaking lines and enter loading ramps, similar to how animals might have been loaded in Noah’s time. Once onboard, visitors are surrounded by long hallways of unpainted wood, terracotta pots, and dioramas of life on the ark. The Ark Encounter forgoes modern technology, where possible, to give the structure an aura of authenticity. Doors to cages have simple sliding wooden bars and the ramps show wooden dowels instead of nails holding together the railings. The interior of the ark is lit up with soft, glowing lanterns instead of fluorescent light bulbs. Traces of contemporary construction are covered with wood to mimic ancient construction techniques. Although visitors know that the ark at Ark Encounter was completed about a year ago, the constructors have strategically hidden many signs of that fact. These elements help constitute the ark as an authentic replica, lending authority to the Bible as the source of the ark’s production.
The open space gives visitors a strong sense of the ark’s vastness and how many crates could fit inside. Visitors are not in a traditional museum, but a recreation of a time and place lost to people today. Seeing and moving among the crates gives visitors a sense that the ark could have existed and survived the flood as recorded in the Bible. To heighten the experience of authenticity, the Ark Encounter plays sounds of animal noises. When visitors pass by cages, they are greeted by the presence of animals (though they are not real) in multiple senses. There is a lingering smell of fresh cut wood and hay, especially through the first section of cages. Throughout the three decks of the Ark Encounter, the floor is covered in small scratch marks that mimic the scraping of thousands of animal feet being loaded into cages. Visitors are immersed in an experience that seems real—a simulacra of Noah’s ark—that seeks to provide evidence for the Bible’s version of the past.
Audio is also used to amplify the urgency of the Ark Encounter’s arguments. Underneath the animal grunts are the roaring waves of the ocean. Completely encased in this huge wood structure, visitors can only imagine the storm that might be raging outside. As visitors exit the Ark Encounter, they descend from the top deck and are deposited in a gift shop under the lofted structure. This descent moves visitors from a position safe aboard the ark to the underbelly of the ship, out of safekeeping were the next apocalypse to happen again.
Visitors are transported from their everyday life to the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of life onboard Noah’s ark. Without historical evidence available for display, the Ark Encounter uses material elements to create a journey that involves the visitors’ senses in Noah’s story. Exploring the grandeur of the large vessel, the visitors are enveloped in the possibility of the ark’s existence. Thus, their experience may be characterized as a sort of resurrection of Noah’s Ark, in a sense resurrecting it from the mountains of Ararat.
Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. She visited the Ark Encounter as part of a Summer Research Fellowship from USC.
Forthcoming in the Southern Communication Journal is a rhetorical critique of the Ark Encounter based on my July 26, 2016 visit. My analysis of the site focuses on apocalyptic rhetoric, or language that uses the end of the world as motivation for belief and action. Key works on apocalyptic rhetoric, by communication scholar Stephen O’Leary, categorize the apocalyptic genre based on appeals to authority, evil, and time. In other words, to make an apocalyptic argument, one must explain how one knows the apocalypse will happen, what will cause it, and when it will occur.
In my forthcoming essay, I argue that the Ark Encounter makes an apocalyptic argument to encourage its visitors to believe in Christianity and, more specifically, creationism. Through its verbal displays and material elements, the Ark Encounter promotes the authority of the Bible, identifies enemies of the faith, and displays the urgency of belief. In this post, I provide a few examples of each of these three apocalyptic appeals.
The Ark Encounter appeals to the authority of the Bible to determine the past, present, and future. To show that the Bible is an authority, the Ark Encounter provides evidence that Noah’s ark, as described in the Bible, could have existed and housed so many animals. Near the entrance to the first deck, a sign explains that the ark easily held all of the animal “kinds” that God requested. It also explains that Noah only needed to bring along juvenile versions of animals, so large adult animals such as elephants and giraffes would not be present to take up a lot of room. Also, many species of animals, such as different types of bears, are part of the same bear “kind,” requiring only two bear cubs to save them all from the flood. If Noah’s ark could have housed a large quantity of animals and safely navigated the storm, then the Bible is an authoritative source of truth about the past.
The Ark Encounter identifies three main sources of evil: those who distort the Bible’s message (represented by the Fairy Tale Ark room), those who doubt the Bible (represented by Rayneh’s display), and evolutionists and scientists (represented by displays on the third deck). I will focus on the latter, as the first two have been covered in previous posts on this blog here and here. On the third deck, the Ark Encounter has museum-like exhibits that discuss natural selection and climate change. These exhibits identify scientists who ignore the obvious evidence of the flood as exhibiting a willful bias against faith. They turn away from the concrete evidence of the flood’s occurrence, such as the Grand Canyon, and allow their commitment to evolution to cloud their judgment. The Ark Encounter thus represents scientists as a source of evil that confuses people about God’s writings and the truth of history.
Having identified many sources of evil and established the Bible’s authority over the past, the Ark Encounter appeals to an impending apocalypse predicted by the Bible upon Christ’s return to Earth. In the last exhibit before the ramp down to exit the ark, visitors see a display about Christ. The display prompts visitors to consider their own sins and doubts as well as to ponder if they would be saved were the flood to happen again today. This display notes that visitors should turn to God “before it’s too late,” establishing an urgency to believe in Christianity. The slogan of the Ark Encounter is “The Voyage Begins Again,” inviting belief that the second and final revelation is already upon us.
Because the Ark Encounter was built by Answers in Genesis, the site includes belief in creationism as a tenet of being a good Christian. If the Bible is a complete, unique authority over the truth of the past, then its statements about creationism should also be taken seriously. The Ark Encounter makes this connection on the third deck, where it casts misinformation about evolution and identifies scientists as a source of evil. Through an apocalyptic argument, felt, read, and experienced through the site, the Ark Encounter encourages adherence to a specific Christian identity that also endorses young-Earth creationism and biblical literalism.
It turns out that folks are watching.
In our last post we noted that – despite Answers in Genesis (AiG) CEO Ken Ham’s public statement in which he fudged some facts and omitted many more – it seems as the most obvious explanation for Ark Encounter’s move from for-profit status to non-profit status to for-profit status in the space of 24 days is that AiG was trying
to negate Williamstown’s ability to impose a [fifty-cent] tax by moving the Ark to non-profit status. But when Kentucky made clear that this would result in the end of the [state’s] sales tax rebate, AiG/Ark Encounter backed down, returning to for-profit status and accepting Williamstown’s tax.
In response to our post, a disaffected evangelical wrote rightingamerica:
I thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculous . . . and then this. This is appalling. And is there any other way to read Ham’s statements than as intentionally misleading, if not straight out lies?
Then there’s Libby Anne, who blogs at (the wonderfully titled) “Love, Joy, Feminism,” and who grew up an AiG devotee but is now an atheist and progressive (a reversal that is not uncommon among those who grow up in the Christian Right). In response to Ark Encounter’s tax machinations she wrote:
Answers in Genesis claims to be Christian, but recent decisions make clear that its actions vis-à-vis its social responsibilities are anything but. . . It seems incontrovertible that Ark Encounter was transferred to [non-profit status] to avoid paying Williamstown’s safety tax. . . Objecting to a safety tax, when Williamstown has had to hire new emergency personnel and expand various programs directly because of the Ark Encounter? What even is that? [Emphases in original.]
What even is that, indeed.
AiG proudly bills itself as an “an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.” Toward that end AiG spends a great deal of time concocting arguments that allegedly disprove evolution and prove their particular (and peculiar) reading of the Bible.
It seems lost on the folks at AiG that the way in which they conduct themselves as human beings – especially in relation to other human beings — is also part of apologetics. That is to say, fudging and omitting facts while employing what appears to be hardball tax avoidance techniques against a struggling small town would seem a surefire way to undercut their stated mission of “proclaim[ing] the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.”
But then, as we have argued in Righting America and elsewhere, proclaiming the Gospel seems the least of it at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.
Is all of this really just about fifty cents?
To understand the last few weeks at Ark Encounter one needs to keep in mind three pieces of information:
1. Answers in Genesis (AiG) set up Ark Encounter LLC as a for-profit entity.
2. They did so in order to receive up to $18m in sales tax rebates under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act. While this tax break was legally challenged – given the Ark’s discriminatory hiring practices and its evangelistic mission – Ark Encounter eventually prevailed (Righting America 233-234.)
3. More important than these rebates, in 2013 the nearby town of Williamstown issued $62m of junk bonds and loaned the proceeds to Ark Encounter. Making this deal even better, over the next thirty years 75% of what the Ark would have paid in property taxes will go to paying off the loan. Williamstown bought the idea that the Ark would spark enormous development in the small town, but this has not been the case, much to the chagrin and anger of local officials.
With this background, here’s a timeline of the recent strange happenings at Ark Encounter:
- April 18: The Williamstown City Council unanimously passes a safety assessment fee ordinance, which puts into place – as of July 1 – a tax of fifty cents on each ticket sold to an entertainment site (Ark Encounter by far the largest such site), the primary purpose being to provide “revenues for safety assessment(s) services (police, fire, EMS)” that come with Williamstown becoming “a tourist and entertainment destination.”
- June 20: The Williamstown City Council is informed that Ark Encounter is making the claim that – because it is a religious site – “they are tax exempt and the Safety Assessment Fee should not apply to them.”
- June 28: Unbeknownst to Williamstown, Ark Encounter LLC sells the land upon which the Ark stands for $10 to Crosswater Canyon, a nonprofit entity also under the aegis of AiG.
- June 29: Williamstown city attorney Jeff Shipp sends a letter to AiG rejecting the argument that the Safety Assessment Fee should not apply to the Ark, pointing out that “Ark Encounter is a for-profit limited-liability company entity that allowed, or permitted, it to be eligible for various development incentives that would not have been available with a nonprofit status.”
- July 18: The Williamstown City Council meets in a tense executive session with Ark Encounter representatives, who propose that the safety assessment fee be reduced. The council says no.
- July 18: Making a bad day worse for AiG, the General Counsel for Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet informs Ark Encounter that it has “become aware of a quit claim deed transferring the Ark Project land . . . from Ark Encounter, LLC, a for profit company, to Crosswater Canyon, Inc., a non-profit company.” According to the state of Kentucky, this is a “breach of [the Ark’s] Tourism Development Agreement,” and thus “no further incentives may accrue from sales tax . . . as of the date of transfer of the property, June 28, 2017.”
- July 27: AiG CEO Ken Ham finally issues a public statement. Quoting in part:
There has been an enormous amount of misinformation, misunderstanding, and outright untruths spread by many media, bloggers, and others in regard to the Ark Encounter – specifically, the recent issue concerning the safety tax imposed by the Williamstown city council. . . The Ark Encounter has never stated we would not pay a safety tax. In communicating frequently with the city over the months, we even proposed that a fee be capped at a half million dollars per year . . . [But while] there are unresolved issues, we have agreed to pay the safety tax . . . It’s a complex matter that many people find difficult to understand, but the Ark Encounter operates as a non-profit because it is wholly owned by a non-profit. And it is a religious organization. The Ark Encounter is owned ultimately by Answers in Genesis. There has been much false speculation about this matter, but there were no ulterior motives on our part at all. In fact, to resolve any issues over the recent change in title for the Ark Encounter property, the property has been conveyed back to the Ark Encounter, LLC and the deed has been recorded. [Emphases in original.]
Ham’s statement is very much in keeping with his standard “we are being persecuted by the media” rhetoric. More important, it is remarkably misleading on a number of points:
1. Ham fails to disclose the fact that, in applying for the sales tax rebate, Ark Encounter was represented as a for-profit entity.
2. Ham fails to explain why Ark Encounter sold its land to a non-profit entity, nor does he mention that this sale coincided with Williamstown’s determination to impose a fifty-cent tax.
3. Ham fails to disclose that on July 18 the state of Kentucky informed Ark Encounter that, by now presenting itself as a non-profit, it was in breach of its Tourism Development agreement.
4. Ham fails to disclose that it was three days after Kentucky sent its letter that the Ark Encounter’s land was returned to a for-profit entity.
In all his verbiage Ken Ham fails to rebut what would seem the most obvious explanation of the recent strange happenings at Ark Encounter. That is, in an effort not to pay the fifty-cent tax, AiG/Ark Encounter tried to negate Williamstown’s ability to impose a tax by moving the Ark to non-profit status, but when Kentucky made clear that this would result in the end of the sales tax rebate, AiG/Ark Encounter backed down, returning to for-profit status and accepting Williamstown’s tax.
Is this what AiG understands as Christian behavior?
Today’s post is a continuation of our colleague Zach Spidel’s reflections on the Willow Creek Community’s Global Leadership Summit. Below, Zach describes the ways he sees the leadership lessons to be at odds with Christian ministry.
Among the many things that trouble me about the Global Leadership Summit, which I described in my last post, let me focus on just one core area of concern, and that is the Summit’s inappropriately instrumental approach to Christian ministry.
The Summit is explicitly intended to help Christians be better leaders and is attended by many ministers, church staff, and lay leaders. Yet there is vanishingly little scriptural exposition or theological reflection in its main sessions. The content of those sessions is, rather, mostly taken up with corporate-style leadership advice. The Summit offers systems management, drawing on sociology, psychology, economic theory, and many other disciplines to help Christian leaders arrange their resources in “maximally efficient” ways designed to produce more results, better results, more quickly.
The inherent logic of this approach seems to be as follows: God has given us certain goals to pursue, most importantly, the salvation of souls and the growth of the church. While God has given us these goals, he has left it up to us to ascertain the best ways to accomplish them. That is to say, the methodology of ministry is up to us. In order to serve God well, then, we should seek to create the most efficient methodologies possible. If, for instance, God means for us to bring people into a saving relationship with him, then we should seek methods of ministry which bring more people more quickly into such a relationship.
The final assumption underlying the Summit is that there is clearly successful wisdom on offer in the corporate realm about how to effectively pursue efficiencies in systems and in personnel management. The corporate, political, non-profit, and mega-church leaders typically brought in to present have all gotten big results – lots of profits, lots of votes, lots of consumers, lots of worshipers, etc. Christian leaders can and should take the methodological wisdom of these people and apply it.
The Summit’s basic approach to Christian leadership training is, sadly enough, fatally flawed. Here are the three most egregious examples of the Summit’s misconceptions:
1. The Summit wrongly assumes that Jesus has not provided us with a methodology to follow. Far from giving us a list of things he wants us to accomplish and asking us to figure out the best way of accomplishing them, Jesus has given us himself as the Way. Jesus has, to use the Summit’s terminology, given us the methodology he wishes us to use and asked us to leave the results up to him. Jesus is not simply a source of personal devotional uplift offered up before people engage the real meat of leadership training. Instead, Jesus’ life – particularly his death on the cross, illuminated by his teachings – is the master class Christian leaders need. Therefore, a Christian leadership conference’s content should largely be composed of Christocentric hermeneutics (of the Bible and our missional context) and theology.
2. More than this, the Way of Jesus is fundamentally at odds with the typical methodologies presented at the Summit. Jesus’ life led up to and is fittingly summarized by his struggle in Gethsemane and his willing death on the cross. The Way of Jesus is the Way of patient, cruciform love. His only strategy is the cross. After three years of ministry, Jesus was reviled by the vast majority of his contemporaries (that small fraction of whom had ever heard of this itinerant preacher from the backwoods of a far flung imperial province) and abandoned by his closest followers. Far from pursuing “success,” as judged by numbers of converts, influence in the culture, speed of results or any other such metric, Jesus embraced the cross – which was then and is still today failure in the scales of any worldly metric. Christian leaders, called to imitation of Christ, should do the same.
3. Perhaps most important, the purposes for which Jesus founded his church are poisoned by the pursuit of efficiency. God is out to accomplish things through us (the accomplishment being up to Him, not us). Rather than “save souls,” however, God is out to “make disciples” – a very different proposition! Numerical church growth may result, but that is not the point. There is nothing more inimical to growth as a disciple than asking for the fastest and easiest route to being one. “Lord, tell me the easiest and quickest way to become holy!” To pursue “efficient” means of discipling people is to ensure you will largely fail to do so. And that is why, for the sake of God’s mission in the world, I hope the Summit, and the strand of Christian leadership thinking it represents, will turn from the board rooms of America to the hill of Golgotha to learn what leadership looks like.
Zach Spidel is a minister with the Brethren in Christ Church and is currently serving as the pastor of two congregations in Dayton, Ohio, including The Shepherd’s Table – a church he led in planting on the city’s struggling east end. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a matriculating student in the University of Dayton’s Ph.D. program in theology, Zach is an eclectic and ecumenical Anabaptist who aims in ministry and in scholarship to simply follow Jesus.
Four times I have attended the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day Christian leadership training event hosted by Willow Creek Community, Bill Hybels’ suburban Chicago evangelical megachurch. When I had to decline this year’s invitation due to an overpacked calendar, I was deeply relieved. This influential conference claims “to help Christians grow their leadership to maximize their Kingdom impact.” Instead, it is misshaping Christian leaders through its reliance upon certain tragically mistaken missiological assumptions. In this post I will describe my experience at the event and, in a subsequent post, I will offer a constructive critique of the event’s working missiology.
Each time I have attended the Summit, I have done so at a large evangelical church in my area – one of over 500 satellite sites around the world to which the conference is telecast. After checking in and partaking of the complementary snacks in the cavernous lobby, my companions and I are shepherded into a specially prepared multipurpose sanctuary/gymnasium. Most of the hundreds of people in attendance are pastors or lay leaders from local churches, but there is also a significant minority of Christian business people.
Up front stands a massive screen. Shots of the main stage at Willow Creek, intermixed with promos and information, flash across that screen while lively music is piped in. Then there is a pre-event video (with pulsating electronic beat) designed to get us excited; one year there was a highlight reel from the presentations of past members of the Summit’s “world class faculty,” including CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (Jack Welch!), major politicians (Bill Clinton!), “thought leaders,” authors, and megachurch pastors.
After a countdown, the event starts with worship – led by the onscreen band. I do my best to sing along to the rock-worship anthems displayed on the massive glowing rectangle above my head.
After worship the sessions begin, typically in 90-minute chunks. The presenters are each introduced with a summary of their impressive accomplishments and credentials. They address topics designed to help us be better Christian leaders, topics such as: “Assessing an organization’s growth potential”; “Creating an innovative culture”; “Streamlining process to boost execution”; “Reimagining performance management.”
At least one or two sessions are reserved for content that seems specifically Christian, during which God talk features prominently. But the bulk of the sessions refer seldom to God, and even more rarely to Jesus.
One year I listened to a famous megachurch pastor instruct us on how to hire and fire staff members – a topic to which I, as a bi-vocational church planting pastor in a beleaguered urban neighborhood, found it hard to relate. This pastor shares a story about a time when he had to “let someone go.” The man in question had helped to found the now-very-large church and had served for years with the senior pastor on the ministry team. He was a moral and spiritually healthy minister, but he had to be let go because he “didn’t have the capacity” to keep up with the growing church and its organizational needs. This pastor talked about how hard but how important it had been to help his fellow pastor “transition” out of his ministry position.
Throughout the sessions, I hear about the importance of leadership. Good leaders are God’s gift to the church. Good leaders are efficient in their use of resources. Good leaders know how to get things done!
On breaks between sessions or during lunch, I mill about the massive lobby or sprawling parking lot outside, contemplating the messages of these famous and successful people. I speak to my fellow pastors, all of whom (from my group) pastor small churches. Sometimes we admit to one another that, for some strange reason, we’re beginning to feel a bit discouraged amidst all the encouragement.
Coming back in for the last session, I see Bill Hybels ascend to the podium, his passion for this project palpable even through the screen. He expresses amazement at the quality of this year’s presentations, interviews, and panels, and he sends us forth, after two days of watching these “great leaders” on our massive television screen, to be the leaders which the world so desperately needs. Or, at least, that is what he tells us.
Our last post talked about a new movie that is being featured at Ark Encounter this summer, called As in the Days of Noah. Very briefly (a fuller plot summary can be found in our previous post), the film tells the story of a young woman (Adah) who lives in New York city and writes for an online “progressive” tabloid and who is sent to Kentucky by her boss to do a negative story on Ark Encounter. To say she has profound doubts about God, thinks the whole idea of building a life-size ark is ridiculous, and desperately does not want to make the trip is an understatement. But she goes anyway, taking along her cameraman and soundman. Early in her brief visit, Adah interviews the character of Noah Zomarsh (fictional spokesman for Ark Encounter) who serves in the course of the film as a kind and gentle evangelist (as to why that is notable, see previous post) who seems to have infinite patience for Adah, which is impressive since she is not only cranky, rude, disrespectful, vain, and bossy but also announces early in the film that she is among those who are “over the God myth.”
We won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that Adah is quite changed in the course of the movie. In addition to the persuasive power of the kind evangelist (Noah), another chief reason she is changed appears about a third of the way into the movie when Noah takes Adah and her crew into a theater located in the belly of the ark.
What happens once they enter the theater is odd, we think, for at least three reasons.
1. It seems odd that in this short movie (25 minutes, 42 seconds), the viewer spends a quarter of it (6 minutes, 44 seconds) watching a film within it. Now and then, the viewer also sees the reactions on Adah’s and her crew’s faces as well. For the most part, the viewer spends nearly 7 minutes watching a film inside a movie.
2. Another thing that seems odd is that the film (within the movie) that Adah and her crew are watching features one man (Ray Comfort, who is a Christian evangelist and who plays himself in the film) giving a speech. For nearly the entire film (within the movie), he makes his case for a certain kind of conservative Christianity that Adah and her crew appear to reject. On the face of it, that wouldn’t seem to be the sort of film they would be interested in watching.
3. Perhaps the oddest thing in all this is that the figure of Ray Comfort is not actually Ray Comfort. As we mentioned above, he does play himself, but instead of appearing as Ray Comfort the person, he appears as Ray Comfort the hologram. When the film starts, he appears as a figure in any film: two dimensional and projected on a screen. But a few moments into the film (within the movie) he “jumps” out of the screen and becomes a hologram of himself.
Since seeing the movie, we have been scratching our heads to figure out why Ray Comfort appears as a hologram. Why not just appear as Ray Comfort? Is it to make the film within the movie more interesting? Exciting? Is it about showcasing how technologically advanced the folks behind Ark Encounter are? Is it about explaining why Adah and her crew remain in the theater to watch the film and don’t just walk out. Are they transfixed by the ghostly hologram who stands before them?
We don’t know. But one thing that stood out to us is how Ray Comfort, the hologram, reminds us of the talking animatronic figures in the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. Just like them, he speaks but the visitors (in this case Adah and her crew) can’t interrupt him, can’t introduce any counter-arguments to his case, or even ask him a question. And that, quite simply, is because he isn’t really there. Even more, since he isn’t actually there he can’t even see them much less hear them.
Ray Comfort, the hologram, also reminds us of Bob Gillespie’s presentation at the AiG conference we attended in July 2014. As we observe in Righting America, his “rapid-fire delivery” and the fact that “no time [was] allotted for questions” meant that he got to make his case all of a piece with no interruptions or critical interventions by his audience (203-205).
By way of all three kinds of figures—talking animatronic figures at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, Bob Gillespie during and after his presentation, and Ray Comfort the hologram—the skeptic, the critical thinker, the person who sees things otherwise, even just the person who seeks clarification is silenced.
Thus, in the presence of Ray Comfort, the hologram, Adah the cranky, mouthy, bossy, nonbeliever is rendered silent and invisible. Whatever their reasons for making Ray Comfort appear as a hologram, it’s hard not to see the scene depicted in this movie as the Christian apologist’s dream. They get to make their case in full and their critics are not only silenced; they are invisible.