Tag Archives: scandal

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.

The case of Ted Haggard, unfortunately, has recently resurfaced with a vengeance, thanks to two things: 1) the release of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, and 2) the new allegations that, in addition to having sex and meth with a male prostitute, Haggard also had an inappropriate relationship in 2006 with a 20-year old boy in his church. In something of a bizarre press tour (similar to that of Rod “I might as well milk my infamy” Blagojevich), Haggard has recently appeared on Larry King, Oprah, and Nightline to discuss his experiences of being sexually confused, shunned by his church, and generally despised by most everyone. It’s all very sad to watch, as Haggard describes his various therapists’ opinions on his sexual orientation and how he’s tried to reconcile his sexual struggles with his abiding passion for Christ, the church, and his family.

Watching Haggard on Larry King Live last week, I had a few thoughts:

  • It’s hard to feel bad for Ted Haggard. But I do. He started his church from the ground up, made it a megachurch, made a name for himself in evangelical circles, and let the pride and hubris of all of it undo him. It’s not the easiest thing to be powerful—especially in the church.
  • The evangelical church is really bad at dealing with any sort of complicated issue in sexuality. This is why Haggard was and is so confused about it; it’s why he is shunned by most in the established church. We don’t know how to handle people like him. He had no one to talk to about it for all those years, because the church is so ill equipped to offer any guidance on the matter. This is not to put the blame for what Haggard did on the church. It’s just to say that, as an institution, we’re not that great at helping people through these things.
  • The church’s reaction—to exile Haggard and let him fend for himself post-scandal—is understandable but very unfortunate. When people in our Christian communities mess up, are we really supposed to kick them out and let them find redemption some other way? (in Haggard’s case: not through a church, but through a string of therapists and counselors). I understand the gravity of Haggard’s sin. It was egregious. Our response to moral failure must involve discipline and punishment, yes; but shouldn’t it also involve forgiveness and restoration?

All of this got me thinking of Lonnie Frisbee, an influential evangelist from the early 1970s who ignited the Jesus People movement in Southern California and proved to be the catalyst for the explosive rise of two very prominent evangelical denominations: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. Frisbie, an LSD-tripping hippie who converted to Christianity in the late 60s, struggled with homosexuality prior to his conversion. And, as is so often the case with life post-conversion, he continued to struggle with it. But he was a lightening rod and major boon to the growth of the church in Southern California, and so initially the pastors who brought him on as preacher looked past his sexually suspicious past. But as soon as Frisbie had a few “lapse” moments and it became clear that his homosexuality could not be hidden from the congregations, he was kicked to the curb—first by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel and then by John Wimber at Vineyard. Eventually both denominations made attempts to write Frisbee out of their official histories or at least downplay his contributions. Exiled, Frisbie eventually died of AIDS, a shunned and misunderstood footnote in evangelical history.

It’s not that I fault any of these churches for removing Haggard or Frisbie from their ministry; I think it would have been wrong to let them continue in ministerial authority even in the midst of illicit sexual sins. But I do lament that they felt the need to essentially disown these fallen men, making little attempt to work with them for community-based healing and restoration. It’s as if they were saying, “It was an aberration that this pastor ever had our respect; we’re sorry we put you in the trust of such an imperfect man.” But aren’t we all imperfect men? I’m not saying that we should validate unrighteousness or anything. But can’t we at least admit that struggling with sin is not abnormal or immediately exile-worthy? Hasn’t the church always been led by screwed up people?

Thus ends the “Sex From the Pulpit” series, on a slightly off-topic note. I suppose one take home from all three posts is that, while sex can be recklessly wielded from the pulpit, it can also be recklessly ignored by the church at large. We need to talk and think about all this stuff, critically, carefully, and Christianly, and we need to do it together. I hope these blog posts have been productive in that regard. Now I’m ready to not write about sex for a long long time.

Putting on a Front for the World

Much has been made of how important these Beijing Olympics are for China—not for their economy (which hardly needs a boost) or for their patriotic morale, but for their PR on the world stage. Quite simply, the Chinese have an image problem, and they’re fiercely committed to spinning themselves in a better light.

But spin is increasingly easy to detect, and China—God bless her—is not doing a very good job of rebranding itself as a country of freedom-loving citizens of a democratic world. Rather, China comes across as a top-down, control-obsessed behemoth willing to do whatever it takes to present its ideal image to the world. Take a few of the examples from the opening week of the Olympic games:

  • Opening ceremony deceptions: First came the news that some of the more elaborate fireworks we saw on TV were merely CGI effects, then came the juicier scandal that the cute pigtailed girl in the red dress who serenaded the worldwide audience was lipsyncing “Ode to the Motherland” because the actual singing girl (performing from somewhere off stage) was deemed too ugly (crooked teeth!) to be the “face of China.”
  • Mysteriously teensy Chinese gymnasts: Suspicions abound about the ages of two of team China’s most talented female gymnasts, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan. Various recent press reports have placed the ages of the diminutive stars as low as 13 or 14, but the Chinese government has since submitted passports that “prove” their ages to be 16, making them eligible competitors. We can’t say for sure, but the obvious conclusion from this is that the government was more than willing to “adjust” the official ages of these young athletes whose participation in the gymnastics competition was integral to that ever-important gold medal.
  • Suppression of protests: Don’t the Chinese know that the best thing they could do for themselves would be to allow very public protests to occur? An Olympic games is just not right without them. Everyone knows about the Chinese abuses of human rights, the Tibet debacle, etc. Thus, we all know that there should be throngs of protesters at these games. That there are not very many (at least visible to the outside observer) shows that China is up to its freedom-suppressing old tricks. Numerous reports have demonstrated that China will stop at nothing to keep news coverage of protests or dissenters from reaching the outside world.

Alas, the Chinese are not the smoothest operators when it comes to slyly manufacturing a skewed image of themselves. We can make fun of them for this, and be outraged, but the truth is they are not much different than any of us. Anyone with a Facebook page, blog, or Flickr account cannot really critique China for their heavy-handed image maintenance. We live in a day and age where the image or presentation of reality is more important than the reality itself (thank you Baudrillard), and China is just the largest and perhaps most clumsy offender.

All of this makes me reflect on reason #187 why The Dark Knight is the most relevant film of the decade thus far. It is all about this “truth distortion” spin zone—the civil importance of telling the public only so much truth and lying about certain things “for their sake.” Problem is, when you can see through these intricate PR spin maneuvers (as we can with China’s Olympics), the result is that we trust the spinner even less. Hopefully Batman will be a better spin doctor than Beijing is.