Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adrian Rogers is Dead

Who's Adrian Rogers?

Glad you asked.

The Rev. Adrian P. Rogers, the three-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention who led a conservative takeover of the powerful denomination that helped usher in a resurgence of conservative Christians on pulpits and in politics, died on Tuesday in Memphis. He was 74.

His death was announced on the Web site of a ministry he founded, Love Worth Finding, www.lwf.org. He had cancer and pneumonia, according to The Baptist Press News.

Mr. Rogers, who used the honorific Dr. because of his many honorary degrees, was a riveting preacher who helped revive the fundamentalist Christian message that the Bible is to be regarded as literally true.

He took over leadership of the Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis in 1972 and built it into one of the nation's earliest megachurches, with a new suburban campus in Cordova, Tenn., and a congregation of 29,000. He retired as pastor in March.

His first election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1979, was the turning point in the conservatives' battle for dominance over theological liberals and moderates - a battle that had been simmering for more than 15 years.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with more than 16 million members, and the second largest religious group in the nation, after the Roman Catholic Church.

"After World War II, some of our seminaries and our institutions took a turn to the left, a turn that the rank and file didn't take," said Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy and lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Dr. Rogers was part of that first generation of people who went to seminary and heard the Bible attacked in the classroom," Dr. Land said, "and resolved that when they got to a position of authority and influence, they would use it to try to bring the seminaries and institutions back into line with what Baptists have always believed about the Bible."


After Mr. Rogers's election, the conservatives never lost the presidency. He was re-elected president in 1986 and 1987, and he appointed committee members to replace the trustees who ran the denomination's six seminaries, national agencies and ministries.

Under the conservatives' control, the convention reversed course and became an opponent of abortion. It took controversial positions in favor of evangelizing Jews, boycotting the Walt Disney Company because of its gay-friendly policies, and asserting that women were mandated by the Bible to "submit" to their husbands. Mr. Rogers helped revise the Baptist confession of faith in 2000, which said that only men could serve as pastors.

"Rogers was the rhetorician of this movement," said Bill J. Leonard, a church historian who is dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School and author of "Baptists in America" (2005, Columbia University Press).

The takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention has been a model for conservatives in other Protestant denominations who are trying to wrest control of church institutions from their liberal-to-moderate wings, Dr. Leonard said.

Mr. Rogers was particularly involved in overhauling the Southern Baptist seminaries and curriculums, said Dr. Leonard, who was pushed out along with other moderates. He said that from 1990 to 1995, about 80 percent of the faculty members in the six seminaries either were forced out or took early retirement as a result of the conservative takeover.

Mr. Rogers, born in West Palm Beach, Fla., was a high school football star who said he heard his call to the ministry one day while lying face down on the field. He graduated from Stetson University in Deland, Fla., in 1954 and from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1958.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce, of Memphis; two sons, Steve of North Palm Beach, Fla., and David, a missionary in Madrid; two daughters, Gayle Foster, of Snellville, Ga., and Janice Edmiston of Arlington, Tenn.; and nine grandchildren.

In October, Mr. Rogers told The Florida Baptist Witness that out of everything he had accomplished in his life, "I think the part that God allowed me to have in the turning of the Southern Baptist Convention may have the longest-lasting effect and be the most significant."

In the NYT print version, there's a quote from James Dobson, on whose Focus on the Family board Rogers sat:

(Rogers) was "a staunch ally in the battle to defend biblical values in our culture."

Since I run this here blog I get to say what's important about this man and this article on his death. And what I find compelling is the reference by Richard Land that Rogers was among the first seminarians to find the bible "attacked" in the classroom.

I'm not sure how old biblical criticism is--it probably goes back at least to the apostalic era--but I imagine that the post-war era, when the young Rogers would have entered seminary, was a time when bible scholarship (which for fundamentalists is kind of a contradiction in terms) began to be taken more seriously. Certainly the theories of Charles Darwin, and the Scopes trial raised questions about biblical literalness that fundamentalists had long assumed were, um, gospel truth.

Since that time, scholars and theologians have continued to make great strides in uncovering many of the mysteries of how, when and why the books of the bible came to be written.

Richard Friedman, in Who Wrote The Bible, argues that the old testament reflects two strands of historical writing from two branches of the family of Abraham, the people of Israel's patriarch, who were separated when Jacob took his family into Egypt but who came to be reunited after the Israelite exodus experience. His theory supports those scholars who find in the Genesis creation story, seemingly two separate accounts (for more on this, please see Karen Armstrong's In The Beginning). Friedman contends this pattern of parallel bible accounts continues throughout scripture as the two histories of the people were woven together in an effort, after the Babylonian captivity, to create a united people.

Recent scholarship of the new testament has, if anything, been even more revealing. Among the more interesting theories of the origin of the gospel stories of Jesus are that they were written to serve as liturgical readings to supplement the readings of the Jewish Torah that took place in the synagogues (for more on this, please see Liberating the Gospels, by Bishop John Shelby Spong). More specifically, there is evidence to believe that the gospel accounts are ordered, not as strict biography or history, but in a pattern set to correspond to the readings affiliated with the various Jewish festivals. This is a pattern that even some conservative Christian scholars have come to accept, for instance in the book of John, who's text reveals an author seeking to show how Jesus replaced the various symbols and feasts of the Jewish cycle. Furthermore, it now also seems evident that Mark was the first gospel to be written, followed at least decade or more later by the writers of Matthew and Luke, who had Mark at their side as they constructed their accounts, but changed Mark's earlier account for specific purposes.

In any event, all of this is to say that this is some of the background involved in the fundamentalists' dispute with modernity and scholarship within the church itself. These in-depth scriptural studies have not always lent themselves to the demands of evangelism and the reassurance of "faith" required by many members of the church community, who have been taught, and many in the pews who want to believe, that the bible and the preacher shouldn't be questioned, the least of all my uppitty, elitist liberal scholars trying to undermine the gospel.

And this Rogers guy was apparently instrumental in purging the seminaries of this type of scholarship, or at least of those researchers whose findings revealed evidence the church would rather not know, or debate.

The end result is a church leadership that is meaner and more manipulative, and a church body that is more bitter, more narrow-minded, and less able to relate to the practices of an evolving world where reason and serious inquiry interfere with the demands of "faith".

As I've written previously, I think this is obviously a disturbing trend, both for the church and for those outside of it. For those in the church, and supposedly interested in the "truth", it seems worthwhile, even necessary to me, to subject the claims of the bible, or at least the claims of leading fundamentalists to a thorough examination, and to not be afraid to question long-held assumptions, even as the church becomes more defensive and critical of dissidents who aren't as willing any more to blindly follow their leaders.

1 comment:

Gaia sighs... said...

Given fundamentalist insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, it speaks to your contention that "The end result is a church leadership that is meaner and more manipulative" ( not to mention being creatures, not of faith, but of political convenience) that Baptists would stand behind Alito to fill O'Conner's seat on the SOTUS. Obviously, they care not a whit for the fact that, if his nomination is successful, there will be a clear majority of 5 catholics on the Court, all of whom, Liberal and Conservative alike, are obligated by their faith to heed their Pope's recent admonishment that the Bible ~not~ be taken literally.

I wonder how that will play out, vis-a-vis possible future litigaton over stem cell research, womens' rights, etc.?.