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Trying to do some justice to some aspects of some parts of American public life, namely the religious, keeps many scholars and reporters busy, and provides a vocation for some of us. At Sightings we recognize that it is not hard to sight headlined or billboard-sized events and signals, even as many of the most important features of religious life still escape our notice. We know that our writers have to be “noticers” of features that are obvious but often overlooked. Sometimes an obituary will prompt inquiries which help us do “some justice” to the larger picture. This week offers one such occasion.
The headline which could not not catch my eye was in the paper on our breakfast table on January 9. Bold type in the Chicago Sun-Times shouted “Co-founded Awana ministry.” Evangelicals of sundry types will have had no difficulty identifying and identifying with its subject, Art Rorheim, who died at age 99. Maureen O’Donnell opens her story, noting that Rorheim “wasn’t as well-known as evangelical Christian leaders like Billy Graham or Bill Hybels or Rick Warren.” But Awana, it says here, serves an estimated “3.7 million kids in more than 100 countries” through non-glamorous “Bible lessons, Scripture memorization and athletic games” in thirty language and “more than 100 religious denominations.” I’d like to tell Rorheim’s story, but I have a different agenda today, and simply suggest you see here or here for more of it. Moving on, we can note that the name “Moody” shows up in many stories about Rorheim, though the Moody Bible Institute and Moody Church were not, to my knowledge, organizations of which he was a part. They are kin; O’Donnell quotes Erwin W. Lutzer, pastor emeritus at the giant Moody Church, in tribute to Rorheim.
The Martys were guests of friends who hosted us for the Christmas Eve service at Moody, where we joined a congregation of 4,500 singers of and listeners to carols, hymns, scriptures, and a good sermon. Because of the way religious communities are fractured and often distant from, if not openly at war with, each other, the Martys are not expected to know much about or to be at home as we were at Moody Church. But my roles as journalist, historian, and snoop poise me to care. (Disclosure: I share a birthday with evangelist Dwight L. Moody, have hosted MBI students at a theological chat in our home, wrote the Foreword to the aging but still best biography of the evangelist, and can see the Moody buildings out my window.)
Researching for this column, I turned to the great agency Google, to see how things were going on the Moody front. Up online came some relevant stories not about the Church but the Bible Institute, internationally known for its long service to the fundamentalist and evangelical expressions of faith. I turned to a Christianity Today obituary of Rorheim and spied among the site’s listed “Top Stories” some downers, beginning with “Biggest Mennonite Conference Leaves Denomination,” a reminder that even “together” church bodies are coming apart. Soon, on this same link, I came to the oh-oh stories which involve the Moody name. Readers can follow through if they wish. We learn that the MBI board recently unanimously fired its president, its provost, and another biggie at the school. Student enrollment and finances are down, faculty have been cut, morale is not high, charges of heresy and accommodation to cultural trends are among trending stories.
What to say about this? First, that evangelical-fundamentalist organizations are not exempt from bad news stories. Religion News Service has to report almost weekly on another big-time evangelical empire’s leader falling into scandal. Et cetera. For some, such accounts inspire Schadenfreude, defined as “rejoicing in the misfortune of others.” Whether or not that response matches the advertised ethic of any major religious organization or cause, anyone who tries to cover the broad spectrum of religious stories knows that no “religion” is exempt from “down” stories, scandals, schisms, and more. We have to report on them, without always being their judge, learning more and more about human frailty. For now, I choose to let the post-season echoes of the Christmas Eve carols and messages at Moody Church bring cheer and hope for better times than those we knew in 2017.