Friday, March 28, 2014

God most compelling character in 'Noah'

Sometime over the millennia, we have managed to domesticate the Bible’s terrifying story of Noah and the great flood that wiped out most of creation – the subject of a startling new movie, “Noah.” I had a chance to see it this week.

As a child, I’m sure I was exposed to toy replicas of those cuddly animals Noah herded into his ark. And like a lot of baby boomers, I remember laughing at this story from Genesis, as retold on records and TV by that great theologian, Bill Cosby.

In one of his earliest and best comedy routines, Cosby re-imagines that first conversation between Noah, a carpenter sawing away in his rec room, and the invisible Lord, who commands Noah in a booming voice to build an ark and fill it with two of every creature.

“Right,” responds a skeptical Noah, who’s thinking this is a prank. “Who is this really? What’s going on?”

“I’m going to destroy the world,” God answers.

“Right,” says Noah, smiling. “Am I on ‘Candid Camera’?”

As I sat in the theater, watching director Darren Aronofsky’s visually stunning film, it became obvious why we have long candy-coated this biblical epic.

Without the comedy and the cutesy animals, this is one scary tale to watch and to ponder: In it, God drowns people. Lots and lots of them.

And Aronofsky, whose previous films (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) explore dark subjects, does not spare us the agony of the doomed. As Noah (played by a brooding Russell Crowe) and his family float away in the ark, they can hear the desperate cries of those clinging to every shrub and piece of mountain on the rapidly disappearing land.

The film and the Bible make it clear that many, if not most, of those people had become corrupt and beastly in their violence toward each other and the environment – all sins that are not exactly unheard of today.

So the Creator, as God is called in the film, decides to destroy virtually all of creation and start over.

We never see God in this cinematic blockbuster, which is true to the spirit if not all the details of the Bible’s version (Crowe’s Noah gets older, for example, but never reaches 600 years old, as Genesis put his age at the time of the flood).

But God is as much of a character as Noah. And a much richer, more mysterious one.

He communicates his will – and a stark preview of the flood – in the images that invade Noah’s dreams.

He also “speaks” through the beauty of nature, in the words of the women in Noah’s life, and in a father’s lullaby.

And, in the end, this character God surprises again: Using a white dove and a dazzling rainbow, he turns his back on destruction and affirms love and mercy for all creation.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 21, 2014

It's campaign season for some Baptist pastors

The Rev. Mark Harris, who'd like to be North Carolina's next U.S. senator, isn't the only Baptist pastor from Charlotte running for office these days.

But the two other preacher candidates have their eyes on national denominational offices.

The Rev. Clifford Jones Sr. of Friendship Missionary Baptist has been campaigning since last year for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention. America’s oldest and largest black Baptist organization, with 7 million members, it will hold its 134th annual session – and presidential election – Sept. 1-5 in New Orleans.

The Southern Baptist Convention, still the country’s largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9 million members, will convene its annual gathering June 10-11 in Baltimore. And, for now, the only person expected to be nominated as the SBC’s first vice president is the Rev. Clint Pressley of Hickory Grove Baptist.

No stepping-stone

Pressley said it was not his idea to run, he’s not campaigned a lick and he’d happily withdraw if “somebody else wants it so bad.”

But he did agree to be nominated. And, if elected, Pressley will do the job for a year. Mostly, he said, the first vice president gives speeches at seminaries and mission boards round the country and, at the SBC’s 2015 national gathering, will moderate business meetings.

For those wondering whether Pressley will use the veep job as a stepping-stone to the presidency of the SBC: “Nah, I’m not old enough yet.”

For now, the 45-year-old Pressley is busy preaching five services at two locations every weekend, looking out for the church’s school and pastoring the 5,000 people who worship at Hickory Grove Baptist.

Even a website

At the National Baptist Convention, open campaigning – at least for the top spot – is expected.

So I didn’t get to talk to Jones this week because, you guessed it, he was out-of-town -- Nashville, to be exact -- looking for votes.

Jones, one of five candidates for the presidency, has also campaigned in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, New York and Washington, D.C.

He has a campaign office and a state-of-the-art campaign website.

And all the expenses are paid for with campaign contributions, not church funds, said Carolyn Mints, his campaign coordinator.

-- Tim Funk

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Coming up in uptown: Clean-cut 'Mormon Prom'

Next Saturday night (March 22), more than 400 teens will converge on uptown for the 11th annual "Mormon Prom."

This free event at Levine Museum of the New South (6:30-9:30 p.m.) is expected to draw Mormons (and some non-Mormons) from Charlotte to Greensboro.

Participants, ages 16-18, have to agree to dress conservatively. For young men, that means coats and ties – tuxedos optional; for young women, it means modest dress – no short skirts, bare shoulders or plunging necklines
The DJ will play songs from a pre-approved list of good-message tunes that contain no inappropriate language or references to sex. Examples: "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, "Firework" by Katy Perry, and "Cotton Eye Joe" by Rednex

And though there will be couples at this prom, most of the teens will come in groups.

The event – called "Color the Night" – is designed to offer "a prom-like experience," but without the usual dating, fashion and financial pressures, said Heather Jenkins, spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Charlotte area.

 "It’s a great environment," she said, "and they’ll get to meet other young people from all over."

Interested in going? Space is limited, so RSVP no later than Sunday to

-- Tim Funk

Monday, March 10, 2014

Kentucky Baptists lure unchurched with gun giveaways

The Kentucky Baptist Convention thinks it's found a way to attract non-churchgoing men.

Give away guns. At church.

You read that right: According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Baptist Convention is staging "Second Amendment Celebrations" at member churches around the state.

As an "outreach to rednecks," as the convention's spokesman put it, the churches are giving away guns as door prizes as a way to lure unchurched men and then, if all goes according to plan, convert them into followers of Christ.

More than 1,000 people were expected to show up at Lone Oak Baptist Church in Paducah this month for a free steak dinner and a chance to win one of 25 handguns, long guns and shotguns.

Chuck McAlister, an ex-pastor and former host of a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel, presides at these gunfests in Kentucky churches. He told the Courier-Journal that 1,678 men had made "professions of faith" at about 50 such events last year, most of them in Kentucky.

But the newspaper talked to some pastors who thought the idea was a bit backwards if the goal was to make these men disciples of Jesus -- also known as The Prince of Peace.

"How ironic to use guns to lure men in to hear a message about Jesus, who said, 'Put away the sword,'" said the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Louisville's Highland Baptist Church.

Read the full Courier-Journal story and watch a related video here.

I checked with the state Baptist Convention of North Carolina, whose spokesman, Brian Davis, said he's not heard of any gun-giveaways by churches in the Tar Heel State.

And Davis said his organization of 4,300 Baptist churches has rules in place that prohibit firearms at its camps and conference centers.

"So it would be difficult for us to endorse that as a convention because of our own policies," Davis said.

Still, he did not pass judgment on what the Kentucky Baptists are doing.

"That's a new one to me," he said. "But the Scriptures do say we should try to engage people where they are."

In Charlotte, at least one church is going the other way: At Christmastime for the last seven years, New Life Fellowship Center in the city's Double Oak community has offered gift cards in exchange for people dropping off guns at the church.

The program brought in about 120 guns the first year. The church, pastored by John Kee, turns the guns over to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to be destroyed.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 7, 2014

Shoemaker: My new life is time of healing

It's been just over a year since the Rev. Steve Shoemaker left Myers Park Baptist Church.

Amid tears and applause, he gave a final sermon, then walked away from the stresses of pastoring a 2,200-member congregation and into a 90-day out-patient recovery program.

Before his exodus, Shoemaker had sought treatment at a Maryland facility for anxiety and depression and admitted “self-medicating with alcohol.”

So where is he these days? Just about everywhere.

He’s theologian-in-residence at Queens University of Charlotte, where he’s scheduled to give the school’s annual Witherspoon Lecture this month.

He’s a visiting assistant professor of religion at Johnson C. Smith University, where he’ll give the Lyceum Lecture next month.

And at Davidson College, he's giving lectures, staging an alumni seminar and meeting with students interested in going into the clergy.

I asked him about life after Myers Park Baptist.

In an email, Shoemaker began his answer with gratitude for his 14 years serving “one of the most remarkable congregations in our country.”

Then he wrote: “A minister in need of healing is in a tough spot. Can they heal on the job? I would hope so, but not always. For me, this year is proving to be a healing one and I am loving my association with (the three universities) and am benefiting from intense personal work.”

Details on his lectures:

  • 7 p.m., March 18, in Queens University’s Ketner Auditorium (Sykes Building), he’ll speak about “Christian Faith and the Care of the Earth: The Witness of Wendell Berry.” Berry is a poet, essayist and Kentucky farmer.
  • 6:30 p.m., April 8 at JCSU’s Biddle Hall Auditorium, he’ll speak on “Gay Equality, Moral Mondays and God-talk: Witnessing Religious Values in the Public Square.”

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Churches, restaurants to offer Lent services, soup

For the fifth year in a row, churches and restaurants in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood are banding together to mark Lent each Wednesday with a service and some soup.

"Wednesday Worship in Elizabeth," open to the public, will begin on Ash Wednesday, March 5, and continue every week through April 16.

Each Wednesday, the service will start at noon, with a soup and bread lunch for $5 at 12:35 p.m.

Hawthorne United Methodist Church, 501 Hawthorne Lane, will be the worship and lunch site every week.  But a different church or hospital chaplaincy will lead each service.

Seven restaurants and a culinary school will take turns providing the lunch of bread and soup.

All proceeds from the lunches will be donated to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, which trains adults who have had trouble finding jobs, and to Second Helping, a carry-out kitchen on Central Avenue started to provide jobs for formerly incarcerated women.

This year's theme, "There and Back Again," is meant to evoke reflection on the Lenten journey into the spiritual wilderness and back again.

Here's the schedule, the churches, and the restaurants:

  • March 5: Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian and Community Culinary School of Charlotte and Second Helping.

  • March 12: St. John's Baptist and Crisp.

  • March 19: St. Martin's Episcopal and 1900 Mexican Grill.

  • March 26: Center City Church of Charlotte and Common Market.

  • April 2: Presbyterian/Novant Hospital and Hawthorne's New York Pizza.

  • April 9: Education at Carolinas Medical Center, Mercy Hospital and Nothing But Noodles

  • April 16: Hawthorne Lane United Methodist and Sabor Latin Street Grill.

More details here.

-- Tim Funk