Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Witness to the Truth

Yesterday I received and read my copy of Louis Moore's new book Witness to the Truth (Garland, TX: Hannibal Books, 2008, 351 pages, $19.95 paperback). It now lies on the floor beside me, thoroughly consumed.

Oklahoma native Moore matriculated Baylor University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before becoming the Religion editor at The Houston Chronicle for a lengthy tenure that included the era of the Conservative Resurgence. Although he is a lifelong Southern Baptist, he followed so well his commitment to journalistic objectivity as to leave even his most faithful readers largely agnostic as to his own denominational inclinations for several years. Moore worked in media-related positions for both the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the International Mission Board, but he was publicly refused the top position at Baptist Press and was recruited to serve in an anti-CR troika by John Baugh. By his own admission, Moore possesses "an independent streak [that] would never let [him] sell out thoroughly to a cause" [219] and approaches Southern Baptist ideological disputes as someone "more interested in the processes than the final decisions." [191] He counts among his cherished friends, pastors, and advisors such names as Ken Chafin, Glen Hilburn, Richard Land, Paul Pressler, Robert Sloan, Charles Page, and other noteworthy Southern Baptists from every ideological corner of Southern Baptist life. Fundamentalist, Conservative, Moderate, Liberal? Moore defies and refuses labels and vanquishes stereotypes.

The book, like its author, defies categorization. The pre-publication promotional slogan ("Can you handle the truth?") conjured up images of Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) grilling Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and hinted that the book would amount to a painful confrontation with inconvenient truths somehow related to American religious life—an affair of whistle-blowing or some sort of philippic. The actual title of the book, Witness to the Truth, suggests a first-person account belonging to the genre of autobiography or memoirs. The chapter organization (each bears an aphorism as a subtitle) posits the book as a reflective collection of life-lessons for American religious institutions gleaned from years of careful, first-hand inspection, making it more of a self-help, life-coach, "Who Moved My Cheese" sort of monograph.

The book impressed me as something of a hybrid—the fruit of a multitasker not content to attempt solely one thing at a time. Its whistleblowing aspects will probably contribute more to its sales volume than any other aspect of the book, but the tone I discerned in the writing led me to believe that the other two aspects were more important components of the authorial intent.

In my blogging career I've already reviewed one SBC exposé, and I was not terribly impressed. Moore's work fares much better. The relative paucity of bitterness and sanctimony in these pages only boosts Moore's credibility to the reader, although on occasion he reads a bit like Flavius Josephus evaluating the Jewish sects of his day. What is Moore's inconvenient truth? He labors to narrate for us a tale of entrenched religious bureaucracies that regularly lie to their constituencies and stab their colleagues in the back in order to protect their own power. Moore probably wouldn't put that fine of a point on it—never did in the book—but that's the bottom line if I read it correctly.

Epitomizing this thesis is the role played in the book by Dr. Jerry Rankin, Moore's former boss and the current head of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. According to Moore, Rankin misrepresented the salaries of both Moore and colleague David Button in order to lure them to IMB posts, misdirected IMB trustees to keep IMB headquarters in Richmond to save money while planning all along to spend over $40 million (far more than the projected costs of a relocation) on facilities upgrades on the East Coast, misled Moore as to Rankin's personal position on glossolalia, and misguided the IMB board during recent controversies regarding baptism and ecstatic utterances. The picture of Jerry Rankin that emerges from this book is of a micromanaging passive-aggressive maverick with no intention of allowing co-laborers below him (like Button, Moore, or missionaries who see things differently) or above him (like his trustees) to interfere with his personal plans. Moore obviously likes Rankin and believes that he has much to contribute to Christ's work, but believes that trustee complacency and sometimes ineptitude coupled with Rankin's own expert political maneuvering have transformed the IMB executive into an autocrat lacking the boundaries and direction that would make him most effective in his critical role.

Although I have no first-hand experience by which to evaluate Dr. Rankin, it is clear to me that some attempt is underway in Southern Baptist life to empower convention bureaucracy at the expense of solid trustee governance. Constant suggestions to reduce the number of trustee meetings, impose byzantine restrictions upon trustee conversation with one another about board matters (how many of you think that the employed bureaucracies of our entities don't "caucus" to prepare for their board meetings?), and contrive "change" petitions to strongarm trustees are all measures that undercut trustee governance leaving convention bureaucrats unfettered.

I wondered whether many denominational bureaucratic shenanigans could be prevented by a trustee board with an unflinching backbone and good professional advice from somewhere. I saw that the buck truly stopped one step further back than with the administrator. I wondered whether a tough, non-political evaluation system for denominational execs, bishops, and even popes [Moore covered a lot more than Southern Baptists in his career, as does this book] could benefit the cause of Christ.

I saw conservatives lose their ideals about reducing the size and scope of the bureaucracy, about eliminating the bureaucracy's lavish expenditures, about making the local church the true "headquarters" of the denomination. Once in power these conservatives found the large staffs, exciting expense accounts, and the controlling executive style of the denomination too tempting a prize to give up…

Regrettably, the early ideals of the Conservative Resurgence have not happened. Yes, on paper the SBC espouses a more conservative theology. And yes, the Republicans have replaced the Southern Democrats in the seats of power in the denomination. Yet in so many ways the denomination is exactly what it was when the moderates reigned supreme. Union cards and networks are still the order of the day. Names, faces, and in a few cases places have changed, but the "good-ole-boy" network still works just as it did three decades ago. (324)

Not that Moore is a thoughtless cheerleader for the board of trustees. He criticizes the secretive nature of SBC trustee governance, advocating a "sunshine law" to make all meetings in the SBC's governance system completely open to reporters denominational and secular. Moore further suggests that board standards for evaluating entity heads are mercurial and vulnerable to political abuse (although Moore does not regard all politics as inherently abusive). He advocates greater use of professional consultants to develop consistent, objective guidelines for our entities to follow in evaluating the performance of our entity heads. Throughout the book Moore communicates well his concern that conservative Southern Baptists might (have?) become little more than a rightward-nuanced variety of their predecessors in terms of the basic ills of "Baptistdom." Repeated references to George Orwell's Animal Farm dot the landscape of the book.

As I read the book, I found myself wondering whether Moore has ever stumbled across "Praisegod Barebones" (my blog, not the Cromwell-era politician and preacher). If he has, after reading his book, I find it difficult to deduce whether I think he would slam shut his laptop in disgust or fire off an email telling all of his friends to be sure to read my stuff. I suspect that he might succumb to some of both reactions if he read for very long. Certainly he is more of a journalist and I am more of an ideologue. But our similarities, not our differences, drew me into his book. We both experienced fairly young callings to ministry at Baptist summer camps. We both went to Baylor on scholarship. We both remained basically conservative in our personal theology while building relationships with a great many who did not. We both carried a good bit of naïveté into our first encounters with denominational politics. We both tire of the crazy preference of some Southern Baptists to pretend that they are not politicking when they are. I don't know that Moore could ever be a contented reader of PGBB, but I suspect that he could be an engaging and worthwhile friend.

I wholeheartedly recommend Moore's book to you. It will make you think about the recent history and the imminent future of our convention. As we pack our bags and head toward Indianapolis, it will give you something other than the facile "Landmark, fundamentalist, narrowing, crusading, uncooperative" language that has been spread hither-and-yon—something more earthy, more nuanced, and more believable—to try to understand why such tension seems to exist these days between the trustees on the one hand and the bureaucratic leadership at the IMB and their Internet champions on the other hand.

The book is also valuable just for the vignettes it serves up page-after-page: Nancy Pressler making PB&J sandwiches in the infamous Houston skybox, Mike Huckabee breathlessly shilling for James Robinson in his younger days, and the like. Moore's personal stories made me more sympathetic to the plight of religion reporters and gave me insight into their difficult and controversial jobs.

Moore is a good bit more inclined to theology in general and more sympathetic with Southern Baptist theology than is the average religion reporter in the secular press, but I still thought that the book made a bit too little of theology. As fascinated as I am with our process, I can't imagine being "more interested in the processes than the final decisions" of our SBC deliberations. Nevertheless, it has been helpful for Moore to remind me in his book that the bystanders to our Christian theological wranglings are often people who esteem theology far less and understand theology not nearly as well as seminary-trained Louis Moore. Ultimately, it is we pastors and theologians who are first called to be witnesses to the Truth. We ought to take care that those watching us most carefully do not find us regularly engaged in deception in our attempts to do so.

9 comments:

volfan007 said...

Bart,

One thing that was said, which I assume was a quote out of Moore's book, really troubled me, and this situation has troubled me down thru the years of my Southern Baptist life. The statement is this:

"I saw conservatives lose their ideals about reducing the size and scope of the bureaucracy, about eliminating the bureaucracy's lavish expenditures, about making the local church the true "headquarters" of the denomination. Once in power these conservatives found the large staffs, exciting expense accounts, and the controlling executive style of the denomination too tempting a prize to give up…"

I have constantly hoped and prayed thru the years that we would downsize the beaurocracy and get more money to the actual mission field. It would be great if the local Church were more the "headquarters" of what we do as Southern Baptists. I hear of the lavish salaries and lifestyles of Baptist State Leaders and SB Leaders, and I see all the staff, and the upkeep of buildings and property, and it truly concerns me.

Also, the idea that we have some people in leadership positions who are acting like they're kings of an empire, and they want to control things and be treated like a king is troubling. I wish that we'd get back to a servant mentality, instead of the old, used, worn out line that goes something like this: "If they were CEO's of a large corporation they'd be making more money and have more perks, so huge salaries and big time perks are ok." Well, we're not a corporation, and they're not supposed to be CEO's. We are supposed to be a convention of Churches that are doing ministry and missions, we're to be led by Ministers of the Gospel. If someone wants a huge salary and the perks and the power that comes from running a Fortune 500 company, then let go run a Fortune 500 company. But, as the Pastor of a Church that gives 20% to the CP, and whose Church gives large gifts(for our size)to all the mission offerings, I want more of our missions monies being used to do the work!!

Well, I hope to get this book sometime and read it. It sounds interesting and eye opening, and probably very eye opening for those out there who dont understand all that goes on behind the scenes....things that most SB's will never see nor participate in.

BTW, Bart, I'm bringing the cigars and the cookies for our backroom meeting to rule the SBC in Indy. I refuse to bring any alcohol though!

:)


David

sanders said...

Bart,

Thanks for this book review/critique. As a busy pastor, I find these very helpful in deciding what to spend my ever decreasing reading time on. I suspect many of your readers would express the same. I hope you make this a ongoing part of PGBB ala Tim Challies at Challies.com. Hope to see you in Indy.

Jeremy Roberts said...

Bart -
I concur with Sanders. Please do more book reviews in the future. Reading time is valuable, and it is a pain to purchase a book on Amazon, wait for it, then be disappointed by it. With your articulate pen extrapolating interesting points, it assists us readers in determining how we allocate our reading time.

JPR

Tim Guthrie said...

Thanks Bart,
Well done. David makes a great a great point about the CEO mentality. I look forward to reading this and learning from this perspective.

Funny how coporate and political America are trying to adjust the same things that we in church are are? Maybe there is a lesson there?

Wade Burleson said...

Bart,

This post makes absolutely no sense to me. Either you have changed your mind and become a reformer in the SBC, or I have misread many of your past posts. For instance.

(1). Jerry Rankin makes less than any agency head on Convention payroll - by far. Moore's critical toss at the 'large staffs, exciting expense accounts, and the controlling executive style of the denominational executives' is a boomerang that comes back to places you have defended.

(2). You laud former Trustee Moore's criticism of 'the secretive nature of SBC trustee governance,' and back his call for 'advocating a "sunshine law" to make all meetings in the SBC's governance system completely open to reporters denominational and secular.' Where have you been, Bart?

That is precisely what this trustee has called for from day one, and I wonder why you seem offended at my call for a sunshine rule, but not Moore's? I am hopeful that you now see it Moore's and my way. :)

(3). You proclaim Moore's assessment that "that conservative Southern Baptists might (have?) become little more than a rightward-nuanced variety of their predecessors in terms of the basic ills of "Baptistdom."

?

Welcome, Bart, to the Reform movement of the SBC.

I urge you to not succomb to the ploy of shouting 'liberal' to cause detract from the real issues at hand.

In His Grace,


Wade

Les Puryear said...

Bart,

Thanks for the review. I ordered it from Amazon today for a bit cheaper than direct from the publisher.

Hope to see you next week.

Les

Bart Barber said...

Wade,

First, I am not agreeing with everything that Moore is saying. I am reviewing his book.

Second, you are arguing not with me, but with the caricature that you have constructed of me. You might look back at this post.

Third, my objection to your movement has always been about the theological problems that eventually, I believe, became apparent to all looking on who didn't share them with you. Thus your need to forestall preemptively in your comment my immediate desire to highlight our theological differences as the reasons for my position for the past two years.

Nevertheless, I wish you well in your ministry and I thank you for stopping by.

Tom Bryant said...

Bart,
Good review. I look forward to reading this book.

Any call for streamlining and bringing back control to the local church is good. Correct theology in local churches fueled the CR and we have always been more careful with a buck than most any agency.

R. L. Vaughn said...

"Yesterday I received and read my copy of Louis Moore's new book...It now lies on the floor beside me, thoroughly consumed."

Either you're a speed reader or you have thoroughly too much free time on your hands. :-D Either way, I'm jealous. I've been plodding through "Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches" for about a week now.