Larycia Hawkins

Heresy in headlines: Raising questions about our social-media addiction and online buzz

Heresy in headlines: Raising questions about our social-media addiction and online buzz

They say most American Christians have little interest in doctrine. Perhaps the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will briefly change that. Yet theological debates can produce lively news stories, and lately heresy has been in the headlines.

Emily McFarlan Miller, a Protestant-beat specialist with Religion News Service, proposed the “Top 5 ‘heresies’ of 2016” in an interesting December 29 piece. Then a January 3 Washington Post article by theologian Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary-California associated the H-word with President-elect Donald Trump because he favors Paula White and other “prosperity evangelists who cheerfully attack basic Christian doctrines.”

Miller’s list has two items that got considerable mainstream media ink:( 1) The ruckus over ousted Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins and whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (2) Contentions that an ambiguous 2016 decree from Pope Francis means Catholics who remarry without annulments can receive Communion.

The other three debates were mostly limited to evangelical Protestant circles. Philadelphia Pastor Liam Goligher accused theologian Wayne Grudem and other “complementarians” who see wives as subordinate to husbands of heresy in also subordinating Jesus the divine Son to God the Father. The two other disputes involve Georgia Southern Baptist Andy Stanley, said to undercut the Bible’s unique authority and the centrality of Jesus’ Virgin Birth.

Horton spurns the “word of faith” or “prosperity gospel” movement as a merger between the “new thought” typified by Christian Science and Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking.” In addition to White, Horton targets Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. (White, who will pray at Trump’s inauguration -- see this recent Julia Duin post here at GetReligion -- rejects the “prosperity” label for herself.)

This theological news causes the Religion Guy to contemplate our omnipresent social media.

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New York Times magazine profile turns former Wheaton College professor into a heroine

New York Times magazine profile turns former Wheaton College professor into a heroine

When I saw the New York Times magazine was running a lengthy take-out on Larycia Hawkins by a Wheaton graduate, I hoped it would shed some light on her beliefs and motives. The article was far more textured and nuanced than other efforts I'd seen.

And yet. One of the photos of Hawkins -- posed with decorative purple scarf wound about her head and left shoulder while her right shoulder remained uncovered except for a black spaghetti strap dress underneath -- gave me some pause.

This wasn’t a hijab we were seeing here. It was a decoration. If Hawkins showed up on the streets of certain majority Muslim countries (think Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) dressed like that, she might not make it out in one piece.

Members of the GetReligion team have already written a lot about about Professor Hawkins, so bear with us once more. The article starts thus:

Three days after Larycia Hawkins agreed to step down from her job at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., she joined her former colleagues and students for what was billed as a private service of reconciliation. It was a frigid Tuesday evening last February, and attendance was optional, but Wheaton’s largest chapel was nearly full by the time the event began. A large cross had been placed on the stage, surrounded by tea lights that snaked across the blond floorboards in glowing trails.

The college chaplain read from a psalm and then:

Philip Ryken, the college’s president of six years, spoke next. His father had been an English professor at Wheaton for 44 years, and he grew up in town, receiving his undergraduate degree from the college. “I believe in our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, even in a time of profound difficulty that is dividing us and threatening to destroy us,” he told the crowd. “These recent weeks have been, I think, the saddest days of my life.” It was the night before the first day of Lent, the 40-day season of repentance in the Christian calendar.
Wheaton had spent the previous two months embroiled in what was arguably the most public and contentious trial of its 156-year history. In December, Hawkins wrote a theologically complex Facebook post announcing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims; the college placed her on leave within days and soon moved to fire her. Jesse Jackson had compared Hawkins with Rosa Parks, while Franklin Graham, an evangelist and Billy Graham’s son, declared, “Shame on her!”

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Stephen Prothero wades into Wheaton wars: 'Are Allah and Jesus the same God?'

Stephen Prothero wades into Wheaton wars: 'Are Allah and Jesus the same God?'

The drama at Wheaton College rolls on. I have held off talking about it, in part because -- after decades in Christian higher education -- I know that it will be hard for reporters to get behind the scenes and find out what is actually going on.

Why? Because money and donors are involved? Of course. Name a controversy in higher education -- left or right, secular or religious -- that doesn't involve donors.

Because believers don't like bad public relations? Yes, that's true. But privacy laws are also important at private schools. What can Wheaton leaders say about this case without legally violating the privacy of the professor at the heart of all this?

Are there First Amendment issues linked to freedom of religion and freedom of association? Yes, and what about that 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 backing the right of doctrinally defined educational institutions to hire and fire their own leaders, based on doctrinal criteria?

Because politics are involved? Yes. But it's crucial for reporters to realize that the political battles here are built on issues of doctrine. Lots of Christians -- including evangelicals -- do not agree on how to answer this question: Is the God of the Hebrews, the God Jesus intimately called "Father," the same as Allah, the radically transcendent God of Islam? What do Muslims say?

There is another factor in this timeline. The New Testament reports that Jesus said, "I am the Father are one." Jews, of course, reject the Christian Trinity, but in doing so they are arguing with Jesus and the founders of the early church -- all Jews. Islam, of course, comes after the earthly ministry of Jesus and explicitly (check out the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock) rejects that God has a Son.

One other factor that journalists must grasp: There is no one definition of "evangelical" and there is no one prevailing authority that gets to call the doctrinal shots. Remember what the Rev. Billy Graham -- the most famous Wheaton graduate, ever -- told me long ago, when I asked him how he defined "evangelical"?

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