Thursday, May 03, 2007

Lifeway, Pirate Monks, and Resolution 5

A few weeks ago, I was at Barnes and Noble perusing some books. Typically, here is how a visit to B&N goes for me. Upon walking in the door, my wife and kids go to the children's section, and I peruse the sale racks first, then look at a few new release tables, then I check out the religion and philosophy sections. I grab as many books as I can carry which catch my eye, and I go sit down with the family at the Thomas the Tank Engine table in the kids section and start skimming. If something catches my attention, I will likely make a purchase. If a skim of the front and back covers, table of contents, bibliography, index, and one sample chapter don't intrigue me, I reshelve the books.

On this particular occasion, one of the books I picked up to skim was by Nate Larkin, entitled Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood. I had just finished Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis, which calls men to recapture the ideals of chivalry manifested in medieval orders of knights and pass it on to our sons. That is a great book which I would recommend to all Christian men, and dads especially. I like this idea of being knights. So, my eyes were drawn to a book that is calling us to be pirates as well! Monastic pirates, even! Front cover, back cover, table of contents, introduction, all looked good, so I decided to randomly pick a chapter to begin reading.

In the chapter I chose, I began to lose interest quickly as Larkin spoke of gathering with his fellow pirate monks in a local pub for beers after their regular meetings. There, they would drink beer and pray together. Book closed, reshelved. I am no longer interested.

If you have read my posts entitled "Not Addicted to Much Wine" and "Is That Hypocrisy I Smell?" then you know my position on Christians and alcohol. In short, I think Christians have no business consuming alcohol in any quantity. In the "Not Addicted" post, I attempt to set forth a biblical argument for that position. A statement in our church membership covenant (which is the same as that used by many SBC churches) says that we covenant together "to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drink as a beverage." I firmly support that commitment.

At last year's SBC, I was glad that Southern Baptists overwhelmingly supported Resolution 5, "On Alcohol Use in America." The final "Whereas" of this resolution reads, "WHEREAS, There are some religious leaders who are now advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages based on a misinterpretation of the doctrine of 'our freedom in Christ'." The first "Resolved" of the resolution renews our historic commitment to "total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages."

Out of curiosity, I decided to surf the Lifeway website to see if our SBC agency was selling Larkin's Pirate book. I was not surprised to find it there. Immediately, I went to the contact form on the website, selected the appropriate category ("Objectionable Content") and sent the following message:

Dear friends at Lifeway, I notice online that you are selling "Samson and the Pirate Monks" by Nate Larkin. As a SBC Pastor, I have some concern with this. I perused this book recently and found it to be a pretty good resource, UNTIL the author began talking about going out with his men's prayer group for beers after their meeting. This is a product of the church culture that the SBC spoke out against with resolution #5 last year in Greensboro. I would encourage you to examine this book carefully and see if it is keeping with our historic Baptist convictions, especially in regard to alcohol. Please let me know your decision. Pastor Russ Reaves Immanuel Baptist Church Greensboro, NC

Within 24 hours, I received the following message back from a Lifeway representative, whose name I shall withhold:

Dear Pastor Reaves, Thank you for your email of April 16, expressing your concern about some of the content in Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin. I am pleased to respond. I have ordered a copy of the book to evaluate, but will be out of the office the rest of the week and will not be able to get back to you on this until next week. I hope that will be satisfactory.

I sent the following response just a few hours later:

Thanks [name withheld]. I appreciate you looking into it. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts. Again, it is not a bad book through and through. It has much good to say. But all of that is undone, I believe, by the brief recounting of the guys from church swilling beers after prayer meeting. I feel that might lead people astray who are struggling to find help and hope in their season of need. Thanks for hearing my concerns.
Pastor Russ Reaves

Finally I received my long awaited response on May 1. The contents are below, in full:

Dear Pastor Reaves, Thanks again for your emails, expressing concern about some of the content in Sampson [sic] and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin. I have secured a copy of this book and am pleased to try to respond. You mentioned Resolution #5 at the Greensboro Southern Baptist Convention last June. I was at that convention and heard the debate and witnessed the overwhelming support for the resolution as was shown by the vote. Regarding the specific content of the book that you pointed out, several things come to mind: On pages 122-3, the author gives a rationale for the practice of meeting at a pub after the prayer meeting by citing Christian history and by stating that, "I personally know several men who only attended their first Sampson [sic] meeting because we go to the pub afterward. Our willingness to be real, our determination to give secondary issues secondary status, gave us credibility with these guys. Other Samson groups have decided the matter differently, mostly out of concern for alcoholics within their ranks, and that's perfectly fine too." Larkin is respectful of those who oppose the consumption of alcohol as a beverage. I live in Franklin, where the author's church and the pub are located. The church has an excellent reputation for evangelism, missions, and discipleship and is theologically conservative. As you probably know, many denominations with churches and members served by LifeWay Christian Stores do not have the same stated opposition to alcohol that Southern Baptists have adopted. For example, the church described above is a PCA Presbyterian Church, and that denomination does not oppose the use of alcohol as a beverage. I have read nine reviews of this book, and they all give it the maximum rating. They point out how helpful it is to men who are dealing with crises in their lives and it does this from an unapologetically Christian perspective. Our vision statement at LifeWay Christian Stores is, "As God works through us ... we will help people and churches know Jesus Christ and seek His Kingdom by providing biblical solutions that spiritually transform individuals and cultures." We have product standards and work hard to carry only products that are in harmony with our vision and standards. With some 100,000 products on our website and 30,000 in our chain of stores, this is a formidable task. We know that not every customer or stakeholder will agree with all the content of every book we carry. In this case, we feel that the other content of this book is compelling enough to overcome the passage you cited. Thank you for shopping at LifeWay Christian Stores and for taking the time to write and express your well-stated concerns on this important and pertinent issue. I am circulating your emails to our merchandising leadership team, and we will use this input as part of our ongoing product evaluation process. I hope this information is helpful and encouraging to you. May God richly bless you and Immanuel Baptist Church as you serve Him in Greensboro.

Well, I am disappointed, but not surprised. I am surprised that this individual twice misspelled the name "Samson" ("Sampson"), but not surprised to see Lifeway taking this stance. However, the reasoning befuddles me.

I believe that we Southern Baptists ought to be concerned that Lifeway apparently has the option of disregarding the official actions taken by the SBC in its regular session.

It concerns me further that a denominational agency employee would defend this book using the author's statement: "I personally know several men who only attended their first Sampson [sic] meeting because we go to the pub afterward. Our willingness to be real, our determination to give secondary issues secondary status, gave us credibility with these guys." It wouldn't take much imagination to see how morally dangerous this kind of logic could be. Being all things to all men does not include being like the drunkards in order to reach the drunkards!

It is also discouraging to find yet another example in SBC life of pragmatism trumping doctrine. Because "The church has an excellent reputation for evangelism, missions, and discipleship and is theologically conservative," we should turn a blind eye to their tolerance of immoral activity.

There is also found in this Lifeway employees response a postmodern kind of relativism in the statement, "the church described above is a PCA Presbyterian Church, and that denomination does not oppose the use of alcohol as a beverage." This is the "what's true for you doesn't have to be true for me," kind of reasoning that has our culture in such turmoil! Right is right, and truth is truth, no matter whether another person or group accepts it. I am Southern Baptist, and Lifeway is Southern Baptist. Why should I care what the PCA position on alcohol is? We have formulated a position that we feel is biblical and resolved to act in certain ways in support of that position -- What hath Nashville (the home of the SBC) to do with Lawrenceville (the home of the PCA)?

The Lifeway rep says, "I have read nine reviews of this book, and they all give it the maximum
rating." I would ask, "Who wrote these reviews?" I know many who would object to nothing in the book, but that doesn't make it acceptable. He says, "They point out how helpful it is to men who are dealing with crises in their lives and it does this from an unapologetically Christian perspective." Excuse me, but endorsing the consumption of alcohol is neither unapologetically Christian, nor is it helpful for helping men deal with crises in their lives.

One final concern (though I could share more) with the message I received is this statement: "As you probably know, many denominations with churches and members served by LifeWay Christian Stores do not have the same stated opposition to alcohol that Southern Baptists have adopted." So, in other words, Lifeway needs to be more sensitive to and concerned with the positions of PCA and other churches than with the SBC. Does this seem incongruous to anyone else but me?

Well, what more can I do? I have brought it to their attention, and my concerns have been dismissed: "We know that not every customer or stakeholder will agree with all the content of every book we carry. In this case, we feel that the other content of this book is compelling enough to overcome the passage you cited." There is one other thing I can do. I can refuse to shop at Lifeway, and I can discourage others from doing so as well. This won't require a major sacrifice on my part, for I seldom shop at Lifeway. For one thing, typically when I am searching for something deeply theological or academic in nature, I can't even find it at Lifeway. Secondly, as a steward of the resources God entrusts to me, I can often find better pricing elsewhere on the items I need. Now I have one more reason to not support them.

In closing, here is my response to the Lifeway employee's message:

I am sorry that I must beg to differ. You are not a PCA bookstore, you are a SBC bookstore, and therefore should see to it that your products fall in line with the BFM and official resolutions and actions taken by the convention. This response from you further confirms my long developing hunch that Lifeway has become less concerned with faith and practice and more concerned with marketing and profits. Pastor Russ Reaves

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Pastor Reaves,

I believe you should remove Calvin's Institutes from the reading list (pictured, even) on your blog. He is actually referenced as a prodigious (it appears) wine drinker in the chapter you find so objectional in the Samson book.

cw

Russ Reaves said...

At issue here is not who has or hasn't drank alcohol in the history of the church. At issue is the advocating of drinking alcohol in spite, and the marketing of this product in the bookstore owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, which has taken an official action in opposition to alcohol at our most recent session.

For future reference, I typically do not post anonymous comments.

Russ Reaves said...

Also, for clarification, the books pictured in the margin of my blog is not a "recommended reading list," though I have no hesitation in recommending Calvin's Institutes. If you notice carefully the heading is "Random Books From My Library." I have many books in my library which I do not agree with completely, and some are completely heretical. So, I would hope that neither you, nor anyone else, would assume that just because a book is pictured there that I agree with all the content. I should probably add a disclaimer to that list.

Lola said...

I wonder if they would have the same 'results of reaching people' if they went to the same pub and ordered a cola. I have no problem with going to the pub as Jesus did walk among the sinners and reached many people by being with them (example Mark 2:13-17) and teaching them but Jesus never 'became one of them'. We as God's children do not have to sin in order to reach sinners (2 Corinthians 10:2-4).

Russ Reaves said...

Amen Lola. My thoughts exactly. The issue to me is not "where" they are, but "what" they are doing there. Hang out in pubs all you want -- but you don't have to drink beer to reach people.