Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

The good, the bad and the Moody

The Moody Church in Chicago | Photo Credit: Timothy Neesam/Flickr (cc)

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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.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • As long as conservative/evangelical “Christian” cults continue to be the primary cultural promoters of sexism, racism, and every other anti-person prejudice you can imagine, by supporting the politics that promote this view, by willfully and happily promoting and electing criminals, abusers and general low-lifes to political office as their leaders, while actively resisting pro-humanitarian policies in government and in their personal lives, there will be those of us who view their demise with happiness and relief. If they wish us to feel differently about them, it’s on them to change, to follow Christ’s model of charity and love. Otherwise, good riddance to this gang of thugs who speak Christ and promote bigotry in their personal actions.

    For instance, look at our President, look at who elected him, who continues to support him and the people of his party who are like him, who refrains from criticizing him both through agreement and in order to keep their mammon from the government in the form of their precious bribe, tax relief. Truly, the political cycle in America has finally separated the sheep from the goats.

  • Putting the Moody Church (and all other Christian sects and cults) ( ) in proper perspective in 2018:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  • You’re welcome to continue hating on Trump. We all got our cherished hobbies these days.

    But I’m going to compliment Mr. Rational for doing like Martin Marty, and making a real or imagined effort to stay focused on the actual topic at hand, which is Moody, its beliefs and its current situation.

    It’s okay to take 30-second breaks from the usual political salvos.

  • I wasn’t previously familiar with the word or concept of mazer until your post. That said, in 63 years of being a Christian and four years of seminary, I have never heard of Jesus claimed to have been a mamzer. Perhaps it’s as fictional a claim as you say Christian beliefs are.

  • Outside of Christian and pseudo-Christian writers, there are only two surviving sources that mention Jesus, both historians, one Jewish and one pagan and I don’t recall either mentioning the birth of Jesus or thoughts of him being illegitimate. You’ve fallen prey to more unfounded myths.

  • I haven’t fallen prey to anything. The accounts I’m speaking of aren’t quite contemporaneous with the 1st century though, so I probably shouldn’t have written “of the time,” though they are ancient. One is Contra Celsum, which, granted, is a Christian

  • Anyway..the Roman polemic I’m talking about is that of Celsus. True, we only know of his writing because the Christian author Origen wrote about it in Contra Celsum. Nevertheless, Celsus is said to have claimed that Mary was an adulteress, and that Jesus’s real father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. Celsus supposedly said this story was being told by the Jews.
    The other polemics are from the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. Several Talmudic passages discuss an individual known as “ben Pandera,” the son of Pandera. BT Shabbat 104b, for example, states that ben Pandera, aka ben Stada, took magic spells out of Egypt by writing them in a scratch on his flesh (BT Sanhedrin 43a notes specifically that “Yeshu,” some mss. add “ha-Notzri,” was executed on the eve of Passover for sorcery and leading the people to apostasy). The Talmud then flips this by saying that ben Pandera’s mother was “Miriam magdala,” Miriam who braided women’s hair. “Ben Stada” refers to his mother, but this was really a nickname for “setat da,” meaning she “strayed from” her husband.
    “Some say he was a mamzer” is unquestionably an accurate statement, as some did say this. These are not historical accounts, they are polemical accounts.