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Preach for the Stars

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"It's the rejection by baby boomers of established religion," says Donald E. Miller, a religion professor at the University of Southern California. He has just published a book, Reinventing American Protestantism, that sympathetically analyzes the Vineyard and Calvary Chapel movements and considers their impact, along with that of the mega-churches, on society.

Miller and other scholars call members of this revival, including Promise Keepers, "new paradigm Christians" or "New Protestants." Whatever they're called, they are aggressive about their religion and ardent about fulfilling "the Great Commission": converting people to their way of thinking whether they want to be converted or not.

Miller's research, which compares the new Christian pastors to mainline Presbyterian clergy, reveals the rigidity of the movement: Over 90 percent of the Vineyard pastors he surveyed strongly believe that those who haven't accepted Christ will be punished; only 19 percent of Presbyterian clergy feel that way.

But that kind of black-and-white thinking gives the new paradigm pastors a clearly defined--and marketable--product to sell, Miller writes.

And even women, who are clearly subordinate to men in these churches, are embracing it. Miller notes that such an arrangement has been called a "patriarchal bargain," in which women hope to get a more caring and responsible spouse in return for acknowledging him as leader.

Conversion to new paradigm Christianity--and its emphasis on "traditional family values"--has political implications.

Brenda Brasher, now an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, was a researcher for Miller's book on the new paradigm Christians while she worked on her Ph.D. "The absence of explicitly political speech at the PK rally simply made the event a blank political token that anyone could inscribe with meaning," Brasher says in a recent Internet essay. "And which group will most readily be able to inscribe this token as representing its agenda? Might it obviously be the Christian Coalition? Until Promise Keepers leaders not only insist they are not political but overtly disavow any connection with the Christian Coalition, their activities will be construed as lending support to the New Christian Right.

"A Washington, D.C., rally by this or any organization is a political event, something PK's leaders should--to borrow their own terminology--confess."

In an interview, Brasher adds, "At the D.C. event, a national identity was forged for Promise Keepers. It gave them a sense of being a national group. Were the economy worse, it might be the seed of a troubling political movement."

Publicly, PK denies that it's political. Biblical truth is the group's message, officials say. "All [McCartney] is doing is calling for men to be men," Ryle said in one public defense of his comrade. "He's been stretched into something he's not like at all. He's honestly aghast at the offense people have against the Bible. Bill has said to me that is the thing that most amazes him."

But the PK movement has come in for increasing criticism from other Bible-thumpers. Some say the group strays too far from Scripture, other fundamentalists claim it relies too much on secular psychology. They deride Ryle for being so presumptuous as to claim visions and prophecies, and they recoil in horror from the idea of seeking Christ together with, God forbid, Catholics, Mormons and other Christians.

Hank Hanegraaff, head of the Christian Research Institute, calls such evangelizing by PK and movements like the Vineyard a "counterfeit revival" based on delusions. In the latest issue of the Christian Research Journal, Hanegraaff flays Ryle for the Ralphie visions, a continuing controversy in Christian circles.

Hanegraaff calls this series of visions "fool's gold" and "unbiblical," a criticism echoed by fundamentalists in magazine articles and on the Internet.

In February 1995 Ryle answered his critics on a Christian talk-radio show from Denver, likening them to those "who crucified Jesus Christ."

Ryle added, "What motivates them to tear down another church? The answer is pride, jealousy, fear, hatred or ignorance. Take your pick. You can be sure one of these factors is at the heart of this present contention."

On October 17 the Chapel of Champions convenes at the Boulder Vineyard. Eighty men file into the church sanctuary. They sit at tables, four or five at each one. Instant small groups.

Pastor James has cooked up a skit, a quiz show called "Manly Feud" hosted by Stu the Brooklyn Jew and featuring the pastor's most trusted hands, split into two teams of three each. They've been coached beforehand on how to answer. Yes, it is silly, and it's about as spontaneous as pro wrestling, but as Ryle knows, the most profound truths emerge from the unlikeliest sources.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy