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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two Cheers and a Jeer for AP story on NAR

Reporting on religion for an internationally read service like the Associated Press must be an enormous challenge. Taking an issue of great complexity and competing interpretations and writing about it for a mass audience would be hard enough; add to the mix misleading statements on the part of major players in the story and you have an even more difficult assignment. Such was the duty Rachel Zoll faced in writing her article on the New Apostolic Reformation, Perry’s Response prayer rally and the broader issue of dominionism. As she says in her article “The task of measuring their influence is complicated by the preachers' wide range of teaching and practice, and by the many different expressions of dominionism under various names.” By taking on this issue seriously she risked the wrath of evangelical leaders, many of whom are, as she says, “incensed by the discussion”. (She helpfully notes that evangelical leaders were also incensed in the 1980s until they finally recognized that dominionism could not simply be dismissed as a “fringe” ideology and decided that “ignoring the stream of thinking” was “no longer an option”.) I have two specific areas of praise for Zoll’s column and one substantive criticism/correction.


I applaud Zoll for breaking out of the “more of the same” narrative that I have challenged for weeks. She clearly recognizes that in NAR and Perry we have a significant development in the story of how some evangelicals are engaging public life and her reporting can be seen as an attempt to show how thoughtful people are trying to wrap their minds around this new phenomena. I can think of any number of commentators—Michael Gerson, Ralph Reed, Jim Wallis, Charlotte Allen, Mark Pinsky come immediately to mind—whose writing on this election cycle would have been immeasurably improved by the kind of careful analysis that Zoll gave to this issue. Instead of simply blaming critics of NAR for the controversy, she shows conclusively that this debate is happening because of Governor Perry’s overt embrace of individuals and institutions with demonstrably extremist views.

The Texas governor opened the door to the discussion with a prayer rally he hosted in August, a week before he announced his run for president. Organizers of the Houston event, such as Lou Engle, leader of The Call prayer marathons, and Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, had for several years been under the watch of mostly liberal writers alarmed by the preachers' rhetoric.

I also appreciated the broad range of people that Zoll reached out to for this column. She included analysis from popular figures like Charles Colson, researchers of Pentecostalism like Mel Robeck of Fuller and Randall Stephens of Eastern Nazarene, IVP author Bruce Barron, and a former Fuller Seminary student now professor of religion Anthea Butler. I wish that she had interviewed Rachel Tabachnick for the piece, but she does credit her and Talk2Action.org with raising concerns over C. Peter Wagner (more on this below). All in all Zoll gives evidence of research and study way beyond that shown by any previous commentator or news reporter for a mainstream media source. Before writing or speaking on this election cycle people should, at a bare minimum, read this article.


My firm hope is that readers will see Zoll’s piece as a springboard to further reading and reflection, not as an end in itself. Anyone who stops with this article risks missing a very important part of the story: Wagner’s own abundant record of writing and speaking in support of dominionism. This was, I think, Zoll’s most significant error in judgement. For an article specifically about dominionism and NAR’s relationship to its influence, it is disturbing that she shows no evidence of having read Wagner’s book Dominion!. If she had done so, she would have seen that it is Wagner’s standard procedure to make a sharp distinction between theocracy and dominionism—a distinction that allows him to emphatically deny wanting a theocracy while emphatically embracing the mantle of Rushdoony’s dominionism. So it is a major blunder that she allows her analysis of the leader of NAR’s views of dominionism to be reduced to this quote from her interview with Wagner: "There's nobody that I know - there may be some fringe people - who would even advocate a theocracy". She then turns for verification of Wagner’s seemingly anti-dominion stance to Mike Bickle, a leader with a strong vested interest in downplaying anything controversial in his or Wagner's track record. Zoll reports without challenge Bickle's view that Wagner and his key leaders are just “telling people to go influence society. But some of their guys under them are using these hostile terms, like `taking over society”. The combination of Wagner’s and Bickle’s quotes mark the low point in her article. Had she read Wagner’s own book on the subject of dominionism, or seen writing by numerous commentators like myself or Talk2Action.org, she would have known how duplicitous both of these men’s statements are. Wagner, not some underling far removed from his influence, is the one who has in speech after speech said a variation of the following:

Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing and it relates to society. In other words, what the values are in Heaven need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation Chapter 1:6 that He has made us kings and priests - and check the rest of that verse; it says for dominion. So we are kings for dominion.

And it is Wagner, not “some of his guys” who, in his own book written for the express purpose of clarifying statements like the one above, declared:

The practical theology that best builds a foundation under social transformation is dominion theology, sometimes called “Kingdom now.” Its history can be traced through R.J. Rushdoony and Abraham Kuyper to John Calvin. Some of the notable pioneering attempts to apply it in our day have been made by Bob Weiner, Rice Broocks, Dennis Peacocke and others. Unfortunately, the term dominion theology has had to navigate some rough waters in the recent past. A number of my friends, in fact, attempted to dissuade me from using dominion in the title of this book, fearing that some might reject the whole book just because of the title…the best way we can proceed is to affirm and redeem the term dominion theology, not to discard it.

What I have written elsewhere I repeat here for Mike Bickle and anyone else who wants “to deny the ongoing relevance of dominion theology, or try to imply without evidence that Wagner’s dominion theology is nothing to be feared like Rushdoony’s was” that they must “overcome the fact that Wagner has chosen to call his views dominion theology not in spite of major objections to Rushdoony but because of what he sees as his faithful application of Rushdoony’s dominion theology.” I wish Zoll had read these words before writing her column and I hope that when she sees them now she will find a way to correct the record. Allowing Bickle’s and Wagner’s statements to stand uncorrected damages an otherwise helpful essay.

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