Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Olivet fails to close escrow on Bethany University

Well, this is big news. The Northern California-Nevada District of the Assemblies of God just sent out this press release:

Bethany University Chairman of the Board, Reverend James Braddy, has announced that the sale of the Bethany Campus in Scotts Valley to Olivet University failed to close escrow on April 17, 2012. Therefore the sales agreement is no longer in force and the campus is back on the market. Reverend Braddy stated that the original agreement called for escrow to close on November 30, 2011. Olivet University had requested three extensions. In each case, Olivet was unable to perform according to the mutually agreed upon contract. Negotiations for a fourth extension did not prove acceptable to either Olivet or Bethany. The last agreed upon extension ended at 5:00 p.m. April 17, 2012, with Olivet University unable to meet the mutually accepted terms of sale.

Bethany has offered to lease the campus to Olivet University until the close of the school year. Bethany will aggressively be marketing the campus with a hoped for sale by the end of summer. The Board of Trustees regrets the failure to successfully negotiate the sale to Olivet University as it hoped this would have kept a viable Christian College in Scotts Valley.

William Wagner made some comments to the Santa Cruz Sentinel yesterday that made it sound like the deal might still happen:

Dr. William Wagner, Olivet's president, also declined to elaborate, saying only that "the whole thing is still open because there are a lot of different things we're still negotiating," and that Olivet is "not leaving anytime soon."

But this press release makes it sound like the deal is finished, for all practical purposes. Given all the concerns that have been raised about Olivet University, I can’t say that I’m disappointed, though I know that this puts the NCN District in a pretty tough spot, and of course isn’t very good news for Bethany’s creditors either. I should be clear that I don’t care who the District sells the campus to – I’d be fine with the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh setting up a commune there if it got the District out of a tight spot. My objection was never to the purchase of the campus, but rather to a questionable organization assuming Bethany’s identity and heritage. I’m breathing somewhat easier now it appears that won’t happen.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

Almost twenty years ago, Steve Taylor wrote a song called “Sock Heaven” that made a lasting impression on me. It was at least partially about his experience in a Christian band called Chagall Guevera that wanted to make music non-Christians would listen to. And seriously, their stuff was awesome. But their music sort of fell through the cracks. Christians didn’t want to listen to it because it wasn’t praise music, and non-Christians didn’t want to listen to it because it got sold in Christian bookstores. The band produced only one album before they broke up, much to the disappointment of their small but loyal group of fans.

After Chagall Guevara disbanded, Steve Taylor wrote the song “Sock Heaven” to describe his experience of trying to live in-between the Christian and secular worlds:

One pile waits with their god in a box
The other pile nervously mocks heaven
Misfits lost in the dryer, take heart
Maybe there's a place up in sock heaven

Sock Heaven

The first time I heard that song, I broke down in tears, because it so perfectly described my own experience. And I was thinking about that song while watching Steve Taylor’s movie Blue Like Jazz, which opens today.

I suppose I need to start by saying that although I’ve been going to church all my life, and indeed spent six years studying theology, I don’t generally listen to Christian music, and I almost never watch Christian films. I find movies like Fireproof and Courageous practically unwatchable, despite the fact that I agree quite strongly with their underlying message. I’m a huge (huge) C. S. Lewis fan, but I didn’t really care for the three Narnia movies they’ve released so far. Their message is fine; the books were great; but as movies, they just don’t work. Flannery O’Connor believed that any work of art needed to start by being true to its own medium. If a novel doesn’t work as a novel, it’s not worth reading, even if you agree with the message. In the same way, if a film doesn’t work as a film, if it doesn’t have the requisite production values, if it doesn’t have good actors and a good story and engaging characters with believable challenges, it doesn’t really matter whether it encourages good morals or makes a strong argument for faith. The medium for preaching is a sermon; cinema can only be the medium for a good story, well told.

The next thing I need to say is that I don’t know how I can really be an impartial observer of the movie. I’ve been a fan of Steve Taylor’s music since his first album back in 1982 (there are two artists I listened to in high school that I can still enjoy: Steve Taylor and Daniel Amos). I thought Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz was quite good: it was well written, thoughtful, and made me want to be a better Christian. And I was one of the 4500 people who kicked in some cash to help it get made. So I can hardly go into the movie without any biases. Indeed, I was hoping beyond hope that it would be decent; but I was practically terrified that it wouldn’t be. And of course, the fact that the professional reviews have been mediocre at best added to my anxiety.

But all that said, after watching the movie, those same mediocre reviews have really got me scratching my head. Because here’s the thing: putting aside any bias as much as I can, I really think it’s an amazing little film. The production values are fine – you’d never guess that it was made for $1.3 MM – but more to the point, it has a funny, moving story to tell. It’s not perfect: one or two of the characters fall a bit flat, one or two of the scenes drag on a bit too long, and occasionally a line or two of dialogue will sound a bit wooden. But those are small faults, and within the context of a movie that is fresh, funny, tightly plotted, theologically sophisticated, and above all moving, they’re easy to forgive. Marshall Allman does a wonderful job as the young Don Miller, trying to walk a precarious line between his Southern Baptist childhood and his mind-expanding education at Reed College. Justin Welborn’s snarling and snarky turn as “The Pope” is spot-on. Ben Pearson’s cinematography is beautiful. And the last scene – especially the very last line – made the movie. Like reading the book, watching the movie made me want to be a better Christian.

So like I said, the mediocre reviews have had me puzzled. I know what a bad movie looks like, and I know that this isn’t one. So why don’t more of the professionals like it?

My best guess is that like Chagall Guevara, it’s stuck in sock heaven. It’s a misfit. It’s too earnest for folks who make their living as professional cynics. It may turn out to be too edgy for Christians who don’t like their movies to acknowledge that lesbians exist, let alone that they can be smart or funny or have their hearts broken. It’s a misfit, made for misfits. Neither those who prefer to keep their god in a box, nor those who nervously mock heaven, have been able to find much to appreciate in it. But those of us who know we don’t really fit anywhere, who know we are strangers and aliens, who know the Church is both an infernal bureaucracy and the Body of Christ, may end up falling just a little bit in love.

Didn't want a platform to build a new church
Didn't want a mansion in rock heaven
Didn't want more than to be understood
Maybe there's a place up in sock heaven


The Trailer

Reluctant Confirmation

I was called tonight by someone associated with Olivet. I don’t want to pick on him too much, so I’ll leave him anonymous for now. Not surprisingly, they’re a little unhappy with some of the things I’ve been saying about them (both here, and on the Bethany Alumni Facebook forums), and he wanted to ask me to be as balanced and fair as I could. Of course, I hope I’m doing that already, but he had a specific request, which I was happy to oblige. (It had to do with posting a link to Hokuto Ide’s yamayamakotowatcher blog to the Bethany FB group, to even up an earlier link I’d posted to the pseudonymous Davidian Watcher blog. Background: DW is convinced David Jang is a dangerous heretic; Hokuto Ide is convinced that DW is a malicious nutcase; and so it goes.)

During the course of our conversation, I asked the Olivet representative about one of the charges I leveled in my last blog post, namely, that the EAPCA had been engaging in dishonest and unethical promotional practices by hiring an offshore company to generate fake “Likes” for their Facebook page. It’s always possible that there’s a reasonable explanation for the evidence I’d found, and I was curious to see if I’d missed something. After all, I suppose it’s possible that the Romanian company ran the fake “Like” campaign without authorization, or maybe some overzealous SEO guy from Deographics (one of their web design firms) ordered it up and has since been smacked down. So I wanted to know if Olivet could offer some explanation beyond, “We’re slimy weasels.”

Our conversation went something like this (abbreviated somewhat, but pretty close):

Me: “Did you know about the fraudulent ‘Likes’ before you read about them in my blog?”
Him: “Fraudulent implies something criminal. That word is too strong for what you describe.”
Me: “Maybe you’re right. Did you know about the unethical and dishonest ‘Likes’ before you read about them?”
Him: “You’re talking about the EAPCA. I don’t work for them.”
Me: “You work right next to them, in the same office, for Pete’s sake. Did you know about those dishonest ‘Likes’?”
Him: “What’s wrong with working in the same office? You seem to think there’s something sinister about it.”
Me: “Nah, of course there’s nothing wrong with it. But did you know about those dishonest ‘Likes’? Yes or no.”
Him: “I can’t answer that.”

I learned two things from this exchange. The first is that obviously, yes, he must have known about them. Without belaboring the point, otherwise why all the evasion? Why not just answer the question with a straightforward denial? “No, I don’t know anything about it, but we’re looking into it, and I’ll let you know what we find.” That would have settled me down just fine (for the moment).

The second thing is that, to his credit, he didn’t want to lie outright, and was rightly embarrassed they got caught. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in my day who would have lied, and wouldn’t have been embarrassed. The fact that he insisted on telling the truth, if not precisely the whole truth, indicates that whatever I may think about David Jang’s organizations in general, my interlocutor was not just a slimy weasel. I was glad to see that. He still has a sense of shame; and that means there’s hope.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Still Wondering What’s Up With Olivet University

It’s coming up on a year now since Bethany University, my alma mater, finally ran out of money and was forced to close its doors. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Bethany alumni were initially quite excited to hear that another Christian school, David Jang’s Olivet University, had agreed to buy the campus and continue our school’s mission. But then we started noticing weird things about how the transition was being managed, and started hearing even weirder things. In the first place, it was a little odd that Olivet wanted to purchase the Bethany name along with the campus. I loved Bethany, but it’s not as if a tiny denominational school that shares a Biblical name with half-a-dozen other Christian colleges had any particular value as a brand. We’re not talking Harvard here, or even Wheaton. So that had the alumni scratching our heads. But then, when Olivet first put up their new website, they baldly mischaracterized their acquisition of the campus, stating inaccurately that they had been around for 90 some years, and that they were Bethany. Not to put too fine a point on it, that was a lie, and it made nearly everyone associated with Bethany pretty uncomfortable. Eventually, after it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to make this claim without being challenged, Olivet agreed to change the language on the Bethany website; and now if you read the site carefully, you can tell that it’s not actually the same school (though it still has things like “Since 1919” on the home page – which, I hasten to say, is not true).

OK, so that’s some of the background. But it’s worth noting that while I was doing my research into Olivet last September, I kept turning up all sorts of weird little facts that I had trouble putting into a coherent picture. For starters, one of the Bethany alumni noticed one day that the new Bethany website had a “policies and procedures” page with this text on it:

Non-Constructive Negative Statements about University of Phoenix Faculty or Administrators: Comments or forum posts that make libelous statements or aggressively attack faculty or administrators, in general or by name, are not permitted.

Commercial Posts and Solicitations: Posts containing commercial content or solicitations are not permitted. This extends to students seeking to drive traffic to their own, non-University of Phoenix -affiliated websites and/or commercial ventures.

Note the references to the “University of Phoenix”. In other words, this page was lifted straight from the corresponding page on the University of Phoenix website, and whoever brought it across forgot to do a search-and-replace.

This faux-pas got discussed at length in the Bethany Alumni Facebook forums, and apparently someone from Olivet was paying attention, because by late that afternoon, all references to the “University of Phoenix” had been replaced by “Bethany University”. (And by now, six months later, they seem to have been removed altogether.)

I’ve thought a lot since then about whether there was anything significant about this particular misstep. Some folks on the Bethany forums were indignant, saying that it seemed to violate Olivet’s own honor code. Maybe; but at the same time, I’m a big fan of not doing more work than you have to, and if I was putting together a set of policies for a university, I can’t imagine a better place to start than with a set of tried and tested policies from a similar institution. It’s not as if this was being submitted to an instructor for academic credit, or to a journal to be published. Furthermore, as I’ve acknowledged earlier, Olivet was under significant pressure to get this deal closed, and closed quickly. In the process, they did, in fact, manage to get a great deal accomplished in a brief period of time, and it would be surprising if they hadn’t made some mistakes along the way.

But there does seem to be a different sort of significance to the mistake. In most academic institutions, policies like this, even if they're initially borrowed from somewhere else, go through a long process of review, argument, debate, revision, and finally, approval. And only after that process would it get posted to the website. The fact that "University of Phoenix" was still in the text shows that the process for creating this particular policy was rather different. A reasonable assumption is that an Olivet manager told some poor web designer, "We need some text to throw up in this particular slot, and fast. Go find something."

So is there anything wrong with that? Well, I think there might be, but it lies less in the details of this particular mistake than in an overall pattern that I’ve noticed on the websites of Olivet and especially its sponsor, the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in America. I don’t so much mind the fact that Olivet copied its policies from somewhere else (I've done that for internal policies before), but it seems rather odd that their process for coming up with them was so clearly disconnected from the organic life of the institution. They didn't create a policy because the university needed a policy. It looks very much like they created (well, copied) a policy because they wanted people on the outside to think, "Oh, Olivet has a policy for this."

And I’ve found evidence of that approach in all sorts of different places. The EAPCA website is an interesting case study in this regard. It repeatedly portrays the EAPCA denomination as a dynamic, thriving institution, with a rich, vibrant life. It has resources for congregations. It talks about planting churches. It describes a thriving “I Love Jesus Youth Ministry”. It advertises speakers who can come visit your church. It talks about a wide range of publications available for folks to access.

But when you dig just a little deeper, it all gets a mite strange. As I’ve been perusing the EAPCA website, I keep having the nagging feeling that a Stepford Wife is peering over my shoulder. The thing you realize pretty quickly is that nobody would ever actually use this site. For instance, there’s no place to actually order the periodicals that the site advertises. There are a couple of email addresses which you can supposedly use to order these magazines – but emails to at least some of those addresses bounce, and the rest go unanswered. The page that describes the speakers who can come to your church is very vague and general, and gives no way to actually request a speaker. The resources on the “I Love Jesus Youth Ministry” lead either to dead pages, or to sites that don’t have anything to do with the EAPC. And most astonishingly of all, there’s no phone number anywhere on the site, even on the “Contact Us” page.

And there are other weird things beyond that. For starters, every one of their position papers was explicitly lifted from other denominations (usually the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, but one from the Assemblies of God). The description of their “Presbyterian Heritage” is puzzlingly vague, and manages to avoid the obvious question, “In what sense is the EAPC actually connected to this heritage?” I haven’t been able to find any of the periodicals they describe referenced anywhere else.

Now, most small, new denominations that I’m familiar with got started organically, when a particular pastor has a particular vision or style or message, and over a decade or two, that vision spreads informally via the planting of new churches and the growth of existing ones. Eventually, the problems and possibilities inherent in any large, dynamic movement come to the fore, and the churches in question decide – often quite reluctantly – to organize themselves more formally. This was certainly what happened with the Assemblies of God, and more recently has been the case with groups like The Vineyard and Calvary Chapel. You can also see it in its incipient phases in the variety of churches that have sprung out from Mars Hill or Applegate Christian Fellowship. The life and growth come first; the denomination comes next; and the website, if any, comes last of all, in service to the pre-existing life of the denomination.

But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happened with the EAPCA. On the contrary, I get the overpowering impression from the EAPCA website that the ordo websitis was something like this: “We really ought to have a denomination. Denominations should have a website. Let’s get working on that website.”As a result, the website mostly seems to be a large and rather clumsy advertisement for a denomination that someone was hoping would spring magically into existence. That’s why the website seems to have very little connection to any actual denominational life: the website is more real than the denomination it describes.

But there’s more. So next, take a look at the EAPCA’s Facebook page, and more specifically, at the statistics page that summarizes its “Likes”. As of 4/10/12, this is what it looked like:


Notice how it has almost precisely 1500 likes each day, lasting for precisely seven days, and then stopping? And almost nobody talking about them? That particular pattern is a sure sign of what is sometimes called a “Like Farm”. In other words, by far the most likely explanation is that somebody at the EAPCA paid a company (presumably in Romania) to generate 1500 fake “Likes”, so that the EAPCA would look like it was bigger and more important than it was. (Probably only 1500 total "Likes" are listed, rather than, ~10,500, because Facebook caught them at it and trimmed all the rest from some of their stats, though not all.) For a good comparison, check out the stats page for my old denomination, the PCUSA, which is at least 100 times larger than the EAPC, maybe more. It has fewer clicks per day, but the pattern indicates that they’re clearly organic. (Edit 4/12/12 – I also found that another domain associated with David Jang,, has an identical pattern of fake “likes” on Facebook: 1500 a day for one week, with Romania as their primary source.)

Now, this is disturbing, right? Granted, this technique is de rigeur for slimy companies trying to cheat Google and Facebook, but it’s pretty surprising to find a Christian denomination engaging in outright click fraud. Perhaps we should be grateful that they were so clumsy about it. But it confirms the impression I gathered from the EAPCA and Olivet websites, that they’re trying very hard to make themselves look bigger and more important than they really are. And apparently they’re willing to go so far as to engage in unethical methods to create that impression.

[Edit 4/14/12 – It looks like both the EAPCA and IBPlace Facebook pages have been taken down. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was done out of embarrassment at having been caught cheating.]

OK, well, that’s interesting. But there’s more.

One of the things that you realize pretty quickly when you talk to folks at Olivet is that they’re very proud of the fact that they’ve been accepted for membership into the World Evangelical Alliance. And, indeed, that’s nothing to sneeze at. The WEA has been around in one form or another since the 1840’s, and can count among its past leaders such Evangelical luminaries as Harold J. Ockenga and John Stott. When the Assemblies of God leadership first presented the offer from Olivet to assume Bethany’s campus and brand, they trumpeted the fact that Olivet was a member of the WEA (presumably this had been pointed out to them). And Olivet prominently displays their membership in the WEA on their website. The Christian Post (one of the numerous media organizations associated with Olivet) has a big story on the initial acceptance of the Chancellor and former President of Olivet, David Jang, onto the WEA board back in 2007. And there’s lots more, but suffice to say, Olivet’s membership in the WEA has been a big deal for them.

But then the story gets just a little odd. It turns out that the WEA hasn’t just accepted the EAPCA as a member organization; it looks like it may have practically become an Olivet subsidiary. For instance, the WEA website shows that they have three different US offices. But it turns out that two of these offices actually share mailing addresses with one or more Olivet-affiliated institutions, and the third office is less than half a mile from the EAPCA headquarters.

WEA Office Olivet/EAPCA Office Map

74 Trinity Place
Suite 1400
New York, NY 10006

6 Barclay Street 4th Floor
New York, NY 10279

1605 US Route 11
Kirkwood, NY 13795

Olivet World Assembly
1605 US Route 11
Kirkwood, NY 13795

125 Bethany Drive
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

(You can read about the opening of this last office here.)

Bethany University 
800 Bethany Drive
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

And if you check around, you can see that new Chief of Staff at the WEA is a man named Chris Chou; he also happens to be the ex-director of the Jubilee College of Music (another Olivet-associated institution) and a member of the leadership at Olivet University New York.  Less obvious, but still interesting: the CEO of IBTimes, a business connected to David Jang, is a man named Etienne Uzac; he is presumably connected in some way with the Marion Uzac who is (or was) the press secretary of the WEA.

On top of that, it appears as if the WEA website is now actually controlled and managed by the Olivet family. David Jang’s organization apparently has leased some rackspace at an XO communications hosting site in Fremont, CA, which is where all of their web servers are located. They’ve got hundreds of domains hosted there from their dozens of media companies; and it turns out that this same subnet is exactly where the website is hosted as well.

And I have one more detail to add. I was recently contacted by someone inside Olivet whom I’m going to try to keep confidential. This person told me that David Jang actually funded the WEA’s move from Canada to their conveniently close New York offices, and continues to provide a significant portion of the WEA’s operating budget. My source also tells me that David Jang has stated that he intends to take over the WEA and to merge it into his organization. Apparently, like Bethany, the WEA had been in financial difficulties for some time (you can get a sense of that here), before David Jang stepped in to rescue them, so it looks like he may have the leverage to accomplish this.

So as it turns out, then, the WEA isn’t really an independent organization which can independently vouch for David Jang and Olivet and the EAPCA. Rather, it looks to be yet another mainstream evangelical organization which David Jang is in the process of, well, taking over. He’s funding them. He’s put one of his lieutenants in charge of day-to-day operations. He now runs their website. He’s moved their offices right next to his. It’s maybe even a little creepy.

So what’s going on here?

Well, that’s hard to say. If I had to give my considered impression, it would be that these guys are trying very hard to do something, and they think that that something would be easier if they had the respectability that came from being a denomination. And from owning the oldest Pentecostal university in the United States. And from controlling the oldest Evangelical organization in the world. But it’s the something that all this is about which still eludes me. Perhaps they’re just trying very hard to carry out the Great Commission, and all this stuff which looks so strange from the outside is just their way of doing it. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that maybe there’s something more sinister going on. I’m still just asking questions, not making accusations, and my intuition might very well be wrong. But I have to say, all this continues to feel weird to me. These guys are trying too hard.

And that leads me to the topic of my next blog post. As I mentioned above, I was recently contacted by someone inside David Jang’s organization. What this individual had to say was pretty fascinating – among other things, our conversations confirmed that my take on the EAPCA website was spot-on – and if it’s true, it’s also pretty worrying. I’ll try to write up some of it over the next day or two.

P.S. A journalist by the name of Ann Brocklehurst has an interesting theory about what the folks at the IBTimes might be up to, namely, using early press access to “locked-up” government data to manipulate markets. I think she’s pretty clearly discounting the Christian angle too much – reporters in general don’t get religion – but her theory is interesting as far as it goes, though I should be clear that all she has so far are just suspicions.