Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Elephant's Debt and recent developments


... Over the past few days, several well-meaning individuals have argued that this site has not included all of the relevant “facts” pertaining to the debt. While we do not believe this to be an accurate assessment of the situation, we offer the following information as means of a explaining why we parsed the data in the way that we did.

As we presently understand it, HBC is estimated to have nearly $150 million in material assets, including real estate and other goods. If one subtracts the debt of roughly $65 million (2010 levels), HBC still has a positive balance sheet of approximately $85 million dollars.[1] On these grounds, some have argued that HBC is not technically in debt. Here is why this discussion was not included in the original publication.

First, these material assets are what we call “hard” assets. In other words, they are not “liquid,” which means Harvest is not sitting on a large cash reserve from which it can service its debt. The debt, however, must be immediately serviced, and it must be paid off in due course.
Secondly, the value of Harvest’s material assets is entirely theoretical. It only becomes actualized when the church sells the property. So, in theory, if they sold enough of their real estate, Harvest could pay off the existing debt. But this move would most likely require the church to close more than one of its existing campuses, which in turn would most likely lead to a downward turn in weekly attendance, and thus, weekly giving.

Thirdly, there is no present guarantee that the asset value can be realized because the value of a property is only worth what an actual buyer will pay. At present, Harvest’s balance sheet only reflects an accounts fair market value estimate. In other words, the balance sheet represents what the bank believes to be fair market value. But in this economy, there is no guarantee that Harvest would be able to find a buyer willing to pay that price. Moreover, the most valuable asset owned by Harvest is the TV station in Aurora. To sell that property, one would have to find a suitable buyer. Needless to say, the market for selling a TV studio is very limited, and in this economy the prospects are even worse.

Finally, and most significantly, several of these assets, including the TV studio, were obtained well after MacDonald had accumulated the original debt. So to suggest that our argument is flawed based upon the current, theoretical value of these unsold properties is somewhat foolish. When MacDonald was making these decisions, he had no way of knowing what the future would hold. So to say that all is now well and good because the numbers “turned out okay” is to unreasonably remove the moral responsibility from the man who, in our opinion, was making reckless financial decisions.

Anyone who has read blogs dealing with public criticism or inquiry into decisions at institutions will have noticed by now that Christians as a group can often play the Matthew 18 card to suggest that public inquiry into "private" matters is best avoided.  Most Christians commenting on blogs have probably not spent a lot of time looking into theories of the press, the nature of mass media or broadcast media, and have therefore not thought through the implications of what they're actually getting at by "private". 

So we can get a situation where one megachurch pastor denounces the theology of another (such as Driscoll denouncing Joel Osteen from the pulpit or William Young's book The Shack).  Fans of Osteen and Young step in to say that Driscoll should have contacted Osteen or Young privately with criticism and to not be so rough on men who have a successful thing going that God has used to bless people.  The defense of the Driscoll criticism would be to say that Driscoll is defending sound doctrine.  When the shoe is on the other foot and people cast doubt on whether Driscoll has conflated common grace with particular atonement and whether or not Driscoll's credentials as at least a nominally Reformed theologian come up, let alone questions about Driscoll's demonstrable competence as an exegete or if people ask questions or raise criticisms about Driscoll and Mars Hill in connection to firings or discipline, then Matthew 18 gets brought out again, only this time where it was ignored as having any relevance to Driscoll on Osteen or Young it suddenly becomes very germane to a criticism of Driscoll's failures as a pastor, scholar, or exegete.  Suddenly the argument that you can't argue with success matters a whole lot more than it did for a Joel Osteen or a William Young. 

The problem that arises in these sorts of situations is that since all these guys became public figures criticism is both possible and warranted.  Reactions of fans can often fall into the realm of two errors, the first would be special pleading and the second related error would be a double standard.  Matthew 18 is what I get to use to tell you that you don't get to criticize my favorite celebrity while a double standard permits me to establish that, somehow, my favorite celebrity doesn't qualify for coming under the same criticism because the criteria are actually different. 

Now those who can explain that the criteria are actually different would have a point--if the criteria are indeed different. For instance, when Driscoll criticized the theology of The Shack this could have been perfectly legitimate if the express literary aim of the novel was to function as a catechism, but this was not necessarily the case.  Driscoll then turning around and urging that no one pass final judgment on Jakes until Driscoll had gotten on a plane for Jesus this became a different set of criteria on assessing a public figure on a point of doctrine in a case where the differences would indicate that the pastor ought to be held to a substantially higher level of criticism and examination than a self-published author who has not been a megachurch pastor. 

Now something that commonly happens when a blog like The Elephant's Debt goes up is that people dispute the legitimacy of such a site on a couple of grounds, grounds that the creators of the site adequately address themselves in their specific case. 

At a broader level a few words may be said about sites like The Elephant's Debt generally.  The first thing to be said is that what people can be inspired to say is "You're not getting the whole story here.  There are two sides to every story".  Well, no, there could be up to fifteen sides to a story and not just two and in cases of this sort there has been some effort to see to it that there is no story at all where the public is concerned.  Critics of critics may want to ask themselves whether they simply have a different set of standards for churches than they have for politicians, political parties, and the level of discretion and disclosure required for one form of non-profit entity over another. 

The second thing to be noticed is that "We are all sinners" gets trotted out in most cases as a way to delegitimize criticism.  Well, if we're all sinners then there's no point in skipping public discussion or debate because nobody has the moral high ground.  Obviously this is almost never what those who employ this particular line of reasoning are even trying to get at, usually the opposite.  The sinner commenting on how we are all sinners doesn't want his being a sinner to preclude him (not always a him, of course) from saying that other people are sinners and should not be so quick to judge. 

A problem that can show up with this rhetorical path is that it is, well, a rhetorical path.  Evidence and claims are not necessarily up for consideration.  A broad-brush rhetorical flourish casting doubt on the provenance and credibility of a set of controversial claims skips past verification and goes into the realm of character assessment, and often character assasination.  It becomes perilously easy to impute motives for people and schools of thought.  Contrary to the bromides of pious Christians on the internet "both sides" are likely to drop the ball at this point. Critics are apt to presume a level of guilt and malice that can be impossible to prove while defenders are apt to presume a level of altruism and honesty that strains credulity well past the breaking point in some cases.  This becomes more acute when the defenders roll out the "we're all sinners" objection because if they took that seriously (at all) it would mean they would have to concede that their pet subject of defense is not always as competent or well-meaning as they could be and they sin.

The most pervasive shortcoming Christians on all sides can have is to make a distinction in which all sin must be volitional and intentional.  There's simply nowhere in the scripture that says that a sin is something you did on purpose.  The Psalmist asks the Lord to clear him of hidden faults.  In the Torah there were provisions for sin offerings for inadvertant sin.  Too much online discourse presumes, wrongly, that if people are sinning they must know they are sinning.  This is one of the key reasons that public discussion of things some Christians want "private" for the sake of preserving the reputation of their favorite Christian celebrities needs to happen, both for the sake of "critics" and of "fans".  There's no concession that despite the assumption of good intentions that things can still go bad.  You have to be innocent because you don't think of sinning and don't want to sin, or you have to be guilty of knowingly defying whatever good and proper conduct and thought are.  Thanks to the internet we live even more in a time when people prefer conspiracy to imcompetence as an explanation for everything.  Let's attempt to revive the consideration of imcompetence for the sake of a humbler and more generous public discourse, shall we?

Now, of course, defenders of pet religious favorites will find this unacceptable because the last thing we want to concede is that our favorite Christian celebrity or brand could be mired in imcompetence or drop the ball in expensive and life-changingly bad ways.  It doesn't us make us feel much better to hear that our favorites may have been imcompetent than if we hear claims that they have done actual, willful wrong.  But we're all sinners, right?  It is at precisely this point the argument used to speak against public discussion most boomerangs on itself. 

We need to recognize for ourselves and others that some of our most disastrous mistakes seemed like good ideas at the time.  David took a census that led to the deaths of thousands and the books of Samuel and Chronicles tell us alternately that God prompted David to do this because He was angry with His people and that Satan inspired David to take a census. To go by the sentiments of Christians reacting to "critical" blogs it sometimes seems as though what they would want to say about David is "Well, we're all sinners here and David was God's annointed and so it wouldn't have been wise to question God's appointed leader about the wisdom of the census because maybe God was telling David to take the census."  Okay ... well, consider that the Bible shows God making leaders make terrible decisions as the basis for catalyzing the deaths of thousands of people.  It's in there.  If God did it with David who could be said to have had a role of "wrote books of the Bible" how much more could it be true of some favorite Christian celebrity now? 

Let's suppose that critics of critics are right about something, that the other side of a story has not been told.  How often do critics of critics actually share that other side?  It seems unfortunately common that the "other side" is merely a rhetorical device used to cast doubt on "the one who speaks first".  A proverb is brought out as a prooftext rather than as an exhortation to actual wisdom.  The first person to speak seems right until the cross-examination, yes, but that is not an excuse to avoid cross-examination and it is the cross-examination that too often never gets thought about.  The proverb is misused as a way to suppress further discussion or investigation or disclosure. 

This is an election year in the United States.  Do Christians who would say we should not investigate the reliability of claims made by self-selected leaders of churches say the same about political candidates?  That doesn't seem likely.  When it comes to policy decisions will a Christian say, "Well, we're all sinners here so we shouldn't contest this or that politician's political track record" will they? 

It's something to at least keep in mind when you come across Christians saying that this or that blog shouldn't even exist and that this or that thing should have been dealt with "in private". If they're willing to say the same thing about their politicians then, well, they're consistent.  If being a pastor is a lower calling than being a politician then perhaps we could say that this could justify a lower level of accountability. ;-)

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