There’s hope! The editor wants it to die.

There are tenth anniversaries and there are tenth anniversaries. One of the most unusual has to be the recent anniversary of a magazine that has been called “ants in the pants of the faithful,” has invented and employed the technique of “necro-interviewing” in a talk with the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and that named comedian Steve Martin 1980 Theologian of the Year.

The Wittenburg Door is a small magazine (circulation 16,000) with a widespread reputation. It is an answer to critics who say conservative Christians take themselves too seriously: an evangelical satire magazine. No evangelical celebrity is immune from Door treatment. Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and Robert Schuller have all been spoofed. The periodical has probably offended as many people as it has entertained.

Its most controversial issue, one of its latest, was the Wittenburg Door “sex issue.” Many readers were offended, starting with their reactions to the cover, which pictured a man and woman in bed beneath a portrait of Christ with a black bar across his eyes to blind him from the activity in the bed.

More than 200 readers promptly cancelled their subscriptions, said editor Mike Yaconelli. Ninety letters poured into the Door offices. Two contributing editors were embarrassed and asked to be dropped from the roster. Finally, one individual interviewed for a later issue demanded that the interview not be printed in such a magazine.

“On the positive side,” said Yaconelli, “we had almost as many new subscriptions” as were lost. To Yaconelli and his small staff of four (not including contributing editors), “sex is not sacred.”

“We would never want to do anything that would make Christ less than God,” he explained. But that still leaves plenty of things for the Door to skewer. There have been theme issues on evangelicals and money, charismatics, homosexuality, politics, and cults. Coming issues will feature the Rapture and, for the first time, a venture outside the evangelical camp to examine Roman Catholic foibles.

After the sex issue, Yaconelli said, “I guess we’ll be a little more careful for the next issue—make sure it doesn’t blow people out of the water.” That doesn’t mean his magazine is backing off hot issues for long. “As a matter of fact, I think we ought to do another one [on sex],” an unrepentant Yaconelli said.

The Door’s saving grace throughout its stormy 10-year history (it is now making a profit for the first time) may have been the editors’ propensity for not taking their magazine too seriously. It was started by two southern California youth ministers who wanted to have some fun. After gaining 400 subscribers and sinking $60 into debt, the youth ministers sold their enterprise to Youth Specialities, a youth group ministry which, among other things, printed books of novel games to be played at church youth parties.

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“We wanted to be known for more depth than the banana split relay,” Yaconelli said in explaining Youth Specialties’ interest in the periodical. It was only after three issues that the editors realized they were misspelling “Wittenberg.” Deciding it was too late to change, they stayed with “Wittenburg” and began cultivating a free and easy image—with proofreading errors, haphazard graphics, and issues usually arriving three or four months late. But, as the editors have written more than once, “that’s all part of the Wittenburg Door.”

There have been more serious and less intentional mistakes. The Door once granted its “Loser of the Month” award to the United Methodist Church for a divorce service liturgy. Actually, the liturgy did not come from official Methodist literature. The Door apologized for its mistake.

Yaconelli also admits humor has unnecessarily hurt feelings before. The Door’s mock gossip column, “Wanda Ritchie’s Body Life,” once slashed at the executive of a relief agency by calling him fat. “The guy was really hurt,” Yaconelli said. Because of a number of such episodes, the editors have dropped the Ritchie column.

There have also been failings of taste—at least according to former readers. Nearly every issue’s letters column includes two or three notices of cancellations with explanations like “your magazine is very un-Christian,” and evaluations that regard it as a “sacrilegious piece of garbage.” Even compliments can be backhanded, as with the approving reader who wrote to say, “The Door is to the church what prunes are to the elderly. It keeps you healthy.”

On the other hand, the periodical is noted for its stimulating (and serious) interviews. Door editors have interviewed novelist Frederick Buechner, Congressman Paul Simon, Fuller Seminary president David Hubbard, and author Sheldon Vanauken. When the “battle for the Bible” was at its peak, the Door squared off warriors Harold Lindsell and Jack Rogers on their differing views of biblical inspiration. It also questioned evangelical sociologist Richard Quebedeaux at length about his involvement with Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which has seemed to lend legitimacy to the Moonie cult.

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The Door may have the distinction of being the only magazine whose editor wants it to die. Yaconelli said he would rather the magazine “quit while there are still things to say and leave with dignity,” but the rest of the staff wants to continue. They believe the Door plays an important role in the church by raising issues too controversial for other magazines.

Yaconelli concedes that the magazine sometimes goes too far, but “when you do satire you risk going too far. We try not to hurt anyone or question motives. We try not to make fun just for the sake of making fun.”

At times, though, the Door has found itself making fun without wanting to. It works under a financial strain partly because advertising is not accepted. It was once, but then, Yaconelli lamented, “we realized the advertisements were the very kind of thing we were satirizing.”

Cult Deprogrammer Is In Trouble Again

Ted Patrick, a San Diego man known for “deprogramming” young people out of offbeat religious groups, is in trouble again.

A Hamilton County, Ohio, grand jury in late October indicted him and three associates on several charges of abduction, assault, and sexual misconduct. The case involved 20-year-old Stephanie Riethmiller of suburban Cincinnati, whose mother suspected she had lesbian ties. The mother allegedly paid Patrick $8,000 to deprogram her daughter out of lesbianism. (Miss Riethmiller denies that she is gay.)

Patrick has branched out to other fields as well. Last summer a troubled father paid him to deprogram his 35-year-old daughter, a teacher with a Ph.D. degree, from her liberal political orientation.

Nine Frustrated Faculty Leave Luther Rice

Over the last seven months, virtually the entire administration of Luther Rice College and Seminary has resigned following a number of disputes with its president, Robert Witty. The Jacksonville, Florida, school offers undergraduate and graduate degrees primarily by home study, and has been struggling to improve its academic programs in order to become accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Luther Rice is independent, but Southern Baptist in orientation.

Nine of 20 full-time faculty members have left, and a number of these who were interviewed said they believe Witty is not moving fast enough to strengthen entrance requirements and courses of study in order to win accreditation. Witty says precisely the opposite: that the departures will ultimately enhance the school.

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One of the many points of conflict between Witty and the administrators was the policy of provisionally accepting students and allowing them to start course work before transcripts of credits were received. “Once they [the students] got in, they were in,” regardless of transcripts, said Clifton Van Note, who resigned as director of operations of the seminary.

Witty, however, said that “no one is admitted into any program as a fully matriculated student without transcript evidence,” although several others confirmed Van Note’s statement. (It is not unknown for some students to be admitted even to accredited schools without complete transcripts.)

The following faculty members have left the school since last May: William Eidenire, dean of the seminary; Charles Williams, dean of the college; Nathan Boles, hired as dean to replace Williams; Jerry Simpson, assistant dean of the seminary; James O’Neill, assistant college dean; Donald Cleary, associate professor of church music; Clarence Rudegeair, a professor (who actually took early retirement); John Burns, the seminary’s academic dean; and Van Note, director of operations and assistant to the dean for master’s-level programs.

Eidenire said decisions at the school were supposed to be made by a three-member administrative committee consisting of Witty, himself as seminary dean, and Boles as college dean. According to Eidenire, Witty frequently would overrule the committee, exercising a “presidential prerogative.” “We would make decisions in administrative committee which were altered by Dr. Witty in actual practice. This administrative pattern, and the lack of academic integrity, are the reasons I resigned,” Eidenire said.

John Burns, the academic dean, said, “I came to the conclusion that Luther Rice was not serious about accreditation.” Among other things, he said he was bothered by the fact that a student’s grade point average was not a factor in his admittance to the doctor of ministry program. “I firmly believe that graduate education is not for everybody,” said Burns.

Several of those interviewed said they were further upset that after the faculty had unanimously voted to seek the removal of a student involved in a moral problem, and after the student did, in fact, drop out, Witty reinstated him. Simpson, the assistant dean of the seminary, said this was the incident that caused him to resign.

Eidenire and Boles, the seminary and college deans, resigned in September after the school’s board of regents voted, on Witty’s recommendation, to do away with the administrative committee and have only one person, the president, ultimately in charge. Witty said the administrators were unhappy with this arrangement, and that was what caused the dissension.

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Commenting on the resignations, Witty said, “We are not discouraged or displeased at the departure of these men,” adding that the seminary will be better because of it since it will allow faculty members with stronger degrees in their teaching fields to be hired now. He said some replacements have already been made. Some of the faculty members who left did not have doctoral degrees from accredited schools, which, Witty said, has hampered Luther Rice’s ability to become accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the only agency recognized for accrediting of graduate theological education.

Witty’s view was not shared, however, by Marvin Taylor, associate director of ATS, who has visited the school, and who will have much to say about its accreditation. Said Taylor, “Quality academic institutions seldom lose substantial numbers of faculty members. Accrediting associations are always concerned when that happens.”

Witty singled out Eidenire, the seminary dean, as one who did not have a doctorate (although Eidenire was working on one from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when he resigned). Others who left described Eidenire as one of those most firmly committed to improving the school academically.

Taylor of ATS said of Eidenire, “My impression is that he is a serious-minded, conscientious educator devoted to improving the academic atmosphere at Luther Rice Seminary. My personal impression is that the loss can’t do anything but hurt the institution.

In the matter of the student with the moral problem, Witty said he reinstated the man because the procedure used by the faculty in voting against him was not proper and because upon his own investigation, he found the matter less serious than alleged.

Eidenire maintained, however, that the proper procedure for disciplining the student was followed to the letter. “This is just another example of the lack of administrative integrity,” he said. Several of those who left the school noted that the student’s problem was serious enough to have been reported to the Jacksonville police.

Wiliam Beck, an Old Testament professor who remains at Luther Rice, said that although Eidenire was trying to get the school to move faster than Witty was willing to go, it is heading in the right direction and will move even more vigorously under its next president. Gene Williams, a Southern Baptist evangelist, will replace Witty when he retires next spring and becomes chancellor. Williams said he will be in charge of the school, and Witty will assume a role that will be advisory only. Williams also said he is dedicated to improving the school enough to gain ATS accreditation.


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