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COLUMN ONE

Father, Son and Holy Rift

For Pastor Chuck Smith, the big issues are undebatable. For Chuck Smith Jr., also a pastor, it's not so crystal clear. Something had to give.

September 02, 2006|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

From his pulpit in Santa Ana, Chuck Smith's voice thunders with certainty. He denounces homosexuality as a "perverted lifestyle," finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.

If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the ruddy good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known a day's doubt or despair.

From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father's church, Chuck Smith Jr.'s voice trembles with vulnerability and grapples with ambiguity. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a "conversation" rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as "The Simpsons" for messages, and aims to reach "generations of the post-modern age" that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.

There is a tradition among superstar evangelists like Chuck Smith the elder of bequeathing the pulpit to a son. Billy Graham did it, as did Robert H. Schuller.

However, it has been ages since anyone considered the younger Smith a possible successor to his father's 15,000-congregation ministry, the symbolic center of a network of independently run Calvary churches: about 1,000 across the United States, including two of the three largest non-Roman Catholic churches in California, plus radio and TV ministries.

Instead, critics whispered that the son was a dangerous impostor. Last year, those whispers exploded into a full-blown din. Online protests and fliers distributed at the younger Smith's church demanded that he drop the "Calvary" name because of his increasingly liberal drift on such non-debatable issues as the evil of homosexuality and the promise of hell for unbelievers. "What will it take for Chuck Sr. to stop the nepotism?" blogged Calvary congregant Jackie Alnor, one of the critics leading the charge. "Does his son have to burn incense to Isis and Zeus before he is disfellowshipped from a Bible-believing fellowship of churches?"

By last spring, one thing had become clear to Smith Jr.: Sprawling as it was, the church his father had built -- the place that once embraced a generation of drug-addled hippies and helped change the way many Americans worshipped -- had little room left for him.

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"Even when I speak, some of what I say is opinion and confusion and error," says Smith Jr., 55, who wears shorts and flip-flops as he welcomes a visitor to his church. "I'm more in a place of learning than I am in a place of certainty."

He said he grew up as a true believer in his father's Pentecostal world, a world that could tilt and slide him into hell at any moment, or end with the thunderclap of doom. His earliest memories involve an overpowering sense of sin. "You can never be good enough if you're Pentecostal or if you're fundamentalist," Smith Jr. said. "Jesus may even be upset if you didn't make your bed or brush your teeth."

His mother mostly raised him, because his father was often gone, teaching the Bible, taking outside jobs, shuttling from pulpit to pulpit throughout Southern California. At Newport Harbor High School, Smith Jr. said, he found himself hopelessly estranged from his classmates, who seemed to guarantee their damnation anew every day with sex, drugs and parties.

One day, everyone was buzzing about a band called the Beatles and he was clueless; he had been in church when they appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

When he suffered his first bout of severe depression in his teens, his hearty, ever-upbeat father found the malady so alien he could provide little help. If you're sad all the time, he told his son, you won't have many friends.

Dad, for his part, was reshaping American Christianity. He opened the first nondenominational Calvary Chapel on a Costa Mesa lot with just 25 congregants in 1965. Soon he became famous as the strait-laced pastor who threw open his doors to the ragged counterculture and baptized thousands below the ocean cliffs of Corona del Mar. He became Papa Chuck, the smiling man in the Hawaiian shirt, a staunch-but-benevolent spiritual father to a generation of end-of-their-rope hippies, dropouts and drug casualties.

To his older son, he was more elusive: "He wasn't present emotionally, even if he was present physically. To hear him speak, you just get the impression this is such a warm and intimate person, but the closer you got to him, the more you'd realize he really didn't have those intimacy skills."

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