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Father, Son and Holy Rift

COLUMN ONE

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

Smith Jr. weeps before his congregation, making no secret of his ongoing battle with depression that took him to the brink of suicide after his 1993 divorce. At the time, he stood before his congregation explaining that his wife of 18 years, the mother of his five children, was leaving him despite his effort to save the marriage.

"In my mind," he wrote in his book "Frequently Avoided Questions," "divorce was an alien behavior that could not touch true Christians, let alone a minister."

A friend got him a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist got him antidepressants. A local pastor called for his resignation, but his congregation sent hundreds of letters of support.

"My vulnerability allowed them to love me in need," he said.

Still, his condition alienated him further from his father's church, where depression is widely viewed as a spiritual problem bespeaking flawed faith.

William Alnor, a longtime Calvary congregant and former pastor, expressed the view in stark terms: "I don't believe any Christian leader should be flirting with depression."

Fundamentalists have also been troubled in recent years by gestures they see as a throwback to paganism, such as Smith Jr. giving the sign of the cross at services and hanging his sanctuary with paintings of Jesus in the iconic Byzantine style. In 2005, to make matters worse, he took several extended retreats to a Catholic monastery in Big Sur.

One of his most vocal detractors, William Alnor's wife, Jackie, denounced his "decline into Catholic contemplative mystical religion" and protested outside his church. "I could sense the darkness around that place," she wrote on her Apostasy Alert webpage.

The squall intensified with the 2005 publication of the elder Smith's book "When Storms Come," which Smith Jr. edited. Among many additions Smith Jr. made was a quote from a priest, Anthony de Mello, whose Jesuit affiliation alarmed evangelicals. And on Page 103, Smith Jr. inserted the suggestion that breathing exercises might put one in a spiritually receptive state.

This seemed, in the eyes of some, dangerously close to endorsing a Buddhist practice.

As complaints mounted, the elder Smith announced that the offending passages had not been his work and ordered the book revised. Then, in May, the younger Smith got a visit from his father's brother, Paul. As Smith Jr. recalled, his uncle spoke of redefining what it meant to belong to Calvary Chapel. He seemed uncomfortable, seemed to be driving at something, but couldn't quite say it.

"We've had some problems with the book," he finally said, as Smith Jr. recalled.

Smith Jr. knew what was in the air -- his 35-year affiliation with Calvary was at an end. He volunteered to sever his ties. He said his uncle sighed in relief.

In no time, the link to Smith Jr.'s Dana Point church was dropped from Calvary's website. Soon, the elder Smith issued a memo denouncing the use of icons, Eastern influences, "special breathing techniques," tolerance for homosexuality and "the soft peddling of hell as the destiny of those who reject the salvation offered through Jesus Christ."

The memo did not identify his son by name, but Smith Jr. said he read it as a personal attack.

The elder Smith "loves his son," William Alnor said. "I think that's why he held off so long in lowering the boom. I think if it had been anyone else in the Calvary Chapel movement promoting the doctrines Chuck Jr. promoted, he would have been long gone."

*

In person, the elder Smith, a stocky, rosy-skinned man with kind eyes and snowy hair at the temples, is warmth itself. His office is attached to the low-slung, pavilion-size church at the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana where he still preaches to a weekend congregation of 15,000. On his desk: jars of candy for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On his shelf: a crown made of ferocious-looking thorns from the Holy Land.

He stresses how much he loves his son, regrets that he didn't spend more time with him as he grew up: "Surely he's not a clone, and I respect and admire him for that. There's nothing shoddy about his ministry at all."

He shrugs off the controversy as the result of critics who "get on and blog their ignorance," adding: "If you don't march to their drumbeat, they begin to pick at you, and once you put on that hypercritical mode, you can find plenty of things to criticize."

Reminded of the memo he issued cracking down on his son's views, the father replies, calmly and amiably, that he and his son are just aiming for different audiences, and he doesn't want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.

"I don't feel that he's an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned."

*

On a recent summer day, the younger Smith sat in the second-floor office of the Dana Point home he shares with his second wife, Barbara, a physical therapist.

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