Christian Media Battle Over Controversial Figure

In the relatively calm seas of the Christian media, a storm has erupted between Christianity Today, arguably the mouthpiece of contemporary American evangelicalism, and the Christian Post, a smaller competitor. At the center of the storm is David Jang, a popular preacher in East Asia but a relatively unknown figure in the United States, who has ties to the late Rev. Moon’s Unification Church and, according to sources in a recent Christianity Today article, may have led his followers to conclude that he is a “Second Coming Christ.”

The story begins, publicly at least, in mid-August when Christianity Today ran a long story co-authored by managing editor Ted Olsen and a blogger and former businessman named Ken Smith. As Olsen tells it, his interest in David Jang dates back several years. He describes a time, over four years ago, when Christianity Today was in talks with the Christian Post about working together in some capacity. Then, Olsen says, one of CT’s partners in the Global Christian Alliance cautioned CT about partnering with the Christian Post because “there were allegations that it had ties to the Unification Church.”

When CT raised this concern with the CP, Olsen recalls, “they denied it vehemently, threatened to sue us if we ever mentioned the allegation, and ended the discussion.”

But it wasn’t until this summer, as the news broke that Olivet University was interested in buying the Glorieta Conference Center from the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, that Olsen had an actual newspeg around which to investigate and write more about Jang and his various affiliated organizations.

And what he and Ken Smith found has far reaching implications for the world of Christian media and beyond.

The pair investigated claims that members of David Jang’s ministries were encouraged to believe that Jang embodies a “Second Coming Christ,” an act of blasphemy for Christians. In addition to drawing further ties between Jang and Rev. Moon, who famously declared himself the messiah, this recent controversy hits close to home for evangelicals because of Jang’s ties to many parachurch organizations with seemingly orthodox beliefs.

While Olsen and Smith are careful to cite sources who both confirm and deny that members are led to believe that Jang is the second coming of Christ, the article leaves the reader with the sense that, at least for a time, many of Jang’s followers did believe it.

Additionally, the CT article points out that the connections between Jang and the Unification Church go beyond surface similarities, noting that Jang taught at a UC seminary for 9 years (1989-1998), though in later interviews Jang claimed to be infiltrating the seminary with orthodox theology.

With Jang’s credibility called into question, along with affiliated ministries like Olivet University in San Francisco, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Christian Post, a number of these affiliates went on the defensive.

No response was more immediate, or more aggressive, than that of the Christian Post.

Different Standards At Work

The day after CT’s article was published online, the Post published a long piece titled, “Sources in ‘Second Coming Christ Controversy’ Face Scrutiny,” followed days later by another with the less subtle headline, “Christianity Today Writer Ken Smith Is Founder of a Company Fined for Deceptive Business Practices; With Child Porn Ties.”

The main thrust of the first of the two Post pieces was to disprove the allegations that Jang’s followers considered him a new messiah by calling into question the legitimacy of the CT sources who made these claims. 

But the attacks in this first response seem mild compared to the piece that followed alleging that Olsen’s co-writer Ken Smith was somehow connected to child pornography. Penned by the Post’s Katherine T. Phan, it highlights Smith’s work as the founder of the now defunct software company, Zango (which web-savvy readers may remember for their intrusive advertising in web browsers). 

Smith acknowledged that Zango “partnered with some people that we should never have partnered with” in a 2009 post on his blog—which the CP article cites—titled “What Zango Got Wrong.”

When I asked if he was aware of Smith’s history with Zango, Olsen told me that “The child porn thing really came out of the blue. It wasn’t an issue that was on my radar until CP ran the article.” He continued, “That headline was really shocking. Did he distribute child porn? was the question in the headline. If you read the article the answer is no. Zango is not a child porn company and never was.”

What the article did indicate to Olsen was that, “there are different standards of journalism at work. Their article struck me more as an effort to smear and discredit the writer than to actually address what was in the article.”

Tim Dalrymple, who’s been watching and writing about the controversy, observed that “the response from the Christian Post was so over-the-top defensive of David Jang, and so massively pejorative toward anyone who questioned him, that the Christian Post (at least in that instance) essentially abandoned the pretense of journalism and became Jang’s defense attorney.”

Ted Olsen told me, “I was aware of almost everything in the [Post] article…There wasn’t anything that, even if it was true—which I have questions about—would have negated anything in our [CT] article.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since a meeting was held between the two prior to CT’s publication of the original article in which the Post attempted to present evidence that contradicts CT’s findings. According to Olsen, who noted that his understanding was that the meeting was off the record until the Post made it public, representatives of the Post and Olivet University wanted “to try to get CT to postpone publication.”

“The reasons for that were multi-fold,” he says, “but they were not compelling… not reasons that would have led us to postpone or kill the story.”

Repeated requests for comment from the Christian Post went unanswered, though I was eventually informed that the Post’s editor, Michelle Vu, who authored the August 17 response, had “politely decline[d]” my request. 

Instead, I was provided with a brief statement: “Christianity Today wrote an article that implicated the Christian PostCP responded with our own fact-finding article about the sources used. CP had already told CT and sent documents to the publication regarding the questionable integrity of its sources. Nothing should come as a surprise to CT.”

Round Two

On September 12, nearly a month after the original Christianity Today article, Olsen and Smith published a second piece. Emboldened by their initial reporting, former followers of Jang have come forward, including a couple identified as Edmond and Susan Chua, who are among the first to speak on the record about their experiences. 

Until recently, the Chuas ran the Singaporean edition of the Christian Post—Susan worked on the business side while Edmond served as editor. The couple’s testimony revealed the level of connection between Jang and his affiliated ministries, telling of weekly chat room sessions in which Jang would set the agenda, at times even indicating which articles the Post should feature.

According to CT, a source for its original article, who wrote for the Singapore Post, was subsequently scrubbed from that publication’s website. The CT follow-up also reports that Christian Post leaders debated whether or not to include the publication’s history as part of its employee handbook, including an email noting that, “PD [Pastor David] doesn’t want the history in written, audio or video form to fall into a non-members’ hands.”

The Chuas were married on Jang’s birthday, October 30, 2006, along with 69 other couples, according to CT, an echo of the Unification Church’s practice of arranged, mass marriages; the piece also indicates that, like many of the others married on that day, their marriage was arranged for them. 

This detail and several others from the second CT piece have been disputed by Jonathan Park, director of the Olivet College of Journalism (and a former Post correspondent himself) in an article cross-posted on Olivet’s website and on christianpost.com. According to Park, the event described was not a wedding, but a “service for couples who desire to dedicate their family to God in front of other believers before marriage.” Park also contends that couples are not arranged, but “apply to participate after a period of courtship.”

Park goes on to point out that after the initial CT article, Chua wrote one piece for the Singapore edition of the Post defending Jang’s orthodoxy, only to follow it up with another that contradicts his previous statements. (The second article by Chua has been removed from the Singapore Post site, while the first in defense of Jang remains.)

Park goes on to suggest that Chua’s second article, along with emails to Christianity Today, were fabricated by another person or written under coercion. He refers to comments made by Dr. Donald Tinder, dean of Olivet Theological College and Seminary, who says he found the original article “helpful,” but he thought, “a later email and article were either fabricated, or that Chua was somehow pressured into writing them.” 

Park refers to Christianity Today’s article as containing distortions and exaggerations; one of his sources, Hokuto Ide, a reporter for Christian Today—a Jang-affiliated publication in Japan not to be confused with Christianity Today—describes CT’s articles as “predatory efforts by those with commercial interests,” and suggests they’re motivated by “trying to break Olivet’s deal to purchase [the] Glorieta [Conference Center].”

I asked Jonathan Park via email why he thought Christianity Today put so much time and effort—not to mention pages—into reporting this story; he replied, “As a director of a journalism program, I can say that the length of the CT articles doesn’t necessarily reflect the import nor the accuracy of their conclusions on a complex situation involving many individuals.” He notes that he can’t speak to CT’s motivations, but said that he shares their “interest in confirming orthodoxy and uplifting the household of faith.”

While Park continues to believe that CT arrived at the wrong conclusions about Jang, he is “encouraged that many other individuals, including a number of qualified and respected theologians, have similarly vetted related entities and materials, all arriving at different conclusions from those reported in CT,” and he remains confident, he writes, that “truth will be revealed.”

Park concludes his article with a paragraph attempting to minimize the “controversy,” referring to it as an issue limited to “a few voices in Asia, rather than many around the world.”

It may be too late, however, to downplay the effects of CT’s investigation as the fallout appears to be impacting the news that brought the issue to light in the first place. A recent article in the Tennessean notes that the potential sale of LifeWay’s Glorieta Conference Center to Olivet University may fall through in the wake of the scandal. 

“The theology is no longer an issue,” Bill Wagner, Olivet’s president explained, “The Southern Baptists are saying, ‘We don’t want to be part of the controversy.’”

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrolmag.com and columnist at Patheos. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, SoulPancake, and The Daily, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald