Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era, Part II

Oral Roberts Crusade Poster from 1957

Oral Roberts, among others, pioneered a "new" media (TV) of their day as a vehicle for spreading a message of miracles that proceed from a good God along with Oral's popular notions of Seed Faith. By this means, the former tent revivalist had extended his reach far beyond the canvas of a tent or even the concrete of a large auditorium to an audience that never had to leave their homes to hear and see him in action. Of course, other preachers and religious personalities were also experimenting with TV's promise and pitfalls. Each of them brought their own twist and carved out their own audiences. Meanwhile, the next generation of TV preachers such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes watched and learned.

But TV ministry is expensive. Getting viewers to underwrite the broadcasts requires a constant flow of giving which, in turn, demands a message that will constantly delight an audience rather than confront it. Television ministries, therefore, perfected their "product": inspiration.

All of this was not lost upon churches that wanted to grow large. Even if they were not broadcasting their services, they found their own ways to keep the inspiration flowing and the confrontation at a minimum. "Old school" sermons turned into inspirational sermonettes with testimonials and contemporary MOR music filling out the mix. It was Oral Roberts and others whoe pioneered this shift from the televised "crusade" to the religious variety or talk show format. Compared to a televised Billy Graham crusade -- or even the old days of Oral Robert's televised miracle services -- these programs were far more in keeping with the broader sensibilities of the culture. While it is true that Dr. Graham was still getting away with preaching a longer message with a confrontational "make a decision for Christ" challenge at the end, it must be remembered that he didn't have to keep a weekly TV show on the air!

But, once again, the revolution in the delivery of information is changing things and will, no doubt, continue to powerfully redefine the communication of Christian messages and values. The monopoly of old-fashioned broadcast TV with its several channels -- the medium that supported Oral Roberts and other TV preachers of his time -- has been replaced by cable, satellite, internet and the other Tweets and Tubes of our times. If you are reading blogs like this one, then I don't need to tell you about the power and variety of today's communication technology. Oral Roberts lived to see this revolution begin, but neither he or any of us now living can truly imagine where things will go from here. A long time ago, the printing press changed the world, and we are still living out the implications of that fact. But now we are living in a day when everyone's last name can be Guttenberg. What will that mean 200 years from now (should the Lord delay His return!)?

I recently learned of the 25 year old San Francisco Bay Area resident, Austin Heap, who figured that the world out to know what was going on in Iran in the days following their last (rigged?) election. When he found out that the authorities were blocking the abilities of the people to Twitter out footage and reports, he cobbled together something called "Haystack" which allowed the people in the streets to get around the government chokehold. What kind of a communications environment are we in when a young man in his mid-twenties can get the drop on both the government of a pretty large country and CNN? What will this mean to the propogation of the gospel and the spread of the church? I'm not sure. But it might just represent the same kind of leap that Oral Roberts made when he traded his tents for a TV studio and, in his own way, changed the world.


Andrew Faris said...

Wonderfully written and totally insightful. In some ways my favorite post you've ever written.

But then, where is the blistering critique of the message? You're probably right about the historical development, but isn't it time to look at this and say, "Not only did Roberts mass-market a false gospel, but he was the forerunner of Osteen and Jakes and Schuller who did the same?"

In this respect, it is hard to view Roberts' influence as anything but mostly negative.


Yoshimi said...

Hmm. I agree with Andrew that there was no "blistering critique" but I think the critique was there nonetheless. And maybe even a subtle nod to the recent news about Saddleback church's plea-for-funds and bonanza of cash. But as long as we're talking about Oral and his money-raising, why no mention of his most infamous moment, the "God will kill me unless you send me money" message that was so successful for the good minister.

If one unanswered question about the undisputed connection between a feel-good sermon and a successful TV appeal for money is the sincerity of the message, then what appeared to many to be a blatant and phony appeal to the ignorant on Oral's part is pretty damning evidence that it isn't just that Roberts, Osteen, Schuller et al happen to have a different set of beliefs than than the Farises (in which case Andrew is still right that Roberts's influence is negative...) but that they are charlatans and snake oil salesmen...which is considerably worse...and ultimately more harmful to the True Message as well.

Bill Faris said...

Well, before "damning with faint praise" or no praise at all, remember this:

Oral Roberts, back in his tent days, used to sit on a folding chair and individually lay hands and pray over hundreds and hundreds of people -- giving them everything he had -- even if it took many hours.

When you and I have matched that kind of raw commitment to the well-being of others, I'll feel a little more ready to criticize his goofy comments about God taking him "home" unless the $$$$ come in.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that (to borrow the popular term) "it's complicated" when God chooses to use us very fallible, sometimes misled and often misleading human instruments to be His ambassadors.

Not a defense, just a thought....

Yoshimi said...

Hi Bill,

I don't doubt what you say about Oral Roberts, but I wonder if, going off of Andrew's statement about Roberts being "the forerunner of Osteen and Jakes...", you would apply similar "thoughts" (not "defenses") to all that Roberts help bring about.

I know that isn't really what your original post focused on, but I was following Andrew's "it is hard to view Roberts's influence as anything but mostly negative" whatever Roberts may have been and may have done way back in his early days, his influence is still fair game for discussion, don't you think?

Bill Faris said...


I've written and deleted about five responses which makes me believe I ought to post on some of the themes that were coming out in them and tackle them that way.

But for now, let me respond to your question: Absolutely his influence is fair game. Absolutely.

I guess I am trying to deconstruct the arc of the man's life and legacy because Oral, like most people, are not all about one thing they say or do. This is coming from the guy who will forever have to live with my quote: "Hell isn't sexy anymore".

Is that all there is to me? The "hell isn't sexy..." guy? Is that all there is to Oral? The 900foot Jesus guy? Is that all there is to King David? The guy who sleeps with the neighbor lady and offs her husband to avoid scandal?

Obviously not. King David the coward of Bathsheba-gate began as the bold kid who took on the Goliath in the Name of the Lord while Saul trembled powerlessly in the background. He is the guy whose Psalms go everywhere from "The Lord is my Shepherd..." to "break their teeth in their mouths, O Lord!". In other words, he's not one dimensional. And neither is Lonnie Frisbee or Billy Graham or me or you -- or Oral Roberts.

That's all I was trying to point out.