Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era

In mid-December, noteworthy evangelist Oral Roberts died at age 91. For many people, Oral was a sort of quirky has-been -- a relic of America's tent revival past who traded up for TV cameras and a pioneering role as one of his generation's very first "televangelists". Of course, there is a respectable University in Tulsa that bears his name, but even ORU has had to come up with ways to survive some of its founders controversial statements and actions over the years.

So now Oral is gone and no one (trust me on this) is going to replace him. My confidence in that statement can be explained by the simple truth that Oral Roberts was a product of his times and times, as they say, have changed. But lost in the shuffle of the story of the stuttering boy from Bebee, Oklahoma who claims to have been healed by God of his own tuberculosis at age 17 is the reality that Oral Roberts changed his world, especially the Christian world of his time, even as it changed him. Several of these shifts were nothing short of revolutionary while others were merely remarkable.

For one thing, Jack Hayford (among others) points out that Oral Roberts -- the classical Pentecostal healing evangelist and tent preacher -- was a key figure in paving the way for the charismatic ministry of the Holy Spirit to overflow into the mainline Protestant denominations. Rev. Roberts' decision to join the United Methodist Church in 1968 shocked many of his oldline Pentecostal contemporaries, not to mention quite a few Methodists. For decades, classical Pentecostalism had been treated as the embarassing bumpkin cousin of the mainstream denominations by the leaders and adherents of those church systems. With the undeniably influential Roberts' crossover affiliation, the lines were blurred and the rules were changed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Oral was also visionary about his use of media -- especially television in its early days. While many preachers had been broadcasting services and sermons on the radio for decades, Oral Roberts boldly brought cameras into his healing miracle services so, as he said, people could witness the miracles for themselves. This move changed everything from television broadcasting itself (the first "reality" shows?) to American religious practice and perception. It changed Oral, too. The "new" televangelist Roberts consistently preached the message that "something good is going to happen to you" thanks to the faith promises of a "good God" who wanted nothing but "good things" for the viewers.

It was a message that was free of both fundamentalist pronouncements of impending hellfire and liberal doubts about Scripture and the historical Jesus. American viewers quickly got the message that there was a new, positive gospel in town and that was far more "inspirational" than the stuff preached in their churches. The brief, dramatic testimonies and seed faith promises on the tube opened up a new outlet and the ministry marketplace was suddenly born again. Now there was a whole new level of competition for people's time, attention and money! Once the dust began to settle it was clear that churches, broadcast media, evangelists and consumers of religious teaching would all come a long way from where they started.

Space does not permit me to continue to name all the changes Oral and his kind made in the religious landscape of their generation. However, I feel it is more important to hold up their accomplishments to the white hot light of the present times to see what shines through, what burns up and what blocks out the light altogether. That is what I will do in my next post.

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