The story is ugly and lurid, packed with the kinds of details that are almost impossible to include in mainstream news coverage.
It is also a story that pivots on the interpretation of Scripture by a powerful, charismatic — in every sense of the word — pastor. This is another topic that mainstream media struggle to cover.
So here is what you can find at the website of NBC’s Channel 5 in Fort Worth-Dallas:
A woman is suing a Fort Worth reverend, saying he physically and sexually abused her. Davina Kelly, 33, said that she worked as a housekeeper at the Shiloh Institutional Church of God and the Rev. Sherman Allen’s home and began seeing Allen for counseling in 2001. She said he spanked her as part of her spiritual counseling and later coerced her into a sexual relationship.
“It was something I had never heard of before, but for the most part, because I trusted him, because I believed him, because I saw him as a man of God, I believe — as odd as it sounded — he was hearing from God and I really didn’t question it because of that,” Kelly said.
Allen was unavailable for comment, but the church issued a statement that indicated Allen had not been served with any court papers as of Friday.
That’s what the story looks like in the mainstream press, at this point in the game.
However, there is also an alternative newspaper in town called the Dallas Observer and that newspaper has massive blog operation called Unfair Park that includes the work of a columnist named Julie Lyons, who is better known to her readers as “Bible Girl.” What makes her work unusual — especially in the more liberal world of alternative urban media — is that Lyons is an articulate, opinionated evangelical Christian who is doing some of the most freewheeling, confessional first-person religion writing I have ever seen.
I am not sure that it is “religion news” in the usual meaning of that term, but it’s very hard to stop reading a Lyons column once you get started. If you have doubts, dig into this early autobiographical offering in which she discusses her own struggles with homosexuality, the growth of her faith, her love for her husband and their 16-year marriage. It is not for the faint of heart on either the cultural left or right.
Now Lyons is taking on the case of Pentecostal superstar Sherman Allen, a major figure in the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a 5-million-member Pentecostal denomination at the heart of African-American faith in America. On her listserv, the column began with this notice:
Warning: This column contains a very graphic description of an alleged rape. It is NOT suitable for children.
Eight women have now come forward alleging that Pastor Sherman Allen of Fort Worth beat them with a wooden paddle and, in several cases, sexually abused them, according to Stan Broome, one of the lawyers involved in a suit against Allen, his church and the Pentecostal denomination to which Allen belongs.
In other words, it is going to be hard for the mainstream newspapers and television stations to avoid this story.
The content is painful to read, if you must read it. However, that is not the issue that I want to focus on. In addition to covering some of the sexual details, Lyons also digs into the heart of the story — which is how this powerful minister is alleged to have twisted Scripture in order to command women to do his will. This is territory that Lyons understands, frankly because she understands how language is used in evangelical and Pentecostal subcultures.
If other journalists decide to cover this story, here is the part of this Lyons column that I hope they underline and memorize. Here is the heart of the matter:
… (A) common teaching in black Pentecostalism is that a church member should never make an accusation against a man of God. Instead, he or she should pray privately that God deals with the minister’s sin. The two women I interviewed, in fact, each cited this teaching, which is apparently based on a biblical statement, “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm,” that is mentioned twice in the Old Testament.
This application of these verses, in my opinion, is an egregious perversion of the biblical intent. “Touch not mine anointed” comes from Old Testament passages where King David is recalling how God protected the people of Israel in their wanderings, even rebuking kings to preserve them. It can in no way be applied to the act of criticizing a prophet or pastor, or accusing him of wrongdoing. Again, in my opinion, this false teaching arose because church leaders saw a need to conceal the widespread sexual immorality in their own ranks. “Touch not mine anointed” is often repeated alongside the Apostle Paul’s statement that “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” The latter verse, from Romans, is used to rationalize how a minister can lead a completely dissipated life and still display genuine gifts of God such as the ability to preach or prophesy. The misuse of these verses has done tremendous damage within the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition.
The only problem I have with that is that this same biblical interpretation is common in white churches as well as black, and in evangelical settings as well as charismatic. The PTL scandal with Jim Bakker leaps to mind. Would abusive priests — in all the liturgical flocks — say something similar?
Sadly, this is a religion story. I hope that the mainstream press does not ignore the biblical issues. Lyons has already marked the trail.